Thursday, June 9, 2011

World of Symbols: The Mysterious Green Man

by Michelle Snyder, Symbologist
White Knight Studio

Perhaps you know someone with the proverbial “green thumb”. It seems every plant they touch thrives. During the Atlantic period (5900-3750 BC) Vanir women with green thumbs were cultivating kitchen gardens. At the same time, the herding, cattle-rustling northern Ǣsir Celtic culture traveled the Andronova Corridor migrating into Europe, following food and crops, eventually merging with the Vanir goddess’ agricultural way of life. A “War of Accommodation” followed (a peaceful effort - not war as we experience it today), as the two lifestyles learned to live and thrive together. The image we know as the Green Man symbolizes these herders-turned-farmers, although the name “Green Man” was not used until  Lady Raglan used it in her article in 1939. The name for this old symbol stuck and became a popular name for British public houses, whose signs often show a full-figure Green Man. Older names for this symbolic character are Jack-O-the Green, Pan, Robin Goodfellow, Puck, and Bacchus.

Thousands of years later this intriguing symbol of the man in the garden is still central to the ancient cultures of pre-Christian Europe. There are countless numbers of these symbols found all over the world; even some American public buildings have carvings of this ever-present figure. Many beautiful European gardens have a likeness of this ancient farmer watching over their gardens, ensuring lush and beautiful vegetation. The Green Man appears in Islamic, Celtic, English, Indian, Russian, and German symbolism. It is one of the most proliferous symbols, still used today as a decorative motif in the British Isles and Europe, and in many chapels and public buildings worldwide.      

In some cathedrals in Europe images of the Green Man outnumber the images of Christ. The reason for the appearance of these predominantly pagan images in Christian churches is of some debate. There are representations of a green Christ, and of a Madonna and Child surrounded by foliage pouring from the mouth of a Green Man. A cathedral in Freiburg, Germany, depicts Christ in the tomb surrounded by weeping Green Men; it could be they were carved to preserve the memory of the farmers who provided for their women and children by working the land. A Madonna and Child in the Exeter Cathedral, UK (1309) is supported on the head of a Green Man, perhaps symbolizing the ancient male farmers who supported the women and children, later worshiping the goddess with the crops they grew.

Green Men show a wide range of moods and expressions and are placed in a variety of environments. There are even some green girls, although they are less common. The connection with vegetation and life is evident, prompting us to think about the relationship mankind has with the plant kingdom – that of the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide necessary for life. The Green Giant vegetable logo is a modern example of this ancient character. Other modern depictions of the Green Man include Peter Pan and the Hulk. This symbol of the man in the garden has come to represent irrepressible life, animal fertility, the hope of new crops and therefore “renaissance,” or rebirth, in the sense that the vegetation is reborn each spring. The green face represents a watcher, observing the cycles of birth, death, and resurrection of our most important natural resources. Our dependency upon the plant kingdom is part of the message: The Green Man blesses new growth and brings beauty to our environment, with colorful flowers and vegetation for food, reminding us of our part in the process of gardening.

Article and artwork © 2011 Michelle Snyder, author of Symbology: Decoding Classic Images, available at Amazon. Her website is

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