The Green Man
The Sun and the Moon
Dragons and Serpents
Whales and Dolphins
The Knight's Templar
Who or what is the Green Man whose image is to be found carved in churches and cathedrals all over Britain and Europe?
There has certainly been an upsurge of interest through the medium of television programmes, radio and books about this foliate figure recently. But is he simply an historical pagan god of the woods or is there a deeper significance behind this symbolism?
As part of most May Day 'Sweeps Festivals' in various areas within the United Kingdom, at least one of the Morris dancers will dress in a wicker framework totally covered in leaves. Called Jack in the Green, this figure appears several times throughout the day as part of the celebrations in the British town of Rochester.
Although the dancers will probably tell you that they are continuing a custom going back hundreds of years, in fact there is no record of Jack in the Green appearing before the industrial revolution. Similarly, although the country abounds with pubs called the Green Man, this only came into popular usage after the 1930's.
In some instances the name refers to the ancient countryside or 'greemans' as it was called in earlier days. Again, many landlords will probably claim that the name is steeped in antiquity and tradition although most pub signs actually depict a picture of Robin Hood and are fairly recent in origin.
The same cannot be said about the images carved in churches and cathedrals however. Artistically he is most often sculptured in the form of a full-faced head with leaves and tendrils growing from his features and hair. Sometimes he has antlers appearing from his head; on other occasions, plants grow from within his mouth. One of the earliest known examples of this type of foliate face is carved on a tomb in France and dates back to 400 AD.
Foliate heads are common before this date, however. Similar images appear earlier in art, stemming from ancient Greek and Roman mythology: Silvanus, the Roman god of the woods, and Dionysos (Bacchus). The ancient Celts, too, depicted their god Cernunnos with horns and leafed hair.
The most famous example of the latter is shown on the Gundestrup Cauldron in Denmark. Magic cauldrons formed an important part of old Celtic tales and this beautifully worked gold and silver bowl, made 100BC, would certainly been regarded as a sacred object.
The ancient Celts worshipped the land and it is possible that the true origins of the Green Man stem from this source. However, similar figures are to be found in India, ancient Babylon and Islamic art.
In medieval and later periods countless thousands of Green Men were carved and painted as part of the ornamentation of many, if not most, of the churches and other important buildings. In Chartres Cathedral, for instance, this figure is depicted in over 70 places and several examples can normally be found in nearly all old English High Streets, especially in cathedral towns.
Pewter Green Man Brooch, available at the Spiral Online Shop
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