This is my sixth post about the Green Man, a figure from traditional folk culture. To find all the posts about the Green Man, visit this link!
We began our explorations of the Green Man hoping to find some middle ground between the work of Lady Raglan in her classic essay “The Green Man in Church Architecture,” and that of her detractors: Richard Hayman in “The Ballad of the Green Man” and Emily Tesh in “Inventing Folklore: The Origins of the Green Man.” To get here, we’ve shown that drawing connections between the Foliate Head and the other figures called “Green Man” was a longstanding tradition by Lady Raglan’s time, and that various of those figures had also genuinely been associated with calendar customs for a long time; despite the claims of many commentators, Lady Raglan did not originate these ideas. In this post, I’ll continue to elucidate what I believe Lady Raglan was driving at: that the Green Man was ultimately derived from pre-Christian religious ideas, but was by the Middle Ages a Christian symbol. When Lady Raglan’s work is read this way, her core beliefs about the Green Man image, and the details of her examples, become more coherent and more plausible. I believe her essay has been misunderstood by other scholars for years, and deserves a fair reading and reassessment today.
The Meaning of “Unofficial Paganism”
Lady Raglan’s article concerned the Foliate Head, or the face covered in leaves, so often carved into churches. She called this image the “Green Man,” a name she took from other folkloric images of leafy people, which she she thought represented the same figure. She claimed these images represented “unofficial paganism [which] subsisted side by side with the official religion.”
Much of the negative reaction to her article, including from Hayman and Tesh, is directed at that claim. Hayman, for example, attacks the notion that the Green Man might represent “unofficial paganism” on more than one grounds:
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.
Unfortunately, Hayman seems to be arguing against claims Lady Raglan never made. Lady Raglan didn’t claim that medieval English folk were “defiantly pagan” or that the craftsmen carving Green Men were “subversive.”
Hayman is not alone in making this error. In a new major essay on the Green Man which appeared as an epilogue to a book about goddesses, distinguished historian Ronald Hutton says much the same thing as Hayman:
“The accumulation of research since the 1970s strongly suggests that Lady Raglan’s construct was simply wrong: the foliate heads are not evidence of persisting belief in pagan deities through the Middle Ages….”
The problem with both Hayman’s argument and Hutton’s on this point is that Lady Raglan never says that there was persisting belief in pagan deities through the Middle Ages. Hutton explains in his Green Man essay why he ascribes the belief in a surviving pagan religion to Lady Raglan by situating her in an intellectual tradition with Margaret Murray, who indeed argued that a fully articulated pagan religion survived in Britain through early modern times. Hutton’s ascription makes a certain amount of sense; it is not implausible that Lady Raglan might have held this view. But Lady Raglan never mentions Margaret Murray or her theories, making it unclear that she agreed with Murray in general, and reading her own words carefully suggests she did not herself hold this view where the Green Man was concerned.
In fact, the primary example she chose of “unofficial paganism” makes it extremely unlikely that by her phrase she meant the survival of pagan worship. The only time she directly mentions paganism is when she says:
The fact is that unofficial paganism subsisted side by side with the official religion, and this explains the presence of our Green Man in a church window with the Virgin beside him and below him the sun. This extraordinary figure may be seen in mediaeval stained glass at the church of St. Mary Redcliffe at Bristol. He is crowned, and it would seem that to the artist who made the window, and presumably also to the priests who ordered it, he was equally venerable with the Virgin. We can only conclude that Dr. Lewis is right when he says that the source of our folk customs is religion, turned into folklore when the religious origin of the themes was forgotten.
Lady Raglan seems unaware that the entire window was reconstituted about 50 years before she wrote her article from fragments of windows that had been smashed by Cromwell’s forces in the 1650s, so while the images are legitimately medieval, we don’t know where each head was originally placed. Also, looking at that passage, and at the window itself (the relevant section of which may be seen below), we may quibble with Lady Raglan’s interpretation. The crowned Green Man is smaller than the Virgin and the same size as several other human heads, one of which wears a papal tiara; these are presumably lesser saints than the Virgin. So the Green Man does not in fact seem equally venerable with the Virgin but he does appear among other saints.
More importantly, I don’t think it’s plausible given this passage that by “unofficial paganism” Lady Raglan meant the persistence of pagan belief, or the worship of pagan gods. The passage concerns Christian priests in the 14th century when the window was made, not rural peasants soon after the country’s conversion. She does not say, and I cannot think she meant, that Christian priests at a very large, wealthy urban church in Bristol at that late date were worshipping a pagan god, considered that god equally venerable with the virgin, and were willing to advertise that fact to wealthy urbanites and Church authorities by paying for a window to ostentatiously display their paganism.
This presents us with a problem. If by “unofficial paganism,” Lady Raglan meant such a full-blown pagan religion, why would she use this window as the most proximate example of the phenomenon? The older, more rough-hewn Green Men in her own small rural church would be far more plausible evidence of a surviving pagan religion, both to her and to the people she wanted to convince.
Let us remember that Lady Raglan called the Foliate Head a “Green Man” because she believed it was related to “Green Man” pub signs; the relationship between the two, she thought, was that both depicted aspects of a ritual which had existed since pagan times, and which still existed in her own time. The ritual, she said, contained “the bones, the framework” of an old pagan ritual, but it wasn’t identical to that ritual. She clearly wasn’t suggesting that the painters of pub signs, along with the twentieth-century people celebrating Castleton Garland Day, were “subversive” and “defiantly pagan,” so the persistence of the ritual and images themselves into the 20th century did not imply for her the survival of pagan worship. She never says medieval people were “subversive” and “defiantly pagan,” either, and there’s no reason to think the survival of these same elements necessarily implies that for medieval people any more than it should for 20th century people. The “unofficial paganism” represented by both the ritual and the art that derived from it seems to mean not an underground community of pagans, but rather ideas or elements traceable to paganism that were still observed or communicated within a Christian context. These ideas, practices, and images could be at once unofficially pagan and nominally Christian.
Hutton is well aware of this lesser type of “unofficial paganism,” and elsewhere elucidates it quite well, but states that it’s not his pressing concern:
“The names of the days of the week, the months of the year and the constellations in the sky continue to be resolutely pagan, and classical pagan motifs persisted in medieval literature and to a much lesser extent in medieval art; in both, they were of course to experience a tremendous expansion at the end of the Middle Ages and thereafter. In Christianity itself, many trappings of ritual, and the form of buildings, were taken over from the pagan ancient world. In a more subtle fashion, pre-Christian ways of thought remained embedded in both learned science and folk medicine, while – in a manner less often appreciated – an active veneration of ancient deities was smuggled back into scholarly Christian cosmology in the guise of planetary spirits. In this sense, to be partly pagan is simply to be anybody living in the European and Mediterranean worlds at any time since the end of antiquity: which is why I am not interested in it….”
It’s fair enough, of course, to be more interested in debunking the erroneous idea of widespread active paganism surviving in Britain to the High Middle Ages than in noting the obvious but more banal fact of pagan elements in Christian culture. But it wouldn’t be fair to project the former idea onto Lady Raglan in order to declare her wrong about it.
The Elements of “Unofficial Paganism” in the Green Man Mythos
As I’ve suggested, Lady Raglan never says in her essay that the active worship of pagan gods survived into the Christian Middle Ages, and the example she picked of “unofficial paganism” makes it quite implausible that she believed that. Rather, it seems she believed that the Green Man mythos included elements with roots in pagan religion, and that their persistence as part of Christian culture in the form of image and custom could be considered “unofficial paganism.” What were some of these elements?
First of all, Lady Raglan’s ideas about the Green Man were inspired by the suggestion that there was a pagan origin for the 1901 Castleton Garland May ceremony described in an article by Sidney Oldall Addy. This wasn’t Lady Raglan’s original idea; Addy had pointed out that Garland Day was May 29, the same day as Roman Ambarvalia, on which a procession was held to propitiate the gods and ensure a good harvest. He further pointed out that there were nearby lead mines which had been worked by Romans, and a Roman road through the area, establishing that such ceremonies could have been held locally by Romans or Romanized Britons. Finally, he pointed out that James George Frazer’s book The Golden Bough had described similar customs elsewhere in Europe, and that the miners from the Castleton area were believed to be descended from foreigners. Addy’s observations were clearly intended to imply exactly what Lady Raglan inferred: that the Castleton Garland ceremony and procession had roots in pre-Christian religion, and had perhaps been influenced by continental Europe since ancient times as well. Now, as then, we have no evidence of continuity from pagan to Christian times; there’s nothing inherently implausible about such a connection except for the great span of years, but it is so far just a speculation.
Second, contrary to Hayman’s claim that there are no Green Men among classical deities, the Roman gods Silvanus and Silenus were typically portrayed as naked wild men crowned with leaves, an image that as we have seen was common throughout the Middle Ages and called “Green Man” by the 16th century in England. Silvanus and Silenus were often conflated in the Roman provinces, and this is commented on by Frazer, in one of those maddening passages in which he equates many different beings:
“The Silenuses kept company with the tree-nymphs. The Fauns are expressly designated as woodland deities; and their character as such is still further brought out by their association, or even identification, with Silvanus and the Silvanuses, who, as their name of itself indicates, are spirits of the woods. Lastly, the association of the Satyrs with the Silenuses, Fauns, and Silvanuses, proves that the Satyrs also were woodland deities.”
Frazer notwithstanding, it’s still perfectly conventional in medieval scholarship to include both Silvanus and Silenus among the primary influences on the European Wild Man figure, as when Timothy Husband writes:
“Silvanus, the god of fertile lands and gardens, who customarily carries a tree in his hand, shows a strong resemblance to the wild man, who wields a similar attribute. One of the wild man’s closest classical prototypes…is Silenus, the god of the mountain forests, who, like the wild man, carries an uprooted tree and dwells in a rugged habitat.”
In fact, in some European countries the word used for the Wild Man figure down to modern times was derived from the name “Silvanus.”
Montagu Sharpe, in a book Lady Raglan quite possibly knew, specifically identified Silvanus as the god honored in Britain on Ambarvalia, the Roman holiday whose date was shared by the Castleton Garland:
“Silvanus was a rural divinity ‘of general reverence,’ possessing a threefold personality, as, spirit of the forest: protector of the fields and shepherds: and guardian of the farmstead. His cult was observed in May and was of importance to those who in summer drove their cattle, pigs, and sheep to the woodland pastures (silvas et pascua) of their pagus: for on the occasion of the Ambarvalia the magister and his procession appear to have halted in their perambulation at the groves of this divinity, and propitiatory offerings to Silvanus would be made by the Romano-British husbandmen, who in superstitious fear would feel ‘the old tremor of man in the presence of nature not yet tamed to his needs, nor yet identified with his feelings, still full therefore of stealthy and hostile powers creeping unawares upon his life.'”
Supporting Sharpe’s account, more than 40 inscriptions to Silvanus have been found at Roman-era sites in Britain.
It’s fascinating that the only time a surviving medieval Foliate Head was labeled by its carver with a particular proper name, that name was Silvanus. The medieval carver was working for the Abbey of St. Denis in France. According to Laurence Terrier Aliferis, the face and inscription are definitively dated to the late 12th century, and are described thus (in my translation): “The Roman forest god Silvanus is presented frontally, in a leaf mask, and constitutes one of the first occurrences of a Gothic foliate head, a motif inherited from Roman art.”
This means that a pagan Roman god was represented as a Foliate Head in the Middle Ages and was one of the progenitors of the European “Wild Man” idea. In Roman times he was worshipped in Britain, the country that would call both the Foliate Head and the Wild Man a “Green Man.” His worship was associated with the exact date of the specific Garland ritual that Lady Raglan believed the Foliate Head might depict. While it’s true that Lady Raglan doesn’t specifically mention Silvanus as a being ancestral to the Green Man, she certainly knew of him and his association with the “Green Man mythos” through her reading of Frazer, and she might well have known of his connection to Ambarvalia. It’s therefore quite possible she had him in mind as one of the iconographic or conceptual ancestors of the Green Man.
Finally, the most concrete connection between the Green Man and paganism is simply that Foliate Heads abound on Roman temples throughout the Western and Eastern empires. We do not know which gods or other beings they are intended to represent. When Kathleen Basford tells us that “the Silvanus of St. Denis is an iconographical puzzle since Silvanus was never represented in the form of a leaf mask in antiquity,” she’s making an educated guess–we have many unnamed Classical leaf masks and Foliate Heads which might have been intended as Silvanus. It would be more true to say that we have no leaf mask surviving from antiquity that is labeled with Silvanus’s name. And given these unnamed Foliate Heads, it’s not at all clear that there weren’t even more gods or other mythical beings in the classical pagan pantheon represented by Green Men or Foliate Heads.
These aren’t the only elements of the Green Man mythos that might be considered “unofficial paganism,” but they are the most prominent. They run the gamut from vague and speculative connections to concrete and certain ones. They establish some of the context for Lady Raglan characterizing the Foliate Head as a Green Man, and the Green Man as “unofficial paganism.”
It is true, as Hutton and Hayman point out, that the idea of pagan religion surviving wholesale in medieval Britain has been abandoned in most scholarship. Lady Raglan, however, never fully espoused that idea. Her more limited notion of “unofficial paganism” seems much less farfetched and speculative, and was supported by a considerable amount of evidence which, though circumstantial, might convince many people even today.
“Religion Turned into Folklore”: Lady Raglan’s Theory
Unfortunately, Lady Raglan did not articulate her theory very well, or provide proper references for her suggestions. She was aware of this shortcoming, and even apologized in the article for its “scrappiness.” This has left the door open for later scholars to read a lot into what she said in the article and then disagree with it. But by closely examining what she did say, we can get a good sense of what she thought.
For example, Lady Raglan did not believe that Green Man carvings were intended to represent pagan gods. One clue to this comes when she 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 of the Green Man:
“This figure is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life, and the question is whether there was any figure in real life from which it can have have been taken. The answer, I think, is that there is only one of sufficient importance, the figure variously the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin of May, and the Garland, who is the central figure in May-day celebrations throughout Northern Europe
Clearly, unless she believed carvers had encountered pagan deities in real life, she is not arguing that the faces were meant to represent them. Rather, she suggests that the carvers were depicting faces they had seen first-hand.
We can recall that, by the time of writing this article Lady Raglan had discussed all these ideas with her friend C.J.P. Cave, as I detailed in this earlier post. Cave had similarly and independently had the inspiration that Green Man roof bosses resembled nothing so much as a May ritual:
“Often the figures are impossible to distinguish from the foliage bosses around without field glasses, and sometimes only a photograph will reveal eyes peering out between foliage like a Jack in the green of 50 years ago. And may we not see in this likeness a clue to the origin of the figure?”
Additionally, Lady Raglan’s husband Lord Raglan had in 1936 suggested that Robin Hood. whom he asserts was in the Middle Ages “the hero of a folk drama,” had “connections with…Jack-in-the-Green, and with the carved faces, with twigs protruding from their mouths, which are a feature of so many of our old churches.”
Finally of course, when Lady Raglan discussed Sidney Addy’s description of the Castleton Garland ceremony, in which a man is encased in a framework of leaves and flowers, she included this detail:
“Mr. Hall, of Castleton, told the recorder how he used, when he played the part of the King, to make a little hole in the branches to see through, and this Green Man in the chapter-house at Southwell is doing the very thing.”
In context, then, if Lady Raglan is saying the carvers are depicting faces they had seen in real life, she means the faces of people performing their local May rituals, letting their faces show through a gap in a garland or Jack-in-the-Green woven with leaves and flowers. The Green Man in medieval churches, in other words, is not (in Lady Raglan’s estimation) a depiction of a pagan deity, but a depiction of a man performing a folk ritual of a type that was still being performed in her own lifetime, and which indeed is still performed today. At some point in the past, that ritual might have been intended to represent a pagan deity, but that doesn’t make the carving a portrayal of the deity; the carvers (in Lady Raglan’s theory) knew they were carving their own neighbors enacting a folk custom. She does not say the version of the custom they observed was still pagan, and indeed does not even say if she thinks they were aware of the custom’s pagan origins. In one place she suggests such a ritual might have maintained its pagan form, complete with sacrifice, in the Christian era, but also says this is “difficult to believe.”
Given that this is the case, we may wonder what Lady Raglan means when she says:
“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.”
Since the Green Man was carved on Christian churches, and commissioned by Christian priests in stained glass windows, and since since she does NOT say she believes in defiant pagans carving subversive figures, I believe Lady Raglan was indicating that he was a symbol of something important to Christian ideals. But what?
To find the key to her theory, we need to attend to one detail in particular. When searching for a myth that may have provided the basis for the Castleton Garland ceremony, and hence the Foliate Head, she mentions in particular the Norse god Odin and the Phrygian vegetation god Attis, because, she claims, they were both hanged. Here she is speaking in shorthand for people familiar with Myth-Ritual theory and comparative mythology in her time, so I’ll elucidate a bit.
Odin’s being “hanged” refers to a famous passage from the Hávamál in which Odin says he was sacrificed to himself by being hung on a tree, pierced by a spear, and left for days with no water to drink until he cried out in anguish. This passage of course recalls the crucifixion of Christ, and there was an active debate in the late 19th and early 20th century as to which story influenced the other. Olive Bray, in the introduction to the translation Lady Raglan would have read, suggests that modern scholarship was tending toward the interpretation that the Odin story (which wasn’t written down until the 13th century) borrowed details from the Christian gospels, but that “all the older authorities” believed the Odin story was ancient and predated Christianity, and that therefore elements of the Odin story or a common ancestor must in some form have influenced the story of Christ’s crucifixion.
The reference to Attis, meanwhile, tells us where to look in Frazer’s The Golden Bough. To recap the relevant passages, Frazer stated that Easter, the holiday celebrating the 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:
“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.”
What Odin and Attis have in common, then, is that in the views of some scholars, each of their stories contributed to the meaning and worship of Christ himself–in particular, the story and celebration of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection. By saying that “our Green Man is a descendant of the same myth,” Lady Raglan is also indicating her belief in its connection to the Christian resurrection story.
Applying this to the Green Man, the theory Lady Raglan hints at is approximately this: medieval Christians in Britain celebrated a ritual involving a man dressing himself in leaves and flowers. Some aspects of the ritual itself had come down to those medieval Christians from pagan ancestors, among whom it had involved the death and resurrection of a vegetation spirit similar to Attis and perhaps resembling or even derived from Silvanus. It may even have included the sacrifice of the person portraying the King or Green Man, in a manner perhaps reminiscent of the sacrifice of Odin. In pagan times, the ritual had been illustrated on the walls of pagan temples by carvings of foliate faces. By the Middle Ages, the ritual had been Christianized so that if it had ever involved a sacrifice, it no longer did; but people revered the Green Man, whom they also called Robin Hood. They recognized the symbolic equivalence of the figure with Christ, since like the figure in the ritual he was hung up to die and resurrected. The ritual therefore symbolized for them the death and resurrection of Christ, the “focal point of [their] religious ideals.” Because of this, they continued to use the pagan Foliate Head motif, carving foliate-face portraits of the men performing local versions of the ritual onto their churches as symbols of Christ, the resurrected god. As years went on, such rituals and images lost many of their religious underpinnings, but they persisted in form, giving rise to the pageant Green Man, the common name and image of the “Green Man” for inns and pubs, and the Jack-in-the-Green, among other manifestations of the Green Man. Related rituals were still being performed in 1901, when one was observed by Sidney Addy at Castleton.
The theory above, whether accurate or not, is not outlandish. More to the point, it isn’t the theory often ascribed to her. It doesn’t suggest a secret cult of pagans infiltrating the church, just the presence of elements within Christianity that had come from pagan sources. Not all of these pagan elements are well attested, but the Foliate Head itself certainly is, having appeared on pagan temples. The existence in pagan tradition of rituals closely resembling Jack-in-the-Green or the Garland can’t be proven, but certainly rituals involving people dressed in leaves and flowers were performed in ancient times. Therefore, this theory is consistent with much of the evidence that does exist, but there are significant gaps in that evidence, which may never be filled. Still, I believe we have found some middle ground: I believe Lady Raglan substantially agreed with Hayman’s contention that “Green men in Britain…belong to Christian rather than pagan iconography,” though she would probably say that they belonged in some measure to both.