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Rosslyn Chapel Founded in the early 15th century by Wm. St. Clair, Earl of Orkney

Unveiling the Secret Behind the Rosslyn Chapel’s and Dornoch Cathedral’s Green Men’s Missing Teeth


Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel came under the world spotlight in 2003 after Dan Brown featured it in his bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. A hitherto unseen correspondence between this legendary chapel in southern Scotland and the magnificent Dornoch Cathedral further north in Sutherland, poses a highly-niche mystery.  Historian Ashley Cowie  finds a curious, sacred feature found depicted on holy buildings around the world - foliate heads – may hold the key to solving the mystery.

Green Man of the Rosslyn Chapel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Green Man of the Rosslyn Chapel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Foliate Heads

‘Foliate heads’ was a popular term in the English language up to the mid-20th century used to describe carved faces with flora sprouting from their mouths, which pepper the architectural features of many European medieval churches and cathedrals. Today, they are most often called ‘Green Men’ but this term was coined in March 1939 when amateur folklorist, Lady Raglan, published an article titled The Green Man in Church Architecture in the Folklore Journal, which concluded: “This figure (Green Men) I am convinced, is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life, and the question is whether there was any figure in real life from which it could have been taken. The answer, I think, is that there is but one of sufficient importance, the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May and the Garland King, who is the central figure in the May Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe.”

Green Man painted on a wooden roof boss in Rochester Cathedral, Kent (medieval). (Public Domain).

Green Man painted on a wooden roof boss in Rochester Cathedral, Kent (medieval). (Public Domain).

Scholars have since proven that the folkloric figures; Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood and the Garland King, were later creations and Lady Raglan’s ideas were greatly disregarded by the academic community. Her name ‘Green Man’, however, remains the favored name for what were always known as foliate heads, and are now categorized by academics into three distinct groups:

  • the Foliate Head: completely covered in green leaves
  • the Bloodsucker Head: sprouts vegetation from all facial orifices (for example tear ducts, nostrils and mouth)
  • the Disgorging Head: spews vegetation from its mouth

Detail of a ‘disgorging’ Green Man medieval misericor in Ludlow parish church. (Public Domain).

Detail of a ‘disgorging’ Green Man medieval misericor in Ludlow parish church. (Public Domain).

Green Men as Mythological Archetypes

Dr Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, popularized the terms ‘collective unconscious’ and ‘archetype’.


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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history.

Top Image: Rosslyn Chapel Founded in the early 15th century by Wm. St. Clair, Earl of Orkney. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Ashley Cowie

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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