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Harry Wells Harry Wells
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Lament for Green Man

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A personal view.

Half hidden on the walls of many old churches in Britain, peeking from niches, corbels and roof bosses can be found strange faces carved in stone or wood surrounded by or spouting foliage from ears, mouth and nose. These are the faces of the so-called Green Man. There are no references in mediaeval literature to Green Man. We don't know for certain why these images were carved. The original meaning of the Green Man was lost at the end of the Middle Ages.

The Knights Templar Chapel at Rosslyn in Scotland has more than a hundred Green Man carvings and representations. The Knights Templar were a paradox in themselves – fighting monks. They seemed to have had a particular interest in Green Man.  Lincolnshire churches are particularly rich in Green Man images too.

I have tried looking from the edge of a wood to see what feelings might be stimulated but of course it's futile. Looking at history with modern eyes is useless. If we aren't careful we think that the people in the past were just like us but wore funny clothes. But we do know that the Middle Ages were a time of symbolism. If you walked past a hedge with white and red roses you were conditioned to think of the purity and blood of the Christian martyrs. As L P Hartley, the English novelist said:
‘The Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.

So, when we mention Green Man, what are we talking about? If we ask somebody what he thinks about the Green Man, he might say: Well, I've never been but they say it's a good pub. Not so daft as it sounds – there are probably as many pubs in Britain called The Green Man as there are called The Royal Oak.

We don't even know the original name of Green Man and few if any are green in colour. Lady Raglan in 1939 identified him as the Green Man of folklore in an article in the Folklore magazine of the period. From that point he became generally known as Green Man. Lady Raglan felt that these images were connected with folklore figures like Jack in the Green, Robin Hood and the King of the May. In America there are similar figures such as Johnny Appleseed and the Green Giant.

The foliate heads are male almost without exception. As such they are often seen as being in a protective role for the mother figure of nature. In pagan times creation was seen as a female function in a priestess religion but the Christian Church sees creation by a male god without a consort.

It's interesting here to note the current respectability of the colour green. There was a time, I can remember it, when green was considered an unlucky colour. In pagan times green had been the colour of rampant nature – the cycle of birth, fertility and death and the cycle repeats endlessly. There are pictures in Celtic art of snakes swallowing themselves from the tail – another example of perpetual regeneration.
The unlucky aspect came about because of the early Christian Church's tendency to demonise what it saw as a threat or didn't understand. They didn't like the idea of the fecund female principle that they associated with licentiousness. Women were seen as the temptresses whose uncontrollable lusts would bring about the downfall of the man.

There are hundreds of Green Man images in churches in almost, if not all, British counties. Except for modern reproductions, all the images are in ecclesiastical settings. There are no ancient secular representations. Although you often have to look hard to find them, it seems to me impossible that the church authorities could have been unaware of these figures being included in the churches. Remember that every aspect of the building process was minutely scrutinised by the church in an age of symbolism.

There are some interesting examples of this obvious tolerance of Green Man. Exeter Cathedral has a picture of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus actually standing on a Green Man head. If we go back even further than the Middle Ages there are many ways in different cultures of representing this eternal cycle mentioned earlier.   Well, where does all this fanciful stuff take us? It's up to you. You can think what you like about it. There really is no person knowledgeable enough to gainsay you.

For what it's worth, here's my version. Most of what you see superficially in the British countryside is man-made. A staggering thought! Mostly, what we think of as countryside is created parkland. Nature is not tidy. It's chaotic. It's not like that now. But once it was. From being a child, whenever I go into 'the country' I feel profound depression from the knowledge that I am not part of it anymore. I am not alone in this and it shows itself in different ways.

Look at our houses. We are obsessed with bringing the outside into the inside. Have you ever considered how many floral and foliage themes we have in our houses? The wallpaper, furnishing fabrics, pictures, potted palms, aspidistras and so on.  I bet most women today have a flower or leaf representation somewhere on their clothing.

Once we lived in harmony with Green Man and he would still like us to do so.  He's looking through the leaves and thinking, 'I can see you, spoiling the earth but in time, and I've got plenty. I'll be back. Be assured he doesn't wish us any harm.

I don’t know who wrote the following; I hope they will forgive me for using it:

‘Our remote ancestors said to their mother Earth, "We are yours."
Modern humanity has said to Nature, "You are mine."
The Green Man has returned as the living face of the whole earth so that through his mouth we may say to the universe, we are one.’

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