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Sep 26, 2011

The Green Man: Pagan or Christian?

 We’ve all seen them—those strange faces peering out through foliage in odd corners of churches. They look out of place in such a setting—apparently pagan iconography in a Christian building. Who was The Green Man, and why does he decorate churches?

While the Green Man was commonly seen carved into buildings in ancient Rome, the term was actually coined by a folklorist in 1939. The figure died out with the end of the Classical era and didn’t reappear until the eleventh century.

We have no direct evidence for what these figures mean; the stonemasons who carved them and the church leaders who commissioned the carvings haven’t left us records of why they chose this motif. Some people, especially modern neopagans, like to see the Green Man as a pagan survival sneaking into Christian territory. While the Christian church did co-opt many elements of paganism, such as turning ancient gods into saints, the long gap between their use in the Roman Empire and their reappearance in the Middle Ages argues against this. One suggestion is that it’s a foreign motif brought in by international trade. Although there are Green Man figures in places like India, there’s no direct evidence for the import idea.

 For clues to its meaning we need to look at Medieval and Renaissance society. The vast majority of people were farmers, and there were large tracts of wilderness that the people looked on with a mixture of interest and fear. A man draped in foliage brings to mind the springtime, a time of joy and optimism for the farmer, a time when hormones run wild. The church’s wealth depended on land and it was often the largest landowner in the area. Celebrating the spring as a time of blessings and abundance from God makes sense in a Christian context.

On the other hand, the Church always warned against the licentiousness of the season, and the pagan dances and rituals that sprang up in the villages at this time of year. The 8th century theologian Rabanus Maurus said they symbolized the sins of the flesh and that the Green Man was a doomed soul. Perhaps, but this was only one interpretation. Contrary to popular belief, the medieval Church was a testing ground for a number of ideas and a variety of local practices.

Thus the Green Man was a tricky symbol, one of both hope and danger, a bit like another favorite motif, the Wild Man. This probably explains why he's generally not put in prominent places, but rather high up on arch supports or on roof bosses. He acts as secondary decoration rather than the first thing that catches the eye like a large stained glass window or gold altar.

Many of the Green Men we see in England today actually date from the Victorian era, a time of elaborate decoration and celebration of nature. The Green Man fit in perfectly to Victorian sensibilities. It was only then that the Green Man started appearing in large numbers outside of churches. Thus the Green Man, contrary to his appearance, was actually a Christian symbol.


  1. Disagree with some of your conclusions. Evidence strongly suggests that Green Man icons date back to the earliest periods of the church moving into northern Europe. In other words, the icon probably pre-dates medieval Europe by hundreds of years, and is actually a pre-Roman icon of some sort.

    Most of the early placements, unlike the later Victorian ones, were concealed - or at least not clearly exposed and in full view. Why? Recall, when those early churches were built, the populace were still pagan, at least in their core beliefs and rituals (even if nominally christian). Those were the builders of the early churches. The modern neo-pagan idea that these were icons added by people of pagan background, either as secret articles of worship or, perhaps more likely, as elements of appeasement of spirits/old gods by a superstitious culture, seems more credible in that light.

    Yes, the icon was eventually adopted by the christian church as well, just as many other icons of earlier faiths were absorbed.

    So perhaps the real answer is "both". Much like the name of an early Goddess was borrowed for the name of the Easter holiday, many of the icons, images, and traditions of christian worship today have roots in much older traditions.

  2. Can you cite some examples with Green Men that were contemporary with the building of the church rather than reused old Roman carvings? There are several churches that reuse old carvings, a common practice at the time that doesn't necessarily imply a religious motivation. At churches such as those at St. Albans and Escomb, stones from nearby Roman ruins were reused, such as old pillars, altars, even inscriptions from Roman legions.
    The Green Men being hidden may have been the builders putting them out of sight because they didn't like their pagan overtones.