The Green Man
I met a man in Lincolnshire
Who smelt of frost and hay.
His skin was painted with the sun,
His body was of clay.
His coat was made of bindweed
His cap was made of bark,
He gathered up the morning
And put away the dark.
He had a hump upon his back
Along the road he swayed,
And in his mouth, a silver flute
On which a tune he played.
It was an ancient melody
That came upon my ears,
Older than the centuries
And longer than the years
He turned his face towards me
His eyes were polished stone.
I gazed upon his features –
And gazed into my own!
Inspired by the carving of “The Green Man” in Southwell Minster which I first saw in 1986 and has fascinated me ever since.
NOTE: The Green Man has found a special and intriguing place in British history in the past thousand years or so. He flourished throughout England in Medieval times, and he is also infamously seen at the Rosslyn Chapel (mid fifteenth century) in Midlothian, Scotland where he has a part to play in a storm of controversy and conspiracy theories.
The first carvings of foliate heads originated in Roman art during the second half of the first century AD. These early foliate heads and masks were usually adorned with acanthus leaves, a common plant in the Mediterranean at the time.
Foliate heads made an appearance at Neumagen in Germany carved on the sarcophagi of wine merchants during the second and third centuries. As Kathleen Basford wonders in her book ‘The Green Man’, this “perhaps recalls the ancient rustic festivals held in honour of Dionysos where revellers stained their faces with new wine and masked them with huge beards made out of leaves.”
However, the Green Man didn’t make his first appearance in Britain until the eleventh century where he put down roots in the Church and adapted his leafy structure to the English way of life, incorporating oak leaves, hawthorn, ivy and hops during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
In twelfth century churches such as St John the Evangelist, (Elkstone, Gloucestershire) and St Leonard, (Linley, Shropshire) the Green Man is crudely depicted in the stonework, but in St Mary and St David (Kilpeck, Herefordshire) the doorway carvings are beautifully chiselled in intricate detail.
Although the Green Man is often nowadays connected to Jack-in-the-Green, there isn’t any evidence to suggest a relationship. Jack-in-the-Green and the Green Man only appear together towards the end of the eighteenth century when a photographer, Mr CJP Cave, took photographs of the roof bosses in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral and noted that the faces under the foliage reminded him of the Jack-in-the-Green he recalled from his childhood days.
However, the Green Man is easily traced through the Church as this is where he grew and developed into the anguished soul peering through the foliage as we know him today.
He began life in Britain and countries north of the Alps as a diabolical figure. In Exeter Cathedral he is depicted as being trodden upon by The Virgin, but without knowing the artist’s motives we can only guess at what he was trying to portray. Perhaps it is the triumph of Christianity over paganism or the triumph of ‘higher’ man over his animal nature. The Green Man has also been portrayed as the three-headed Satan (Triceps Beelzebub, the Trinity of Evil) which shows evidence of being perpetuated in Scandinavia but is comparatively rare in Britain. Fifteenth century examples of the unholy Trinity can be found in the Green Man’s portrayal as a devil in Chester Cathedral and as a crowned tricephalos at Cartmel Priory, Cumbria.
The Green Man branched out and flourished within the confines of the Church across Europe in the thirteenth century with unusual and startling depictions in Bamberg Cathedral, Germany and in Auxerre Cathedral, France. The former is in stone – a rectangular, almost stylised portrait of the Green Man – with an indescribable, yet knowing, expression, while in Auxerre he peers down at the congregation in bewilderment.
In England during this time he was often depicted with a pained expression biting down upon branches, or growing sprigs out of his mouth, such as at St Wulfram (Grantham, Lincolnshire), Ripon Cathedral (Yorkshire) , Dorchester Abbey (Oxfordshire) and famously at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire.
Sometimes he is seen poking out his tongue, or with an ape-like face, almost as a grotesque or a gargoyle might be employed to frighten away evil spirits, but through the centuries he has become increasingly human, more a tortured soul than a demonic entity. It’s difficult to distinguish between simple decoration and a depiction with greater meaning, but it’s tempting to think that the Church was visually reminding their flock that man is a creature of two parts and that submitting to the animal half, aligned to flora and fauna, would lead to misery. In this way the Green Man appears to be a lost soul.
Changes of style took place in France, then Germany, during the thirteenth century, and it is during the fourteenth century that the Green Man in his guise familiar to us today of a human head surrounded by leaves took form. There is a spectacular example of him in All Saints church at Sutton Benger in Wiltshire where his sorrowful eyes look at us amidst a mass of hawthorn carved in stone, and he looks positively desperate to escape his leafy bondage in the choir stalls at Lincoln Cathedral. Norwich cathedral has a variety of Green Men with quite alarming expressions glowering down at us from the roof bosses.
Nowadays, the Green Man is claimed as belonging to various groups, from neo-Pagans to certain occult societies. The worship of nature and the worship of the severed head certainly have places in British folk-lore and customs stretching back in time and a recurring character is Jack in the Green. He is also known as the Grass King, King of the May, the Wild Man, King of the Wood and more, and it can be said that in any of these incarnations he represents the spirit of vegetation. Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ cites many examples of customs pertaining to Jack in the Green, too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that the custom of beheading a foliate man effigy at the vernal equinox is persistent throughout Europe.
We can only guess at the reasons why the Church adopted the Green Man and in what context their architects meant him to be portrayed. In more recent centuries he has captured the public imagination as can be seen by the number of pubs bearing his name. However, as artists and pagans alike continue with their fascination with the Green Man it seems that we haven’t outgrown him yet nor completely forgotten that we are, like him, enmeshed with our natural surroundings.