Ever heard of The Green Man? No, I don’t mean the pub. No, not that little guy from the spaceship either, but if you should see him, tell him I said hi. The Green man I am talking about is a nature spirit and there was once a widespread belief in The Green Man all across Europe. He is known by other names though, so perhaps you might be more familiar with one of these: The Wildman, Jack-in-the-Green, Green Jack, Green George. No? Still never heard of the green guy? Well the chances are that, even if you have not heard the name, you will have a Green Man, especially if you live in, or have visited, Europe.
Old European churches often have wonderful and ornate carvings cut into the woodwork inside them. If you have never noticed this, just take a look at the pews inside one of the older places of Christian worship. Quite often among the carving you can find a Green Man, in the form of a foliate head, staring from the woodwork at you and covered with generous coat of dark varnish. Foliate heads are quite common place and, in these modern times, you can even buy them as a garden ornament. Like the one below, and the one at the bottom of the page, both of which are from my own garden. So, yeah, I like Green Men too.
Another place where you might have encountered a Green Man might be at a museum. Green Men can sometimes be find hiding among the threads of medieval tapestries. Not in the form of a foliate head, this time, but, instead, as a leafy Wildman. Wood and thread, however, are not the only materials that have been used to reproduce likenesses of Green Men. They can sometimes be found staring down from stained-glass windows (an example of this can be seen at the William Tell Chapel, Vierwaldsee, Switzerland). Often too they are captured in stone and there is foliate head carved into the stone of the North Chapel of Le Mans, France. Green men are everywhere; you just have to know where to look.
The Green Man has also been recreated in the more modern medium of film. Perhaps you have seen the film Gawain and the Green Knight, which is based on the 14th Century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story of Sir Gawain is entangled with Arthurian legend and I will not go into lengthy details here, but briefly: King Arthur and his court were gathered together for dinner. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning and a Crash of thunder. The Green Knight then appeared and offered the challenge of a Christmas game. This giant, green figure of a man struck fear into even the Knights of the Roundtable and only Gawain had the courage to accept the challenge. The game was simple enough: the Knight offered to exchange blows with the challenger, and the challenger was even allowed to offer the first blow. Gawain borrowed the Green Knights very own axe and used it cut off the giant”s head. It should have been game over, but the Green Knight leaned over and, picking up his head from the floor, held it up, even as it spoke, and told Gawain that he must meet him at The Green Chapel, in a year”s time, and accept the Green Knight”s return blow there. You can read the full story (poem) by clicking HERE
Even modern-day authors have been inspired by the stories of Green Men and, as an example, he rears his leafy locks in Graham Masterton”s novel Flesh and Blood.
So who or what exactly is this Green Man? In myth he represents the spirit of spring and early summer, but like a lot of the ancient world gods, he is present throughout the year. In spring he is full of youth like the New Year’s fresh growth that arrives with him. As the year progresses he matures along with it and the green of spring and summer turns to the reds and browns of autumn. When winter comes and the trees have lost all their leaves, and are just a bare skeleton of what they were, like the trees the Green Man’s spirit remains, but his vitality is gone. Until, that is the next year, and every subsequent year.
Traditionally the Green Man was represented at the May Day festivals as The King of the May. Early in the year he is full of life and fertility and one of the prettiest maidens from each village was chosen to be his escort for the festivities.
Later in the year, he was the Harvest King and his beard — full and golden — represented the full ears of the ripe corn.
In winter he was the King of the Winter Woods and the celebrations were fierce games and contests (a little like the one with Gawain): fighting, wrestling, riddles etc.There is one story — quite widespread — concerning the sacrifice of a God-King; sometimes known as King of the Wood or Rex Nemorensis. In the story a man was chosen to rule as king for a year. He was then killed as a form of sacrifice and his executioner took over and ruled in his place — but only for a year. Then the whole cycle, like the seasons, repeated. This story puts me a little in mind of the film The Wicker Man.
In the original film, Edward Woodward (the Nicholas Cage remake is not as good, by the way) arrives at the appointed place, at the appointed hour, and of his own free will and is made King, not for a year but, for a day. He is then placed in a wicker man and sacrificed as a means of ensuring a good crop for the islanders in the coming year. Strangely, in tradition, the Green man has also been represented by someone that was encased in an elevated wicker box, with nothing being visible of him but his eyes. I suppose, bearing all of this in mind, the film The Wicker Man must have been partly inspired by the legend of the Green Man.