The ‘Green Man’ is a symbol found in many ancient cultures dating back to 3000BC (and still used today). A visual Green Man is usually timber- or stone-carved face covered in foliage which often emanates from the figure’s nose and mouth. It is not always a male face, nor indeed always human.
You can find Green Man all over Great Britain and Europe but also North Africa and parts of Asia representing fertility and rebirth, the cycle of life. In some cultures he is a visual representation of the ‘ashes to ashes’ concept or some spiritual union with nature. He has crept his way into more contemporary cultural events and is appearing courtesy of neopagans carved into the trunks of trees he once hid amongst.
Green men can often be found in very old churches or cathedrals where they are carved in amongst all the Christian symbols. Were these subversive inclusions on the part of the carvers or was it evidence of the early church’s tolerance for old ways in amongst the new? Certainly there was no shortage of people amongst the earliest post-Christian societies who kept up with the old gods, too, just in case. Perhaps it pleased the earliest Christians to sit in church under the watchful eye of much older Gods than they now bowed to.
There are several kinds of Green Men and the easist to identify as a lay person are what are called the ‘disgorgers’ – the ones with foliage very obviously growing from their facial orifices. The next most obvious are the ‘foliate faces’ where the human appearance is made up of cleverly carved foliage. Next most common are the ‘peepers’ which peak through or out of foliage but aren’t made from it. And lastly the ‘leaf masks’ which are often the oldest and least ornate and are simple faces made from just one or two leaves.
“The truth is that no one knows for certain who the green man was. He is a figure surrounded by total and complete silence. He is the best kept secret in Europe.” Albert Radcliffe (Canon)
It is not hard to see a connection in the visual Green Man between mankind and nature. Once—before the evolution of iron which allowed the axes that felled them—most of Britain was covered in thick forest and mankind lived there amongst its other creatures in comparative balance. Green Man stands as silent reminder of what we have forgotten.
I have used the Green Man in y Ddraig, giving the ancient people of Cymry (the Mathrafal) the habit of laying out their dead without interment but placing seeds under their tongues to grow tall on the corpse’s decaying remains and emerge through any of their cranial cavities. Similarly, they wedge yew seeds along the length of a dead dragon to honour it.
And when the time for flying was at an end, they came to a Dragon’s Rest—somewhere like this—to exercise the bellows of their great lungs for the final time, leaving this world as they liked to sleep, with their tail gently and reassuringly grasped in their great mouth. The first people wedged yew seeds under the dragon’s scales at tail-tip-mid-and-top, wither, shoulder, horn and muzzle and then left the creature to its unending rest. They were the reason the Mathrafal now seeded their dead, though never with Yew. Yew seeds took two years to spring to life, just about the same time as a fully-grown dragon took to return to earth. Of course, the greater the dragon, the greater the resulting tree circle.
Melangell glanced around at the large clearing.
This ancient mother must have been magnificent.
(‘Sacrifice’, Gwendolyn Beynon)