top of page

The Green Man by Vanessa Armstrong

Green Man image (c) Peter Patterson
Green Man image (c) Peter Patterson

Think of the Green Man and the words conjure up many images and thoughts.

Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from?

I've held a fascination with him pretty much since I stepped on my path and love reading and learning all the myths and legends associated with him.

So, who is this Green Man?...

From the rafters of ancient cathedrals and entrances to gothic churches to medieval tapestries and the green forests worldwide, you will have probably seen him. He will look different in every place, but it's him - the friendly face, almost human, the features are made of leaves or it appears that foliage is sprouting from the smiling mouth, eyes and nose.

The 'Green Man' has been around for centuries. He probably wasn't originally called that, but his name means many different things in many cultures, which I will cover further on.

So why is he still revered today and what can his story teach us?

To me, the Green Man is a symbol of nature, a connection and love of all things on Mother Earth. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

To others, he may represent the wildness of nature, the untamed vegetation and forests and the untamed spirit that dwells in us all.

As he gazes down from cathedrals and churches, his foliage face may make you think that he is a protector of those that reside within those walls.

The Green Man means many things to people - being a pagan nature spirit, he may well have evolved from other ancient deities - Cernunnos, wild man and protector of the forest or Pan, God of fertility - both these attributed to the Green Man. Some say that they are all the Green Man in various forms.

He is most often referred to as having an association with the season of Spring - those leafy green features do conjure up the fresh foliage that appears on our trees around spring time - and the green man certainly means to some a fresh start and new beginnings. He is also noted, however, as a fertility symbol and as an autumnal figure rather than Spring like. Some carvings and drawings of him depict him with acorns and hawthorn berries and leaves.

Although many depictions of the green man are with a smile on his face, sometimes there are stern looking ones, almost angry.

I get the sense that perhaps he is displeased by how man treats nature. It is a formidable force and one that shouldn't be messed about with. We must live with nature and not try to rule it, or we must face the eventual consequences. The stern looking face serves as a reminder of this.

The most common image of the green man is seen in cathedrals and churches - carved in stone works either outside overlooking those that seek to enter, or inside - high above and sometimes hidden from view, but nevertheless peering down, or carved in pew ends.

Why would a symbol of paganism from past and present feature in a place of Christianity?

It is thought that the green man featured very much too, as a symbol of new growth and a flourish of crops and grains amongst the church. Perhaps the carver felt that placing such a symbol would be a 'nod' to the green man to oversee that fresh green crops would grow and as such, a good harvest for the coming years. An act of faith, so to speak.

It must also be noted that the green man doesn't just appear in cathedrals in England, he appears all over the world and means many different things.

Jack 'O the Green

Many, many years ago, our country was vastly populated with trees. Forests were of a much larger scale than they are now, but these forests provided life for the inhabitants.

It gave us wood for warmth and shelter and food to eat from the plants and animals that lived within. It is not surprising that the forests were highly thought of and indeed worshipped. When the winters came, the animals hibernated, the plants and trees lost their leaves and we probably went cold and hungry.

Spring time returned, and new life emerged from the forest and celebration was to be had. Beltane is a celebration of this time of new growth - the sun is warming the earth and the forests are green and luscious once again.

Jack in the Green is a fairly recent interpretation of the green man but still signifies the celebration of the rebirth of our earths bounty and seems to be employed solely for the Beltane festival and May Day traditions.

In the May Day traditions, played out at the famous Hastings festival, he is seen as a 'winter' green man who is 'slayed' to signify the end of the winter. His leaves are given to the townsfolk to keep until the winter solstice when they shall be burned to ward off any bad spirits.

There are many other names that are also connected with the green man -

John Barleycorn - connected with the ripe grain and barley at Lughnasadh. He is depicted as a man of ripe barley and corn ears which signifies the bountiful harvest at this time. The Lammas festival, held in Eastbourne UK is one particular event that has a procession with John Barleycorn leading. He too, must 'die' in order that he may be reborn again in the spring.

It is said that the name came from an ancient song called 'John Barleycorn' about the alcoholic drinks that can be made from barley particularly beer and whisky and its effects to those that consume it!

Oak King/Holly King - some green man pictures have foliage faces which are either oak leaves or holly leaves.

These are said to represent the two battling deities, the Holly King and the Oak King. The Oak King rules the warmer half of the year and is at his most powerful at Midsummer before going into battle with the Holly King who defeats the Oak King at the Autumn Equinox and goes on to rule the cold winter months, being at his most powerful at Yule.

The Wild Man of the Woods - this is a green man representation that has spread as far wide as Germany and Switzerland.

As an ancient character, he was said to be naked and hairy apart from foliage in his hair and beard. He was said to be the embodiment of freedom, wildness and the untamed spirit that dwells in us all.

The Green Man in Other Cultures

The Green Man is not just restricted to the cathedrals and churches of Europe. There are other places far and wide who also have their representations of him.

In the Far East, there are deities with green/blue skin which is perceived as representing new life. Krishna was one such deity who was said to be the preserver of life. He was associated with Spring and was a destroyer of pain and suffering.

Associated with Krishna was the God Rama who also had dark bluey/green skin. He was said to reside in the woods with his wife Sita, who sprang up from the ground when the earth was ploughed. Together they ruled over the natural world - and birds, insects and animals travelled to be near them.

In Borneo, a face which sprouts roots and flowers is a symbol of luck and fertility.

It's called Kirtimukha - a vegetation God who is also found carved into many temples of India.

A representation of the Green Man is also found in Mexico - home to the ancient cultures of Mayan and Aztec. At Uxmal, a pyramid by the name of The Pyramid of Magicians has lots of foliate heads amongst the carved foliage on its walls.

The Green Man has also been spotted in Africa, Indonesia, Brazil and the USA in various guises from temple friezes to museum pieces.

Although the Green Man may be an ancient figure, his presence today reminds us of our need to preserve that green and luscious woodland without we would not be here ourselves. Trees stabilise our atmosphere, the air we exhale is processed by those very trees. The Green Man teaches us that we need to be aware of the world around us, look after it and preserve its beauty. He also teaches us to take time out from our daily world of work, modern day computers and life and get out there, to connect with him - breathe deeply and take him into your very being!

Green Man Meditation

Make yourself comfortable - if it's a warm day, try and sit outside in a garden or in an undisturbed place in a park or forest.

Take some deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel the air as it travels deep within your tummy.

Focus your mind on your breathing and as the world dissipates around you, you find yourself on the edge of a forest. The day is warm, and the sun is shining high in the sky warming your skin. The forest has tall trees, but they are not thick enough to block out the sunshine. You walk in amongst the trees taking in the scents that come up from around the forest floor - the flowers and the earthy smell of the ground. The ground crackles as you walk on the twigs that lay on the ground. As you walk you notice a clearing in front of you. The grass is green and luscious, and you feel that you want to rest and soak up the sun’s rays. You sit down on the warm grass and take in your surroundings. Butterflies land on distant flowers and birds are floating on the warm air currents.

You look at the forest that you are in and notice a green leafy figure peering out from the trees. He is smiling and seems quite happy to see you. He has green shiny leaves for a face and leaves are sprouting from the corners of his smiling mouth. You ask him if he has anything that he wishes you to know. Listen and remember what he may tell you. Thank him and standing up, you make your way back through the forest.

As you approach the edge, you are aware of your breath once again and find yourself back in your comfortable seat.

A guided meditation can be found here

Celebrate the Green Man.

Give him a special place in your home or garden. My hallway is dedicated to him with pictures of nature and green men hanging from the walls. I also have 2 green men in my garden. Make an indoor or outdoor altar.

Make your own Green Man. This can be a drawing, painting or make one with felt or Fimo clay.

Sources and reference: (jack in the green festival)

The Green Man - Spirit of Nature by John Matthews

Greenman artwork - copyright Peter Patterson

217 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page