All  
Drawing of a Green Man. Beham, (Hans) Sebald, 1500-1550

Unraveling the Nature of the Green Man, Part 2: How a Pre-Christian Icon came to be found in Christian Monuments

Read Part 1

One of the most important quandaries to discuss in relation to the Green Man, a representation of a face surrounded by foliage and greenery, is how he came to grace the interiors and exteriors of churches, parishes, and other Christian buildings.  A deity proven to have stemmed from before the coming of Christianity, the Green Man's appearance at Christian locations was an interesting puzzle for archaeologists and art historians.  Why would the Green Man be depicted on so many Christian locations when his origins were pre-Christian?  Wouldn't it thus be considered sacrilegious to present him in a Christian context?  To begin to unravel the nature of these questions, it must first be discussed where images of the spirit appear to originate.  The most pertinent to discuss is the impact of the gods of the Roman Empire on the nature of the Green Man.

Green man at St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Green man at St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague ( Wikimedia Commons )

While the Green Man is an entity all on his own, there are indications that he was inspired by pre-existing deities, again both before and after the coming of the Roman Empire.  Influence from within the Empire stems from both Roman and Greek gods, particularly Pan/Faunus and Dionysus/Bacchus.  (For the purposes of this article these gods will be referred to by their Greek names, Dionysus and Pan). Both gods are sexualized nature aficionados, thereby presented as anthropomorphic personifications of the forces of nature and it's cyclical nature— just like the Green Man.  Pan was a satyr, a half man, half goat entity who took great pleasure in having sex with almost anything that moved—a trait of satyrs as a race.  Despite this raucous behavior, Pan was more importantly a creature of nature tasked with protecting shepherds, mountains, pastures, and the wild.  Similarly, Dionysus was a young god who encouraged sexual and spiritual freedom, whose cults appealed predominately to the repressed of the Greek and Roman cultures: women.  His worships often turned into orgies and most often took place outside in open fields in the middle of the night. 

Marble statuette of Pan by Jose Manuel Felix Magdalena

Marble statuette of Pan by Jose Manuel Felix Magdalena ( Wikimedia Commons )

On the surface, Dionysus and Pan appear to only relate to the Green Man as gods who are joined to the natural world—the sex they both take part in appears a vital aspect only in regards to the Green Man's possible association with rebirth.  However, upon closer look, both Pan and Dionysus have more to offer.  Pan is considered a protector of the wilds, looking over both those who cultivate it and nature itself as a vast wilderness.  Dionysus, on the other hand, was often linked with the physical act of death, as a second myth of his birth claimed that he was a born-twice deity: once from a godly mother and then again from the thigh (sometimes heart) of his father Zeus.  In this respect, Dionysus takes on a very important role relating to the final cycle of life, just as the Green Man does when depicted as a skull.

Pan is considered a protector of the wilds, looking over both those who cultivate it and nature itself as a vast wilderness

Pan is considered a protector of the wilds, looking over both those who cultivate it and nature itself as a vast wilderness ( Wikimedia Commons )

Outside of the Roman Empire, the most common affiliation is with the god Cernunnos, a nature god of the Celts.  He is often called "the horned god", in large part because he is shown wearing a pair of antlers on his head, an intentional (and quite obvious) indication of his association with animals—deer, dogs, rams, etc.  Little is known of Cernunnos because of the Celts' scarce literary records, but modern research surrounding his origins and worship indicate that it was probable that he was a god of nature and fertility, who was not assimilated into the Roman culture as some other Celtic gods were.  Nonetheless, Cernunnos was known within the empire—especially at the borders—and thus his reference as a precursor for the Green Man is apt. 

Cernunnos, a nature god of the Celts.

Cernunnos, a nature god of the Celts. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Gods who circulated within and those who passed through the Roman Empire are pertinent to research on the Green Man's Christian nature because of the impact of Rome on Christianity.  The religion came to dominate the western world through the influence of Emperor Constantine I of Rome in the fourth century CE.  With the new religion flourishing at first next to their original pagan ways, it is not unlikely that there were mutual visual borrowings—whether intentionally or otherwise.  It has long been believed, by scholars such as Thomas Mathews and Timothy Freke, that Christianity was aided in its spread throughout ancient Rome and its surroundings areas by adopting iconographical elements from pre-existing Roman deities, such as Dionysus, and melding them with Jesus of Nazareth.  If this technique is accurate and was applied to other Christian people and symbols as well, then it is highly likely that the Green Man was assimilated to represent a nature-centric version of the Holy Spirit, breathing life into the world as represented by the leaves and vines exploding from him. 

As the Green Man has no myths surrounding his life as other pre-Christian spirits do, the meaning behind his image could have been inferred or stretched for Christian believers.  It is likely that the early Christians saw the Green Man as a symbol of the cyclical nature of Christianity, and placed him as stone or wood carvings on and within churches to remind followers of certain fundamental Christian ideals.  Scholarship implies that the Green Man was valued in some Christian contexts as a representation of rebirth or of the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.  Just as rebirth, reliance, and ruin were at the core of the pre-Christian Green Man's beliefs, the post-Christian Green Man appears to be similarly valued and thus placed as a reminder throughout Christian sanctuaries.  This appreciation will seemingly continue to be as long as these principles apply to the nature of Man.

Pre-Christian symbol of a Green Man sits alongside a Christian statue of Jesus, St John the Baptist, St Michael & All Angels

Pre-Christian symbol of a Green Man sits alongside a Christian statue of Jesus, St John the Baptist, St Michael & All Angels ( Wikimedia Commons )

Though the Green Man as a Christian icon presents as an enigma, what can be gleamed from archaeological records and art historians provide an interesting view of both an ancient and modern symbol.  Christians and pagans alike found a purpose for the ideals his form espoused, and shared his image in the wilds of the woods and the pillars of churches.  Despite that his origins may permanently remain unknown, his importance as an emblem of nature and the cycles of life remains, and continues to be valued today among the followers of the neo-pagan religion.

Featured image: Drawing of a Green Man. Beham, (Hans) Sebald, 1500-1550 ( Wikimedia Commons )

Read Part 1

Bibliography

Araneo, Phyllis. "Green Man Resurrected: An Examination of the Underlying Meanings and Messages of the Re-Emergence of the Ancient Image of the Green Man in Contemporary, Western, Visual Culture." Master's thesis: University of the Sunshine Coast, 2006. Queensland, Australia.

Euripides. The Bacchae (Focus Publishing, Massachusetts, 1998.)

Freke, Timothy and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (Harmony Books, New York, 2001.)

Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth . (Routledge: New Jersey, 1992.)

Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1995.)

Rodgers, Nigel. Life in Ancient Rome People and Places (Hermes House: London, 2006.)

Webster, Jane. "Creolizing the Roman Provinces,"  American Journal of Archaeology.  105, 2001.  p. 222.

Zimmerman, John Edward. Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Random House Publishing, New York, 1983.)

By Ryan Stone

Comments

The Green Man is simply a clear case of Anthropomorphism, anybody who has been to a forest especially an old untouched forest will have seen 'faces' and human looking shapes all over the place. That is how our brains are wired, I sped a lot of time in Nature, and even though I've gotten used to it it still creeps me out from time to time, remember a Flashlight is your best friend in the woods :)

Many symbols here, Eurydice was chased by a satyr and bitten on the heel by a viper causing her to die and fallen into Hades. The satyr is carnal nature that has to be transformed by fire. Thus, Jesus on the cross next to the Greenman. On the cross above Jesus is INRI...Nature will be renewed whole by fire....sacrifice of the carnal animal nature, so that the lion can lay down with the lamb
The red stag in the Lost Book of Nostradamus...the red stag with the Fleur de lis (the female aspect.....the white lilly) near its heart,.....the three aspects of the divine female through time. I think the red stag represents the male red rose and the female is the white stag, the while Lillie.
Cerunnous, with the dog and the snake is like Mithra slaying the bull with the dog, snake assisting him. The snake in this depiction is wisdom. The snake Cerunnous holds with the ram's head is wisdom, but also the ram's head to me depicts the spring equinox, the new year in the ancient tradition was at the spring equinox, the beginning of Aries in the zodiac. Also, to me Cerunous is a symbol of Demuzi, the shepherd of sheep, the lambs being sacrificed to Ahriman. In the fairy tale the "Glass Coffin" the stag slays the bull who, in the story is a wicked sorccer that cast the spell putting the princess and her kingdom in to glass coffins. The depiction of the bull with people sacrificing their infants to it, suggests that the Apis bull represents an wicked entity.
In a round about way, the satyr chasing Eurydice and the viper biting her heel (the snake will strike her heel, and her seed will bruise its head), is a story of how a wild nature with very carnal characteristics chased the female into Hades. Like Europa being carried away by the bull to be abandoned on Crete. Mithra with his phyrgian cap, (the stag) as in the story of The Glass Coffin will slay the bull. Persephone/Eurydice will be free of Hades at the spring equinox, the beginning of Aries, Easter....white lilies are common at Easter. The 9000 years of Ahriman ends on the day of Ohrmazd in the month of Farvardin, when day equals night...at noontide. That time falls at Easter this year.....I can only hope....the time is near. :-)
The song of Solomon starts with the female saying that she is being called to the king's chamber...to me this is the female being called into Hades while the Roebuck roams the hills (outside of hell). So many stories of a male aspect saving the female from hell. Mithra comes out of a rock with a bunch of grapes (dimensional portal) at the side....so this suggests the male is outside of hell and comes into this dimension to slay the bull and free the female.

But, this is all a process in the psyche and not the physical so much....there in it is individual. To clear the psyche of the dark smoke of Typhon, so the real world...the authentic fire of Ohrmazd can be seen. To be able to see Nature, the Greenman, as he really is, the psyche has to be purified by fire. Maybe it is only perception??? But, as in Ephesians 6:12 it is understood the we do not battle against flesh and blood, but against Principalities and Wickedness in high places. Break the dark spell the psyche is under, is to be free of the glass coffin. I think in some respects this involves a close connection to Nature and maybe that is why the Greenman is so important.

is partly pictured above and I have thought in passing that the 'three buds' with the multiple rings of dotted lines surrounding them have to mean more than leaves, etc. They are not just in the background, they ARE the background. As such, they have to mean something important.
What I think they are is an awareness of the interconnectedness of life. What I think they are is a depiction of molecules or atoms. Could there have been an understanding of life on the genetic level?
That is applying our human anthropomorphism but as we are discovering every day there is more that the ancients knew than we could guess. Druids famously kept their knowledge to themselves as the Celts forbade writing of their laws.

alas another sign of pantheism in ancient times...

Pages

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Next article