We're not talking here of your local English pub, where the sign hanging outside the hostelry depicts Robin Hood clad in green, but of the mystical pagan figure which looks down, or out, at us from pews, roof bosses, gargoyles and other darkened recesses of many old churches.
He's the Green Man... with a head seemingly sculpted from leaves and usually having little body form. At other times the figure is more facial with foliate adornments, but frequently has a mouth, ears and eyes spewing forth tendrils, shoots and leaves.
There is no written record about the origins of this mystical - but quite widespread - character, so quite what the figure 'meant' to our very distant forebears is mere conjecture; although scholars and historians suggest that it may be linked with the continuity and life-cycle of the natural world, and rebirth [said to be signified by the disgorging foliage].
By and large the Green Man character is a pre-Roman european phenomenon, and it is said that there are similar pictorial references back in Babylonian times. Interestingly, the Roman 'god of the woods' [Sylvanus] and Dionysos [Bacchus] also had foliated heads while visual depiction of the leafy character can be found as far back as Roman times; appearing on some personal monuments.
In the post-Roman Christian era the Green Man figure remained in circulation, finding its way into early christian churches. Was it that the stonemasons and architects employed to build those churches still held beliefs about the pagan past and wanted to slip these in among the church designs to remain 'in touch' with the old order? Or by incorporating the pagan symbol were religious authorities knowingly trying to 'tame' their recently pagan flocks?
Yet the Green Man still fascinates many people, and we perhaps owe it to Victorian church restoration and later [in 1939], to Lagy Raglan for preserving our interest in our green chum [it was Raglan who first used the soubriquet 'Green Man' for the symbol which appears to have had no name throughout the centuries past].
Around the end of the 19th century, and beginning of the 20th, the Green Man began to be incorporated into summer pageants and morris-dancing; in the latter preserving the figure through the form of 'Jack-in-the-Green', but getting us no nearer to the symbolic meaning of the original pagan character.
You'll find that there are quite a few resources about the mystical green figure on the internet, and one person who has spent a lot of time investigating the subject is the celebrated folk singer and entertainer Mike Harding. He has published a book on the subject and has heaps more information on his website [ www.mikeharding.co.uk ] under the section called 'The Search for the Green Man'.
Also check out David Owner's website www.greenmaneastanglia.co.uk which has an emphasis on Green Man carvings... and the occasional animal carving too.
Picture: Abstracted Green Man by Marcus Harrison.
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