From my regular series for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The Green Man was broadcast on Saturday 8th October 2022. You can hear the audio here.
The Green Man is a symbol that has cropped up in buildings for centuries but nobody really knows what he means.
Commonly used in architectural decoration, the face of a man emerges, surrounded by leaves, sometimes spewing vegetation from his mouth. This foliate head is found throughout Britain and Northern Europe, often in medieval churches, carved into the wood of choir stalls or on the painted roof bosses high above the congregation. Human figures clad in leaves appeared in decorative objects in the Roman Empire, and even decorated temples across the Middle East. It’s possible that this imagery might have been taken back to Europe by crusaders. But what does he symbolise exactly?
The link to nature is evident. Which makes some see him as a symbol of fertility, like Dionysus in Ancient Greece, and Bacchus in Ancient Rome, and linked to Demeter and Ceres, the goddesses aligned with harvest. But the Green Man carvings often have an unsettling expression, sometimes ghoulish, like a naughty wood spirit in the tradition of Pan. So why would an apparently pagan symbol appear in so many churches? Perhaps he’s linked to the Green Knight of the famous Arthurian tale, written in the late 1400s, in which a mysterious man of the woods sets a challenge that leads Sir Gawain to become a better man.
In 1939 Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan, wrote an essay, The Green Man in Church Architecture, for Folklore magazine. It came at a time when the world was about to enter an almighty conflict. How calming, therefore, to reflect on a bucolic past, so removed from the brutal world of planes and tanks. Her term Green Man was embraced, especially by Niklaus Pevsner in his 46-volume Buildings of England series, published through the 1950s to 1970s. This brought into focus the wealth of Green Man carvings, such as how over a hundred of them are carved into the seats and stone of the Lady Chapel at Roslyn Chapel outside Edinburgh (the one that figured in Dan Brown’s conspiratorial novel).
They were also popular with Arts and Crafts designers in the nineteenth century who fell upon this striking symbol of the middle ages and carved his face into drawers or cupboard doors, bringing a touch of the chapel into the home. As with Lady Raglan’s essay, this harking back to a bygone age was deliberate, downplaying the increasing industrialisation of everything, including furniture making. And while having a leafy face peer at you from your furniture might seem a mite spooky, it’s no more so than having a portrait painting on your wall.
The popularity of the Green Man has persisted, and not just as the name of numerous pubs across Britain. The emerging New Age movement of the 1960s and the queer Radical Faeries in the late 1970s celebrated the link to nature and the Green Man’s illusive identity. While we accept the imaginary nature of mermaids and centaurs, the Green Man seems apart from them, a mystery that is at once confronting and comforting, like the craggy Ents that guard the forest in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. The nearest we’ve come to replicating the oddness of the Green Man appearing in strange places is the street art by artists who leave video game symbols on street buildings to be discovered by happenstance. Whatever the Green Man actually means, as we become more ecologically aware, perhaps we’ll see more Green Man carvings emerge again in our furniture and our buildings, emblems of the hope we hold for the future of the planet.