The origins of the ‘Green Man’ which can be seen in medieval churches, Victorian graveyards and New Age shops, is one that has many contradictory versions depending on where you look.
To some, as mentioned in the previous post, he represents a nature spirit; to others, he is an echo or remnant of the head cult of the the ancient Celts. To others, still, he is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, whether that of Christ or of the world.
Supposedly one of the, if not the, oldest depictions of a Green Man in a Christian setting can be found in the Church of Ste Hilaire, in Poitiers, France – a basilica dating to the 10th century. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site and can be found of the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
Church of Ste Hilarie, Poitiers
Carved on a tomb which is suggested as dating to the early 5th century CE, the face of a green man looks at us clearly, after so many centuries. A Christian appropriation of an earlier symbol? Possible, as Christianity adopted the places and trappings of Pagan worship as it advanced across Europe.
5th century Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul, on the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople, show a face we could recognise as the Green Man, but to the creators of these beautiful images, they may have known him as: Achelous, the God of Water and Rivers in Greek and Estruscan culture; Bacchus, Roman God of wine, fertility and agriculture, whom the Romans borrowed from the Greek Dionysus and whom may have been a Hellenic version of Osiris…; a Wild Man, representing the Pagan and therefore uncivilised, barbaric heathens yet to be enlightened. No-one knows. But, given the reach of the Empire and the geographical location of Constantinople, it’s not a great leap of faith to see direct links and similarities with the mosaic face and the earlier Hindu carvings of the Indian sub-continent or Parthian Empire of the Middle East, which show similar designs.
Grand Palace Mosaic Museum, Instanbul (left). Hatra, Iraq, 2nd century, CE (right)
Whoever he is, his image has been carved thousands of times. Perhaps, he is nothing more than a style of decoration, an artistic motif. Just like, say, a stylised sun with a face, or a moon, a creative design that proved popular and so was replicated. Scotland, an ancient European nation with cultural links to the continent and further afield, would see churches and monasteries built through the centuries, often by craftsmen from the continent. They brought with them their skills and their craft, but also their ideas and cultural influences.
In Culross, Fife, we can see more Green Men. At the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey, built in the 13th century on the site of an older monastic site, a carved frieze survives. Two green men, at either end of a vine? branch, can clearly be seen. Like so many similar designs, they have foliage sprouting (or vomiting?!) from their mouths.
Interestingly, the older religious community at Culross was said to have been founded by Saint Serf, adoptive father of Mungo – later canonised as Saint Kentigern – who would go on to baptise Merlin! (More on this later!) Early Christian stones found here date back to the 700s or 800s, showing that the site was religiously important for many centuries before the Abbey was built. The Protestant Reformation of 1560, the religious revolution that converted Scotland from Catholicism to Presbyterianism, saw the Abbey closed and allowed to fall into ruin.
Similarly, Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire, fell into ruin after the Reformation. Here, another Green Man can be seen, although somewhat eroded. Melrose was also a Cistercian Abbey – the first in Scotland – and founded by King David I in 1136. One of the finest examples of medieval religious architecture on the island of Britain, it is well worth visiting. In addition to the Green Man, the heart of Robert I The Bruce lies here and there are many other beautiful carvings to see.
Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire
The Green Man here tends to be overlooked by visitors who are searching for a better-known carving on the facade of the church: the bagpipe-playing pig. This is understandable, as this happy looking porcine musician is a fun reminder that church-builders had a sense of humour!
The High Kirk of Edinburgh, St Giles’ Cathedral, claims to have 66 Green Men, although I confess to having missed virtually all of these the last time I visited. Once the Covid-19 lockdown ends – hopefully – I’d like to go back and try to discover them all.
(l-r) St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh; Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian; Roslin Glen, Midlothian.
The Holy Grail (!) for Green Men spotters, though, must be the magnificent Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian. Famous worldwide as a result of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, much has been written about the mysteries of this spectacular building – with its elaborate carved interior. One hundred or so Green Men can be found inside, with the most famous looking more than an little mischievous (above). Less well known is the more naturalistic Green Man, carved into living rock in the valley below the Chapel, Roslin Glen. The legends concerning the glen would fill a book, with everything from sightings of Robin Hood – yes, him again! – to hidden temples, spectral hounds and UFOs! You get your money’s worth here, if you like that sort of thing! I’ll feature Roslin again, sometime soon.
The Green Man is a symbol which can be interpreted in different ways, to suits people’s own beliefs. It seems likely that a figure which is part-human, part-vegetation in its most basic form illustrates humanity’s dependence or interdependence with the natural world, divine or otherwise. The Green Man’s origins may be lost in time, but in the second half of the last century and now into our own, the appeal of a spirit of nature and of man’s vital reliance on the environment, is a compelling one. As we endure years that are routinely hotter than every previous one, as climate chaos moves us ever closer to near-future scenarios that we pretend are unthinkable, the totem of an Earth deity is one we may cling to more fervently than before. With extinction rates increasing and global warming already near the point of no-return, perhaps, we all need to be the Green Man.