Foliate heads made an appearance at Neumagen in Germany carved on the sarcophagi of wine merchants during the second and third centuries. As Kathleen Basford wonders in her book ‘The Green Man’, this “perhaps recalls the ancient rustic festivals held in honour of Dionysos where revellers stained their faces with new wine and masked them with huge beards made out of leaves.”
However, the Green Man didn’t make his first appearance in Britain until the eleventh century where he put down roots in the Church and adapted his leafy structure to the English way of life, incorporating oak leaves, hawthorn, ivy and hops during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
In twelfth century churches such as St John the Evangelist, (Elkstone, Gloucestershire) and St Leonard, (Linley, Shropshire) the Green Man is crudely depicted in the stonework, but in St Mary and St David (Kilpeck, Herefordshire) the doorway carvings are beautifully chiselled in intricate detail.
The Green man began life in Britain and countries north of the Alps as a diabolical figure. In Exeter Cathedral he is depicted as being trodden upon by The Virgin, but without knowing the artist’s motives we can only guess at what he was trying to portray. Perhaps it is the triumph of Christianity over paganism or the triumph of ‘higher’ man over his animal nature. The Green Man has also been portrayed as the three-headed Satan (Triceps Beelzebub, the Trinity of Evil) which shows evidence of being perpetuated in Scandinavia but is comparatively rare in Britain. Fifteenth century examples of the unholy Trinity can be found in the Green Man’s portrayal as a devil in Chester Cathedral and as a crowned tricephalos at Cartmel Priory, Cumbria.
The Green Man branched out and flourished within the confines of the Church across Europe in the thirteenth century with unusual and startling depictions in Bamberg Cathedral, Germany and in Auxerre Cathedral, France. The former is in stone - a rectangular, almost stylised portrait of the Green Man - with an indescribable, yet knowing, expression, while in Auxerre he peers down at the congregation in bewilderment.
Nowadays, the Green Man is claimed as belonging to various groups, from neo-Pagans to certain occult societies. The worship of nature and the worship of the severed head certainly have places in British folk-lore and customs stretching back in time and a recurring character is Jack in the Green. He is also known as the Grass King, King of the May, the Wild Man, King of the Wood and more, and it can be said that in any of these incarnations he represents the spirit of vegetation. Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ cites many examples of customs pertaining to Jack in the Green, too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that the custom of beheading a foliate man effigy at the vernal equinox is persistent throughout Europe.
We can only guess at the reasons why the Church adopted the Green Man and in what context their architects meant him to be portrayed. In more recent centuries he has captured the public imagination as can be seen by the number of pubs bearing his name. However, as artists and pagans alike continue with their fascination with the Green Man it seems that we haven’t outgrown him yet nor completely forgotten that we are, like him, enmeshed with our natural surroundings.
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