Who is the Green Man?
by Dana D’Angelo
The medieval times were rife with superstition and dread. There were simply some things that couldn't be explained, and people came up with ideas that made sense to them.
Most of the beliefs of the time were heavily based on the fear of the supernatural. And to ward off the pervading sense of evil, people used protective measures such as herbal plants like rosemary, potions, spells, and incantations.
One interesting belief I came across (and one which I incorporated into my story Heart of a Knight) was about the Green Man.
Some scholars believed that the forest spirit was neither good nor evil. In fact, they argued that because of his coloring, the Green Man symbolized vitality as well as the unpredictable and fearful force of nature.
According to these historians, the color green represented rebirth, nature, fertility, and the phase of growth each spring. Therefore, the Green Man had the ability to be benevolent, to perpetuate growth and promote good crops. But the supernatural entity had a malevolent side as well, since the color green was also associated with witchcraft, devilry, fairies and spirits. In British folklore, for example, the devil was sometimes depicted as having a green tinge to his skin.
In terms of the Green Man’s physical appearance, he was usually described as having either a head entirely covered in green leaves; a head with vegetation ejecting from his mouth; or a head with foliage growing out from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Sometimes the forest spirit was shown as having antlers and at other times, he sported horns.
As you can see, the actual appearance of the supernatural entity is indefinite and debatable. And because of this ambiguity, scholars have attempted to make different kinds of associations. Some historians for example theorize that the green colored knight in the 14th century Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was in fact the Green Man portrayed in medieval myths.
Nowadays, many of us don’t know who the Green Man is or what he represents. But even with this being the case, there is no disputing that his presence is still prevalent in our society today. In fact, you’ll find his sculpted head, with the leaves and vegetation sprouting from his visage, appearing on many of Europe’s cathedrals and public buildings. And because the Europeans brought their beliefs with them when they colonized the world, the Green Man motifs can also be found everywhere, even integrated into American architecture.
So next time you’re visiting Europe or maybe even somewhere closer to home like Portland, Oregon, look up. Chances are you’ll see the Green Man staring down at you. But really take a look at him and decide — is the expression on his face one of pain or of resentment?