The Green Man

The Green Man is an image so potent and mysterious that some individuals, having set eyes upon one for the first time, become addicted to the pursuit of fresh sightings as the spotters of birds and trains. Green Man spotting is relatively easy, unlike birds and trains they conveniently stay put.


The Phrase ‘Green Man’ is relatively new and purely English in origin. It dates from 1939 when introduced by Lady Raglan in an article published in the journal ‘Folklore.’ Before this there was virtually no interest in the mysterious figure. Lady Raglan’s opinion was that the motif represented an archetypal ‘green’ folklore figure that she identified with Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood and The May King a,omg others. The name caught on because it was straightforward, evocative and that growing interest in the image required that it had a name. Now the term is used by everyone, including those who are sceptical about Raglan’s conclusions. Since Raglan there has been a steady growth in the subject. Kathleen Basford’s seminal study published in 1978 has been followed by a number of books during the last 30 years. The most recent in-depth study has been by Mercia MacDermott in her book ‘Exploring Green Men’ (2005).


Strangely there are no clues to who the Green Man is in any contemporary historical documents. In France they are described as masques de feuilles (leaf-masks) or masques feuillus (foliate masks). These terms originated from a rare written reference in an illustrated architectural notebook compiled by a C13th master mason called Villard de Honnecourt. His book contains four examples of foliate heads, two in which the leaves sprout like hair and beard from a human head, and two in which the leaves have each acquired human features. De Honnecourt referred to both of these as tetes de feuilles (leaf-heads).


But just who was the Green Man? It would be nice to write about the Green Man from a purely English perspective but this eliminates its origins. The idea is that the sprouting greenery, which is an integral feature of the motif, is representative of the growth of nature associated with springtime. This included all living vegetation from corn sowed in early spring that would rise from the earth and thrive until harvest time to trees that lost their leaves in autumn and that became green again in spring. Some trees also appeared to possess the secret of eternal life by remaining green in winter when most other vegetation died. Greenery was an important element of traditional celebrations and even today is still used for Christmas decorations and other festivals. Alternatively, Greenery also expresses death and the idea of remembrance and renewal. The Green Men which disgorge leaves may therefore symbolise the passage of the immortal soul from the body to eternal life.


Green Men are often thought of as being associated with trees although they are often surrounded by the leaves of plants. However, among the trees the most common is oak, followed by hawthorn, which is a tree of hedgerows rather than dense forests. Oak trees would also have been familiar near to houses so the Green Man not only appears to have been associated with deep woods bust also village and town life. Although associated with hawthorn, a closer examination of some of the carvings reveals that some Green Men were an emblem of autumn rather than spring. The hawthorn leaves are never depicted with flowers but often with berries. At Sutton Benger (Wilts) the Green Man is depicted with both berries and birds that appear to be feeding off them as they would in autumn.


The Green Man has been associated with many ancient deities, including Okeanos, Dionysus/Bacchus, Pan, Cernunnus and Silvanus. Using a process of elimination it is possible to dispel these associations. Okeanos is usually portrayed with a beard formed of seaweed with his horns of power taking the form of crabs’ claws. Sea creatures may be entwined in his hair and beard, and sometimes his face also bears traces of seaweed. However, from his iconography, Okeanos was obviously a marine deity and never associated with forests.


Dionysus/Bacchus is the classical god of wine and is traditionally crowned with ivy and vine leaves. This may have inspired some Gothic and Renaissance foliate heads, but there is no trace of him during the earlier Romanesque period.


A carving of Silvanus from the early C13th on a fountain base in the cloisters of the Abbey of Saint-Denis in France has his name carved above the image. This head, which has oak leaves sprouting from its brow, is one of several representing Roman deities carved between the spouts of the basin of the fountain. Silvanus was a forest god and one of the many Roman gods associated with agriculture, livestock and fertility.  He also watched over aboriculture and the work of wood clearing to make fields and pasture. However, Silvanus never appeared in Roman iconography with a foliate face, although he might carry a tree and a pruning hook. It is therefore possible that the face on the fountain represents a unique identification on the part of the carver or commissioner, who, unsure of Silvanus’ appearance but acquainted with foliate heads, simply decided to portray him in this manner. 


Like deities, the Green Man has also been associated with semi-historical and legendary figures including King Arthur, the Green Knight, Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter and al-Khadir. If the Green Man can be identified with a number of different figures, then it must follow that all these images are fundamentally the same and can also be identified with each other, although this is not the case. It would be difficult to say what Okeanus, Robin Hood and King Arthur had in common.


The Arthurian story of Sir Gawain’s strange encounter with a mysterious Green Knight has attracted considerable attention from Green Man enthusiasts. At first sight this magical knight may seem a promising match although the tale itself has nothing to do with greenness but with the code of chivalry and the shame that results from its infringement. The Green Knight may be green all over, but apart from the holly branch which he carries when he enters Arthur’s hall at the beginning of the story there is virtually no foliage about him. Also, holly is virtually unknown among the identifiable leaves of Green Man carvings. [Note. The story appears to have been written in the C14th and is a re-telling of the Irish legend of Cuchulain].


al-Khadir, the legendary Islamic mortal especially revered by Sufis (Islamic mystics), is supposedly another alias for the Green Man. The name means literally ‘green one’ because he is supposed to have turned green after he had drunk of, or dived into, the Spring of Life. He appears as a supernatural being to chosen mortals, who recognise him by his shimmering robes of brilliant green. However, like the Green Knight, he also lacks foliage which is an essential feature of the Green Man.


The Green Man is also supposed to have connections to folklore characters including Jack-in-the-Green, the May King and Queen, the Wodewose, Robin Goodfellow, Morris Dancers and other garland ceremonies.


Jack-in-the-Green is a man in a basketwork frame covered with greenery and flowers who dances at May Day festivals. Lady Raglan was the first to connect the two in her article in 1939. Unfortunately this seemingly plausible theory was disproved by one of the next generation of folklorists, Roy Judge, whose research was first published in 1975 as ‘The Jack in the Green: A May Day Custom.’ He showed that the custom, which is peculiar to chimney sweeps, went no further back than the late C18th.


The earliest reference to the inclusion in the sweeps’ procession of a Jack-in-the-Green dates from 1795 and describes a leafy, bush-shaped structure which covered the entire bearer, apart from his feet and lower legs. The prime purpose of the sweeps’ procession through the streets was to collect money to see them through the summer when there was less work. Since they would often squander all the money on drink they soon became regarded as a nuisance. However, Green Men were carved long before there were chimney sweeps or even chimneys.


May Kings and Queens have a much longer and more respectable pedigree than Jack-in-the-Green and these also were identified by Lady Raglan. However, assuming that the Green Man is a symbol for fertility, growth or renewal, in May cereal crops are already growing and require little thought or attention. Recorded customs aimed at ensuring a good harvest tend to coincide with an earlier phase of the agricultural year, such as Plough Monday (early Jan) when a plough would be blessed by the local clergyman, then decorated and paraded through the village. Money would be collected to keep Plough Lights (candles) burning in the church during the vital work of preparing the seeds for sowing. If any connection existed between the May King and Green Man carvings in churches it would be expected that during the ceremony those involved would have paid some form attention to them. However there is no evidence that this occurred, and many churches would have been closed during the May Day games, for much the same reason as the statue of Eros is boarded up as a precautionary measure at times of modern national rejoicing.


Another alias of the Green Man is that of the Woodwose, the Wildman of the woods, a shaggy creature brandishing a club, who in churches and cathedrals, is generally found on misericords. Men dressed as wildmen often acted as ‘Whifflers’, people who marched at the head of civic or other processions to clear a way through the crowds. The leaf-clad ones were often referred to as ‘Green Men.’ This has led to the suggestion that the pageant ‘Green Man’ was a representation of the Green Man of church architecture, and that Lady Raglan had unwittingly hit upon the correct name. However, not all Whifflers were dressed in the same manner. In Norwich, whose cathedral contains misericords depicting a Woodwose along with others containing Green Men, the local Whifflers were quite different in appearance.


Definite conclusions about the origin of the Green Man are hard to reach because of the many different forms of the motif spread over such a wide geographical area and time span. It is impossible to assimilate a variety of images into a single entity and therefore better to explore Green Men rather than The Green Man. If Green Men do represent pagan deities it is unusual why there was no apparent objection by the Church or individual Christians to their presence in church buildings.


It appears highly likely that Green Men are not descended from ancient deities, legendary historical figures or characters from folklore. In all probability Green Men appear to be descended from cats. Green Men first appeared in Britain during the Romanesque period. The majority of carvings from this time are not human in appearance but feline creatures that disgorge long tangled stems often decorated with bead-like dots. These may also be accompanied by stylised flowers and motifs resembling fir cones, sometimes taken to be roughly carved bunches of grapes, although many of them point upwards or in other directions uncharacteristic of grapes. They also appear with leaves and flowers that do not belong to vines or fir trees.


Despite being distinctly feline in appearance, in comparison to Green Men of the later Gothic period Romanesque heads show greater uniformity of design. They also have a more limited habitat and are most frequently found upon carved capitals or columns near doorways.


These faces were first recorded in India, or more specifically, Indian art, by the second century AD. The creature, known as the Kirttimukha and consisting only of a face, was created by the Indian god Shiva. The Kirttimukha has large bulging eyes and a wide mouth, often lacking a lower jaw from which emerges what appears to be foliage, smoke, or more commonly ribbons strung with beads. The motif often appears in art behind the mandorla or aureole of various gods, or as a protective symbol above doorways. None of the legends of the Kirttimukha explains why it should disgorge greenery or beads. This element of the image came from another mythical creature, the Makara, which became associated with the Kirttimukha during the Gupta period (C4th-C6th). While the Kirttimukha first occurs in Indian art in the second century AD, the Makara was already in existence five centuries earlier.


The Makara is found in both Hindu and Buddhist iconography. The Makara was believed to disgorge wonderful things, among them the Cosmic Tree, or Wish-fulfilling Tree, usually depicted as a vine or tendril derived from the sacred lotus plant and combined with strings of pearls. The mysterious cone-like motifs found alongside the earliest heads in British churches during the Romanesque period are therefore identifiable as a lotus bud.


There has been some attempt to link the disgorging Romanesque cat-faces with the Knights Templars, who were accused, among other blasphemies, of worshiping a demon called Baphomet who took the form of a head, a skull or a cat. Such a link could only exist if the accusations were true. Then it would be expected to find cat-faces in all Templar churches and nowhere else. But not all Templar churches have cat- faces and many non-Templar churches do. Moreover, the Knights Templar organisation was founded in 1119 which is later than the earliest examples of cat-faced Green Men. At Kilpeck (Herts) the disgorging Green Man on one side of the doorway is revealed to be a Kirttimukha, complete with pearly stems and a lotus bud. The two-legged, long-tailed beast on the other side of the doorway then becomes a Makara.


Distant as India appears to be from Western Europe, trade and other contacts had united the two areas from classical times. Indian embassies visited Rome during the early centuries AD.  The same time Christian missionaries visited India and other ways the image spread to Europe and finally to this country would have been when seen by those on crusades or pilgrimages to the Holy Land. All the elements associated with the earliest Romanesque foliate heads contain attributes of the Kirttimukha or the Makara. The two motifs fell into disuse by the C13th. The Makara was forgotten entirely but the Kirttimukha was imaginatively modernized by Gothic sculptors who perceived the disgorging foliage as its main attribute, and substituted leaves of their own choice for the long-stemmed lotus plants, which they neither recognised nor understood.


The Green Men found in Gothic churches are different in style from those of the preceding Romanesque and later Renaissance periods. Some cathedrals built in the Gothic style during the C13th contain several types of Green Men, including both heads sprouting or spewing vegetation adapted from the earlier cat-like faces, and the newly introduced leaf masks. From this point their features become more humanistic. Both styles increased at an astonishing rate and range of imaginative variations during the C14th and C15th. Capitals, corbels, roof bosses, doorways, porches and fonts are among a few of the more promising locations. At Rosslyn Chapel (Midlothian) there are said to be a total of 103 Green Men.


The least variable of all Green Men is the leaf mask because its design naturally imposes certain limitations. The leaves used to create such faces are usually non-botanical or stylised acanthus with eyes, nose and mouth taking the simplest of human form. A few foliate designs are composed entirely of leaves arranged in such a way that they suggest a face without actually having any human features. Unlike other leaf masks which have the features added these rely on such devices as curls and hollow spaces between the leaves to suggest the effect of a face.


In comparison with leaf masks, ‘spewers’ or ‘sprouters’ are far more varied. In the most common form the vegetation proceeds from the mouth in twin shoots which curl upwards, outwards or downwards. In many cases the leaves may emerge, instead of or in addition to the mouth, from the corners of the eyes or eyebrows, the nostrils, upper lips (like moustaches), the cheeks, temples, forehead, or ears. Some are cross-eyed, and others have irregular or unpleasant prominent teeth, while some stick out their tongues, and rarer still display double tongues. These may represent a reminder of the need to govern the tongue, while the double tongue was the sign of a sinner and malefactor. Preachers were often fond of quoting from the bible which refers to the tongue as ‘an unruly member’ and something that when stuck out caused trouble. Some Green Men have triple faces, one full and two that are in profile which disgorge foliage. Some do not have flesh at all, but are merely skulls, such as the one at the chapel at Haddon Hall (Derbys). Perhaps most disturbing of all Green Man images are those where the leaves sprout from the eye sockets suggesting bodily decay rather than renewed life, the tendrils acting like worms and pushing out the eyes of the corpse.


Most Green Men are simply severed heads but a few have limbs or bodies. Sometimes the role of man and leaf are reversed so that the heads grow out of the foliage instead of emitting it. These are often known as ‘peerers’, an example of which can be seen on the tomb of St Frideswide in Oxford Cathedral. Oxford has many Green Many upon the college chapels (e.g. New College), cloisters and passages (e.g. Magdalen), and entrances and exteriors (e.g. Pembroke, Magdalen and Merton). Southwell Minster (Notts) contains many Green Men in the C13th octagonal chapter house, both disgorging heads and those peering through greenery.


To a certain degree architectural styles dictated the location of Green Men. The innovations during the Renaissance period meant that roof bosses became unnecessary and the capitals of pillars began being carved in imitation of Greek and Roman models. Green Men therefore became incorporated into chancel screens, choir stalls, misericords and other church furnishings.


The Green Men of the Renaissance period also changed in style and became less oppressive and stifled by their foliage. This now frequently took the form of decorative swags or drapery, all of which the heads seem to be simply holding rather than disgorging. Another type of motif popular during this period included half figures rising out of plants.


Although the use of Green Men decreased as architectural elements during and following the Renaissance they gained popularity as motifs on tombs and memorial tablets during the C16th and C17th. Several can be seen on the lavishly carved tomb of Anthony Harvey (d.1564) in the north choir aisle of Exeter Cathedral. Harvey’s memorial is largely medieval in design, although a change to the new style is obvious in the slightly later tomb of Sir Willia [sic] Gerrarde in Chester Cathedral (d.1581). The tablet above the tomb resembles a classical portal with an arch between two pillars with Ionic capitals on which are four foliate heads centrally placed one above the other on the arch, architrave and frieze. Edward Cole’s tomb (d.1617) in Winchester Cathedral rests on three corbels, on each of which there is a carved head with leafy neck and hair. There are three gilded leaf masks on the base of each of the pillars flanking the arch, and on the frieze between them, two more heads hold festoons of ribbons in their mouths. The tomb of John Banks (d.1644) in Oxford Cathedral has on either side of the memorial inscription a leaf mask with the corners of the mouths turned down in the style of a tragic theatrical mask. The tomb of Richard Harford (d.1578) and his wife at Bosbury (Herts) is adorned with two large human heads with wide mouths and rows of fearsome teeth disgorging sprigs of pomegranates split to show their seeds. This fruit found its way into Tudor art during the reign of Henry VIII since it was the emblem of Catherine of Aragon.


All the above are internal monuments but in many parts of Scotland tombstones with Green Men can be found in churchyards and cemeteries including Greyfriars (Edinburgh) and Tranent (East Lothian). Burials within churches were forbidden in Scotland in 1560, and following the Reformation all new churches were of the simplest design, without ‘Popish’ carvings. Therefore masons exercised their skill on tombstones and many were elaborately carved with various edifying and Christian symbols. Green Men started to appear on Scottish tombstones in the C17th and achieved their greatest popularity during the C18th, at the end of which they apparently became less fashionable. Scottish Green Men are extremely varied in design, and some were clearly inspired by carvings in ancient churches. These included some cat-faced examples of the Romanesque architecture that had been abandoned during the Gothic period. Later in the C18th Green Skulls became common on Scottish gravestones where they were intended to remind mourners that all flesh is grass and that we whither like flowers of the field.


The religious upheavals of the C17th witnessed the migration of Green Men from churches to secular buildings. Deprived of their traditional homes on roof bosses, capitals, misericords and choir stalls by changes in architectural fashion and Protestant insistence on unadorned simplicity, Green Men now reappeared in all manner of secular settings from lintels to doorknockers. The Renaissance Green Man does not shock and usually appears serene and untroubled. They survived and flourished mainly because of their classical connections and decorative potential, aided and abetted by fashion.


Aberdeen’s Mercat Cross is another striking example of how Scottish masons found a secular venue for their skills no longer required in churches. Built in 1686 with funds provided by the local guilds, the cross is a small open-sided structure designed to provide shelter for merchants and market goers. The richly carved stonework includes an astonishingly high concentration of Green Men of various kinds that no single photograph can give an adequate impression of the whole.


Early examples of Green Men in domestic settings can be seen at Powis Castle (Powys, Wales) in the long gallery built in 1593. Here Green Men, both full-face and in profile are modelled in plaster forming part of the decoration. At Little Moreton Hall (Cheshire) on either side of the inner door to the late C16th gatehouse there are vertical friezes of weathered wood carved with various motifs, including Green Men in profile. An unusual Green Man with a long thin beard also decorates the gatehouse at Stokesay Castle (Shrops). Another can be found on a wall in the inner courtyard at Bickling Hall (Norfolk) while one sits at the top of a lead drainpipe at Wilton House (Wilts). Even the door-knocker at the front entrance of Blenheim Palace boasts a Green Man.


An unusually high concentration of Green Men can be found at Knole (Kent), reputed to be a calendar house with seven courtyards, twelve entrances, fifty-two staircases and 365 rooms. There are at least fifty, found on panelling, plasterwork, grisaille painting on the grand staircase, a marble and alabaster chimneypiece, and pilasters in window recesses through to ornamentation on picture frames. Elaborate English fireplaces and overmantles of the 1590s with numerous foliate heads, both human and animal can still be seen in situ in the drawing room at Canons Ashby (Northhamps). Several leaf masks gaze down from the strapwork ceiling of Aston Hall (Birmingham), while in the long gallery one appears on the lower border of a tapestry woven in the Paris workshop of Francois de la Planche and Marc du Coman in the early C17th. Green Men also appear on other English tapestries woven at Mortlake during the C17th, an example of which can be seen at Boughton House (Northamps).


The Green Man became extremely fashionable in Jacobean England and began being included on many items of domestic furniture, particularly chairs. At Temple Newsam (Yorks) a pair of Japanese lacquer cabinets (c.1690) which stand on English frames (c.1730) with cabriole legs, claw and ball feet, have leaf masks at each corner. Green Men also began being added as decorative motifs to personal items. An extremely ornate ivory helmet, associated with George II (1722-60), in the Goya Museum (Castres, France), has in addition to the coat of arms and a winged dragon crest, two leaf masks in profile on either side. During the War of the Austrian Succession, George II led his troops into battle, the last British monarch to do so.


At the end of the C17th the Green Man appeared in the form of gilded leaf masks on the ornamental iron screen that separated the Privy Garden at Hampton Court from the river, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. The screen was the work of French blacksmith Jean Tijou, who also made the choir screens decorated with foliage and leaf masks for Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral. London society followed the royal example by commissioning foliate heads for the facades of their new town houses, such as those in Queen Anne’s Gate, built at the beginning of the C18th. Well heads also became items that were often decorated with Green Men, including those in the gardens at Kingston Lacy (Dorset), Stansted Park (Hamps) and Sandringham (Norfolk). Garden decoration later extended to include wall fountains and garden urns, and the gates of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew also contain Green Men.


During the C19th the Victorians energetically restored Green Men in existing churches, as well as fashioning new ones, and continued to include them on public buildings and business premises. The architects who copied the pointed arches, towers and spires of medieval churches also copied many of the minor decorative features including many of the different styles of Green Men. Several appear on the Houses of Parliament, designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, around the entrance under the Victoria Tower. At Lancing College (West Sussex) the chapel, designed by RC Carpenter, an enormous number of Green Men can be found on the richly carved choir stalls. A number of Green Men can be found on secular buildings in the centre of Birmingham. These have been listed, with illustrations and a map, in a convenient booklet by Anthony Hayward [‘The Green Men of Birmingham’, 2002].


However, Victorian Green Men reveal nothing about the meaning and origin of the image. They were not discussed by any of the artists or architects of the Gothic Revival during the Victorian period. None of them, including Ruskin who was extremely interested in nature and folklore, attempted to link foliate heads with folk customs, either genuine or imagined. They were regarded as a traditional decorative motif, which was to be enjoyed and exploited, but which did not require analysis.


The Green Man of the medieval Church did not originate from a single source. He was and is a mutation of Indian, Classical and Romanesque motifs that were adopted into Christian art by people who had little or no understanding of their original significance and who seized upon them as an attractive alternative to straightforward other less decorative forms of ornamentation. Their spread throughout Europe was due to trade links, crusades and pilgrimages before finally being brought into this country with the arrival of Norman masons.


The locations in which Green Men appear indicate that they entered the Christian world with the blessing of the Church. They do not only lurk in dark places under misericords or on barely-visible roof bosses, but are prominently placed for all to see. Given the innumerable examples of Green Men and their wide distribution, every Christian in Western Europe must have been familiar with the motif. Yet they raised no eyebrows nor excited any criticism in the many medieval writings that touched upon the subject of imagery in churches. A Green Man breathing out foliage and a cornucopia filled with leaves and fruit, appeared on the decorative border of the title page of Martin Luther’s appeal to a General Council (Wittenburg, 1520). The Puritans who took hammers to carvings of the Virgin and the Saints saw no great harm in Green Men and left them alone. Even St Bernard, who listed many strange creatures to which he took exception, failed to mention anything that could be identified as a Green Man.


The frequent occurrence of Green Men over, or flanking, domestic doorways and windows suggests that some may have regarded them as protective as well as decorative. Whatever messages they may have carried they were clearly non-controversial, arousing no passion and offending no one.


This explanation of the Green Man shows a picture that differs radically from the popular myths concerning his origins. There are no grounds for supposing that the Green Man was once a popular pagan deity or that he represents an underlying idea behind a multitude of folk customs and beliefs. If he was connected with certain folk customs, these would have included some form of recognition to the carved image in the local church, such as the bringing of a wreath, the lighting of a candle, or a passing bow or muttered formula. There would be mention of the practice somewhere in surviving letters, reports, parish records or even court proceedings against blasphemers, idolaters and witches.


Since being rescued from oblivion by Lady Raglan the Green Man has flourished in British culture. The hippie movement of the late sixties and the revival of pagan movements through to the present day have both venerated interest. Many have adopted The Green Man as their emblem, even though the conclusions have shown that he is representative of neither. He is depicted in art, literature and music, and Wales has hosted the annual Green Man music festival since 2002. He has public houses named after him and acts as a guide for safely crossing busy roads. With the increasing ecological culture of ‘going green’ the figure may become even more popular.


Green Men are too diverse to represent a single idea. They will always remain an enigma and like the words of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, they now represent whatever we have chosen them to.