The Green Man, an architectural detail carved into English churches, is a mystery and lesson in modern myth making. Before being named “Green Man” by Lady Raglan in her 1939 article for The Folklore Journal, “The Green Man in Church Architecture”, these leafy faces were known as “foliate heads”, and the reason for their appearances in churches and graveyards was unknown. It was Lady Raglan who named them and put forth the idea that they are pagan symbols of the spirit of nature and of man’s symbiotic relationship with nature.
The form of the Green Man– a face peering out from behind oak leaves or ivy, or with leaves growing from his mouth, nose, ears, and eyes– certainly gives the impression of a vegetation deity or Puck-like woodland spirit. But if so, why would it decorate Christian churches? Is it meant to caution people to not return to old pagan ways, or is it meant to symbolize the rebirth of the “wild man” into the grace of God? Is it to remind parishioners that man is a part of the natural world, and, like green plants in winter, he too will die? Or was it meant to symbolize man without God?
Green Men with leaves coming out of their mouths resemble the face of a hanged man with his tongue protruding. The Germanic god Odin sacrificed himself and hung from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days in order to gain powerful knowledge. Perhaps the Green Man is a symbol of sacrifice. Which, of course, may point to Jesus’s sacrifice for man.
The Green Man was also a figure in English pageants and parades, especially on May Day. Called whifflers or squibs, Green Man characters came at the forefront, carrying clubs and fireworks, to clear the way for the parade. The pageant Green Men dressed in costumes of leaves and/or shaggy haired costumes and enacted the role of wild men– men without civilization who lived in the woods and still wore leaves. Their antics were akin to today’s sports mascots, getting folks excited for the main event. Their wild behaviors may have been the inspiration for many pubs and inns to take on the symbol of the Green Man.
There’s a lot of confusion and unknown in trying to research the “true” history of the Green Man. But, to quote the penultimate episode of American Gods’ second season, “Stories are truer than truth.” Often, as we research to try to get to an original “truth” of an ancient symbol, we find more and more conflicting stories. That conflict could be annoying if we want things to have just one “real” answer. The conflict could be distressing if it undermines long held or important beliefs. The conflict may also point to something interesting– the context. There is not just one true story; there are different stories in different contexts.
The Green Man has become a pagan and Wiccan symbol for man’s spiritual connection with nature. Like Lady Raglan, modern pagans see the foliate head as a vegetation god or depiction of the horned god, the Earth Mother’s partner. I have my own collection of Green Man architectural details around my home, and to me they symbolize the spirit of the seasons, pre-Christian paganism, and witchcraft.
There was a time when witches were called cunning folk. They were healers and midwives, women with knowledge and power, and women that, for whatever reason, lived on the edge of society. The Christian church wanted to disempower these women, so cunning women became witches, and witchcraft became an executable offense. The story became that powerful women were dangerous, and that their power must have come from the devil.
Since the 1960s, women have reclaimed the symbol of the witch as they explore and wield their power. The witch trope reached a very high point in the 1990s, with shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is still going strong with shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (a show in which the witches are actually devil-worshipping satanists, and that explores the evils of the patriarchy and our conflicting feelings about strong women).
We interpret symbols like the witch or the Green Man based on what we need in our own time. Today, for some people, the Green Man depicts a time when man was closer to nature and found his spirituality in the cycles of the seasons. That time that did exist, but, perhaps, the Green Man iconography was never a part of it.