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resized green man custard factory

The Green Man at the Custard Factory, Birmingham (sculptor Tawny Gray) - Photograph by 'Valiantis' 2006

The Green Man seems to have always been with us! Most often depicted in the form of a full-faced head with leaves and tendrils growing from his features and hair. Sometimes he has antlers, on other occasions, foliage spews from his mouth. One of the earliest known examples of this type of foliate face is carved on a tomb in France circa 400 AD. However, foliate heads appear in art stemming from the mythology of antiquity - the Roman god of the woodlands (Silvanus) and the Greek god of wine making (Dionysus), similarly, the ancient Celtic horned god of the hunt (Cernunnos) - depicted not only with stag antlers but leafed hair. The most famous example of the latter appearing on the Gundestrup Cauldron, Denmark circa 100 BC.   In Medieval and later periods, thousands of Green Men were carved and painted in most churches and other buildings of importance, for example, 70 depictions alone in Chatres Cathedral, France, and can be found in nearly all old English High Streets, especially cathedral towns.  Representations of the Green Man were used in borders and decorations of bibles and other Christian religious works and he is even carved, under the instruction of Michelangelo, on the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome! 

There is a myth their inclusion in places of Christian worship was to symbolise the devil, designed to frighten people away from wrong doing. However, this cannot be correct as; unlike Gargoyles and Grotesques carved for just that purpose, the features of the Green Man appear friendly and are situated in places where a fiendish effigy would be innapropriate.  Other suggestions are that craftsmen included this Pagan figure without the knowledge of the church who commissioned the work, almost as a joke - however, this cannot be the case due to the sheer proliferation of Green Man carvings - proving they were there by original intent of the designer.  The most likely reason for their inclusion is the method of conversion applied from the 'Old Religion' to Christianity.  Wisely, the church incorporated many aspects of the Old Religion into the new Christian symbolism, wherever possible:  Christian feast days were changed to coincide with Pagan festival days - Christmas at the Winter Solstice; St Bridget's Day at Imbolc; Easter derived from the ancient Spring Goddess, Eostre; and Samhain, the start of the Celtic year became All Souls.  Alongside the obvious advantages for Christianity, the pragmatic decision to retain the old agricultural partition of the year allowed a continuation of the known times for sowing, reaping and harvesting etc.  There are, of course, so many more 'cross over' examples of dual symbolism with a shared mystic understanding.  So, for many years, the new Christian and old Pagan (comes from the Latin meaning 'of the land') religions coexisted.  It was not much later that Christian theologians declared the antlers of Cernunnos to be the devil's horns and the Green Man image, previously regarded as one of many gods, became a symbol of the spirit of nature within the total creation of one god.  However, the potency of the Green Man could not be subsumed nor dimished - he continued to appear throughout medieval literature and into the current day, where he is most often seen adorning pub signs or on sweetcorn cans as the 'jolly green giant'!  His association with regeneration, rebirth and the abundant gifts of nature cannot be dimmed - long may he reign in the human psyche!

The Green Man & Goddess, May Day Demo 2011 - photo by Debbie, White Witch