The Green Man is a pre–Christian symbol found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves, of medieval churches and cathedrals, and used as a Victorian architectural motif, across an area stretching from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. Although commonly perceived as an ancient Celtic symbol, in fact its origins and original meaning are shrouded in mystery. The name dates back only to 1939, when folklorist Lady Raglan drew a connection between the foliate faces in English churches and the Green Man (or "Jack of the Green") tales of folklore. The evocative name has been widely adopted, but the legitimacy of the connection still remains controversial, with little real evidence to settle the question one way or the other. Earliest known examples of the foliate head (as it was known prior to Lady Raglan) date back to classical Rome — yet it was not until this pagan symbol was adopted by the Christian church that the form fully developed and proliferated across Europe. Most folklorists conjecture that the foliate head symbolized mythic rebirth and regeneration, and thus became linked to Christian iconography of resurrection. (The Tree of Life, a virtually universal symbol of life, death and regeneration, was adapted to Christian symbolism in a similar manner.)
The Jack in the Green is a figure associated with the new growth of spring, fertility, and May Day celebrations. In a number of English towns (such as Hastings in East Sussex) the Jack pageant is still re-enacted each year. The Jack in the Green is played by a man in a towering eight–foot–tall costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. He travels through the streets accompanied by men (and now women) dressed and painted all in green, others dressed and painted entirely black, and children bearing flowers. Morris and clog dancers entertain the crowds while the Jack, a trickster figure (and traditionally lecherous) chases pretty girls and plays the fool. When he reaches a certain place, the Morris dancers wield their wooden swords and strike the leaf man dead. A poem is solemnly recited over his body, and then general merriment breaks out as the crowd plucks Jack's leaves off for luck.
("The killing of a tree spirit," notes James Frazer in The Golden Bough, "is always associated with a revival or resurrection of him in a more youthful and vigorous form.")
Tree men aren't unique to the British Isles; they can be found in folk pageants all over Europe. In Bavaria, for example, a tree–spirit called the pfingstl roams through rural towns clad in alder and hazel leaves, with a high pointed cap covered by flowers. Two boys with swords accompany him as he knocks on the doors of random houses, asking for presents but often getting thoroughly drenched by water instead. This pageant also ends when the boys draw their wooden swords and kill the green man. In a ritual from Picardy, a member of the Compagnons du Loup Vert (dressed in a green wolf skin and foliage) enters the village church carrying a candle and garlands of flowers. He waits until the Gloria is sung, then he walks to the alter and stands through the mass. At its end, the entire congregation rushes up to strip the green wolf of his leaves.
The Green Man's female counterpart is the Green Woman, or the Sheela-Na-Gig . . .
. . . usually depicted in stone carvings as a primitive female form giving birth to a spray of vegetation. Green Women are far less common than Green Men, being rather harder to adapt to Christian iconography or Victorian decoration -- and yet quite a few them appear in Romaneque churches built before the 16th century. Although Ireland has the greatest number of Sheela-Na-Gigs, they can be found throughout the British Isles, as well as in France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.
Like the sacred "yoni" carvings of India, it was once customary to lick one's finger and touch the Sheela-Na-Gig's vulva for good fortune.
A number of contemporary artists have found inspiration in the ancient lore of the wood, including Brian Froud in Devon (creator of the Green Man painting and Green Woman drawing in this post) and Fidelma Massey in Ireland (creator of mythic sculpture like the magical tree-woman above, "A Shrine to the Mother of All Birds"). There have also been two international art series recently that have drawn their inspiration from the folklore of the wild: Eyes as Big as Plates (originating in Norway) and Wilder Mann (originating in France).Eyes as Big as Plates, an ongoing project dreamed up by artists Riitta Ikonen (originally from Finland) and Karoline Hjorth (from Norway). "Inspired by the romantics’ belief that folklore is the clearest reflection of the soul of a people," says Ikonen, "Eyes as Big as Plates started out as a play on characters and protagonists from Norwegian folklore. During a one month residency at the Kinokino Centre for Art and Film in south-west Norway, Karoline and I collaborated with sailors, farmers, professors, artisans, psychologists, teachers, parachuters and senior citizens. The series then moved on to exploring the mental landscape of the neighborly and pragmatic Finns." The third chapter of the project has taken Ikonen and Hjorth to New York City this spring.
“This blending of figure and ground," explains the artists, "recalls the way in which folk narratives animate the natural world through a personification of nature. The slippage of elderly figures into the landscapes suggests a return to the earth, a celebration of lives lived, reinforcing the link between humanity and the natural world.”
The images below come from Wilder Mann, a photography series by Charles Fréger (based in Rouen, France), who spent two years traveling around Europe documenting the folk pageants and festivals of what he calls "tribal Europe." The resulting photographic exhibition just moved from New York to Switzerland, and the images have been collected into a stunningly beautiful art book. (You can see more of Fréger's photographs here.)
As Rachel Hartigan Shea explains in an article about the series, "Traditionally the festivals are a rite of passage for young men. Dressing in the garb of a bear or wild man is a way of 'showing your power,' says Fréger. Heavy bells hang from many costumes to signal virility. The question is whether Europeans — civilized Europeans — believe that these rituals must be observed in order for the land, the livestock, and the people to be fertile. Do they really believe that costumes and rituals have the power to banish evil and end winter? 'They all know they shouldn’t believe it,' says Gerald Creed, who has studied mask traditions in Bulgaria. Modern life tells them not to. But they remain open to the possibility that the old ways run deep.'"
Likewise, the mythic scholar Daniel C. Noel is struck by the masculine power of Green Man lore: "Whether the Green Man, is some sort of Jungian archetype 'returning' from a primeval past, a Celtic survival in the psyche, seems not as important to me as the metaphor he constitutes for men, and for the gender-embattled culture, in the present and future. Whatever the metaphysics of this fascinating figure, it is enough that he is a green ideal and a good idea arriving from wherever to inspire us. We have needed a Father Nature for a long time, and never more urgently than now, when all over the planet, armored men, in or out of uniform, terrorize each other, women and children, and what remains of the wildwood."
Let's give Henry David Thoreau the last word today on why the wild and the folklore of the wild still matter: "Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?" he asks (in Walden). "Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?"
The art above: A Green Man painting by Brian Froud; a Green Man carving in a church near Birmingham; Jack-in-the-Greens in Oxford and the City of London (photographs from the "In the Company of the Green Man" blog); a Green Woman drawing by Brian Froud; a Sheela-na-gig carving at a church in County Clare, Ireland; "A Shrine for the Mother of the Birds" by Fidelma Massey; three photographs from Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth's "Eyes as Big as Plates" collaborative art project, the first from Norway, the second two from Finland; and four photographs from Charles Fréger's "Wilder Mann" series: a sauvage in Switerland, three kurkeri in Bulgaria, a careto in Portugal, and a devil in St. Nicholas' retinue in the Czech Republic. All art works are copyright by the artists.
Recommended reading... Nonfiction: "Gossip from the Forest" by Sara Maitland (published as "From the Forest" in the US), "Forests" by Robert Pogue Harrison, "Green Man" by William Anderson & Clive Hicks, Sheela-Na-Gigs" by Barbara Freitag, and "Meetings With Remarkable Trees" by Thomas Pakenham. Fiction: The Mythago Wood Series by Robert Holstock; "Forests of the Heart," "The Wild Wood," and "Jack in the Mist" by Charles de Lint; "In the Forests of Serre," "Winter Wood," and "Solstice Wood" by Patricia McKillp; and "The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest," a Datlow-Windling anthology. For children: "Grumbles from the Forest" by Jane Yolen & Rebecca Kai Dotlich and "Into the Forest" by Anthony Browne. Poetry: "The Forest" by Susan Stewart. Art: "Wood" by Andy Goldsworthy and "Wilder Mann" by Charles Fregér.