In the last few years there has been a resurgence of interest in a mysterious ancient symbol- a face peering through leaves, otherwise known as the Green Man.
This image, though pre-Christian in origin, can very often be found in medieval churches. A lovely one can be found in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral, for example, but what does it all mean?
The foliate head, disgorging vegetation from the mouth is one of those images whose origins have been lost in the mists of time- though we don’t have the specifics, we can be certain that the Green Man symbol is a survival of pre-Christian European paganism. The image represented one aspect of the pre-Christian god of nature.
Before the industrial revolution, day to day life was tied far more closely to the rhythms of the seasons. Consequently, we find that the horned god was represented in different ways at different times of year. In winter, the imagery is harsher, tied to the concepts of hunting and survival. We can find various aspects of this hunter god in British folklore as Herne the Hunter, or as Wild Edric, or some other leader of the Wild Hunt which our ancestors believed to ride across the winter skies and steal away unfortunate souls during thunderstorms.
The Green Man represents the same nature deity in a more gentle summertime aspect, symbolising fertility and verdant growth. The image of a man clad head to foot in leaves still survives in far flung rural communities, where to this day you can occasionally find characters dressed in greenery appearing as part of traditional Mayday celebrations- marking the turning point of the year from winter into summer.
There is an interesting link between the image of the Green Man and the symbol of the Wild Man or Woodwose (from the Saxon terms wudu– “forest” and wasa– “being”). These hairy, semi-naked men clad only in leaves can be found decorating illuminated manuscripts and were used as a heraldic motif on various European coats of arms.
Although most often characterised as male, we can find examples of Wild Women too- such as the Moss Women of German folklore. Whatever their gender, they represent a kind of outsider figure- literally, the people who lived on the edge of the woods, away from the village. In fact, the British surname Wooden comes from Wood-End, that is to say, the people who lived at the wooded end of the village.
Interestingly, these hairy fellows have not yet completely disappeared from modern cultural consciousness. Almost every modern culture has its own stories of sasquatches, yetis and Bigfoot- perhaps the Wild Man image represents a kind of folk memory of these mysterious and elusive beings. People still report new sightings of these apparently mythical creatures on a regular basis each year, so they may in the end still turn out to be something other than completely fictional.
In recent years the Green Man image has been adopted as a symbol of the Green Movement, a reminder that far from being separate from the natural world, humanity is in fact intrinsically part of nature. If the symbol can help to remind us to live in a more ecologically friendly way, it would seem to be increasingly relevant to our lives today.
Even though the symbol has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the last few decades, the Green Man never really went anywhere. City dwellers, who spend almost none of their time surrounded by woodland still see one modern survival of this ancient symbol every day- telling them when it’s safe to cross the road.
There is no doubt that this symbol will continue to be reinvented into the future. When we start to explore outer space, we already half expect to find little green men waiting for us- but the chances are that it will be humans who will end up taking the Green Man into space with us- to remind us of home and of the play of sunlight through spring leaves.