The Greenman

What is The Greenman?

What does this strange bodiless head represent? Why does his face look at you from the pillars and doorways of ancient churches?

What is he doing in our cavernous cathedrals? And believe it, or not, he can even be found on the walls of New York and Chicago banks.

Versions of the same face can be found all over the world

Roman pillars
India
France
Germany
Holland
Italy
Hungary
Poland
Etc.

Keep your eyes open when visiting some of the old English churches for the images of the Greenman.


Why does this Pagan figure exist in Christian churches and Cathedrals?

Would you like a description of the face? Usually it is carved in wood or stone. Sometimes it is high up on the roof supports or pillars. Occasionally it is hidden from sight. In other places it is carved on the end of pews. Some churches have several.

The strange face is generally wreathed in greenery, leaves all around his head. Often the branches spew out from his mouth and twist about him in a symmetrical pattern. The leaves appear to be of different types, oak, ivy etc. Sometimes he has bunches of fruit on his foliage.

If you get to visit some of the traditional European Midsummer festivals watch out for the green leafed figure. He is still around today.

Just what the Greenman represents is not clear to us in this age. Being green and covered in leaves we can assume something to do with fertility. Or can we? The following is a brief exploration of this phenomena.

Did you ever watch the film The Wicker Man. It is a strange low budget, British, film set on one of the Scottish Islands. The story revolves around the building of a mid summer wicker man to burn and celebrate the Solstice. Human sacrifice is also a feature of the story.

The story relates back to ancient pre Christian times when sacrifices were made to the gods at mid summer. The green man also comes from these times. He appears to represent the rebirth.

One of the sources that I have used is the Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer. In it he mentions the Green Wolf and similar festivals. These take place in Scandinavian counties.

During the election and initiation of the Green Wolf he and his fellow would dance around a fire. Another part of the occasion would involve capturing Green Wolf and pretending to throw him into the bonfire.

These reflect back to the Celtic traditions of burning a human sacrifice in the mid summer bonfire. The wood used for this was Oak. A timber considered as sacred in ancient traditions.

So when the Greenman appears in festivals such as seen at Urnash in Switzerland. His leafed mask and costume reach back to the Celtic fertility rites. He represents the magic of the tree, rebirth and sacrifice.

The Bodiless Green Man in the church was an effigy taken by the Christian church from the powerful pagan celebrations and brought in to the building as a way to appease the converts. That he has been used in the banks shows how this figure now represents the fertility of money and commerce. Would those ancients who set the whole thing in motion approve?

As I have said before you can speculate long and hard on these ancient links to our everyday life. To follow up the brief discourse here you can visit the greenman by Mike Harding.

Mike is an English folk singer and teller of very funny stories. His site has some interesting details.

Read The Quest for the Green Man by John Matthews ISBN 0-8356-0825-5 The Green Man by Kathleen Bastford ISBN: 0859914976

Also if you are really keen on the mythology and practices of the pre Christian era read The Golden Bough by James George Frazier. Illustrated Isbn 0-7134-8108-0

I recommend this version for a lighter read. Text version 0-684-82630-5

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