The Green Man, a character from traditional folk culture, has captured the imaginations of many in the modern world. Books, articles, and websites on the Green Man abound, each of them looking at the figure from its own perspective. Those who have commented on or employed the image of the Green Man range from historians to neopagan worshippers, from festival organizers to novelists, and from folklorists to participants in Renaissance fairs.
Recently, though, some scholars have been asserting that the Green Man is not really a figure from older folk culture at all, but a modern invention. In a 2010 article in History Today entitled “Ballad of the Green Man,” architectural historian Richard Hayman begins his exploration by stating that the phrase “Green Man” was “coined in the 1930s for a medieval image of a face sprouting foliage.” In June 2019, classicist and fantasy author Emily Tesh, in an article titled “Inventing Folklore,” made an even stronger claim:
Where does the Green Man mythos come from?
I’m so glad you asked. It comes from Lady Raglan’s article The Green Man in Church Architecture in the 1939 edition of “Folklore”, making this timeless figure out of pagan memory exactly eighty years old this year.
Tesh goes further, trying to find a significance in the particular date of the Green Man’s emergence:
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that our Green Man was born in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. As Europe hurtled for the second time towards the nightmarish meat-grinder of industrialised warfare, it’s not surprising that Lady Raglan’s discovery—Lady Raglan’s creation—struck a chord.
This might be an interesting interpretation of the Green Man, but it has significant problems: Lady Raglan did not create the Green Man or his mythos; the Green Man was not “born” in 1939, nor did his mythos begin in that year; and the term “Green Man” was not coined in the 1930s. References to the Green Man, using that name, go back much earlier.
To be clear, it’s true that Lady Raglan first applied the name “Green Man” to the architectural motif of a head surrounded by leaves or disgorging them, a motif otherwise known as the “foliate head.” This figure is seen on churches and other buildings throughout Europe and beyond. Lady Raglan published her article “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture” in the journal Folklore in 1939, but according to the article she began to call the face in her local church of Llangwm “Green Man” eight years previously. This is corroborated by a letter to Folklore published in 1932, entitled “The Dragon and the Vine,” in which a Miss Durham writes of the same foliate heads 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.”
Possibly, Miss Durham had spoken to Lady Raglan. Perhaps she had heard the name from the local clergyman, Reverend J. Griffith, whom Lady Raglan described as “a folklorist.” In any case, Miss Durham’s letter shows that the foliate head in Llangwm was locally known as a “Green Man” by 1932 at the latest.
More important than the exact date of Lady Raglan’s insight, however, is the fact that she did not coin the term “Green Man” at all. In fact, it had existed for hundreds of years by 1932, and in 1939 she explained exactly where she had found the term. Her article describes a May Day ceremony, observed in 1901 by Sidney Oldall Addy and described in the paper at this link. In the ceremony, a man was placed in a frame covered with leaves and flowers, and then put his face through a gap in the vegetation.
After stating that she believed the foliate head motif on churches was a literal illustration of this ritual, Lady Raglan continued:
I should like to remind you that there is an extraordinary number of “Green Man” inns all over the country. I have noticed them particularly in East Anglia. My belief is that they take their title from this ceremony.
In other words, believing that “Green Man” inn or pub signs commemorated the same May Day ceremonial role that was depicted in the medieval carvings, she applied the traditional pub name “The Green Man” to the foliate head. Clearly, she did not coin the term, but adopted it from popular culture, because she believed the pub sign Green Man and the foliate head to depict the same figure from folk tradition. As we’ll see, her application of the name to the foliate head was only one incident in the long history of the “Green Man” idea.
In her essay, Lady Raglan drew on James George Frazer’s influential work of comparative myth and ritual The Golden Bough, equating the Green Man with a wide variety of European customs, including the Bavarian pfingistl, the French loup vert, and the British Jack o’Lent. She postulated the origin of those customs, as well as of the Green Man, in pan-European, pre-Christian fertility rituals, believing the ceremony that had inspired both the Green Man pubs and the foliate head to be a British example of such a ritual. In so doing, she invokes several other names for what she believes to be ultimately the same figure:
The figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May, and the Garland, who is the central figure in the May-day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe. In England and Scotland the most popular name for this figure, at any rate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was Robin Hood. […] We do not know when his cult became established in this country, but by the fifteenth century it formed an important part of the religious life of the people.
The inclusion of the “Green Man,” in this complex of myth, presumably, is what Tesh means by the “Green Man mythos,” which she claims was also created by Lady Raglan in 1939. However, Lady Raglan was not the first scholar to discuss the Green Man mythos in these terms. For example, the great literary critic E.K. Chambers detailed the Green Man mythos in his 1903 book The Mediaeval Stage. In a chapter entitled “The Sword Dance,” which covers festive calendar customs that influenced literature and drama, he outlines many of the same traditions described earlier by Frazer and later by Lady Raglan. He then opines:
It is interesting to note that the green man of the peasantry, who dies and lives again, reappears as the Green Knight in one of the most famous divisions of Arthurian romance.
The suggestion that these rituals common among the peasantry involve a character called “the green man,” and the insight that the Green Knight of the great Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could be a manifestation of this character from folk culture, is surely an aspect of the “Green Man mythos” mentioned by Tesh, yet it is older than Tesh claims that mythos to be.
Hayman and Tesh both seem frustrated with the popularity of Lady Raglan’s article, and its grounding in Frazer’s work; Tesh’s article even begins: “James George Frazer has a lot to answer for.” Meanwhile, Hayman attacks the idea of pagan origins for the Green Man:
Studies of pre-Christian religion in Britain have failed to find green men and they were not deities in the classical pantheon. Folklore is no longer regarded as a treasure chest of timeless beliefs and customs, but is a record of changing popular culture. There is plenty of evidence, notably in the work of Eamon Duffy, to show that the medieval populace was devoutly Christian, not defiantly pagan, and that their churches reflected the tastes of their God-fearing patrons rather than subversive pagan craftsmen. Green men in Britain therefore belong to Christian rather than pagan iconography. […] Antecedents in classical art exist but are unhelpful since meanings changed from pagan to Christian societies.
Hayman also denies that the Green Man had seasonal associations before Lady Raglan’s work, stating that the character is a recent addition to the celebration of seasonal holidays:
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.
In many ways, Hayman and Tesh’s frustration is understandable. Neither Raglan nor Frazer actually demonstrates that the modern rituals they describe are surviving pagan practices. Frazer and some of his predecessors (principally Wilhelm Mannhardt) simply drew intuitive connections among practices that seemed similar. Some were described in or extrapolated from classical pagan sources, others observed among European Christians. The practices of Christians were ascribed a pagan origin due to their resemblance to the older descriptions. Such connections are interesting to consider, but the evidence of direct lines of descent from pagan to Christian traditions is scarce.
Lady Raglan followed in Frazer’s footsteps in her argument about the 1901 May Day ceremony observed by Addy. She didn’t prove that the ceremony in 1901 had roots in older pagan rites–and indeed, she didn’t even try. Relying on Frazer as an established authority, she merely repeated his previous claims that many similar rituals were based in the pagan past. Her main innovation was in stating her belief that the foliate head carving motif and the Green Man pub signs were remnants of the same ritual tradition, and that the foliate head should therefore be called a “Green Man.” Her essay was widely influential, and her intellectual heirs have seen the Green Man and the foliate head as the same figure, often considering him a pagan deity. They also interpret modern folk customs as remnants or survivals of pagan festivals, even though there isn’t always hard evidence to support pagan origins.
Rigorous historians like Hayman and Tesh are understandably uncomfortable with the gaps in the evidence. Still, they go too far in their dismissal of Lady Raglan and those who follow her. Leaving aside Hayman’s easy generalization that “the medieval populace” was “devoutly Christian,” Lady Raglan didn’t claim, as Hayman suggests, that medieval English folk were “defiantly pagan” or that the craftsmen carving Green Men were subversive. What she said was that “unofficial paganism subsisted side by side with the official religion.”
In the context of 1939, the heyday of Margaret Murray’s controversial theory that British paganism had survived as a complete religion right through the Middle Ages, it’s possible to read this as a claim that the stone carvers were secret pagans. However, there are reasons to think that’s not what Lady Raglan was claiming. After all, she called the carving a “Green Man” because she believed it was depicting a ritual which had existed since pagan times, which still existed in 1901, and which was also depicted on “Green Man” pub signs. Unless she was also suggesting that the people documented in 1901, along with the painters of pub signs, were subversive and defiantly pagan, the “unofficial paganism” she refers to could mean these smaller elements of paganism, not a full-blown pagan religion.
Lady Raglan further paraphrases art historian Emile Mâle:
Emile Mâle denies that the mediaeval sculptor ever invented anything. He copied what he saw, and one of these old craftsmen is at pains to state most definitely in his book of drawings that his characters were done from life. Even the lion and the parrot were drawn in a patron’s private zoo.
Following this logic, she states that the character known as “the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May, and the Garland, who is the central figure in the May-day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe” was a “figure in real life from which it could have been taken.”
This suggests that the sculptors were not imagining a pagan deity, but rather carving something they had seen first-hand. In other words, they had witnessed their local May Day rituals and simply carved what they saw: the face of the men performing the rituals poking out among leaves and flowers.
Lady Raglan does not say the Green Man is a pagan deity in the medieval context. The closest she comes to this is when she says:
I have already mentioned that in many churches it is the sole decoration, and surely if we were about to choose one carving only for the decoration of our church, we should choose the person or the symbol that was in our opinion the focal point of our religious ideals.
Here again, it sounds like Lady Raglan might be saying the Green Man was a pagan god, but I don’t think that’s what she was saying. I believe she was indicating that he was a symbol of something important to Christianity. Unfortunately, she didn’t articulate this theory very well, and indeed she even apologizes for the paper’s “scrappiness.” In particular, she skipped over a lot of Frazerian theory, perhaps because she thought everyone who read a folklore journal would understand it. However, she does tell us where to look in Frazer’s book for the key to this passage, when she opines that the May Day ritual might be related to Attis.
To recap the relevant parts of The Golden Bough, Frazer stated that Easter, the holiday celebrating death and resurrection of Christ, was placed near the vernal equinox because it resembled Classical beliefs about the death and resurrection of the god Attis, which was celebrated at that time of year. He includes a whole chapter on “Attis as a God of Vegetation,” and another on “Human Representatives of Attis,” who were either literally or symbolically slain in annual rituals. He claims that Christian celebrations resembled the earlier pagan festivals in many ways:
Taken altogether, the coincidences of the Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the Church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals.
Crucially, Frazer also pointed out that Christians and pagans, when they lived in proximity to one another, were aware of the similarity and symbolic equivalence of Christ and Attis:
In point of fact it appears from the testimony of an anonymous Christian, who wrote in the fourth century of our era, that Christians and pagans alike were struck by the remarkable coincidence between the death and resurrection of their respective deities.
The theory Lady Raglan hints at, then, is something like this: medieval Christians in Britain celebrated a ritual similar to the May Day ritual from 1901. The ritual itself had come down to them from pagan ancestors, among whom it involved the death and resurrection of a vegetation spirit, sometimes even including the sacrifice of the person portraying the King or Green Man. The ritual had been Christianized so that it no longer involved a sacrifice, but people revered the Green Man and recognized the symbolic equivalence of the figure with Christ. The ritual therefore symbolized for them the death and resurrection of Christ, the “focal point of [their] religious ideals.” Because of this, they decorated Christian churches with portraits of the man performing the ritual, as a symbol of Christ, the resurrected God. As years went on, such rituals lost more of their religious underpinnings, but they persisted in form, giving rise to the common name and image of the “Green Man” for inns and pubs. They were still being performed in 1901, when one was observed by Sidney Addy.
This theory, whether accurate or not, makes sense of most of Lady Raglan’s pronouncements. It also comports well in a very general sense with what folklorists know about the religious lives of many people. Many of us adhere to religions that have official liturgies, approved beliefs, and established theologies; yet we also believe in ideas, and follow traditions, not officially approved by those religions. Much of the imagery surrounding Christmas in America involves Santa Claus, elves, Christmas trees, and reindeer, none of which is part of most official denominations’ Christmas beliefs. Even in many churches, these images are prominently displayed during the season, but observers from a foreign culture might search in vain for any explanation of these symbols within the official teachings of the church.
Folklorists call such unofficial beliefs, images, and practices connected to religious observance “folk religion.” My late teacher Don Yoder, in his book Discovering American Folklife, included the following definition:
Folk religion is the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion.
One interesting aspect of Catholic religion is the existence of folk saints, holy people or other beings revered as saints by groups of people, but not recognized as such by the church. Typically, the story surrounding a folk saint and the details of the saint’s following are referred to as that saint’s “cult.” The “Cult of St. Guinefort,” for example, reveres a heroic French dog of the 13th century. By speaking of the Green Man or Robin Hood having a “cult” in the 16th and 17 centuries, surely Lady Raglan was suggesting that the figure was an unofficial folk saint rather than a pagan god being worshipped even after the Middle Ages.
The May Day ritual observed by Addy in 1901 and described by Lady Raglan was undoubtedly an aspect of English folk religion. Lady Raglan seems to have believed it was an adaptation of a very old pagan rite, and that the foliate heads and the earliest “Green Man” pub signs were illustrations of the same folk-religious ritual as it existed among Christians in the artists’ respective eras. This theory will probably remain unproven, but it is not outlandish. It doesn’t require medieval English people to be “defiantly pagan,” or carvers to be “subversive;” it requires them to be Christians whose folk religious practices included a seasonal ritual adapted from their pagan ancestors, and who understood the symbolic connection of that ritual to Christianity. Consequently, one of their important symbols was the Green Man, even though that symbol was not part of the official religion.
Theories like Frazer’s and Lady Raglan’s are often hard to evaluate, but they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Many folklorists and anthropologists have argued, and continue to argue, that aspects of Christian folk religion are derived from pagan practices. Some of these pre-Christian practices are quite obvious in today’s world, such as referring to the Christmas season as “Yule,” decorating eggs for holidays such as Easter, and depositing votive offerings at bodies of water. Doing these things doesn’t make one “defiantly pagan,” but it does demonstrate that, to some degree, “unofficial paganism subsists side by side with the official religion.”
The foliate head, too, certainly seems to be based on pagan antecedents. It’s true that these pagan antecedents have not been found in Britain, but Britain has never been cut off from continental or global cultural influences. Unless we imagine that Green Men in British church architecture have nothing to do with the similar figures in French and German churches, limiting our focus narrowly to Britain doesn’t make sense, especially as the essence of Lady Raglan’s theory is that the ritual was a British version of a ritual that was also Continental. Lady Raglan gave one example of a classical carving resembling a Green Man, which she called a “Janiform bust.” Other, better examples exist from elsewhere in the Roman world, including several from the palace of Diocletian in Split, Croatia, which you can see below.
Hayman may be right that a strong form of Lady Raglan’s theory is not warranted by the evidence. She never showed a connection between the 1901 ritual and paganism, or any connection between the ritual, the Green Man pub signs, and the foliate head. But a strong form of Hayman’s theory is also untenable. No one would deny that meanings change over time, but the principle 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. * In any case, drawing a strict dichotomy between Christian and pagan iconography, and between British and Continental iconography, as Hayman does, is unnecessary and misleading. The halos we see around saints’ heads in artworks are not original to Christian imagery, but were adopted into Christianity early in the church’s history from Classical and other sources. They are Christian but also pagan, and their pagan meaning may inform their Christian meaning. The same seems to be true of the foliate head.
Surely, then, there is middle ground to be explored between Lady Raglan and her detractors. In separate posts I’ll look at the evidence for identifying the foliate head as a Green Man, as well as the evidence for considering the Green Man to be an element of seasonal custom. But first, since both sides in this argument tend to skip over the step of carefully presenting evidence, I intend to spend my next post examining the evidence as to what the term “Green Man” traditionally meant. I will show that the phrase was certainly not coined in 1939, but rather goes back in English at least to the 16th century. Stay tuned!