Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Roger back to the Parish Room, to share his extensive knowledge of the enigma of the Green Man with the more than 30 members at our annual member only event. Roger also showed us a large number of the countless green man images he has taken / collected over the years, and everyone went home delighted because it was a quite superb talk from a man passionate about his subject.

He began his talk by telling us that discovering the green man could be considered an alternative view of eternity - seeking the before and the hereafter - which all in all was quite a startling opening. Mystical meanings associated with the green man seem to be very old, dating back to pre-Christian Pagan times, and now there are many varied meanings of the word green, something Roger proved by asking his audience what ‘green’ meant to them. From the answers from the floor, and with some additional from Roger, it was apparent that green stands for much of life, death and rebirth, as we probably all subconsciously knew:

(Mother) Nature

New / growing / flourishing / fertility

Mould (this one got a few laughs)

Eco friendly / environmental

Politics (Green party)

The beginning of planetary life (green algae)

A restful colour

Inexperienced in matters (or life itself)

Green with envy

The island of Ireland

The colour of Islam

The colour of spring

The colour of hope

A colour associated with fairies

A colour associated with bad luck (unknown to most)

A popular pub name

A tattoo subject

Roger then mentioned Brian Stone, a reader in English Literature at the Open University, who defined the importance of the colour green by reference to the Green Knight, a character from the 14th century Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (*).

It surprises me that no critic has picked up one very important medieval theological reference to

 green as the colour of truth …. evergreen is the colour assigned to ever living and eternal truth

(*) In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight (a symbol of the old religion) appears before Arthur's court during a Christmas feast, holding a bough of holly in one hand and a battle-axe in the other, and issuing a challenge - he will allow one man to strike him once with his axe, on condition that he returns the blow the next year. Arthur accepts the challenge but Gawain (a symbol of the new religion) takes his place and decapitates the Green Knight, who retrieves his head, reattaches it and tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel at the stipulated time. The Knight next features as Bercilak de Hautedesert, lord of a large castle and Gawain's host before his arrival at the Green Chapel. At Bercilak's castle, Gawain is submitted to tests of his loyalty and chastity. On New Year's Day Gawain departs to the Green Chapel and bends to receive his blow, only to have the Green Knight barely nick him; he then reveals that he is Bercilak, and that Morgan le Fay had given him the double identity to test Gawain and Arthur.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

We were told that a Green Man is any kind of a carving, drawing, painting or representation showing a head or face surrounded by, or made from, leaves. The face is almost always male, although a few Green Women do exist; Green Beasts, particularly cats and lions (and sometimes demons), are reasonably commonplace, and occasionally gravestones have skulls sprouting foliage. The face of the green man is generally taken to be dead, with the foliage being new growth coming from the old.

Four seasons in one head - Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The name Green Man is also modern, stemming from Lady Raglan’s 1939 article ‘The green man in church architecture’ for the March edition of the Folklore Journal; prior to this time reference was simply made to foliate heads. Roger also said that most green men are carved in stone, with some in wood and, just in the last century, some painted. He also referenced Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th century Italian artist now best known for creating imaginative harvest festival style portrait heads made entirely from objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish and books.

Ely Cathedral stone carved green man

Harston All Saints carved stone green man

Norwich Cathedral roof green man

Kings College chapel carved stone green man

Landbeach All Saints carved wooden roof beam green man

Isleham St Andrews church green man

St Edmundsbury Cathedral carved wooden green man with accompanyingblackbird nest

It is not certain how far back in time a religious significance may be assigned to green man symbols as none can apparently be proved, but its certainly back to the time of Celtic gods, with life affirming, rebirth, death and nature, as today - seeking the before and the hereafter. In time past forests covered far more of the earth than now and pagan man had to venture there at night in order to catch nocturnal animals for food; these were frightening places and the coming of new green growth in spring would have been more than welcome.

                                             Sudbury St Gregory terracotta green man

Green woman

Mistress green woman plaque

Green man in stained glass

Stained glass green man

There are four main types of Green Man image:

  • A head where the whole face may be composed of a leaf or leaves; perhaps the oldest variant, dating back to the leaf masks of Roman times.
  • A face with leaves, vines or branches sprouting from the mouth, nose, ears or even eyes (sometimes called a disgorging or uttering head). The oldest example dates from 5th Century France, but this became the most popular style in the 12th to 15th centuries, especially in Britain.
  • A head where the hair, eyebrows, moustache and/or beard may be made up of leaves, often bearing flowers or fruit.
  • A head surrounded by foliage but where the leaves are not actually part of the face. At its simplest and most naturalistic this may just be an image of a man peering out from among dense foliage,

Variations are almost infinite as there appears to be no standard representation of a Green Man and there are examples of:

  • Two-headed and even three-headed green men;
  • Whole series of heads linked together by foliate stems;
  • Foliage issuing from a Green Man forming a Tree of Life image;
  • Beasts, snakes or horns (rather than vegetation) issuing from a green man’s mouth;
  • The nose of a face forming the trunk of a tree; and
  • A whole body sprouting, wearing or being composed of leaves and vegetation.

Most Green Men are found in Christian churches, the vast majority in Britain, France and Germany, and mainly dating from the medieval period between the 11th and 16th centuries. Sometimes they are hidden away behind rood screens / choir stalls, or high in the ceiling structure, but often in plain view on columns or above main doorways. In terms of size, they may range from life-sized to tiny images on roof bosses. They can also be found, though less commonly, on other buildings, both ecclesiastical and secular, and as decorations on tombs and memorial monuments.

Roger then told us of other related figures:

  • Pan, the Greek God of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and companion of the nymphs.
  • Jack-in-the-Green, a trickster character in traditional English May Day celebrations from the mid-18th Century onwards, represented by a man covered in a cone-shaped mass of foliage and vegetation. This fell out of popularity in the 19th Century, when largely replaced by the May Queen, but it has seen a resurgence in recent years in many towns in southern England, including Hastings, Knutsford, Rochester, Bristol, Oxford, Ilfracombe, etc.
  • John Barleycorn, a character in an old English folksong personifying the cereal crop barley as a man whose life story corresponds to the various stages of barley cultivation, down to his death and re-birth each spring.
  • Robin Hood. Though best known as the heroic, bow-wielding outlaw of English folklore since the 14th Century, with his green-garbed band of Merry Men and beautiful virtuous Maid Marian, Robin Hood (originally Robin of the Wood) was also traditionally seen as a protector of the old ways and of the woods and forests; he was particularly popular in medieval May Day games and plays from the 16th to 17th Century.
  • Herne the Hunter, a shadowy, wild, stag-antlered folklore figure dating back to Celtic or Saxon times, but only definitively recorded since the 15th Century. His ghost is said to haunt Windsor Forest but his origins in prehistory may be connected with male fertility, similar to the horned Celtic deity Cernunnos, the Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth and the underworld.
  • Peter Pan, a fictional character created by Scottish novelist J. M. Barrie, a free-spirited and mischievous young boy who can fly and never grows up, Peter Pan spends his never-ending childhood having adventures on the mythical island of Neverland, as the leader of the Lost Boys, interacting with fairies, pirates, mermaids, Native Americans and occasionally ordinary children from the world outside Neverland.
  • Puck (Robin Goodfellow), a lusty and mischievous sprite or fairy, often used to personify the spirit of the land and often represented as a Pan-like cloven-hoofed figure with small horns. Robin Goodfellow was the name of one such sprite, immortalized in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Roger also reminded us that many Christian ideas and concepts were taken or incorporated from pre-existing Pagan ideas and concepts, including the Winter Solstice, Easter, Harvest, All Souls / Saints, fancy bread and candles. Many Christian churches were built on the sites of pre-Christian buildings and, when later renovated, a green man was often incorporated somewhere, either inside or outside. The act of baptism itself is also essentially the meaning of the green man: temporary death under water followed by a re-birth. A symbol of death and re-birth, life within us, our relationship with the transcendent (God) and life itself (life force): all flesh is as the grass, oneness with the earth, with nature and eternity - the deeper one digs, the more one finds!

Lastly, we were treated to a poem by Paul Giovanni, as sung when the children were dancing round the May Pole in the film ‘The Wicker Man’ - click on the YouTube link below to see the film clip.

In the woods there grew a tree
And a fine, fine tree was he
And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest,
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird
And from that bird a feather came
And of that feather was a bed

And on that bed there was a girl
And on that girl there was a man
And from that man there was a seed
And from that seed there was a boy
And from that boy there was a man
And for that man there was a grave
And from that grave there grew a tree

In Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle

And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird
And from that bird a feather came
And of that feather was a bed

In Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle

And on that bed there was a girl (Sumerisle, Sumerisle)
And on that girl there was a man (Sumerisle, Sumerisle)
And from that man there was a seed (Sumerisle, Sumerisle)
And from that seed there was a boy (Sumerisle, Sumerisle)
And from that boy there was a man (Sumerisle, Sumerisle)
And for that man there was a grave
And from that grave there grew a tree

In Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle, Sumerisle

YouTube Wicker Man film clip - Dancing round the maypole

Roger then suggested that green men were haunting images, watching our lives through their gaze, eternally watching, the face in the leaves and the laughter in the wood, before and the hear-after, always until the end, a badge of irrepressible life.

To conclude this review, Roger brought incredible passion, humour and warmth to a subject which most people have little knowledge of, and his brilliant talk was a riotous passage through numerous green man images to give an understanding of what lay behind, much enjoyed by everyone present.


Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

20th February: Simply Suffolk by John Goodhand

Inn signs are part of our history but which is the commonest, where can you find a gallows, which is the oldest and what is Elvis doing in Botesdale? John has been photographing Suffolk inns and their signs for over fifty years and will tell us all.

20th March: To relieve need and distress by Sarah Doig
The fascinating story of East Anglian almshouses.

Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room in Little Waldingfield.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                                        18th January 2019