A Green Man is a sculpture or other representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves. Branches or vines may sprout from the mouth, nostrils, or other parts of the face and these shoots may bear flowers or fruit. Commonly used as a decorative architectural ornament, Green Men are frequently found in carvings on both secular and ecclesiastical buildings. “The Green Man” is also a popular name for English public houses and various interpretations of the name appear on inn signs, which sometimes show a full figure rather than just the head.
The Green Man motif has many variations. Found in many cultures from many ages around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities. It is primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of growth each spring. Some speculate that the mythology of the Green Man developed independently in the traditions of separate ancient cultures and evolved into the wide variety of examples found throughout history.
Usually referred to in works on architecture as foliate heads or foliate masks, carvings of the Green Man may take many forms, naturalistic or decorative. The simplest depict a man’s face peering out of dense foliage. Some may have leaves for hair, perhaps with a leafy beard. Often leaves or leafy shoots are shown growing from his open mouth and sometimes even from the nose and eyes as well. In the most abstract examples, the carving at first glance appears to be merely stylised foliage, with the facial element only becoming apparent on closer examination. The face is almost always male; green women are rare.
Julia, Lady Raglan applied the term “Green Man” to this type of architectural feature in her 1939 article “The Green Man in Church Architecture” in The Folklore Journal. It is thought that her interest stemmed from carvings at St. Jerome’s Church in Llangwm, Monmouthshire
Some commentators conflate or associate the term with “Jack in the Green”. Green cats, lions, and demons are also found. On gravestones and other memorials, human skulls are sometimes shown sprouting grape vines or other vegetation, presumably as a symbol of resurrection (as at Shebbear, Devon, England).
The Green Man appears in many forms, with the three most common types categorized as:
- the Foliate Head: completely covered in green leaves
- the Disgorging Head: spews vegetation from its mouth
- the Bloodsucker Head: sprouts vegetation from all facial orifices (e.g. tear ducts, nostrils and mouth)
Superficially the Green Man would appear to be pagan, perhaps a fertility figure or a nature spirit, similar to the woodwose (the wild man of the woods), and yet he frequently appears, carved in wood or stone, in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals, where examples can be found dating through to the 20th century. The earliest example of a green man disgorging vegetation from his mouth is from St. Abre, in St. Hilaire-le-grand, c. 400 AD.
The tradition of the Green Man being carved on to Christian churches exists across Europe, including examples such as the Seven Green Men of Nicosia in Cyprus, a series of seven green men carved in the thirteenth century on to the facade of St Nicholas Church in Nicosia.
From the Renaissance onwards, elaborate variations on the Green Man theme, often with animal heads rather than human faces, appear in many media other than carvings (including manuscripts, metalwork, bookplates, and stained glass). They seem to have been used for purely decorative effect rather than reflecting any deeply held belief. A Swiss engraver, Numa Guyot created a bookplate depicting a Green Man in exquisite detail. It was completed circa 1887.
In Britain, the image of the Green Man enjoyed a revival in the 19th century, becoming popular with architects during the Gothic revival and the Arts and Crafts era, when it appeared as a decorative motif in and on many buildings, both religious and secular. American architects took up the motif around the same time. The Green Man travelled with the Europeans as they colonized the world. Many variations can be found in Neo-gothic Victorian architecture. He was very popular amongst Australian stonemasons and can be found on many secular and sacred buildings.
The Green Man image has made a resurgence in modern times, with artists from around the world interweaving the imagery into various modes of work. Among these are English artist Paul Sivell, who created the Whitefield Green Man, a wood carving in a dead section of a living oak tree; David Eveleigh, an English garden designer who created the Penpont Green Man Millennium Maze, in Powys, Wales (the largest depiction of a Green Man image in the world); Zambian sculptor Toin Adams who created the 12m-tall Green Man in Birmingham, UK (the largest free-standing sculpture of the Green Man in the world); and sculptor M. J. Anderson, who created the marble sculpture titled Green Man as Original Coastal Aboriginal Man of All Time from Whence the Bush and All of Nature Sprouts from his Fingers.
Others include Jane Brideson, Australian artist Marjorie Bussey, American artist Monica Richards, and English fantasy artist Peter Pracownik, whose artwork has appeared in several media, including full-body tattoos.
American artist Rob Juszak has taken the theme of the Green Man as Earth’s spiritual protector and turned it into a vision of the Green Man cradling the planet; artist Dorothy Bowen created a kimono silk painting, titled Greenwoman, as an expression of the feminine aspect of the legend.
A character superficially similar to the Green Man, in the form of a partly foliate mask surrounded by Bacchic figures, appears at the center of the 4th century silver salver in the Mildenhall Treasure, found at a Roman villa site in Suffolk, England; the mask is generally agreed to represent Neptune or Oceanus and the foliation is of seaweed.
In the Germanic nations, such as Germany, Iceland, and England, depictions of the Green Man could have been inspired by deities such as Freyr or Odin, as both have many attributes of the later Green Men from throughout Europe.
In Thomas Nashe’s masque Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1592, printed 1600), the character commenting upon the action remarks, after the exit of “Satyrs and wood-Nymphs”, “The rest of the green men have reasonable voices …”.
Parallels have been drawn between the Green Man and various deities, including the British Celtic Lud, also known as Nodens, Osiris, Odin, Dionysus, and even Jesus. Father Christmas, who was often shown wreathed in ivy in early depictions, has been suggested as a similar woodland spirit.
For many modern Pagans, the Green Man is used as a symbol of seasonal renewal and ecological awareness.
In Wicca, the Green Man has often been used as a representation of the Horned God, a syncretic deity that appropriates aspects of, among others, the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan.
In his A Little Book of The Green Man, as well as his website, Mike Harding gives examples of similar figures in Borneo, Nepal, and India: the earliest is a foliate head from an 8th-century Jain temple in Rajasthan. He also notes that heads from Lebanon and Iraq can be dated to the 2nd century and that there are early Romanesque foliate heads in 11th century Templar churches in Jerusalem. He tentatively suggests that the symbol may have originated in Asia Minor and been brought to Europe by travelling stonecarvers.
On a similar theme, author on spirituality and architecture William Anderson writes:
There are legends of him (Khidr) in which, like Osiris, he is dismembered and reborn; and prophecies connecting him, like the Green Man, with the end of time. His name means the Green One or Verdant One, he is the voice of inspiration to the aspirant and committed artist. He can come as a white light or the gleam on a blade of grass, but more often as an inner mood. The sign of his presence is the ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one’s normal capacities. In this there may be a link across cultures, …one reason for the enthusiasm of the medieval sculptors for the Green Man may be that he was the source of every inspiration.
In one of his roles the ancient Egyptian God Osiris is regarded as a corn-deity and is commonly depicted with a green face representing vegetation, rebirth and resurrection. Containers of soil in the shape of Osiris planted with seed (“Osiris Beds”) are found in some New Kingdom tombs. The sprouting corn implied the resurrection of the deceased.
Other gods depicted green are (in Tibet) Amogha-siddhi and (in Mexico) Tlaloc.
In Sanskrit the Green Man is cognate with the gana Kirtimukha or “Face Of Glory” which is related to a lila of Shiva and Rahu. The Face of Glory is often seen in Vajrayana Buddhist Thanka art and iconography where it is often incorporated as a cloudform simulacrum; and depicted crowning the ‘Wheel of Becoming’ or the Bhavachakra.
Khidr or al-Khidr (Arabic: الخضر al-Khiḍr “the Green One”, also transcribed as Khidar, Khizr, Khyzer, Khizar) is a revered figure in Islam, whom the Qur’an describes as a righteous servant of God, who possessed great wisdom or mystic knowledge. He is most often said to be a contemporary of Moses, but in other variations of his story, he lived at the same time as Abraham, the mythological Persian king Afridun and Nashiya bin Amus. The 18th sura (“The Cave”) presents a narrative where Khidr accompanies Moses and tests him about his oath to not ask any questions. Tom Cheetham, an authority on Islamic mysticism, identifies Khidr of esoteric Sufism with the Green Man. In his book about the work of Henry Corbin and others concerning the 12th-century Muslim saint Ibn Arabi, he develops the idea of the Green Man/Khidr as the principle mediating between the imaginary realm and the physical world.