This is the Green Man that oversees my garden, courtesy of a local artist.
I knew he had to be there as soon as I laid eyes on him, but I didn’t know much about his origins, apart from a vague association with pre-Christian beliefs.
So I was happy to read Nina Lyon’s recently published book ‘UpRooted’. This is a book about what little is known about this enigmatic figure, and its current revival. It’s also about being English and Welsh in these first decades of this century and at times Lyon’s wry descriptions of some of our contemporary rites and rituals (and her own attempts to construct these) made me laugh out loud. She weaves into these discussions of past and present philosophies about the relationships between Nature and spirituality.
This book is about place, as well as people and their ideas, especially the woods and valleys of the border lands between England and Wales, where the Green Man once had a significant presence.
She takes us to places where images of the Green Man were incorporated into the early medieval buildings of the newer Christian religion, in order, perhaps, to curtail the power of these earlier deities.
Her main focus is on the old kingdom of Archenfield, once a centre for Celtic beliefs, located in what we now call Herefordshire. She takes us to Garway church, where there is a carving of a horned Green Man. The church was built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the site of an earlier wooden one, .
By Kxjan – Photographed from ancient stone carving., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37015203
This early Green Man is on an arch dated to around 1200 and why he is there is not known, but the warring activities of the Templars connect this rural building and place with countries and beliefs far away to the East. Lyon gives us a detailed description of this image in her book but I wanted to see him for myself, at least digitally for now. That is the main reason I am writing this post – not to attempt to summarise Lyon’s book (I’d rather you read it for yourself), but to look at these Green men she discusses and reflect on some of what she says about them.
She also takes us to the nearby Kilpeck church, built by local masons in the twelfth century. These masons are thought to have been overseen by someone who trained, or worked in South West France, so we can see how two small, institutional buildings were part of global networks and set me thinking of William Golding’s richly imaginative account of this earlier time of building in ‘The Spire’. Like globalising movements today, Kilpeck shows us the local in the global with its rich carvings from pre-Christian life and worship. There are at least two Green Men, among a wonderful array of Celtic images. Here is the one you see on the doorway, before going in:
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=434197
These two powerful images in Garway and Kilpeck are given a more abstracted, distancing human form, in striking comparison to the contemporary Green Man who guards the fertility of my small garden, and oversees my desire to encourage wildness within it, with as light a management as my neighbours will tolerate.
However, the Green Man that was originally on the roof of Dore Abbey, built in the same century as those above, is more recognisably human and approachable :
This is what Nina Lyons says about this Green Man:
He had the demeanour of a laughing Buddha, or an anthropomorphised Sun. This was the Green Man of pub signs and summer-worship.
He is a Green Man made by the Cistercians, formed from within their beliefs of working with the land, and with animals, his smile and colour symbolising the beneficence of Nature, with blue skies and rich harvests. He reminds me of the version of the old Roman god, Bacchus, who officiated over the drinking of wine and free for all sex, the powers of fertility and creation. The two Green Men of Garway and Kilpeck, in contrast, index the havoc-wreaking power of Nature we have no control over – the roaring winds, the floods and droughts, the tree roots cracking through concrete and the joyous mass of plants that take back places we have abandoned.
I would like to know what the people who made these images called them, what the people who went into these buildings during that time thought and said about them in their Welsh or medieval English tongues. They certainly wouldn’t have called them ‘the Green Man’. As Lyon said, this is a very recent name, invented by Julia Hamilton, writing about folklore in 1939. Lyon argues that much of the writing about figures such as the Green Man, like Hamilton’s, and those of the Late Victorian, have created new myths, based on speculation, because all we have is a diverse set of images like the ones I have included here, and a rag-bag of remnants of old tales and rites.
Still, as Lyon says, the Green Man himself, representing our relationship with the very force or soul of Nature, has always been with us, ‘It had been there all along, hidden at the edges, doing its own thing, like a wild man of the woods.‘
These days he is coming out of the edges and into our garden centres and our festivals in new forms, as this photo from the Pilton Green Man day shows. I think the Green Man, in his multiple guises, is as important for us today as he was to our ancestors, local and global.