The Green Man

One of the most frequently recurring and most beautiful motifs of medieval art is that of the Green Man.

This figure represents a human face surrounded by foliage, which it seems to be peering through. Often the leafy branches are shown coming from the figure’s mouth as if he were in a sense breathing them forth. Some of the oldest representations of the Green Man show him as horned. He represents the spirit of the trees, and the green growing things of earth; the god of the woodlands.

Hence he is distinctly a pagan divinity. Yet he frequently appears among the carved decoration of our oldest churches and cathedrals, especially upon such things as roof bosses and the little seats called misericords.

As an old name for inns, too, ‘The Green Man’ makes his appearance; though here he is usually explained as representing either an old-time apothecary who gathered green herbs or else as a forester dressed in Lincoln green. In folk plays and customs, we find the Green Man in the guise of ‘Green Jack’ or ‘Green George’.

This part was enacted by a man who appeared among the May Day revelers, covered in a sort of framework of leafy garlands, so that his face peered through the leaves, like the figure in the old church carvings. At Castleton in Derbyshire, where the ceremony is kept up to this day, he rides on horseback and is called the Garland King.

The Green Man as a woodland god, is a relic of the old pagan rites and beliefs; and his popularity as a motif of church decoration proves that for a long time in Britain, pagan and Christian concepts existed side by side.

When used in decoration, the Green Man is sometimes referred to as the foliate mask; and the foliage which surrounds him is most frequently oak, the old sacred tree of Britain. So he may be the spirit that Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) tells us about, “the man in the oke”, who was among the fearsome company of unearthly beings that his mother’s maid used to terrify him with when he was a boy.

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