Thoughts on the Green Man 1: Introduction


This is the first of several blog posts about the Green Man.
[Find the first here] [Find the second here] [Find the third here] [Find the fourth here]

Both before and after Lady Raglan’s landmark 1939 essay "The Green Man in Church Architecture," in which she applied the term “Green Man” to a carving of a foliate head in her local church, much has been written about the strange creatures known as “Green Men.” References to them in English go back to the sixteenth century. In the twentieth century they captured the imaginations of many people, from architectural historians to neopagan worshippers, and from folklorists to participants in Renaissance fairs. They have been even more appealing to folks in the twenty-first century, who have given new and interesting meanings to the Green Man. Books, articles, and websites on the Green Man abound, each of them looking at the venerable figure from its own perspective. In this series of posts, I will discuss a variety of issues that surround and emerge from the Green Man, like leaves sprouting from a smiling face.

Raglan’s essay, drawing on Frazer’s The Golden Bough, equated the foliate head with a wide variety of European customs, and postulated the origin of those customs in pan-European, pre-Christian fertility rituals. For many years, her intellectual heirs have seen the foliate head as a pagan deity, and interpreted modern folk customs as remnants or survivals of pagan festivals. Thus, in her online article “The Green Man and the Green Woman,” Terri Windling is able to describe several nineteenth-century customs (all of them mentioned by Frazer) and claim that they are “the debased remnants of pre-Christian rites and festivities.”

Neither Windling nor Raglan, nor for that matter Frazer, actually demonstrates that the rituals they describe are surviving pagan practices, or even that they have any connection to the Green Man (or Green Woman) per se. Intuitive connections were drawn by Frazer and some of his predecessors (principally Mannhardt) among practices that seemed similar, and a further intuitive connection was made between those practices and the Green Man by Lady Raglan. Because they are more concerned with profound mythological meanings than with day-to-day details, poets, artists, and spiritual seekers who admire the Green Man tend to follow this previous scholarship of intuition rather than exhaustively examining the rather mundane evidence surrounding such practices, which may be a description written by a visiting clergyman or a bare entry in a municipal account book. In the absence of a firm presentation of such evidence, they are vulnerable to the charge that there IS no very good evidence for the connections they are drawing. [1]

Wherever such vulnerability is found, sooner or later those who disagree will exploit it. In this case other writers, such as the architectural historian Richard Hayman, completely dismiss the notion that the Green Man might be connected to seasonal customs, pagan deities, or indeed anything other than medieval church architecture and medieval church doctrine. “The medieval populace was devoutly Christian, not defiantly pagan…” he asserts in the 2010 article “Ballad of the Green Man
.” “Green men in Britain therefore belong to Christian rather than pagan iconography.”  Eager to discount any connection between pagan practices and later Christian ones, he states that “antecedents in classical art exist but are unhelpful since meanings changed from pagan to Christian societies.”

Hayman may be right that a strong form of Lady Raglan’s theory is no longer tenable. But on the other hand, neither is a strong form of Hayman’s; no one would deny that meanings change over time, but the proposition that older meanings are unhelpful in understanding more recent ones would surprise any scholar who works with meaning over time, whether in history, linguistics, or literature.

Surely, then, there is middle ground to be explored. Are there connections between the Green Man and pagan deities to be found in medieval culture? I believe there are, but they are few and fleeting, and they may fail to convince the skeptical. However, an area that seems potentially more fruitful is the question of seasonal festivity. Many of the examples of green-man-like figures discussed by Frazer, Raglan, and Windling are parts of seasonal observances around May time, and it is because of this that Frazer initially connected them to pagan deities and tree-spirits; quoting Mannhardt, he stated that in these figures “the spirit of vegetation is blent with a personification of the season at which his powers are most strikingly manifested.” Hayman, on the other hand, states that the Green Man is “the latest accretion to the long cast of characters that have featured in annual May celebrations,” suggesting that the connection between May time and the Green Man, and hence between the Green Man and the similar figures discussed by Frazer, Raglan and Windling, is a recent idea. I think a careful examination of the evidence will show that Hayman is wrong, and that Frazer, Raglan, and Windling are at least partly right: the Green Man is an aspect of seasonal May celebrations, and has been for hundreds of years; given this, he may well be connected to the similar figures described by Frazerian scholars, whether or not such figures are pagan in origin.

Since both sides in this argument tend to skip over the step of carefully presenting evidence (rather than previous scholars’ opinions or their own poetic insights), I intend to begin this work with some evidence…specifically, evidence as to what the term “Green Man” traditionally meant. Before we can determine if “the Green Man” is a seasonal figure, we need to know what “the Green Man” is. Interestingly, Hayman begins his exploration with an overstated claim about the term “Green Man,” stating that the term was “coined in the 1930s for a medieval image of a face sprouting foliage.” [1] In fact, as both Raglan and Windling implicitly recognize, the name “Green Man” goes back in English much further: at least until the sixteenth century. As it turns out, the term referred originally to various characters in parades, pageants and plays. These characters were obviously similar to the foliate face christened a “Green Man” by Lady Raglan, in that they were human beings covered with leaves. Thus, while it is true that Lady Raglan first applied this name to the foliate head of church architecture in 1931 or 1932 [2], she did not “coin the term,” and her application of it to the foliate head was only one incident in the long history of the “Green Man” idea.

Part 2 of this post will examine the meaning of the term “Green Man” before 1930.


[1] They sometimes even contribute to this impression themselves, in the way they handle their evidence. Windling, for example, speaks of the French tradition of the “loup vert” and the Bavarian tradition of the “pfingstl” in the present tense, without giving any sense of when such traditions were current, making them appear at once ancient and timeless. This flattening of history makes such Frazerian works resemble anthropological studies of a country that never existed, where the practices and ideas of people widely separated in space and time seem to be located side-by-side for the anthropologist to study. This can be inspiring, but also misleading.

[2] In fairness, this claim may not have been written by Hayman.  It comes form the abstract that precedes the article, and such headlines, abstracts, and summaries are often prepared by a magazine’s editorial staff. In any case, the claim is false and should be corrected.

[3] Windling gives the date 1939, which is an understandable mistake. Lady Raglan’s article applying the term “Green Man” to the foliate head did appear in 1939. However, in it, she claimed that it had been eight years since she had begun calling the foliate head in her local church “The Green Man.” This is corroborated by a letter to the journal Folk-Lore published in 1932, in which a Miss Durham writes of the same foliate head described by Lady Raglan: “There is also a couple of corbels carved with a face—in the mouth is a sprig of foliage on each side, moustache-like. It is thought to be a ‘green man.’” Clearly, she had either spoken to Lady Raglan, or Raglan’s name for the face had caught on with the local clergy. In any case, it shows that the foliate head in Lady Raglan's church was known as a “Green Man” by 1932 at the latest.


Note: Many of the references are in the text above in the form of links to the relevant books and articles in their online homes.  The references below are to those items that cannot be found online without a subscription.

Centerwall, Brandon S. "The Name of the Green Man." Folklore 108 (1997), 25-34

Miss Durham.  "The Dragon and the Vine." Folk-Lore 43 (1932), 360

Lady Raglan.  "The Green Man in Church Architecture."  Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 45-57