Unraveling the Nature of the Green Man, Part 2: How a Pre-Christian Icon came to be found in Christian Monuments
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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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. ( 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 ( 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 )
By Riley Winters
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