The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

The Green Man – An Old Image For a New Age

By Nick Redfern     June 01, 2013


This stone carving of a Green Man from Dore Ab...

This stone carving of a Green Man from Dore Abbey, Herefordshire, England, retains some of its original colouring. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within British folklore, there exists a creature that has overtones of a somewhat “Wildman” nature attached to it. It has become known as the Green Man.

A good friend of mine, Kithra, who has dug deeply into the saga of the Green Man – a wild character linked with places perceived as magical, such as woods, glades, and streams, and whose very image provokes thoughts of ancient, proto-humans roaming the land – notes the following:

“Usually these figures are male, although there are a very few Green Women, together with green cats, green demons, and green lions. The Green Man can appear in different forms, although there are three types that are normally represented.

“These are the Disgorging Head, which emits foliage from the mouth; the Foliate Head: which is entirely covered in green leaves; [and] the Bloodsucker Head, which has foliage emerging from all the facial outlets.”

As for the point of origin for the phenomenon, it has been suggested that the Green Man quite possibly surfaced out of the mythology of fantastic deities and mighty gods in very early times. Perhaps, in the British Isles, the Green Man arose from the Celtic god of light, Lud (also referred to as Lug or Lyg).

On a similar track, in 1942, at West Row, Suffolk, England a silver salver which dated from the 4th Century was found and, today, comprises an integral and important part of what has become known as the so-called Mildenhall Treasure.

The salver in question, which was uncovered at the site of an old Roman villa and that is now on display at the British Museum, contains an intriguing image. It resembles a partly leafy mask thought to represent Neptune – the Roman god of the sea and the water – with the foliage being seaweed. But, pretty much for all intents and purposes, it is definitively Green Man-like in its appearance.

Kithra has far more to say, too, of a nature that provides us with a solid body of data and history on the mysterious figure: “The motif can be found right across the world and is, more often than not, related to natural vegetative divinities from throughout the ages. It is first and foremost a symbol of rebirth that represents the spring cycle of growth.”

It may surprise some to learn that while the Green Man – as a specific entity of traditional British folklore, at least – certainly has ancient origins, the usage of those two combined words (Green and Man, in the particular context they appear to explain the nature of the phenomenon), is most certainly not old in the slightest, as Kithra clearly demonstrates:

“The first person to use the term Green Man was Lady Raglan, wife of Major FitzRoy Richard Somerset, 4thBaron Raglan. At one time he was the President of the Folklore Society. And, in 1939 his wife, Lady Raglan, created the phrase Green Man in her one and only article that appeared in the Folklore journal.

“She invented the term to define the leaf-decorated heads seen in English churches, and to this day her theory concerning where they come from is still discussed.”

So, yes, the name most certainly is recent. But the motif is far, far less so. Kithra shows that, the name issue aside, its origins are just about as long as they are winding and open to question and debate: “On the surface it seems these images are pagan. Many look either unsettling or mystical, which is sometimes thought to show the vitality of the Green Man in that it was capable of enduring as a character from pre-Christian traditions.”

Kithra concludes that, today, the symbolism associated with the Green Man is interpreted as “the relationship between man and nature. It reveals an essential basic pattern deep in the human mind. It has become an archetype that is common to all and represents a profoundly sympathetic feeling for, and with, nature. This has probably arisen from our current concerns about the ecology, and environment, of Planet Earth.”

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