The Enigma of the Green Man - Theories and Interpretations

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Many theories and interpretations have been proposed over the years, none of them definitive. On this page, we will look at at least some of those theories.

Lady Raglan's interpretation:

One of the three famous Green Men in St. Jerome’s Church, Llangwm, Gwent, South Wales, which first interested Lady Raglan (photo John Harding)

One of the three famous Green Men in St. Jerome’s Church, Llangwm, Gwent, South Wales, which first interested Lady Raglan (photo John Harding)

The label “Green Man”, perhaps surprisingly, dates back only to 1939, when it was used by Lady Raglan (wife of the scholar and soldier Major Fitzroy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan) in her article “The Green Man in Church Architecture”, published in the “Folklore” journal of March 1939. Prior to this, they were just known as "foliate heads", and few people took much interest in them. Lady Raglan’s interest was piqued by her discovery of the Green Men in St. Jerome’s Church in the village of Llangwn in Monmouthshire (Gwent), Wales.

The “Folklore” article was Lady Raglan’s sole foray into folklore study, and it is clearly much influenced by Sir James Frazier’s seminal 1922 book on mythology, religion and folklore, “The Golden Bough”. The article concluded: “This figure I am convinced, is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life, and the question is whether there was any figure in real life from which it could have been taken. The answer, I think, is that there is but one of sufficient importance, the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May and the Garland King, who is the central figure in the May Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe.”

Her theory is still much debated and disputed, especially as we now know that folklore figures such as Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood and the Garland King are actually of much later provenance than many of the Green Man carvings she uses them to explain. Arguably, it was an inspired stroke of modern myth-making, and many Green Man pub signs even began to show the foliate head rather than the traditional Jack-in-the-Green or Robin Hood. However, her work was invaluable in establishing the Green Man as a legitimate object of historical and anthropological study. It also established the name “Green Man” as the preferred label.

Symbol of life and nature:

The Celtic nature god Cernunnos from the Gundestrup Cauldron (1st Century BCE, now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen)

The Celtic nature god Cernunnos from the Gundestrup Cauldron (1st Century BCE, now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen)

The most common and perhaps obvious interpretation of the Green Man is that of a pagan nature spirit, a symbol of man’s reliance on and union with nature, a symbol of the underlying life-force, and of the renewed cycle of growth each spring. In this respect, it seems likely that he has evolved from older nature deities such as the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan and Dionysus.

Some have gone so far as to make the argument that the Green Man represents a male counterpart - or son or lover or guardian - to Gaia (or the Earth Mother, or Great Goddess), a figure which has appeared throughout history in almost all cultures. In the 16th Century Cathedral at St-Bertrand de Comminges in southern France, there is even an example of a representation of a winged Earth Mother apparently giving birth to a smiling Green Man.

Because by far the most common occurrences of the Green Man are stone and wood carvings in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals in Europe (particularly in Britain and France), some have seen this as evidence of the vitality of pre-Christian traditions surviving alongside, and even within, the dominant Christian mainstream. Much has been made of the boldness with which the Green Man was exhibited in early Christian churches, often appearing over main doorways, and surprisingly often in close proximity to representations of the Christ figure.

Incorporating a Green Man into the design of a medieval church or cathedral may therefore be seen as a kind of small act of faith on the part of the carver that life and fresh crops will return to the soil each spring and that the harvest will be plentiful. Pre-Christian pagan traditions and superstitions, particularly those related to nature and trees, were still a significant influence in early medieval times, as exemplified by the planting of yew trees (a prominent pagan symbol) in churchyards, and the maintenance of ancient “sacred groves” of trees.

Tree worship goes back into the prehistory of many of the cultures that directly influenced the people of Western Europe, not least the Greco-Roman and the Celtic, which is no great surprise when one considers that much of the continent of Europe was covered with vast forests in antiquity. It is perhaps also understandable that there are concentrations of Green Men in the churches of regions where there were large stretches of relict forests in ancient times, such as in Devon and Somerset, Yorkshire and the Midlands in England. The human-like attributes of trees (trunk-body, branches-arms, twigs-fingers, sap-blood), as well as their strength, beauty and longevity, make them an obvious subject for ancient worship. The Green Man can be seen as a continuing symbol of such beliefs, in much the same way as the later May Day pageants of the Early Modern period, many of which were led by the related figure of Jack-in-the-Green.

Symbol of fertility:

Although the Green Man is most often associated with spring, May Day, etc, there are also several examples which exhibit a more autumnal cast to the figure. For example, some Green Men prominently incorporate pairs of acorns into their designs (there is a good example in King's College Chapel, Cambridge), a motif which clearly has no springtime associations. In the same way, hawthorn leaves frequently appear on English Green Men (such as the famous one at Sutton Benger), and they are often accompanied by autumn berries rather than spring flowers. The Green Man in the Chapelle de Bauffremont in Dijon (one of the few to retain its original paint coloration) shows quite clearly its leaves in their autumn colours.

This may have been simple artistic license. However, acorns, partly due to their shape, were also a common medieval fertility symbol, and hawthorn is another tree which was explicitly associated with sexuality, all of which perhaps suggests a stronger link with fertility, as well as with harvest-time.

Symbol of death and rebirth:

Green Man in the form of a skull on a gravestone in Shebbear, Devon, England (photo Simon Garbutt)

Green Man in the form of a skull on a gravestone in Shebbear, Devon, England (photo Simon Garbutt)

The disgorging Green Man, sprouting vegetation from his orifices, may also be seen as a memento mori, or a reminder of the death that await all men, as well as a Pagan representation of resurrection and rebirth, as new life naturally springs out of our human remains. The Greek and Roman god Dionysus/Bacchus, often suggested as an early precursor of the Green Man, was also associated with death and rebirth in his parallel guise as Okeanus.

Several of the ancient Celtic demigods, Bran the Blessed being one of the best known, become prophetic oracles once their heads had been cut off (another variant on the theme of death and resurrection) and, although these figures were not traditionally represented as decorated with leaves, there may be a link between them and the later stand-alone Green Man heads.

There are several examples of self-consciously skull-like Green Men, with vegetation sprouting from eye-sockets, although these are more likely to be found on tombstones than as decoration in churches (good examples can be seen at Shebbear and Black Torrington in Devon, England). Such images might be interpreted as either representing rebirth and resurrection (in that the new life is growing out of death), or they might represent death and corruption (with the leaves growing parasitically through the decaying body).

Christian interpretations:

Green Beasts are also common in churches, like this (cat? owl?) in St. Mary’s Church, Iffley, Oxfordshire, England (photo Rex Harris)

Green Beasts are also common in churches, like this (cat? owl?) in St. Mary’s Church, Iffley, Oxfordshire, England (photo Rex Harris)

However, it is perhaps not surprising that some have attempted to give them a more “Christian-ized” interpretation. For example, some Christian authorities have suggested that the foliage issuing from the mouths of Green Men represents the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, although none have gone so far as to suggest that the face is that of God. The presence of similar disgorging animal heads (often in juxtaposition or combination with a Green Man, such as the cat’s heads in the churches at Saintes and Colombiers in France, for example) further complicates this interpretation.

Rabanus Maurus, an influential 8th Century theologian, insisted that the Green Man (and, indeed, vegetation in general) represented the sins of the flesh, and was a reminder that lustful wicked men were doomed to eternal damnation. It was he who was largely responsible for the rise of a more evil and demonic aspect to Green Man in early churches.

It was once widely believed in medieval times that the wood of the cross on which Jesus was crucified grew from seeds placed under the tongue of the dying Adam, and this has been offered as an explanation for the foliage sprouting from human mouths in church carvings.

Some modern theologians, such as Richard Thomas, have even tried to draw explicit parallels between Jesus Christ and the Green Man, claiming that “He [Jesus] was, and is, the archetypal Green Man, drawn from the earth, born of the union of spirit and matter, bringing life to those he meets.”

The Green Man as demon:

A 19th Century carving of a horned Green Man in the 12th Century Church of St. Michel d'Entraygues near Angoulême, France (photo Julianna Lees)

A 19th Century carving of a horned Green Man in the 12th Century Church of St. Michel d'Entraygues near Angoulême, France (photo Julianna Lees)

Although the Green Man is usually interpreted as a positive and benevolent force, it is by no means certain that he was always seen that way. Even before the influence of Rabanus Maurus, it is quite possible that he was seen by some as a force of evil, and he has often been portrayed more as a devil than as a god, sometimes complete with diabolical horns (see the example at right).

The Green Man may therefore be present on ecclesiastical buildings as a counterfoil to the Christian imagery in which he is often found, and as a reminder of the ever-present dangers of sin and pagan idolatry.

The Green Man with vegetation coming out his mouth is almost always interpreted as disgorging or creating vegetation, a positive and creative force. However, as with Ourobouros (the circular snake biting its own tail), there is also an element of ambivalence in the image, and a compelling argument can be made that the Green Man might in fact be swallowing or devouring all of nature, rather than creating it.

Middle Eastern cross-over:

One of over 100 Green Men in the Templar church Rosslyn Chapel, Scotland

One of over 100 Green Men in the Templar church Rosslyn Chapel, Scotland

Due to the discovery of ancient images similar to the Green Man in India and the Middle East, in addition to those in medieval Europe, Green Man researcher Mike Harding has made the tentative suggestion that the symbol originated somewhere in Asia Minor, and was later brought to Europe by travelling stone-carvers. Some experts on Islamic mysticism and architecture, including Tom Cheetham and William Anderson, have identified the Green Man with a deity known as Al-Khidr from esoteric Islamic Sufism. The name Khidr itself means “The Green One”, and he is seen as representing freshness of spirit and eternal liveliness, although he has also been variously identified with St. George, the Jewish prophet Elijah, even “The Wandering Jew”.

Notably, several Templar churches, such as those at the Basilica of Neuvy St. Sepulchre in France, Garway Church in England and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, include Green Man carvings (Rosslyn Chapel alone boats over 100 Green Men). It has been hypothesized by some that it was the Knight Templars, with their experience of Middle Eastern culture and architecture, who re-introduced the foliage and Green Man motifs into early medieval Gothic churches. Some of these figures also exhibit small horns, and it is conjectured that this may be associated with the Middle Eastern figure of the horned “Green Prophet” rather than with the devil or demons.

However, some care needs to be taken with this theory. For example, St. Michel d’Entraygues Church near Angoulême, France is often described as a Templar church. But, despite its intriguing shape, the church actually has no connection to the Templars, and the triple-headed Green Man with horns in the church (see picture above) was actually introduced in much more recent times by the maverick 19th Century church restorer Paul Abadie.

Symbol of artistic inspiration:

As has been mentioned above, some commentators have associated the Green Man with a deity known as Khidr from esoteric Islamic Sufism. In this belief, Khidr is a kind of mediating principle between the imaginary and physical worlds, and a voice of inspiration to artists. This suggests the possibility that medieval European sculptors and carvers, in an early cross-over of cultures, may have seen the Green Man as a source of inspiration for their art.

Some Green Men are show with fronds of vegetation issuing form their eyes (such as at Bolton Abbey and Crediton church in England, for example), which can perhaps be interpreted as the artist’s ability to create what he sees.

Survivor from other mythologies:

Mesopotamian Green Man (c. 3rd - 1st Century BCE) in the ruined desert city of al-Hadr (or Hatra), Iraq

Mesopotamian Green Man (c. 3rd - 1st Century BCE) in the ruined desert city of al-Hadr (or Hatra), Iraq

Several other ancient cultures also had green deities, often with some features in common with the Green Man. These include: Humbaba, the ancient Sumerian guardian of the cedar forest, as well as Enkidu, the wild man of the forest in Sumerian mythology, both of which date back to at least 3000 BCE; the Egyptian corn-god Osiris, who is often depicted with a green face representing vegetation and rebirth; Attis, a Phrygian god of vegetation and Nature; the Tibetan Buddhist deity Amoghasiddhi; the Hindu demon Kirtimukha; Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, fertility and water; and several others. Some of the features incorporated into ancient representations of these gods reappear centuries later in the Green Man. For example, the “Face of Glory” of the Hindu Kirtimukha is usually shown with a mouth issuing leaves, notably missing a lower jaw, and there are several similar representations of a jawless Green Man in Europe.

An interesting variant of the Green Man, as seen in the churches at Marignac and Guitinières in France for example, is the two-faced or two-headed Green Man, which has clear associations with Janus, the Roman deity of gates and doorways (there are also a few three-headed Green Men, such as at Cartmel Abbey, England and at Ulm, Germany). Thus, it is perhaps not unreasonable to suppose that the Green Man represented, at least for some, a kind of doorkeeper or guardian, similar to Janus.

A common link in nearly all of the legends and myths which have been suggested as precursors of the Green Man is that of metamorphosis and transformation. Greek and Roman mythology is rife with such tales, many of them involving trees and flowers, such as: Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree; Myrrha into a myrrh tree; Chloris into Flora; Adonis, Narcissus and Hyacinthus into flowers; etc. Many of these classical myths were in turn borrowed or syncretized from other older cultures. It is possible that Green Men carvings were attempts to give a Christian moral to such beloved, but unfortunately pagan, transformational stories.

Paradoxically, the only named Green Man is the early 13th Century oak-leaf head in the Abbey at St-Denis, France, which is inscribed with the name “Silvanus”, even though the Roman god of the woods was never traditionally portrayed in that way in classical times.

Many modern Neo-Paganists and Wiccans, partly as a result of the influential work of Margaret Murray, see the Green Man as a variant of the pagan Horned God, which is in turn a syncretism of several older nature and fertility deities, including the Greek gods Pan and Dionysus, the Roman Silvanus, the Celtic Cernunnos, the Hindu Pashupati, etc (both Dionysus and Cernunnos were sometimes portrayed with hair composed of stylized leaves and vegetation). It is quite conceivable that the early church carvers may have seen the Green Man as a representation of one, or several, of these older deities, or of the beliefs they were created to represent, and indeed that they may well have seen no great dichotomy between such traditions and Christianity.

The Green Man as archetype:

The very fact that images of the Green Man have appeared historically in such disparate and apparently unconnected locations have led some commentators, notably Roweena Pattee Kryder and William Anderson, to suggest that the figure is part of our collective unconscious, and represents a primeval archetype (in Jungian parlance) which is central to our relationship with Nature.

Phyllis Araneo has suggested that the appearance of the Green Man in European and worldwide art is a cyclical phenomenon triggered by times of crisis or significant change. For example, she suggests the proliferation of Green Man imagery after the 11th Century can perhaps be associated with feelings of relief and celebration after the widely predicted apocalypse of the millennium failed to materialize.

In the same way, the modern resurgence may have been triggered by the environmental crisis we are currently living through. In its modern revival, in the wake of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis and the birth of the modern Green movement, the Green Man can be seen as the archetype of the “conservator”, whose brief is to counsel us to take from the environment only what we need to survive and to conserve the rest, and to remind us of our responsibilities for the stewardship of the natural world. A quote from Mike Harding succinctly summarizes this position: “If anything on this poisoned planet gives us hope of renewal it is this simple foliate head that has been there in one form or another since the beginning.”

No specific symbolism:

A well-known sheela-na-gig in the Church of St. Mary and St. David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England

A well-known sheela-na-gig in the Church of St. Mary and St. David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England

Notwithstanding all these possible theories and interpretations, the Green Man of the Middle Ages may just have served as a decorative or architectural feature, in much the same way as gargoyles (carved grotesques designed to drain water from a building), hunkypunks (a grotesque with no apparent practical purpose), sheela-na-gigs (naked women displaying an exaggerated open vulva - see picture at right), melusines (split-tailed mermaids), sirens (seductive, often winged, temptresses) and other grotesques often found in medieval architecture. Such carvings were often thought by the superstitious stonemasons and carvers of the medieval period to ward off death and evil, or possibly to create a healthy balance of good and evil in the design.

But it is also entirely possible that such images held little or no deep symbolism for many of the carvers, representing little more than an interesting and diverting bit of fun, in which they were merely following in the footsteps and traditions of many respected carvers of earlier years.


Just as the variations of Green Man are myriad, so it appears are its possible interpretations, and we are left with the inescapable conclusion that the Green Man means different things to different people and different cultures.

It is tempting to attribute great antiquity to the legends and stories underlying the images of the Green Man, but the hard evidence is not always there, and at best it can perhaps be considered as a synthesis of several ancient traditions. Thus, he may represent all of the various nature deities humankind has created throughout history; or, just as likely, he many represent none of them. It is interesting to reflect that, although usually considered a pagan phenomenon that was co-opted or “allowed” by the Church, most of the Green Man traditions we observe today actually post-date the conversion to Christianity, and so appear to have occurred in a nominally Christian context.

There is always a danger of “over-thinking” the problem, and it should be recognized that in some cases (and this is particularly the case from the 17th Century onwards) the image of a Green Man is nothing more than a purely decorative motif. Although medieval architecture tended to be dripping with symbolism (and, indeed, multiple superimposed layers of symbolism), it is easy to impute symbolism onto what may just be architectural flights of fancy. It is not that difficult to come up with a classical legend (or an ancient folk superstition, or some Christian or pagan symbolism) which might explain even the strangest of images, or justify its position in a particular church or in history, and thereby impute meaning where really there is none. As Green Man expert Kathleen Basford points out: “It can be difficult to distinguish between what is a purely decorative association and what may be a significant association of ideas.”

At heart, then, the Green Man remains, and will always remain, a mystery, and perhaps that is just as it should be.

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