Green Men in the Church: The Old Lore of the Green Man
Over the years, I've been captivated by the enigmatic presence of the “Green Man” in the medieval churches of the UK. While I've never personally laid eyes on them, I’ve looked at countless photographs and delved into explanations that shed light on their significance. However, before we “go down the rabbit hole,” I want to share how I came to be interested in this topic, which requires me to relate a personal anecdote.
About three years ago, at the urging of my wife, I began to look into my family tree. Like most people during that time, I was pretty bored. Summer had come and gone, the leaves had fallen, we had harvested the produce from our first garden, and the chickens had finished laying eggs. So I thought to myself that working on my family tree would keep me fairly entertained until all the craziness of COVID-19 blew over.
A few months down the road, I had discovered a lot more than I’d thought I would. For example, I found out that I’m the 9th great grandnephew of John Robinson, who was the Bishop of London in 1713 AD. I also discovered that I had many ancestors scattered all the way up to Scotland. Many were buried in the old graveyards of parish churches.
During that time, I started sharing some of my findings with friends. One friend who had also traced his lineage back to Scotland mentioned to me that he had discovered the mysterious “Green Man” in Rosslyn Chapel in the small village of Roslin, Scotland.
“Why would there be carvings of pagan nature gods in this chapel?” I thought. From that point, I ventured further down the rabbit hole to try to discover the meaning of this enigmatic figure. To my surprise, I discovered that there wasn’t just a single Green Man in Rosslyn Chapel, but that there are said to be around 100 of them both inside and outside of the chapel. Even more surprising, I discovered that this was not an isolated thing. The Green Man is found all over medieval parishes in Great Britain.
For a time, I contemplated whether these Green Men were included to signify the triumph of Christianity over the ancient pagan gods. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the inclusion of these peculiar, often whimsical faces was intended to symbolize their subjugation by the power of Christ and His death and resurrection.” I still believe that. But… I also discovered that there is more at work here. Take a journey with me.
The Revival of the Green Man
For those unacquainted with this mysterious figure, the Green Man has long figured within pagan symbolism, serving as a symbol of cyclical time. Within the lore surrounding the Green Man, you typically encounter the notion of an archetypal, pre-Christian, wild nature deity. This deity, in the narrative, undergoes a symbolic death or slumber during the harsh winter months, only to be reborn or resurrected with the arrival of spring. Variations of this deity appear throughout the annals of ancient history, particularly in the realms of Greek and Celtic mythology. Icons like Pan, Bacchus, and Cernunnos personify this essence and are typically associated with things like nature, vegetation, wine, madness, and fertility.
Over the last hundred years or so, the symbol of the Green Man has had somewhat of a resurrection.
Aleister Crowley, Thelemic occultist, declared his “Hymn to Pan” to be the “most powerful enchantment ever” and traveled to various places doing dark rituals to the deity. In 2007, Dan Dutton produced a film called “The Faun,” which centered on the myth of Pan that culminated in a re-staging of the opera in Elkhorn City, Kentucky that was used for the purposes of artistically invoking Pan. Season Two of the paranormal docu-series Hellier ends with a ritual in a cave system in Pulaski County, Kentucky to invoke Pan. The symbol of the Green Man has also found renewed usage in environmental circles as a symbol for our connection to the land. Most recently, the Green Man made an unexpected appearance on the coronation invitation of King Charles III, who is said to have an interest in Perennialism.
For these reasons, the presence of the Green Man within British churches has always struck me as intriguing, albeit somewhat perplexing.
Some, such as Lady Raglan in her well-known essay titled “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture,” argue that these carvings are remnants of Celtic paganism, allowed to persist alongside Christian worship.1 Others like Stephen Miller, author of The Green Man in Medieval England: Christian Shoots from Pagan Roots, notes that the Green Man was perhaps imported into England from Northern France after the Norman conquest.2 I find Lady Raglan’s explanation less convincing, mainly because Celtic paganism waned around 410 AD when Roman rule concluded in Britain. It was supplanted by Anglo-Saxon paganism, with gods sharing similarities to Norse deities, and this tradition lacked a parallel figure resembling the Green Man. The gradual conversion of Celtic pagans to Christianity also occurred over a considerable period, with the construction of parish churches taking place much later, during the medieval era.
Recent discoveries I’ve made have shed new light on my understanding of the presence of the Green Man in churches in Great Britain. This year, I discovered several different explanations by both ancient and modern writers that provide a more compelling explanation for the presence of these enigmatic creatures.
The Golden Legend
As I’ve already said, there are many explanations offered to explain the inclusion of Green Men in the medieval churches of Great Britain. I believe a crucial source needed in unlocking the meaning of the Green Man is a classic work known as The Golden Legend. For those who are unaware, The Golden Legend is a volume of hagiography that was compiled in the 1200s by Jacobus de Voragine who is remembered as a scholarly friar and later archbishop of Genoa. In our modern day, Voragine’s work has been recognized as perhaps the most widely read work in medieval Europe. To say that it was influential on the imaginations of medieval Chistians would be an understatement.
Hidden in The Golden Legend is a tale about the death of Adam that sheds light on the meaning of the Green Man for Christians. In the chapter titled “The Life of Adam,” we find:
But all the days of Adam living here in earth amount to the sum of nine hundred and thirty years. And in the end of his life when he should die, it is said, but of none authority, that he sent Seth his son into Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy, where he received certain grains of the fruit of the tree of mercy by an angel. And when he came again he found his father Adam yet alive and told him what he had done. And then Adam laughed first and then died. And then he laid the grains of kernels under his father’s tongue and buried him in the vale of Hebron; and out of his mouth grew three trees of the three grains, of which trees the cross that our Lord suffered his passion on was made, by virtue of which he gat very mercy, and was brought out of darkness into very light of heaven. To the which he bring us that liveth and reigneth God, world without end.3
In this legend, Adam appears to us as a “green man” who is overtaken by time and foliage. As the account unfolds we see that upon Adam's demise, his son Seth placed three kernels beneath his tongue, kernels that had sprung from the fruit of the tree of mercy (the Tree of Life). These three kernels later burgeoned into trees, one of which ultimately yielded the lumber for the True Cross. Admittedly, this narrative is a legend, as Voragine duly notes, lacking definitive authority. Nevertheless, it occupies a prominent niche in the collective consciousness of those who dwelled in the medieval epoch, including the skilled masons who meticulously constructed churches.
The aforementioned author, Stephen Miller, also makes the observation that the Green Man is a Christian/Judaic–derived motif associated with The Golden Legend. He states:
It is a Christian/Judaic–derived motif relating to the legends and medieval hagiographies of the Quest of Seth — the three twigs/seeds/kernels planted below the tongue of post-fall Adam by his son Seth (provided by the angel of mercy responsible for guarding Eden) shoot forth, bringing new life to humankind. So, a Christian motif for the head of the Church of England.4
This narrative, I believe, offers compelling explanatory power for the prevalence of Green Man depictions within ecclesiastical settings. It emerges as an icon directly tied to The Golden Legend, rather than an amalgamation of wild pagan deities. The Green Man manifests as a figure adorned in verdant foliage, with vines and tendrils typically sprouting from his mouth. Rather than a covert allowance for paganism to persist, the Green Man in British churches appears to symbolize the profound irony of paganism's transformation through the power of the True Cross. This interpretation adds a fascinating layer to the symbolism of the Green Man.
The Green Man as a Symbol of Time
At the core of the Green Man’s symbolism lies the idea of cyclical time overtaking space, leading to renewal. Imagine it this way, if you will: As the wheel of time turns, the untamed wilderness engulfs humanity and the fruits of our labor. In the prelapsarian era, mankind’s mandate was to “work and keep” the garden, yet in the postlapsarian era, the untamable wilderness assumes the role of the gardener, “working and keeping” humanity in its grasp. A ceaseless, eternal struggle unfolds, pitting time (chaos) against space (order).
If the previous explanation seems abstract, consider another analogy that makes this concept more concrete. Think of it as akin to the changing of seasons. In this analogy, we observe the same pattern. Every year, life springs forth from the depths of a cold winter’s slumber, symbolizing a recurring cycle — an eternal struggle between time and space that plays out in a continuous, cyclical manner.
This is the meaning of the Green Man. He is a symbol of cyclical time. This is also why he appears in transitory places, external facades, and looking down from ceilings. The placement of these images is symbolically meaningful and not at all arbitrary. Even the Green Man looking down from heights is an important aspect of his placement. Covered in foliage, he looks down below at men, reminding us that, exiled East of Eden, we are in a place of liminality where chaotic change occurs again and again.5
Now, lest readers think this is some imaginative flight of fancy on my part, I want to point out that this same symbolism is also found in the classic tale of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Let us consider it in relation to the Green Man.
During Christmastide, the enigmatic Green Knight appears before Arthur’s court in Camelot. The gigantic knight, who is described as entirely green, comes riding through Arthur’s halls on a green horse with an axe in one hand and a holly bough in the other. He offers to play with any willing knight a game that involves him and the other participant trading blows. Whoever is courageous enough to take up the knight’s challenge can strike him with his own axe, if only he can return the blow a year and a day later. The virtuous Gawain takes him up on his offer, and beheads him.
After Gawain deals the blow and beheads him in one stroke, the knight picks up his severed head, mounts his horse, and reminds Gawain that he must meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day. This, ultimately, is the inciting incident that takes Gawain on a journey into the margins and the wilds over the course of a year and a day to find the Green Chapel, which leads to his transformation. Notice that there’s a thread running through this story like a green sash — the thread of cyclical time, sacred seasons, and transformation.
The Green Knight’s symbolism in the classic tale of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight beautifully dovetails with the Green Man as a symbol of cyclical time and renewal. Both symbolize the eternal struggle between time and space, death and renewal, and chaos and order. Both the Green Knight and the Green Man embody this profound concept in different narratives and contexts, but both carry with them the notion that within the annihilation of one phase emerges the genesis of another, an eternal cycle of death and rebirth.
As we approach our conclusion, let’s once again turn our gaze to The Golden Legend and explore its timeless wisdom anew. Within its pages, Adam is presented to us as a symbol of time, signaling to us the death of the old, prelapsarian world and the transition into the postlapsarian world. However, as the wheel of time turns, those very seeds lovingly placed in Adam’s mouth by Seth sprout forth, culminating in the majestic tree destined to become the sacred True Cross, which is a symbol for space and order.
It’s no mere coincidence that the ancient Church chose to depict the crucifixion of Jesus upon the Tree of Life. There’s an inherent resonance within this legend, a profound truth that reverberates through the ages, eventually finding its end in the cosmic mystery of Christ and the Cross.
Indeed, Christ, likened to the true vine in sacred scripture, becomes an intricate part of this narrative, aligning seamlessly with the concept of the last Adam. Through the cosmic mystery of the Cross, a reordering force emerges. The Cross, like a cosmic tree — a symbol for space — pushes time and chaos back toward the outer realms of the margins.
It’s also worth noting that I’m not alone in recognizing these intriguing parallels. The contemporary poet-priest, Malcolm Guite, has ventured into this very territory, crafting a song that explores the relationship between Christ, the Cross, and the Green Man. This artistic exploration beautifully aligns with the themes found in The Golden Legend, adding yet another layer of depth to the enduring enigma of the Green Man within the context of Christian symbolism.
To conclude, I’ll defer to Malcolm Guite’s poetic words and share the lyrics along with a link to the song, allowing his creative expression to provide a fitting conclusion to our exploration of the Green Man’s symbolism and its resonance with Christian themes.
My face in the foliage, you’ve seen that face before
It was carved in the Choir by your fathers back in the days of yore
I’m the power in the pulse I’m the song underneath the soil
I’m the unseen King of the ditches, ragged and royal
I’m the Green Man, don’t take my name in vain
I’m the Green Man, and it’s time to break my chain
If you cut me down I’ll spring back green again
I’m the roots on the stock I’m the tender shoots on the vine
I’m the goodness in the bread I’m the wildness in the wine
There’s power in the place where my smallest tendrils are curled
And my softest touch is the strongest thing in the world
I’m the Green Man, don’t take my name in vain
I’m the Green Man, I’m about to break my chain
If you cut me down I’ll spring back green again
I’m the grass at your feet and the leaves that shade your head
I’ll be the bower of love, I’ll be your green grass bed
I’m the finest flower, I’m the power in the wickedest weed
And I’ll plough your furrow with pleasure and plant my seed
I’m the Green Man, and I make love with the rain
I’m the Green Man, and I feel like breaking my chain
You might think I’m finished but I’ll spring up again
You can cover me in concrete, staple me down with steel
Spread your houses and your car parks over my fields
But I’ll still be there keeping everything alive
And I’ll spring back green but you may not survive
I’m the Green Man, don’t take my name in vain
I’m the Green Man, it’s time to break my chain
You can cut me down but I’ll spring back green again.
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1. Lady Raglan, “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture,” Folklore, Vol. 50, No. 1 (March, 1939), pp. 45–57. On JSTOR at www.jstor.org/stable/1257090.
2. Stephen Miller, “The Christian history of the Green Man motif,” The Guardian, April 19, 2023, at www.theguardian.com/culture/2023/apr/19/the-christian-history-of-the-green-man-motif.
3. Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, trans. William Caxton (SSEL, 2022), pp. 163–65.
4. Miller, op. cit.
5. See Jo Livingstone, “The Remarkable Persistence of the Green Man,” The New Yorker, March 7, 2016, at www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-remarkable-persistence-of-the-green-man. Also see Stephen Winick’s very learned series of writings on the Green Man in Folklife Today at the Library of Congress Blogs: blogs.loc.gov/folklife/category/green-man/?loclr=blogflt.