Post 722 –by Gautam Shah
Green Man is a mystery that persists through various times, faiths and cultures. Historically the Green Man has appeared in unconnected locations and periods. The unexplained history and purposes are as enigmatic as the combination of human and plant. There are very few human-plant blends in comparison to human-animal mixes. The human-plant combinations have not been deific figures of worship or even reverence. The human-plant mix as Green man has only the characteristic head that is immortalized. It has remained a superfluous motif and never became an integrated architectonic element. Green Man has survived with minor transformations in the same form. The few changes have not been very evolutionary, like the changing forms of Gothic grotesque images. The forms are not easy to mark out for the age or culture.
Green man is not set to any particular context, position or location. The facial expressions do not reflect, where it is posited, in corners, over columns, door-heads or under the brackets. Green Man though expresses many different moods, angry reflective, gloomy humorous melancholic, idyllic, cheerful, whimsical, romantic, mysterious, ominous, calm, hopeful, fearful, tense, lonely, etc. Green man is usually interpreted as a positive and benevolent force. The figure is never angelic but always earthly.
The Green man is depicted as a masculine face ranging from the middle aged to elderly. It is a strong figure of power, almost like the mythological iron smiths in various cultures. Green man is construed to be a symbol of a rebirth, cycle of growth in spring, fertility or procreation, but without any iconographic evidence. Some have claimed it to be a pre-pagan example of belief system of nature related deities, but again without any mythological trace.
Green man has strong lineage to plants, shrubs, climbers or trees. During and before the pagan period, groves of oak and yew trees were places of worship and sacrifices. The trunk, branches and foliage were shaken or cut on ceremonial occasions. The parts of trees, like the trunk, branches, twigs and sap were seen as human arms, fingers, blood etc. The trees were associated with death and rebirth, because of their capacity to regrow from almost dried and dead conditions. The timber of the yew trees as support posts were supposed to ‘outlast a post of iron’. The sacred groves were ideal location for propagating the new belief through the new churches. The ancient sacred groves of trees were maintained in churchyards. Christian Roman priests, during the periods of gruesome spread of Christianity were very suspicious of tree worship. But Green man has manifested in close proximity to the figure of Christ, but not as a deity. It was continuing symbol of life.
Ancient pre-pagan icons of fertility were a forest-god, a symbol of birth-death-rebirth cycles. The forest God was personified as a man, but only as a spiritual presence of nature. He was worshiped in hope of good harvests and symbolically guarded the gate between the real and unreal worlds.
Celts considered themselves as descendants of trees. Celtic Paganism, like many other regional versions were polytheistic in nature, but with strong reverence for the trees. The identity of a tree was as a benefactor of fertility, albeit a male one and not that of a mother or a Goddess of fertility. The fertility was celebrated with sexual intercourses, during the springs in sacred groves. Trees were more of holy places but not present as deific motifs.
The Green man is depicted as a face of an elderly man, with a dense backdrop of wild shrubs. Green man image of face has wines and leaves jutting mainly from ears and head, occasionally from mouth, but less frequently from the nostrils. Edges of face and beard are lined by vines and shown bearing flowers and fruits. These images are consistent, though lack literary or other folklore descriptions.
There is no evidence of images or sculptures of Green man placed as the main deity or near an altar for worship. Green man images occur as decorative ornament in architecture, doors, columns, wall corners, gates and graves. Green man is found in both secular and ecclesiastical buildings. The ‘Green-man’ became a popular name and emblem for inns, pubs, and public buildings. It is as a mystical character, a superfluous image of just the head. The Green man now had three distinct forms, ‘1 Foliate head, completely covered in green leaves except the eyes, 2 Spewing head, mouth bursting with vegetation, and, 3 Hideous head, sprouting vegetation from all facial orifices’.
From Renaissance periods, Green man began to be included as symbolic emblem on manuscripts, adornments, stained glass and murals. The Green man now literally began to be green coloured. A number of images of the Green Man have been found on graves. The head, in the form of, not a pompous person, but an empty skull suffused with greenery. Green man also occurs as hollow mask of cast plaster and embossed metal, the image may seem a stylized, but with facial expressions set to be relevant to the place and purpose.
Early ‘Green-men’ were known simply as foliate heads. These foliate heads were coined as the Green Men, by Lady Raglan in her article ‘The Green Man in Church Architecture’ (published in the ‘Folklore’ journal of March 1939).
Green Men are connected with the acanthus for foliage ornament and decoration. The pattern of foliage leaves and branches, the flow of beard, mustaches and head hair, eyes, mouth, in each motif are different. The sculptor or artist can have different manners of expression but was there an attempt to depict certain type of mood? Some motifs or masks do convey friendly, fierce or pensive emotions, taking away the grotesqueness.
Green deities have been mainly of two types: The deities are placed against a plant or tree to prove their lineage, or the body features such as face, limbs etc. have elemental transplants of vegetation. At another level certain class of persons are respected for their knowledge about vegetation and medicinal value. Greek and Roman gods Dionysus/Bacchus, are considered precursors of the Green man. Bacchus is often portrayed crowned with vines or ivy.
Celtic culture offers, another tree related character, Druid. It was a real one, rather than a concept. Word Druid originates from the Latin word nemus =grove (Nemetona =goddess of the sacred grove). Druid has many mythical connections such as (Breton=drouiz, Welsh=derwydd, Old Irish=druí, Scottish Gaelic=draoidh). In Celtic cultures (like Gaulish, British, Irish), the druid was accepted as social leader and knowledgeable person. He was responsible for divination, worship and sacrifices. The Christians naturally did not approve of such a cult figure. The Druids were not allowed by Christian leaders to document their knowledge of occultism or medicine, as both were more rational and could pose problems. Druids were experts on vegetation and use of natural medicines (almost like Indian ‘Vaidya’). And in spite of Druid’s age seniority, robe and white beard, their identification with the Green man has never been validated.
The Green One, has continued to be a revered figure, in spite of Islamic dictates against physical deities. Green one has been the mysterious and spiritual guide and protector of all Sufis.
Khidr or al-Khidr =the Green One or Verdant one, also transcribed as Khidar, Khizr, Khyzer, Khizar, is a revered figure in Islam, described in the Quran as a ‘righteous servant of God, who possessed great wisdom or mystic knowledge’. The most popular shrine in Yazd, the Pir-e Sabz =the shrine of green vegetation (perhaps due to the green foliage it), is dedicated to a female figure Anahita (who brings rain and marks the beginning of spring). Worshipers pray for the fertilizing rain and celebrate the greening of nature and the renewal of life.
The Green Man vanished, for a while, from major buildings, but it never disappeared from the psyche of common people. It began to appear, surreptitiously, as street motif, in nondescript buildings and odd corners of restored buildings. Green man became a Mascaron (an ornamental motif of a human face). These were placed on door lintels, heads, to keep off the evil spirits. The motif became a decoration in Beaux Arts and Art Nouveau styles. The face motifs adopted special moods or expressions of the place and context.
This is the Second article of the series “REVERING THE NATURE”
First article was REVERING THE NATURE – Part-I Human-Plant Lineages.
Next Article in this series will be > REVERING THE NATURE – HUMANOID or ANIMALISTIC FORMS.