The Green Man (a brief survey)
Lady Raglan, an English aristocrat and folklorist, first became interested in Green Men when she discovered some foliate head carvings in St. Jerome’s Church in the village of Llangwn in Monmouthshire (Gwent), Wales. Up until then, carved heads disgorging foliage, found in churches everywhere, were simply known as "foliate heads". Lady Raglan, however, described these foliate heads as “Green Men”, a term she first used in an article entitled “The Green Man in Church Architecture”, published in the “Folklore” journal of March 1939. Unfortunately, the term was something of a misnomer, because it already had a different meaning going back to the pageantry of Tudor and Elizabethan times.
A feature of these pageants was the figure of a man, sometimes known variously as a “whiffler”, a Wild Man, or Green Man, whose role it was to drive back the crowds getting in the way of the procession. The following quote written after a St George’s Day event in 1610 should make it clearer: “Men in green leaves set with work upon their garments with black hair and black beards, very ugly to behold, and garlands upon their heads with great clubs in their hands, with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintain way for the rest of the show”. In a later event in 1686 we have a similar written record: “Twenty Savages, or Green Men, with squibs and fireworks, to sweep the streets and keep off the crowd”.
Both terms in those days, Wild Man and Green Man, were interchangeable. Yet another quote from the same period described these men – bouncers we would probably call them nowadays – as “Green Men … a fit emblem for those that use intoxicating liquor, which berefts them of their senses” . It was probably this association with drunkenness why many English pubs adopted the name: “The Green Man”. However, by the 19th century the original meaning seems to have been forgotten, and many pub signs began depicting more popular figures, such as Robin Hood or Jack-in-the-Green. But fashions keep changing, and once again many modern pubs have repainted their signs to show a head peering through leaves. Perhaps there is something about such foliate heads that has captured the imagination of many people today, especially pagan folk.
Nonetheless, the truth is that the origin of the Green Man as a part of Church architecture is lost in the mists of time, which means everyone now owns the Green Man and can make of it what we choose. As a symbol of Earth-based paganism the Green Man is perfect. However, it’s only natural that we should be curious as to whether foliate heads in churches had any profound spiritual meaning once upon a time. Looking at the vast variety of different styles found in churches, the Green Man is open to many interpretations. Could they have represented doomed souls, because some look as if they are in anguish, as the writer and broadcaster Mike Harding notes in his little book on the Green Man.
On the other hand, could they have been demons? That is probably an unlikely explanation owing to the fact that demons depicted by Christianity were meant to be easily recognised, having impish expressions and very often horns. Another explanation is that some designs might have been intended to illustrate human mortality, because some Green Men have a death-like expression; they look like the long-decaying remains of soldiers or warriors who may have been left where they had fallen in battle, with vegetation growing through mouth, ears, nostrils and other orifices.
Green Men could also have been a warning to the Faithful to remain within the safety of the Church; the Greenwood or forests in bygone days were the domain of robbers, wolves, wild boar, and other hostile creatures.
Some of these explanations might be closer to the truth than others. Or perhaps none of them tell the full story. We also have the problem of explaining the number of Foliate Beasts displayed in churches; clearly non-human creatures that look something like cats or owls. In Christian culture animals were said not to have souls and therefore were not subject to salvation.
Foliate Heads can also be found in other cultures older than Christianity. The popular notion that the carpenters and stonemasons who built our historic churches were really closet pagans who used their skills for subversive reasons is probably pure romanticism. Perhaps like all good craftsmen they simply enjoyed creating something as intricate as a head with leaves sprouting from it. Foliate Heads might have been no more than a fashionable art form. We’ll never really know. But what we can be sure of today is that the Green Man as a symbol of the Natural World is here to stay.
Finally, mention should be made of Kathleen Basford (6 September 1916 – 20 December 1998) who was a British botanist, with a special interest in genetics. However, she is also known for her research into the cultural significance of the Green Man. In 1978, she published a largely pictorial book: The Green Man, discussing how the figure was a motif for the "spiritual dimension of nature" in architecture, with an important relevance to modern society.