Monday, January 19, 2009

The Green Man

Here in England, and in fact throughout Europe, we have some beautiful medieval churches and cathedrals, one of the ideas being that a 'book' in stone could be created, so that certain information and knowledge could be passed on to future generations. One of the things that I like about the old craftsmen and artists was that their work was done anonymously, it being a time before one slapped a signature across such things and it also being before the ego developments of the more modern ages.

If one looks closely into the gloom of these old churches and cathedrals all sorts of wonderful and curious carved figures begin to appear. One such striking character is the figure of the Green Man, who seems to be an unusual choice of subject to be displayed inside a Christian church, him being a symbol of Spring and vitality and looking like a pre-Christian nature spirit of some sort.

These green men can be seen in most of the old churches in cities, towns and villages all over the country, being carved up until the nineteenth century in the forms of roof bosses, misericords and sometimes even on fonts and on bench ends, or anywhere else that decorative patterning may occur. The Green Man is widely felt to be an embodiment of natural fertility, a spirit of the primeval greenwood.

One has to look hard for these masks and figures, as they often seem to be just decorative leaf patterns, or they can be very high up, looking down at us from the roof of the church, or sometimes they can can be as small as just a few inches across.

Another aspect of the Green Man is that he seems to refer to the Green Language, otherwise known as the Language of the Birds. As David Ovason in his remarkable book on Nostradamus puts it:

"The original source for the term Green Language was the French Langue Vert. The Vert (Green) is almost certainly an example of arcane aphesis. In French, ouvert means 'open'. The Langue Ouvert was the open language, the tongue of ordinary men. When Ouvert became Vert by this aphetic change, it means the opposite of open, i.e. closed; the Langue Vert was therefore the 'closed language', the 'occult language', the 'hidden tongue'. The double science of the two languages - the sacred and profane, the closed and the open - is contained in this one French word ouvert. As a result, in this strange language, a word which may appear quite ordinary is invested with another, deeper meaning comprehensible only to those who anticipate such a hidden meaning...

In view of the meaning occulted in the word vert, we may legitimately ask if there is a link between the green of our language, and the enigmatic green 'leaf man' (le feuillu) of the French, the 'Green Man' (der Gruner Mensch) of the Germans. While the term 'Green Man' appears to have been introduced in its arcane context, in reference to the enigmatic floriated faces of cathedral art, into the English language only in 1939, the image of the Green Man face, with its floriated mouth, belongs to the same esoteric cathedral art as so much of the alchemical and astrological lore of the medieval period. There is probably no accident in the fact that the Green Language, like the Green Children and Green Man of Nordic mythology, emerged in the eleventh or twelfth century with the beginnings of what we now call Gothic Art. One of the many names for the Green Language was the 'argot', which, as Fulcanelli has pointed out, is a version of Art Gotique."

Curiously, all of the foliated faces in churches and cathedrals appear to be male, although foliate sprouting females do exist in art and mythology, for example in the form of Chloris in Botticelli's Primavera. In Greek mythology the nymph Daphne turned into a laurel tree when fleeing through the forest to escape the advances of Apollo. Lotis, another nymph who fled from unwanted advances, became the lotus tree. Then of course there are the Dryads (also called Hamadryads) who were nymphs who lived in trees and perished when their trees died or were cut down. One of the earliest English epic poems, Gawain and The Green Knight may refer to yet another manifestation of the Green Man as the God that dies and is reborn. Another variation is the Jack in the Green.

There are also the examples of faces manifesting in patterns, as Leonardo da Vinci describes in his notebooks, where he stares at a patch of mould on a wall and imagines fantastic landscapes and faces, this can also happen when one looks into the moving leaves of a tree whilst resting out in the woods, and so may be another possible origin for the leaf mask variety of Green Man.

There are many other unusual figures carved into churches all over the country, some of which suggest not only the earthy sense of humour and imagination of the masons and woodcarvers, but may also contain other hidden symbolism, though they may also be a sly poke at the prudishness of the established church.

Thanks to Nobody for pointing us towards this as a choice of subject. Quote taken from 'The Nostradamus Code' by David Ovason. Most photographs by Tina Manthorpe, whose flickr site is linked in the above title. I have some of my own paintings of the Green Man which I will try to put up here at some point.


Skye said...

Bacchus - Is the Roman god of intoxication and liberation. Bacchus is the Romanized aspect of the Greek god Dionysos. The festival of Bacchus became known as Bacchanal. Images of Bacchus depict him as wearing a headdress of grapes and vine leaves. He is typically portrayed as bearded and rustic in nature. From this can be seen the Green Man image that influenced many of the folk customs of Europe.

Bacchus is the spirit of the grapevine and is connected to wine and intoxication. In mystery traditions, many believed that intoxication came not from the plant itself, but from the spirit of the plant or the divine essence. Bacchus therefore represents the ecstasy of the spirit when one is freed or liberated from the constraints of formal society.

I copied this information for you from one of my favorite Wiccan sites. The image of The Green Man, along with numerous beliefs of the Wicca were incorporated into Christian beliefs in order to make Christianity more appealing to the "pagan" community. If you do some checking into Wicca, you'll see what I mean.

nobody said...

John, you surpassed yourself mate. This was completely brilliant, made my day. And yes please, we would love to see your paintings.

Thanks Skye, more good stuff. I was going to send a heads-up to you and Swallow, but no need I see.

nina said...

Noby, Ditto.
John, I still say you live in a wonderland.
Please put up the paintings, I'm eager to see.
Paintings in process are cool too.
Thank you, this was excellent information and striking visuals. Skye's comments worked right in.
I'm going to link to it. Let's see what happens.

m_astera said...

Hello John. First time visitor, Nina sent me. :)

The Green Man has always had a resonance for me, a meaning that I have no words for and can't chase down anywhere in my mind; I would guess it is more of a genetic memory or resonance in the collective consciousness of western man, the reservoir of archetypes; certainly nothing in this life or my family history would explain the draw and the connection. I don't experience Nature as male, but as very much female/feminine, but I "get" the green man as if he were a somewhat frightening aspect of myself. Too bad our Celtic/Druidic heritage was so thoroughly washed away by the Romans and the church or we might have more clues.

Somewhat off topic, I have the same sort of archetypal resonance with the concept of the Fisher King, despite not knowing anything whatsoever about who, what, when, where, or why.

Nice selection of photos, and thanks for evoking this "memory" once again.


john said...

Hello and welcome Skye, it's always nice to hear a new voice. The information you bring on Bacchus and Dionysos does fit right in, though the link was not
something I had noticed before, so thanks for that. Euripides 'The Bacchae' is most of what I know on the subject, that and Robert Graves 'The Greek Myths' I know nothing of Wicca so I look forward to finding out about that, thanks. I wonder if there are older Gods that have a green connection?

All around here the churches were planted on the ancient sacred sites to make the new religion grow easier, often next to the sacred Yew trees which not only
predate the churches but predate Christianity. Some of those original trees are still here. A local and very ancient example is about fifteen miles away in Payhembury, if anyone would like to see this tree, click on the sidebar for the entries for 2006 and it is just down from the top of the page in November. Also
at the top of the links section is the Ancient and Veteran Yew Tree site which lists all the ancient Yews that we know about in this country.

Cheers Nobody, I will have a look around and find some of my old paintings of the Green Man, they were painted about fifteen years ago but I still have them

Hi Nina, yes there are many wonderful things in the land around here, considering it is such a small country we do seem to have managed to pack a lot into it and the changes in landscape can be sudden and quite dramatic. I
enjoy looking for the evidence of our earlier civilisations and there is plenty here.

Thirty miles away are the Nymets, the area where there used to be a sacred grove, all gone now I think though it would be good to have a look around to see if anything remained.

Hello there Michael, you are another person I recognise from Visibles site and yes it is interesting how these images resonate, as you say we don't really know why, but they do. Archetypes would seem right and as we look back we discover earlier and earlier forms. Again as you observe, Nature is generally
experienced as being feminine, so I wonder where the masculine Green Man comes from?

Robert Holdstock has much to say about archetypes or 'mythagos' in his series of novels.
I enjoyed 'Mythago Wood' and 'Lavondyss'where we get to meet some of the earlier versions of these archetypes, fantasy
is not generally something that I read a lot of but some of his work is very good and he evokes the ancient forests very successfully.

I don't know much about the Fisher King, I should have a look into it, thanks.

Skye said...

I don't know about older or other god's that have a green conection per se, other than another Wiccan god called "The Horned God" who is also called "Dionysus". He's the god of nature and the underworld and is the "head" god, if you will, for Wicca, pairing up with "The Goddess" in regards to all life and death on earth.

The following is "The Charge of the God", and describes The Horned God better than I can:

Listen to the Words of the Horned God,
Who was of old called among men:
Adonis, Tammuz, Dianus, Herne, Bran, Beli, Lugh, Gwyn, Dionysus, Osiris, Cernunnos, Pan,
And by many other Names.

O Secret of Secrets,
That art hidden in the being of all that lives,
Not Thee do we adore,
For That which adoreth is also Thou.
Thou art That, and That am I.

I am the Flame that burns in the heart of every being,
And in the core of every Star.
I am Life, and the Giver of Life,
Yet therefore is the Knowledge of Me
The Knowledge of Death and Resurrection.

I am alone, the Lord within ourselves,
Whose Name is Mystery of Mysteries.
I am the Horned God.

I am the Lord of the Universe,
The Father of all living,
The All-Devourer and the All-Begetter.

I am He Whose Seed lies strewn
As glittering Gems across velvet darkness
Within the Womb of the Mother.

I am the Lord of the Shadows
In the darkness of the Underworld,
For I am the Midnight Sun.

I am the Light of the Stars,
And the Spark of the Spirit Eternal,
For I am the God Within.

I am the Horned Leader of the Hosts of Air,
The Leader of the Wild Hunt,
The Judge of Gods and of Men.

I am the Hidden God,
Who ever yet remains,
For I dwell within the secret seed.

I am the seed of grain,
I am the seed of flesh,
I am the Seed of the Stars.

I am the Lord of the Heights,
I am the Lord of the Depths,
God of forest, of flock, and of field.

I am the Hunter and Hunted,
I am the wolf and the Shepherd,
I am the vine and the grain.

I am a Guiding Star above you,
I am a bright Flame before you,
I am a smooth Path beneath you.
I am the Light of Life.
I am the Flame of Love.
I am the Horned God!

m_astera said...

Yes, I've read several of Robert Holdstock's novels over the years. They are very high-grade work, and it is unfortunate that the whole wide variation of such is lumped together under the catchall "fantasy". Much the same as with the word "art", no?

john said...

Sorry I'm a bit late getting back here, I had to go away for a bit. Thanks very much for the information and the poem Skye, that is very interesting. I don't have a printer so I will write it down in my book so that I can have a good read of it later. Talking of poems and such I nodded off briefly on the bus home just now and the phrase "The mercury mole is virtually running the show" popped into my head, completely meaningless I should think but it's a funny old business. I've been so busy with one thing and another this week that I haven't had time for me haiku at Nobodys, Pennys is untoppable I think.

Cheers m astera, I'm glad somebody else knows Roberts work, it being lumped in with the broad genre of fantasy would put a lot of folk off I think, which is a shame. I like to read a bit of everything myself.My own art fluctuates between the poles of the representable and the abstract, I never understood why it has to be an either or.

Thanks for all your help and interest everybody.

brian kennedy said...

By the way, hello Skye. Your little picture shows you as a green man with foliage growing out of only one side of your head. How does it feel?

brian kennedy said...

I guess my first comment did not register. I commented that the images are electrifying and bring up for me my own fear of choking.
Some of the figures seem angry/alarmed and some seem surrendered/resigned/dead.

I sometimes use a vagina/vesica near the base of a tree-of-life design, after seeing a photograph of this idea on a sculptural gate from Britain. This was an interesting thing in light of the comments that its a green man in most/all? cases.

I really like the idea of the artisan sneaking the image into an "official" state-sponsored "church' up where the overseers did not notice.

m_astera said...

Charles de Lint is another literate "fantasy" writer who delves into the ancient archetypes of the collective unconscious and is worth a read.

Personally I've never had much use for mainstream fiction, with a few exceptions such as John Fowles. To me it is largely the equivalent of slavishly copying a photograph and calling it art. Fantasy and SF, on the other hand, rely on imagination and creativity.

john said...

Cheers Brian
The range of emotions displayed on the faces of the green man is an interesting point, especially as this is just a small sample of the many that were carved, and yes as far as I know, and I am not an expert, all of the faces are of men. Although the experience does look painful and unpleasant they do seem to be extruding or breathing out this greenery in some way which is why it reminds me of language and of the senses, as in a small number of the sculptures it comes from the eyes, or as Skye rightly says, it is the change of perception from the possession of the divine essence of the plant, like a hallucinogenic intoxication, which can often be an uncomfortable physical as well as mental process. Hopefully we will have a look at some of the other carvings at some point, some of them are quite rude indeed.

Thanks m astera, it is good to hear of an author that I don't know of and he does sound interesting, I shall have to look Charles de Lints books up. I don't read as many books as I used to as a lot of my reading time is now spent trying to keep up with events on the internet, and blimey it never ends does it? Oh well when it all goes down again I'll be back to me books. The internet has been a real eye opener for me and not all of it in a pleasant way either, still, better than being ignorant of such things isn't it?.

Cheers for now.

brian kennedy said...

Skye, I apologize and meant no offense by my remark, I was looking at the tiny icon image and not really focusing or seeing it very clearly, only as a tiny figure with green issuing out of the side of the head, and tried to make a little joke about it without knowing who you were at all. Sorry.

john said...

Ah yes, my green man paintings.. I'll just have a rummage and see if I can find some.