The Green Man

One reason to go to Southwell Minster as Elena and I have done (2003) is to see the Green Men in the Chapter House. There are examples of the Green Man proper and the Jack in the Green. There are nine in the Chapter House carved around 1290. The Green Man has foliage coming out of his mouth and Jack in the Green looks out through held foliage.
The Green Man may be constructed of leaves in entirety; or have skin turning into leaves; or have leaves coming out of orifices of the head and even its eyes and constitute its hair; or there may even be a head composed of a fruit or flower; or there is a usual human head looking through vegetation. The Green Man, then, knows nature either by living within it (like the Jack in the Green) or because of levels of fusion.
The Green Man in general is the close combination of face and foliage, uniting humankind and nature, usually carved in stone or wood. For those who believe in such things, the Green Man can be a Jungian archetype. This is because it is found in many cultures across the world. It can be seen at the Jain temple in Ranakpur where birds sit in the tree; a Green Man stands guard (as many do) over a Buddha in the temple of Swayambunath Gompa in Kathmandu, Nepal. They are found in Jerusalem, in Iraq, Borneo and Lebanon. They are certainly found throughout Europe, one example being Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. Certainly they are found in the United Kingdom.
They come from different times, ancient and modern, and represent many aspects of connections with the natural and then with the more set apart and defined sacred, either directly or in some association. In other words the Green Man and Christ can conflate, or there are associations between the Buddha and Green Man because of the importance of the Bodhi Tree. Buddha has close associations with the forest, plants and animals, as indeed does Krishna and Rama in Hinduism.
The Green Man also relates to morality tales and folklore. The most significant must be the relationship with Robin Hood, who lives in the forest and who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. An outlaw from unjust authorites, he is master of his environment within the trees and is a Jack in the Green. Another reference is magic and King Arthur and Merlin producing power out of nature but then falling back into nature with the Broceliande forest and Nimue joining him into a tree. A secular use is as a name for public houses, where The Green Man is depicted as a forestry worker or indeed Robin Hood, although later on consciousness of origins led to pubs using the Green Man in the form seen in churches sprouting vegetation.
Other associations are with animals, like the serpent and dragon, and with the snake that bits its tail forming a circle. The snake here may be eating itself or emerging. The snake regenerates through its shedding of skin. There is the related fundamental of the healing spring. The tree is often made sacred, as in an original fountain of creation (the Norse ash tree Yggdrasil), or a place of knowledge (in Jewish Adam and Eve, and Yggdrasil on to which Odin sacrifices himself to gain knowledge), or even representing the Universe (Bhagavad Gita). The tree can even be God so that in the Upanishads Brahman the highest is pictured like a tree:

The One stands like a tree established in heaven.
By Him, the Person, the whole world is filled.

(Radhakrishnan, Moore, 1957, Svetasvatara Upanishad - part of III.9, 91)

The Green Man is Pagan at root (though this means Hindu origins and on in India), so that if human kind has divinity then it is shared with the natural world. That may be the totality of divinity or pantheism. Good and bad combines and mixes because all aspects of the divine are represented. This means male and female too, even though it is a Green Man (and for Christianity, Christ is Man too but representing male and female). So this relates to the Goddess, or the Earth Mother as opposed to the Sky God. It relates to the May Day dances. It is also about regeneration where, every Easter, the leaves come forth. In the Green Man leaves shoot out of its mouth, nose, eyes and ears (places of the senses) in new life. However, the Green Man may be a powerful deity and able to suck those forms into itself. The religions then showed their connection with these root forms and aspects, so that Green Men are absorbed into and represented by religions. For some Eastern traditions the Green Man means rebirth, and for Christianity it means resurrection positioned at the season of regeneration. Christianity thus carves the Green Man into churches inside and outside.
Christianity takes up the multiple meanings of the Green Man (as do other religions). One is its use as an aspect of the threat of nature and its domination over human lives, or the personalising of the power of nature. In amongst the trees is the face that people have to reckon with, a frightening personality that reflects and gives back to the danger of the forest and all nature red in tooth and claw. This is the same reference point as Little Red Riding Hood. For Eastern religions again the Green Man is a deity that is active and not always pleasant. Another meaning however is the divine aspect of benevolence which is where the Green Man and Christ become combined, and Christ is God in the Christian tradition, or with the Buddha as a guardian to allow the true path to come forth. On a humanist reading this is an expression of humanity seeing itself dependent on nature, it lining up with the tallness of trees, of death and being born, of habitat, and a stripping away of technology. On a postmodern reading it is about not defining ourselves as complete, but part of the signs and symbols of where we come from and on which ultimately we can be killed as well as continue to live. The story of human life is the story of the continued growth of the earth into which we disappear and emerge again. The Jack in the Green pokes out of the woods in which he is dependent, the guardians Green Men keep watch as part of duty towards nature (equal to Jewish dominion), and the Green Man of sprouting leaves shows fusion, that the trees have personality like we do.
This is not something purely ancient. It has been expressed in Greek and Roman cultures. In Europe it emerged in forms of clear face sculptures giving out vegetation at a time when rational learning was advanced by Islam. However, mystical Sufi Islam wrote of humankind emerging from the plant (to animal and then human - Rumi). These and more forms (eg the fruit of vegetation) came about as European Catholic Christianity became more gothic. However, representations were often hidden: the craftsmen and clergy knew they were looking down and watching but were afraid of too close an association with a still Pagan sympathetic public. The craftsmen of the mercantilist traders (who put money into churches) were more visible with their wood carvings of varieties of humorous aspects of life including Green Men. Some Green Men are in gold (e.g. Tewkesbury Abbey). Stained glass windows came to show Green Men more visibly. Sometimes the leaves spread out with a circumference of a circle looking like the sun. Representations of the Virgin Mary became more natural than severe linking with flowers and leaves.There is a Christian biblical reference that is important:

By their fruits shall ye know them.

Of course this can be represented pictorally by association with fruit in that the Green Man is a fruit. Sometimes (e.g. in Italy) the Green man loses its natural form into an artistic style. The attachment of Christianity to specific artistic forms could be because it lacks the use of nature as in the Jewish synagogue and home (e.g. Sukkot) as well as the freer ability within Christianity to produce representations of the divine. Christianity in some Protestant and Puritan expressions stripped away the Green Man along with other sacred artefacts and references, preferring a severe isolation, and this is repreated in some aspects of the passing belief in the salvation of technology and its progress. However the decline of Christianity as a world view has meant some of its space taken up with renewed neo-Paganism. The trees return, and sacred representations, such as the female aspect in the Goddess. Also the secular has turned to ecology as a more balanced approach to using or not using technology, and a critique of progress (e.g, in the unease surrounding genetic modification of crops -  A Green Man cannot emerge from GM crops because that would be just a man). The Green Man is also nothing but vegetarian. Representations linking humankind to nature become reminders of the need to keep in touch with our roots otherwise we cannot go on living: techology does not isolate humankind.
A sceptical note has to be that often green leaves are a carving filler, a mattress on to which figures (like Christ and angels - e.g Lincol Cathedral) were put. Not every seeming representation is profound. Another point is that just as the existence of pyramids in central America does not imply contact (by a world civilisation) with Egypt, so the association of a face with vegetation around the world is just about us living where we did and do in each place and so does not imply an universal archetype. It is rather an obvious association. The association is common even if rich in potential, and whilst emergent leaves or looking through foliage imply connections and give meanings, the form does not need the additional speculation of archetypes. Nevertheless something profound is being realised about where we came from and who we are, which is then depicted. Today this depiction is also about the balance of the world (even Gaia) and where we are going.


The Green Man

The Green Man at Southwell (picture by Adrian Worsfold)


Jack in the Green

The Jack in the Green at Southwell (picture by Adrian Worsfold)



Radhakrishnan, S., Moore, C. A. (1957), A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Anderson, W. (1998), Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth, Helhoughton, Fakenham: Compassbooks.

Harding, M. (1998), A Little Book of The Green Man, London: Aurum Press.


Adrian Worsfold