Sep 26, 2011
The Green Man: Pagan or Christian?
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.