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The Green Man Tradition: Collecting an Ancient Icon

green man chair

“It’s Pagan,” she said, pointing to the image carved into the crest rail of an antique chair. “And I won’t have Pagan symbols in my home.”

I let her remark slide. I don’t waste time arguing with someone whose mind won’t be changed. Besides, she was partly correct: the symbol was Pagan. And Christian and Muslim and Hindu and Celtic and Hebrew and Wiccan. It was the symbol of the Green Man, which, for thousands of years, has been carved into wood and stone, etched into jewelry, and painted on canvas.

Chances are that you have seen this symbol (or family of symbols, actually) but you may not have recognized it for what it was. You may have seen a carving where the entire face was composed of leaves, or maybe a face with vines or branches sprouting from the mouth, nose, ears or eyes.

Rather than the facial cavities sprouting foliage, you may have noticed that the facial hair was made up of leaves or fruit. Maybe you’ve seen a head surrounded by foliage wherein the leaves were not actually part of the face. Within the general description of “face with foliage” the variations are almost endless; there appears to be no standard representation of a Green Man.

Carved into antiques and architecture, you may see:

• A series of heads linked together by vines or branches;
• Two- or three-headed Green Men;
• A Green Man forming a Tree of Life image;
• Snakes or beasts (rather than vegetation) sprouting from a Green Man’s mouth;
• A nose forming the trunk of a tree, sprouting to form a body of leaves and vegetation.

Various Green Man images are divided into three general categories:

1. Foliate heads (faces covered in foliage);
2. Disgorging heads (spews vegetation from its mouth);
3. Bloodsucker heads (sprouts vegetation from facial orifices);

Green Man mythology crosses cultures and continents, ages and creeds. William Anderson, in his book “Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth” identifies green deities in ancient Samaria, Egypt, Meso-America, Tibet, and India. According to H. Talat Halman, Assistant Professor of Religion at Central Michigan University, the figure of al-Khi?r (literally “Green Man”) in Muslim tradition is one of the four immortals, believed to have been the spiritual guide of Moses and Alexander the Great, a wali (saint), and a prophet. Professor Halman also reminds us that the Hindu avatar Rama is green, and that the Tibetan yogi Milarepa turned green from eating nettles.

Despite the sometimes macabre appearance of Green Man images, they are generally considered to represent a positive and benevolent force. Most Western folklorists assert that the foliate head symbolizes rebirth and regeneration and link it to the Christian iconography of resurrection.

In English folklore, the Green Man has been associated with tales of Camelot (Sir Gawain was initiated by the Green Knight), Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Green, the Knights Templar, and the Garland King (the central figure in May Day celebrations). Green Man images can be found throughout the British Isles, incorporated not just into architecture but into furnishings, garden and cemetery statuary, embroideries, paintings, pub signs, and even pistols and cannon.

Despite earlier Muslim and Hindu references to a green deity, the designation “Green Man” is relatively recent. It dates to 1939, when Lady Raglan, wife FitzRoy Richard Somerset, the fourth Baron Raglan, coined the term “Green Man” in her 1939 article “The Green Man in Church Architecture in the Folklore Journal” (unfortunately, scholars seem to have ignored her given name and refer to her only as Lady Raglan). Prior to 1939, Green Man images were designated “foliate faces.”

In her article, Lady Raglan references the Western roots of the Green Man image and it’s proliferation via church architecture. Although foliate heads appeared in ancient Rome, it was not until the symbol was adopted by the Christian church that the form fully developed and spread across Europe. Modern scholars dispute Lady Raglan’s methods and conclusions, but her assignment of the moniker “Green Man” caught on and seemed to organize and elucidate a complicated iconography. Now, the term Green Man dominates the study of this tradition.

Given the pervasiveness—historically and geographically—of Green Man mythology, it’s not surprising that William Anderson suggests that the figure is part of our collective unconscious, and represents a primeval Jungian archetype which is central to our relationship with nature. If this is true, a case might be made that modern Green Men may include pop culture characters like The Jolly Green Giant (literally a foliate man), The Incredible Hulk (representing a transformation or rebirth) and Master Yoda (representing oneness with nature’s Force).

Truly, collectors of Green Man iconography will see what they wish to see in each image. But, that’s good. When it comes to collecting Green Man items, there’s something for everyone, regardless of creed or nationality.

Previously published on WorthPoint.com

Originally posted 2015-09-11 18:41:00.

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