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The Green Man: Neopaganism or Rich in Folklore?

If you've come across this post I'm sure you already have a picture of the Greenman firmly displayed in your inner mind.


A leaf-covered face of a man with a gentle face is one that has become well known in the folklore and modern pagan community.


Especially today, May Day.


So let's dig in a little to the man of green and its deep hooks into the folklore community.


Some Possible Misunderstandings

The backstory of the Greenman is one whose lore becomes jumbled in a melting pot of stories, figureheads, and archetypes.


As much of folklore, the Greenman has transcended with different perspectives on the topic from neopagans, to storytellers, and even participants at Renaissance fairs.


However, this topic has a very opinionated basis for its origination within the folklore community.


And I could write a couple of articles worth on the back and forth or this debate but for the purpose of this article, I'm going to provide a quick synopsis. However, just note there is much more to this story (and if you're interested let me know in the comments)!


Whereas some believe the Green Man is rooted in older culture, many others claim the Green Man is a modern invention.


What is the basis for this argument you may ask?


That would be a woman by the name of Lady Raglan.


In 1939, Lady Raglan coined the face of her local church "Green Man" in her article "The Green Man in Church Architecture".


Side note: the figure found in that church along with other buildings around Europe is otherwise known as the "foliate head".


Now I added "possible" to the heading there specifically for the reason that I don't completely agree with this theory.


In my opinion, what Lady Raglan was doing here was simply applying an already existing name and archetype to that of the figure found in her church.


All simply because in her opinion she felt the motif was an illustration of the term that she adopted in the already existing culture at that time.


And at this time, she wasn't the only one nor did her associations just appear out of thin air.


Since 1809 stood a pub called The Green Man. Does this pub sign remind you of anything?


It's easier to see the common thread here of correlations among cultures and Lady Reglan was not akin to seeing those correlations and made an intuitive association.


Hence her belief that the motif on the church she labeled as "the Green Man" as well as the pub were remnants of the ritual tradition of the "Green Man". Including the belief that the pre-Christian fertility rituals were an inspiration for this pop-cultural depiction.


Thus, the controversy was sparked.


So let's explore these cultures and correlations from which our modern version of the Green Man hales.


After all, another Folklorist (who aired on the side of con Lady Raglan), Richard Hayman stated

The Green Man is the latest accretion to the long cast of characters that have featured in annual May celebrations, like Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Green, May Queens and Lords of Misrule

Robin Hood

Many believe the original tales of Robin Hood were merely echoes of the legends of the Green Man.


At this point, I can safely assume we've all seen "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" right?


If not, I highly recommend it. Solid 10/10.


If you have, throw all of that out the windows because this association is nothing like that.


Instead, the original tales of Robin Hood depicted the archery wielding good citizens but instead more allusive of mischievous fairies and goblins.


And boy did the people love utilizing this depiction. It was not uncommon for festival-goers to dress up as this depiction of Robin Hood and run about the town in their drunken mischievous ways.


With the help of the passionate plays put on about our infamous Hood during May Day festivals, the defiant acts of our folk hero are seen as another representation of the untamed, primordial nature of our Green Man.


I actually believe the folktales of Robin Hood are considered unjustly forgotten about in history and their impact on culture in general. At a point in history, it was not unseen for festival-goers to even dress as Robin in order to embody his capricious nature. Some even do so claiming the act to be a preservation of cultural heritage.


Nature Spirit

We've now reached the perspective that I believe is most common these days. You ask a majority of Beltane celebrating witches most will come across with the belief that the Green Man is simply a representation of nature's spirit.


This is typically Osiris or Cernuous but others may associate the Green Man with another deity who has a strong association with vegetation.



Depiction of horned god, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen


This is where we see the tie-in with part of Raglan's leap and how this depiction seems to have a more modern-day relation. Becoming especially popular with the backing of Wiccans.


Although May Day does focus a celebration on fertility, there is no strong evidence that any deities were originally worshipped specifically on this day.


Jack-In-The-Green

Good ol' Jack-In-The-Green.


A traditional participant and brave soul in the festivities of May Day, he concealed himself in a hollow frame of wood or wicker covered in green leaves and flowers.



May Day – or Jack in the green, 1795. © The Trustees of the British Museum


Nowadays, you see a man dressed up like a bush and at the very least you're gonna do a double-take.


It appears back in those days, other festival-goers were also quite amused by this dancing child of mother nature.


To the point that this eventually turned into a bit of a competition of guilds, those introducing their own Green Man as an attempt to receive more coins from the enthralled festival crowds.


The Jack in the Green was in itself just a new development from a tradition first recorded in the 1600s where milkmaids would place "garlands upon their pails". Eventually, this developed from a decorated milk pail to them carrying a silver plate that held a pyramid decorated with flowers and ribbons.



The OG Green Man

Thanks to some historical references, we can piece together the "Green Man" of the sixteenth century. Especially that of folklorist Stephen Winick who puts together what I believe is a very strong argument.


Finding sources back between the 1500s - 1700s there were depictions mentioned of men covered in leaves.

men in greene leaves set with work upon their other habet with black heare & black beards very owgly to behould, and garlands upon their heads with great clubs in their hands with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintaine way for the rest of the show (Harl. MS. No. 2150, fol. 356; quoted by Centerwall)


Possible Whiffler from the Schembart (Germany) Carnival Manuscript (1590)

Various located descriptions of these men paint a picture of not only their look but their task. To essentially clear out a crowd to allow festivities such as plays and parades to proceed.



Conclusion

The Green Man's lore can be seen as a lot of grasping at straws.


Although I can see valid backing for those who claim he is that of modern-day lore, I do see the intuitive associations Raglan proposed.


Which, when it comes down to it, is really part of the field of folklore in general.


Although it's important to find origins and focus on why certain lore and motifs come about and what that determines by the culture at the time; it's also important to see the changes and the perspectives of others.


It also shows that your personal gnosis and opinion of lore are also important. If anything to help you understand your thoughts and situations.


As the last piece in this article, I want to simply wish Happy Beltane to all those who celebrate it. May those who read this message receive the blessing of abundance.



Sources

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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

My name's Maven and witchy momma and writer documentating the wonderfully mundane aspects of the Occult. I like to share my experience with folk, kitchen, and green magick along with other tidbits I find along my journey.

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