The spirit of the wild wood and the Green Man.

From Ancient Folklore to Modern Ecological Symbol

Green Man Community Fun Day at Oak House 2019

Two millennia old or older, the Green Man is the vibrant spirit of the wild wood, of vegetation in leaf or bud, of spring, pool and river, earth and sky, indeed the totality of nature. His voice is the hiss of the high wind in ash and oak. And his profundity those sudden silences of a forest when all Nature seems to hold her breath. When we hear or feel him no more mankind will have run its course.  Ronald Millar.

celebrating spring at the Green Man Community Fun Day at Oak House

To commemorate what would have been our fourth annual Green Man community event at Oak House Museum this year (with the usual, performers, dancers, live music, bouncy castle, historic characters, stalls and children’s entertainment, crafts, trails and more) we thought we would delve into the history and folklore surrounding the Green Man and see how the image has meaning in modern culture today. Until recently the closest Green Man festival to the West Midlands was held at Clun in Shropshire, so our Green Man celebration had become a wonderful way for us Black Country folk to celebrate spring and welcome in the summer in the old way.

Since we are unable to hold our event this year we thought it would be nice for this celebration to happen virtually, so if you have seen a modern or ancient Green Man anywhere let us know, send us a photo, or if you feel inspired to do so, share your Green Man artwork with us. We would be very interested to see what you come up with and how you’ve been celebrating spring.

Our Oak House talking Green Man projection from May 2019

So what or who is the Green Man? The long and the short of it is that no one really knows. He’s a bit of a mystery.  However, the fact that there are so many pictures and carvings of him known around the world would suggest that he was an important image or representation to many people. To pin down what the Green Man actually signifies is quite complicated. He is known from ancient carvings and sometimes referred to as foliate head (heads made of foliage or leaves), grotesques or even gargoyles. These were dotted around hundreds of old buildings, churches and cathedrals of England but he is also a figure from folklore, a wild man of the wood, Robin Hood, the Jack in the Green and a symbol of regrowth that returns each year.

The Green Man started appearing on churches in England from the late 11th century onward, not long after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The oldest known survivor is carved near the doorway of the church in Kilpeck, Herefordshire.

Kilpeck Herefordshire – an early rather unrealistic Green Man photo taken 2006

There are several types of Green Man images from the 1200s: the “foliate head”, a mask-like face covered in leaves, the “disgorging head” with leaves and branches coming from its mouth and the “bloodsucker head” which sprouts vegetation from its mouth, eyes and ears and “the peeper” who peers from behind another carving. The meaning of this enduring image is unclear; however leafy heads featured in Roman art from around the first century A.D. Therefore making nature into a human form is possibly an idea that is thousands of years old.  These early forms of ‘Green Men’ are usually pictured with acanthus leaves sprouting around their faces and are sometimes described as a male medusa (medusa was an ancient mythical creature with snakes for her hair) or linked to a Bacchus cult celebrating Dionysus (an ancient god, associated with drinking, vines and ivy).

Disgorging Head from a misericord in Ludlow photo 2017 (a misericord is the underside of a flip up seat in a church which gives a slight ledge for those having to stand for long periods to rest their bottoms on)

The move towards true-to-life sculpture in the 1200s was due to a new interest in science with universities at that time encouraging studies of the natural world. Manuscripts and documents from the time show pictures of realistic looking birds and images of real and imaginary beasts known as bestiaries were being produced throughout Western Europe. 

Green Man Community fun day at Oak House

As previously mentioned the origins of the foliate head, or “Green Man”, had its roots in mythology long before Christianity came to Britain. Despite his pagan origins he evolved as an image within the church in the 13th century and became part of the symbols and pictures which people would have understood at the time, even if we don’t understand them fully now.

Peeper from Southwell Minster, peeping from behind his leaves and branches – photo 2015

It is generally agreed that the Green Man represents rebirth, and the cycle of growth, being reborn each spring as the spring flowers and leaves begin to grow and young animals are born. There is also an idea that most of the Green Man carvings are near large areas of natural ancient woodland such as Southwell in Nottinghamshire which would have been right next to Sherwood Forest in the past, therefore daily life of the people living there would have been linked to nature and the changing seasons. Many of the trees and plants carved at Southwell would have been used for either crops or building materials and all were essential to life.  Another possibility is that if the Green Man was a symbol for rebirth and new life used in the church to represent the resurrection of Christ at Easter.

Celebrating spring with Sedgley Morris at the Green Man Fun Day

The Green Man today is now shown in lots of ways, perhaps reflecting our ever-changing relationship to the natural world. He can be found in literature, film and television, sometimes seen as a symbol of ecological awareness, a modern icon connecting us to our ancient past, our wild other half, a nature spirit, and back in the 70s and 80s a gimmick to encourage us to eat more sweetcorn!

His association to May Day celebrations appears to be linked to the ‘Jack in the Green’ figure which was first recorded in the 1700s. It had been a tradition since at least the seventeenth century for milk-maids to decorate their pails with flowers and dance through the streets followed by fiddlers. This type of May Day celebration was written about by Samuel Pepys and possibly dated back many centuries beforehand. Of course, such celebrations were banned after the Civil War under Puritan parliaments in the 1650s but were quickly reinstated by Charles II in 1660, when the crown was restored. It is in the following centuries that May Day folk customs were recorded and by this time they included Jack in the Green. Jack in the Green was a person dressed in a conical wicker frame decorated with foliage and the Green Man’s association with the coming of summer and the May Queen began. May Day parades and celebrations died out in the early twentieth century but were later revived alongside other folk and pagan movements and the Green Man soon became a very relevant character from our past to be reintroduced.

Green Man Figure from Tewkesbury 2019

In the recent Netflix series, The Chilling adventures of Sabrina, the Green Man was portrayed as an old pagan god who would bring about the end of humanity, once he had received enough bloody sacrifices. This version of the Green Man is linked to destruction and reclaiming the earth through force to return it back to nature and to restore the natural balance. This darker side of the Green Man lurks in the 1973 film The Wicker Man, and you cannot fail to see the resemblance between the overwhelming and all consuming power of nature and the giant structure in which Edward Woodward is caged and burnt as a sacrifice. The mere sight of the giant wicker man at the end of the film sends a shiver down your spine, a primeval reaction you cannot quite put your finger on, but if you have ever visited the Custard Factory in Birmingham you might get a similar sensation when you gaze up at the sculpture Toin Adams created in 2002. At 12m in height this is the largest free-standing sculpture of the Green Man in the world and by the stern look on his face he does not seem impressed with the world he sees below. The sculpture was unveiled by Druids on a summer solstice night. A nod of respect perhaps to some of those old gods on the fringes of our ancient memory.

The modern interpretation of the Green Man is usually much more kindly and literally good-natured, he has a softer and more nurturing side. Last year saw Worzel Gummidge resurrected from a weird 1970s corner of children’s television. Mackenzie Crook played a very different magical scarecrow to the one Jon Pertwee had portrayed some years before. In this incarnation Sir Michael Palin is the Green Man and he is the all-knowing guardian of the land with a very clear environmental message. The Green Man is the creator of all scarecrows and brings a paternal feeling of calm and order to the world. He is the father of nature and therefore if we do as he says there is no need to worry.

It is possibly that the well documented destruction of the planet has redefined the Green Man we know today. The climate emergency has changed our view in recent years and given a new urgency to characters such as the Ents from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The trees rise up to fight the age-old battle of good vs evil, the preservation of the natural world over the destruction of it. This changing awareness and power of the Green Man has crept into our subconscious, we see him now, not from the ,corners of ancient church walls, but looking back at us from t-shirts, candle holders, mugs, or pub signs, many of which in days gone by would have depicted the Green Man as a woodsman about his business, axe in hand ready to chop down the nearest tree, but these days more often than not the sign will show a grinning face, with vegetation coming from his nose and mouth, a subtle reminder of the power of nature and where the air that you breathe comes from. 

Jim, our Oak House Green Man

Deb and Lesley – Visitor Services Assistants – Oak House Museum.

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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