Tunes for a Monday Morning
Into the Woods, 6: Wild Community

Into the Woods, 5: Wild Folklore

Green Man by Brian Froud

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.)

Green Man Carving

Oxford Jack-in-the-GreenThe 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 . . .

Green Women drawings by Brian Froud

Sheela-Na-Gig carving

. . . 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 Shrine for the Mother of Birds by Fidelma Massey

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 Women drawings 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).

From Eyes as Big as Plates, Norway

Eyes as Big as Plates, Finland

The two photographs directly above, and the one directly below, come from 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.” 

From Eyes as Big as Plates, Finland

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." 

Photograph copyright by Charles Fréger

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?"

Photographs copyright by Charles Fréger

Photograph copyright by Charles Fréger

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);  Green Women drawings 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. 

Some recommended reading, nonfiction: "The Land of the Green Man" by Carolyne Larrington; "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 Rose," and "Solstice Wood" by Patricia McKillp; "The Bear and the Nightingale" by Katherine Arden; "Tender Morsels" by Margo Lanagan; 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 Frer.

Today's post goes out to mythic maskmaker's Shane & Leah Odom; and to Charles de Lint, who brough Green Men to Bordertown.


Just a little point, Terri - the caption on the fourth picture reads 'City of London', but it's actually Hastings. Our lovely friends Alan and Star run the Stag Inn (just out of the picture here, a short way up the street) and can be seen in this attached video (at 1:04). I can't imagine how much green make-up the town gets through on this weekend!

Thanks so much, Maria. I must have mis-read the caption on the Company of Green Men site, which is where it came from. It's corrected now. Love the video.


Well, I meant to do this post on May Day, of course, but work and health problems intervened. Better late than never...and at least it's still May!

The Green Men


No mask of leaves but good, green flesh.
No branch but bone, no sap but blood.

This pelt, this hide,
stripped from the beast’s back to
Adorn our own
is no costume either -
but the living leather of our skin.

We breathe as you breathe, bellowing life
into the fibrous muscle of our dancing limbs.

And hard as oak, surging with sap,
We’ll chase your pretty maids to the Wildwood’s heart.

And there they’ll turn us a grin of death,
Sheela-na-gigs,their verdant vulvae opened wide,
lush and rank with gushing green.

In dying, life; in death, rebirth:
We’ll make our sacrificial act
to seed anew the sacred earth
And keep our ancient pact.

Hi Terri. Great images and interesting texts. I'd no idea that the Sheela-Na-Gig was a depiction of the Green Woman. I thought they were completely separate entities. We live and learn. Incidentally I have a wonderful interpretation of Sheelah-Na-Gig in my garden by an artist quite local to you, I think. Her name's Ama Menec and her work is superb. Her website is at

While I think of it...there's a beautiful Green Lion on a building in the centre of Leicester. I've never seen one before, or since for that matter. Perhaps Tilly would make a good model for a Green Dog!

Well, as with most things to do with folklore, there's disagreement among scholars whether The Green Woman and the Sheela-Na-Gig are connected. I come down on the side that they are, but there's reasonable argument for the other side too.

And oh, how I love your idea for a Green Dog!

Jack of the Green: A Resurrection

He spouts leaves, leaves sprouts in his path,
buds spring up in his Spring steps,
clothed and in closed-in foliage
he dances enhanced in greenery
through a village, spillage left in his wake
all green.

Jack’s tumbling, stumblings mask desire,
He burns and yearns in the greening fire.

Jack hacked down, springs back again,
resurrects erections, re-juices the town,
chases chaste women into furrows,
rises, surprises, raises the dead.
A year king, a yearling, shearling new shorn
returns unmourned in the dawn chorus
all green.

Jack’s ringing wranglings mask desire,
He dances, enhances the greening fire.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

That's perfect. Juicy, lusty and perfect.

I really enjoyed this post ,the pics are fantastic and the Green Man has always fascinated me
When I was growing up in Middlesex there were many tales of wild hunts and green men in the area around the Thames Valley.
Steve and I are planning a little trip soon,we shall be in Chagford on Sunday the 2nd of June,then on to friends in Totnes for a few days,after that we are going to stay in Kelmscott and visit The Manor finishing with a couple of days in Glastonbury. I shall be on the lookout for green men and women!

Perhaps there could be a visual representation of Green-Tilly's barks : broad leaves like maples for loud and lusty; delicate frond-like leaves for yaps like rowan and ash, and mid-range could be oak, linden and beech. What do you think?

I think too many (not GB) folk who love the Green Man want to ignore the lusty, crop-bringing, banging, boinking Jack. He is juicy, isn't he! Not for nothing is one of my favorite songs "The Hiring Fair."

Just because I am 74, I have not forgotten the furrowing days.

Looking forward with longing. . .


The Fairport Convention version of "The Hiring Fair," performed at Cropredy back in '87 (and recorded for their Real Time live album), is one of my Favorite Songs Ever. It's so beautiful (and sexy) that it gives me shivers.

(And it makes me almost cry to think how far our consumeristic, pornography-saturated culture is from this attitude toward and artistic portrayal of sexuality/sensuality. Yet another reason myth, including lusty myth, is important.)

Here's a vido I've just found of Fairport's performance of "The Hiring Fair":

I can't quite remember the first time I encountered the idea of the Green Man, but it was a long time ago, in my early teens I think, and it had that peculiar and amazing effect of being entirely new but completely familiar to me, that, "oh, of course there is a Green Man, I've always known that!" light-bulb moment. He remains magical and sacred to me.

And this post seems so well timed, I've just read the amazing essay (one of many) in Alan Garner's "The Voice That Thunders", where he applies the information in an oral folk tale he was told by his grandfather to the physical landscape he lives in, and discovers what might be vestiges of bronze age archaeology. The stories of the land, if handed down carefully, preserve so much knowledge if only we understand how to see it.

Incidentally, I once read that the name 'Jackson' derives from the name given to children (or at least, boys) who were born nine months after the May Eve revels, as they were considered to be 'Jack's sons', children of the Green Jack. How true it is I don't know, but I like the story, especially as 'Jackson' is my hubby's surname.


Your comments on the lusty Jack, spot on. Some of the Faerie Fests that the Boggies March at avoid darker, lustier, and rougher things. (I always imagine the word "rougher" in male topics, said in the voice of Robert Bly) Some embrace it. At NY Faerie, we will escort the Queen of Faerie, with sparkler fire works on the end of our staffs, as "Wifflers" a traditional role of the Green Man in English Pageant. So much so that there is a 18th Century manual on Fire Works, and on the cover, is a Leaf Masked "Greene Man" with a Fire Work Spouting Staff, in rather obvious symbolism.

A couple of further links, for your readers and to explore the topic above. Firstly my friend, B.O.G Brother (Beneficent Order of the Greenman) and Folklorist for the Library Of Congress here is the US, Stephen Winick, has been digging deeper in the name of the Green Man and is back ground than any other writer I know. Doing good work and has found some clear references to the term going back before Raglan, and it's marvelous. It show the wild, rough, and fertile Green Man that was present in English Pageantry, with his fire work staves and more, and that the common folks knew the name of him was indeed, "The Green Man"! Here is the first of Stephen's 4 part Blog on the subject:

Thanks for that. I'm pleased to hear that the name may be older than Lady I always secretly suspected...or at least hoped....


Another link, that I shared on your FB Wall, if I may. It's odd, actually, invoking the Green Man image so much in our life, and folks talk about how powerful it is to them, to have a March come up, or to see our Mask work, and always, I feel like a conduit. I offer service I presented at our UU Church on the Nature of the Green Man, for further exploration:

If you get a chance, Stephen's article on the subject, "Any Greene Men in your Shows?" is in the Green Word Newsletter I gave you at Faerie Con. If it's misplaced, as I know such things happen so often when traveling, (Oh do I, we travel with a kids, and Elf assistants, and a whole van load of stuff! All we need is a dog to topple the whole thing!) then it is partly in his second post on the subject. It seems 1594 may be one of the earliest references to them.

Thank you for your lovely blog, I always enjoy your new posts very much! Just a one little correction, the artist Riitta Ikonen is originally Finnish, not Norwegian. :)

Yes, the name goes back at least to the sixteenth century in England. In the post linked to above, you'll see many examples. What Lady Raglan did was to apply that name, originally a masked pageant character covered in leaves, to the "foliate head" found on churches, originally with reference to her own local church.

Also, 1939 is not quite the correct date for applying the name "Green Man" to the "Foliate Head;" I've pushed that back at least seven years. In my research I turned up a reference from 1932, also probably stemming from Lady Raglan's idea. In Lady Raglan’s article, she claims that it has been eight years since she began calling the foliate head in her local church “The Green Man.” This is corroborated by a letter I found in the journal Folk-Lore, published in 1932, in which a Miss Durham writes of the same foliate head described by Lady Raglan: “There is also a couple of corbels carved with a face—in the mouth is a sprig of foliage on each side, moustache-like. It is thought to be a ‘green man.’” Clearly, she had either spoken to Lady Raglan, or Raglan’s name for the face had caught on with the local clergy. In any case, it shows that the foliate head in Lady Raglan's church was known as a “Green Man” by 1932 at the latest.

Oh my goodness, this is wonderful.

Thanks so much for this post. I've done a fair bit of research on the green man, and it's great to see so much gathered together here.

Spooky timing, Terri. I have only just finished reading "Daughter of the Forest" by Juliet Marillier last week, and in the wee dark hours of morning today I snuggled up on my sofa to begin reading "Forests of the Heart" by Charles de Lint. I had never read it before now. Something must be in the air, the wild is calling to us all.

The idea of the Sheela-Na-Gig is absolutely fascinating to me, I am going to follow up on that.

Thank you for this insight into the Green Man's leaf-tangled history. My own research into the symbol was a few years ago now (and I'm by no means a proper scholar anymore, my academic days being long behind me), so I'm very glad to be caught up on the latest thinking about the subject. Thanks for taking the time to drop by, Stephen.

Correction made. Thanks, Aura!

Ah, that's one of my favorite books of Charles', tying northern woods and the desert together. I like Marillier's books too.

I've just begun reading Jay Griffith's "Wild", along with the Alan Garner essays. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Wow. That's all I can say.

I'm catching up on posts and wanted to make a late comment contribution, though I don't imagine Stuart will see it at this point, but maybe you will find it interesting, Terri.

I just brought back from England a Pitkin Guide titled "The Green Man" ( at St.-Martin-in-the- Field's gift shop, no less) that has a section on foliate lions!

It says: "Green Men are not the only beings to be closely linked with the plant world. The same image, with leaves growing from the mouth, was also applied by the sculptors to the heads of animals, lions being the most popular. The idea of a lion's head sprouting foliage was a natural development from the cat-mask which early manuscripts had used as a decorative ornament, and which had been taken up by stonemasons in the twelfth century at the same time as the Green Man."

Also mentions Green Dragons, A Green Wolf at Tewkesbury Abbey AND a Green Dog at St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol!

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