I first came upon the Green Man in the statuary section of a garden store. It was a statue of the face of a man with leaves growing out of his nose, mouth, and ears, meant for the garden. It struck me as being a little grotesque, but ever since, I have been somewhat obsessed with it.
The Green Man seemed familiar enough, some character from pagan folklore — a spirit of nature, a wild man of the wood, like John Barleycorn or Dionysus — but he also seemed very strange. Why did he have vines growing out of his mouth, or into his mouth? It’s so dark and specific. Is he eating the foliage or being eaten by it? Or perhaps it comes from him. You figure there must be a story behind it. It’s so odd. The trouble is, there isn’t one, at least one that is known. If there ever was a story associated with the Green Man it was lost at the end of the Middle Ages. Because of this, his image is up for grabs, and he has come to represent many different things. To environmentalists he is a symbol of the wilderness, to Neo-Pagans and Wiccans he is a deity, to beer enthusiasts he is the man-in-the-hops or the Dionysus of ale. But I can't help wonder, who is he really?
I took some time to do research about it (and as usual, I got a little carried away), but what I found out surprised me. I'd always assumed he was an ancient Celtic deity, but, oddly, his image dates back to ancient Mesopotamia.
In the first century AD, a tradition developed in Rome of portraying people hiding among leaves, turning into leaves, or actually being formed out of them. They were seen on temple friezes and capitals throughout the Roman Empire from Turkey to the Rhine. These foliated faces bare a strong resemblance to carvings found in ancient Mesopotamia.
It is speculated that this leaf-faced man carving found in Iraq (below) represents Humbaba, the ancient Sumerian guardian of the Cedar Forest. If this is true, it would mean the Green Man has his roots in a character from the oldest story ever written. (In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero kills Humbaba, thereby "taming the wilderness".
So why did this pagan character become so popular with Medieval Christians? This is the real mystery. Most of all the Green Men appearing in art are found in medieval cathedrals; but we have no idea why, or what his image meant to them. There are no stories about him. He is virtually nameless. "Green Man" was a name given to him in the early 20th century. The only leaf-faced man inscribed with a name in a medieval church is in the Abbey at St-Denis. It's inscribed with the name “Silvanus”, the Roman god of the woods. This makes his presence even stranger. Silvanus is a god associated with Pan and forest nymphs. Nature, to medieval Christians, was associated with this world, with the flesh, and with the sins of the flesh. So why would they portray him so venerably?
Some think he might have been a grotesque (a representation of evil meant to ward it off at the same time), like gargoyles, hunkypunks, and sheela-na-gigs. But if the Green Man represented nature and what was carnal or pagan, he should have been portrayed as a devil, as some other pagan images were. Instead, he is more often carved looking dignified and somber, sometimes even Christ-like.
Maybe medieval Christians were just, in their hearts, too pagan to associate green growing things with sin. They never stopped erecting maypoles on the day of what was once the pagan holiday of Beltane, for instance. Maybe to them, the green growing leaves symbolized what mystic Hildegarde of Bingen called ‘the greening of the soul”. And perhaps the sadness carved into these faces reflects the knowledge that all that lives must also die, that flesh is like grass and we wither like the flowers of the field.
This association with the cycle of life, especially the death and decay part, became really pronounced in the years following the Black Plague, when Green Men with branches sprouting from their eyes and nose started to appear.
By the late Middle Ages, there is rarely a Green Man carved as wise and venerable anymore. They become visions of death, decay, and old age. Leaves originate from the forehead like wrinkles and are bunched up under the eyes like bags. The leafy vines are like worms that push out of a corpse’s eyes, like nature is reclaiming the face from the inside out. Sometimes these images are horrific and sometimes they are serene. Because there are so many variations, it is easy to imagine that the portrayal of the Green Man is simply a reflection of the carver's feelings about being caught in this endless cycle of life and death.
But this is all just speculation. After all this research, the Green Man still remains a mystery. But one thing seems worth mentioning. Though we might not know exactly what he represented, it's pretty clear it had something to do with nature, so the way he's represented seems to say a lot about that culture's relationship to nature, specifically the forest.
Take the Rochester Green Man. The woods in medieval times were dangerous places and nature wasn’t always something there to look pretty and write poems about. There were wild animals. The feeling of being watched in the wood or a face glimpsed among the leaves was most likely a robber or a rapist, not a benevolent forest spirit. Even forest spirits in those days had a taste for seduction and violence. It’s easy to see how a carver with this view of the woods might portray the Green Man as threatening.
If we did extend this notion of the Green Man as a representation of society’s feelings about nature and the woods, why then the sudden popularity of the Green Man in medieval England? Could it be explained by the fact (surprising to me to learn) that there was hardly any forest left? We have this image of medieval England as having deep, endless forests filled with fairy tales but in reality, the population of England had so expanded (prior to the Plague), that there were fewer trees than there are in modern day France.
Maybe it’s similar to how the British Romantics, American Transcendentalists, and Hudson River School painters (all big nature enthusiasts) emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Artists begin portraying nature more in art when it is being lost in reality. This would explain the revival of the Green Man today.
So, back to the garden statuary store and the feeling of uncanny. There I was, looking at the face of a thing I’d never seen before — a man's face, hidden in the leaves, or made of leaves, or being overtaken by leaves (it was hard to say) — and yet I knew it. It's that curious combination of the strange and the familiar that does weird things to a person. Anyway, I think it was familiar because it is an archetypal image. The Green Man is an expression of that experience — one that I think we all share, no matter what culture or time period — of being alone in the woods and feeling like you are not alone, that hidden in the trees there is something — or someone — aware of your presence, though you can not see it, that there is some invisible intelligence alive in the wood. And sometimes this presence feels threatening, but mostly it's just watchful, though a little wary of you. It feels old and wise, and perhaps a little bit sad, but for reasons you'll never really understand.