Have you ever traveled to Europe? Ever since having visited the Cathedral of Norwich, UK, I am looking out for Green Men. No kidding, and I don’t mean those supposedly alien creatures from Mars. I mean the legendary Green Men that are lurking in churches and in old castles, but also in old pub signs and names. Once you have seen one, they will strike you everywhere they are. Here’s WHAT they are …
Well, the first time, the Green Man had to be pointed out to me. The face (for mostly only that is shown) was peeping so realistically through some gilded (somewhat oakish) leaves, I was taken by surprise at its lifelike features. Unfortunately, my photo is a bit blurry, as obviously my hands were shaking with enthusiasm, and my camera flash didn’t go off. But you can easily google this ceiling boss in the cloister of Norwich Cathedral.
Very obviously, no Green Man ever occurs in the Bible. But the churches (not just the Catholic one) have been known to adjust to their clientele and tried to incorporate whatever heathen traditions might work to draw more visitors to their services. The Green Man is one of these pagan creatures whose face is growing vines or leaves from the mouth, the nostrils, and from other parts of the face. They are carved heads in secular and in church buildings; on pub signs they are usually painted, sometimes even with a full body. Unfortunately, this is pretty much all we know about the Green Man – he appears to be a natural deity or spirit of yore. Depending on which country the myth developed, so do the meanings ascribed.
In Mildenhall, a bit farther inland, where I used to spend many happy days during my courtship days, they have a museum dedicated to an ancient silver treasure found in a nearby field. The copy of a 4th century silver salver shows a so-called “foliate mask” surrounded by fauns and Bacchantic dancers. It is thought that the foliage in this case were seaweed – I think the leaves look similar as those in Norwich; only the shell design surrounding another circle of dancers indicates it might be a sea deity. As the treasure belonged to boundaries of a Roman villa, it’s either God Bacchus, Neptune, or Oceanus. Either way, who tells us if the Romans transported the Green Man to England and other European countries? As every creed back then had a god or goddess of fertility and agriculture, there is no saying which one was first. And, to be honest, I haven’t run into a Green Woman yet.
Apparently, the tradition of the Green Man in Christian churches exists all across Europe, with the earliest example being from around the year 400 and the farthest in Nicosia, Cyprus, depicting 7 Green Men – I bet there is quite an exciting legend to this number! British architects took up the Green Man increasingly during the Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement. As that was also an intense era of colonialism, the Green Man traveled around the world.
Father Christmas even might be a variant of the Green Man with his ivy garlands. Others have it that Robin Hood is another version of a Green Man – but that takes it too far for my taste. We all know that he was really an English aristocrat and looked pretty much like Erol Flynn or Richard Todd, don’t we?! And Peter Pan might wear green, but he is not growing anything in his face, especially not leaves or algae. Maybe the Ents in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” are a modern version of the pagan figure – the novel itself reads like a medieval epic after all.
In the end, does it really matter whether we know in all detail where the legendary Green Man has his roots? He is fascinating to look at. It is fun to look for him. He might even be on a pub sign by the road in a village somewhere in the middle of nowhere. So, here’s cheers!