The Face Of Nature - June 2008
You might see him peeking through the leaves of your neighbor’s garden; he is present in the odd corners of church architecture throughout Europe and especially in rural England; he lends his name to pubs and music festivals; his identity is deeply embedded in folklore and ballads; he is even prominently featured on this year’s California Revels lapel button. Who is he? This pervasive and enigmatic figure goes by the deceptively plain name: The Green Man.
Usually portrayed as a face surrounded by leaves or tendrils of various sorts, the Green Man is understood as a representation of the plant kingdom, and by extension and association, vegetative growth, rebirth and seasonal renewal. While the name was officially bestowed upon these manifestations by Lady Raglan in the English Folk Journal in 1939, depictions of this character date back to Roman and pre-Roman times. He appears in Wiccan lore and certainly would have a place in Druidic belief. Students of the subject cite arguably authentic representations in places as far-flung as Nepal and Indonesia.
European literature and folklore reflect his presence as embodied in such characters as Robin Hood, the Jack o’ The Green, Robin Goodfellow, and John Barleycorn. He even shares the title in the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
If it seems puzzling that this pagan figure has found an enduring place in Christian-influenced literature, and even guaranteed seating in Christian churches, there is a plausible explanation. During the eras when paganism is Europe was being supplanted by Christianity, it was not uncommon to fold a pre-existing pagan icon, deity, or creed into the Christian paradigm. This practice accounts for Christmas trees, Easter eggs, and even the assignment of dates to these holy days. Rather than alienate non-Christian believers, the evangelists frequently found it easier to subsume pagan beliefs into Church dogma. In a single, “aha!” moment, the Solstice could become Christ’s birthday, or Tonantzin, the Aztec earth mother, would emerge as the Guadalupana. And so the green Man was offered a place in the rather elastic and accommodating theology of the early Church.
During the Renaissance and later, in the 19th Century, depictions of the Green Man became popular in art and architecture, leading to the many foliate faces peering from cornices and beam ends in both civil and ecclesiastical architecture. Nowadays, the Green Man shows up in everything from Pub signs to doorknockers. I have one presiding over the growth of my San Marizano tomatoes.
The fascinating thing about The Green Man is that despite his acceptance and decorative popularity, this wild man of the woods refuses to be completely tamed. There is something inherently disturbing and slightly dangerous about him. Perhaps it is the disquieting transformation of flesh into vegetation – a chilling glimpse of the grave, or maybe it is the manic glee with which he looks you in the eye, as if to say, “I will persist long after your paltry race is run”. Certainly, a glimpse of this little green god reminds us of the importance of the natural world and of our participatory role in it.
While you watched the Christmas Revels last year, you were gazing into the face of the Green Man as he was depicted in the décor of the main dance floor. He is not a character in Revels. He does not speak or perform actions, and yet he is visible in the speech and actions of our mummers and minstrels, humble farmers and grand heroes. We celebrate him as the Jack o’ The Green on Mayday, and John Barleycorn at harvest time. At this time of year, as the Summer Solstice marks the greening of gardens and fields the Green Man joins us once again as a symbol of renewal and oneness with nature.
To delve more into “Green Manology”
And here’s a link to an annual Green Man Festival in Shropshire, England.
- David Parr, Artistic Director