What, then, is this pre-Christian pagan figure doing in so many churches? Representations of the Green Man were used in the borders and decorations of bibles and other religious works and he is even carved, under the instruction of Michelangelo, on the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome.
One theory is that the faces were formed by non-Christian carpenters and stonemasons; the implication being that they were included without the knowledge of the Church who commissioned the building work, almost as a joke, Yet this cannot be the case because the sheer proliferation of the carvings proves that they were there by the original intent of the designer.
It is also sometimes suggested that the images are satanic in origin, intended to frighten people away from the devil. This too is incorrect because, unlike many of the gargoyles that were carved for this specific purpose, the features of the Green Man appear friendly and are situated in places where a fiendish effigy would be inappropriate.
Historically, the 4th and 5th centuries BC are labelled the Dark ages for two main reasons. One is the decline of organised society after the Romans left Britain and the subsequent raids carried out by various warring groups; the other is that not very much is known about the period, mainly due to lack of surviving documentary evidence.
However, one event during the period did have a profound effect on our history; the conversion from the 'Old Religion' to Christianity. This obviously did not happen overnight and wisely the church incorporated some of the aspects of the Old Religion into the new Christian symbolism where possible.
Feast days, for example, often coincided with the old pagan festival days. Christmas had previously been celebrated as the Winter Solstice; Imbolc became St Bridget's day; Easter is derived from an ancient Spring goddess, Eostre; Samhain, the start of the Celtic year , became All Souls.
Retaining the old yearly partitions was a pragmatic decision because these provided the people with an intuitive calendar to divide up the seasons for agricultural purposes; times for sowing, reaping and harvesting etc. So, for a period of time the new Christian and old pagan (this word comes from the Latin and originally meant 'of the land') religions coexisted, quite happily together; in fact, they had much in common.
People were spiritually inclined, ready to accept the Christian teaching of life after death, and their sacred places and grottoes became the sites for churches and shrines. Traditional teachings were not dismissed immediately but rather adapted: sacred water became holy water; plants such as holly, ivy, rose, thorn and vine were symbolic to both religions.
Other examples of dual symbolism are virtually endless: the cross, birds, chalice or cup, the Moon and Sun, the Lamb and, of course, the tree (Tree of Jesse). The vesica piscis or mandorls, a boat-shaped figure formed by overlapping two circles, is a mystical representation also shared.
Pewter Green Man Pendant, available at the Spiral Online Shop
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