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A green face surrounded by leaves and flowers.
Andrew Jamieson's Green Man in the form of a Foliate Head was included in the invitation to the coronation of King Charles in 2023. It was distributed as a press image by the Royal Family.

The Green Man in the Modern World

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I’m wrapping up my 2023 with my eighth (and probably last) post about the Green Man, a figure from traditional folk culture. (To find all the posts about the Green Man, visit this link!) It was a big year for the Green Man. In April, Buckingham Palace revealed the invitation to the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. The artwork, by heraldic artist Andrew Jamieson, featured a prominent Green Man in the form of a Foliate Head. The Royal Family issued a press release, including the following observation:

“Central to the design is the motif of the Green Man, an ancient figure from British folklore, symbolic of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign. The shape of the Green Man, crowned in natural foliage, is formed of leaves of oak, ivy and hawthorn, and the emblematic flowers of the United Kingdom.”

Amusingly, the announcement caused a mild disturbance in the British press and throughout the country, with some commentators suggesting the King, the head of the Church of England, was a secret pagan. Among the more prominent was Grammy-winning folk musician Winston Marshall, of the band Mumford and Sons.

Among the responses to the invitation also were many people (including learned professors) taking the erroneous positions we’ve discussed in previous posts: that Lady Raglan invented the Green Man in 1939, and that it had never been a pagan symbol at all. The most extreme example of this was Francis Young, a historian, who stated in Slate Magazine that Lady Raglan made it all up. Using a medieval word for the Wild Man, he made the puzzling claim that “the woodwose has never been referenced in any sources as a green man.” It’s puzzling because–as I showed in this previous post–the identification between the woodwose or Wild Man and the name “Green Man” goes back at least to the 16th century; the same whifflers at the Lord Mayor’s Pageant that were called “wodyn” (a variant of “woodwose”) in a 1553 diary were called “Green Men” in a 1578 play, and a reference by Bagford (d. 1716) claims the figures called “Green Men” on signboards used to be called “woudmen,” another “woodwose” variant. In fact, because this is the earliest documented meaning of the phrase “Green Man,” the Oxford English Dictionary to this day defines both the Green Man and the woodwose as a “wild man of the woods.”

Young’s conclusion was: “The likeliest explanation for [Green Men] is that they are simply a visual joke, a bit like medieval stonemasons depicting people taking their trousers down.” This is an odd claim on its face; almost none of the historians and folklorists who have examined the Green Man say it was a joke or think it is funny. But it’s especially surprising that a person like Young, who sometimes describes himself as a folklorist, would suggest that a symbol is trivial and unworthy of analysis because it is “simply a visual joke.” Jokes are folklore, they often have serious implications, and folklorists typically study them and seek their deeper meaning rather than dismissing them as meaningless. In any case the claim of the invitation (that the Green Man is an ancient character from British folklore) would arguably still be true, even if its use in the Middle Ages could be shown to have been a joke.

Stone carving of a foliate head.
This pagan Roman Foliate Head dates to about 150 CE. It is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Photo by Stephen Winick.

The flap in the press was treated to better effect by Sebastian Milbank in the magazine The Critic. He began with lighthearted derision:

“Takes stormed in, with many accounts hysterically accusing the new monarch of paganism and nature-worship. Would white-robed priestesses slaughter cattle on the altar of Westminster Abbey? Would the King be crowned by a druid? Would he announce his new reign by putting on a pair of antlers, mounting a white horse and hunting republicans in the streets of London?”

Despite proceeding to repeat the inaccurate statement that the Green Man was never a pagan symbol (see the example above for a pagan Green Man), Milbank then wrote a rather sensible essay about the Green Man. He pointed out various possibilities for Christian meanings of the Green Man and conceded that “the continuities of imagery and folklore between pagan and Christian worlds is real, and is not one of straightforward rupture and opposition.”

Two Green Men on modern buildings in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photos by Stephen Winick.

In his analysis, Milbank suggests the Green Man was a depiction of the unnamed but holy people mentioned in the Bible, in Psalm 1 2:3 and in Jeremiah 1 7:8. These passages are a sterling example of the theme of viriditas or greenness in scripture, which I discussed in a previous post. Both passages describe righteous souls as being like trees growing by a river, forever contemplating scripture and bearing metaphorical fruit. While the selection of these particular verses (as opposed to other, similar passages) is obviously intuition and guesswork, Milbank’s point is well taken: Green Men are perfectly appropriate as Christian imagery, and can serve as reminders of scripture, Christian role models for the clergy and others, and subjects of meditation.

Milbank’s essay is an interesting example of people interpreting the Green Man in a way that is comfortable for them, ignoring or denying elements of the figure’s history such as its pagan roots, while emphasizing other attributes; in this case, the figure’s Christian meanings. It’s also consistent with previous Christian interpretations, and with my previous observation that for some people, the Green Man may have fulfilled the functions of a folk saint.

Also in 2023, an important essay on the Green Man was published by the distinguished historian Ronald Hutton. The essay formed the epilogue of his book Queens of the Wild, which frames the discussion of the Green Man as part of a larger intellectual trend: the theory that European paganism survived into the High Middle Ages and beyond. Hutton’s fascinating first chapter traces the history of this idea from its heyday–which lasted from the late 19th century until the 1950s–through a more recent period of revisionism when the theory was rejected. In his later chapter on the Green Man, Hutton assumes Lady Raglan was a proponent of this theory, and that she believed the Green Man was a pagan god whose worship had survived to the late Middle Ages. As I point out in my previous posts, Lady Raglan never really says this in her article and does not seem to believe it.

Green Man carving painted in bright modern colors
Green Man, All Saints’ church, Evesham. Photo by J.Hannan-Briggs, 2017. Shared to Geograph with a Creative Commons License.

Hutton’s essay contains a useful summary of theories on the meanings the Green Man might have had in the Middle Ages. The survey reveals that the image is polysemic, or susceptible to many interpretations, and that no one really knows what it meant to the artists who adapted it or the medieval people who saw it. Interestingly, Hutton ignores the one time a medieval carver identified a Foliate Head by name; the inscription dates to the 12th century, and the name was Silvanus, a Roman pagan deity widely worshipped in Britain and France. (See this previous post for more.) But Hutton also suggests several general meanings that many scholars believe pertained in various times and places: death and resurrection; humankind’s connection to nature and the seasonal cycle; and, for some, sin and consequent suffering. In my own writings on the Green Man in 2023, I suggested additions to this list of Christian meanings. First, I followed Matthew Fox and others in pointing out that the Green Man can be seen as an example of viriditas, a medieval Christian concept associating greenness and vegetation with people’s physical, mental, and spiritual health, and their closeness to Christ. I also suggested that the Green Man might have functioned as a folk saint, or the object of vernacular veneration.

Going beyond the Middle Ages, Hutton suggests that the very lack of a single definitive meaning for the Green Man image has allowed it to adopt new meanings in the modern world. His chapter discusses some of those reinterpretations. In particular, he discusses the Green Man’s adoption into the environmentalist movement in the 1980s, in which it functioned as “a label and symbol of the natural world, with which humanity needed to urgently remake its relationship.” Hutton also mentions the adoption of the Green Man by the neopagan movement, stating that, as long as no inaccurate historical narratives are advanced, this is a perfectly legitimate use of the Green Man’s symbolic power.

Three Books: The Quest for the Green Man by John Matthews, The Spirit of the Green Man by Mary Neasham, and Green Man by William Anderson.
Books treating the Green Man from a spiritual perspective. These are from my personal collection.

The Green Man and Modern Devotion

As a landmark book marrying the mythic approach of Lady Raglan with environmentalism and feminism, Hutton mentions William Anderson’s 1990 Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth. This is one of the most influential books on the Green Man from the late 20th century, including inspirational text, photographs, and poetry. As Hutton notes, “the considerable power of [Anderson’s] book lay in the fact that it was essentially a religious text, illustrated with medieval art.” As a devotional text centered on the Green Man, Anderson’s book opens up the question of what kind of religious figure he is. The book associates the Green Man with specific pagan gods and saints, but does not definitively call the Green Man either one.

As I suggested in a previous post, the forms of devotion don’t differ that much between pagan gods and Christian saints. To request the intercession of a saint, one might create an altar, place a sculpture or picture of the saint on it, burn a candle or oil lamp, write down one’s request and place it on the altar, make a votive offering of food, wine, or flowers, say a prayer or charm, etc. There may be set ritual procedures and offerings for particular requests. Similarly, in the Roman Empire, household shrines were used for rituals in which people placed figurines of the gods or household spirits and then lit lamps, said or wrote down prayers, and left food, wine, and flowers for them.

The fact that devotion can be accorded to pagan gods or folk saints in many of the same ways allowed books that followed Anderson’s lead to be even more explicit about their interpretation of the Green Man as a spirit to be accorded devotion, while maintaining the ambiguity of whether he is god or saint or something else entirely. Mike Harding calls him a “pagan image brought into the church to be made safe” and exhorts us to draw strength from the image, since “if anything on this poisoned planet gives us hope of renewal it is this simple foliate head that has been there in one form or another since the beginning.” Mary Neasham mostly calls him a “spirit” and says: “He transcends race and gender, he doesn’t care what color you are, how old you are, what language you speak, or what your preferred sexuality is. He is indifferent to these things. His divine love is unconditional and he will continue to bestow it upon us for as long as he lives.” John Matthews, more directly devotional, suggests building an altar, burning votive candles, and performing meditations centered on the Green Man–exactly as one might for Roman household gods or Christian folk saints.

Five tall candles decorated with folk saint graphics.
Votive candles are a popular way to request aid from folk saints. In my folk saint candle collection, I have many “secular saints” like Bob Ross, as well as folk saints from diverse traditions. Left to right, these are Bob Ross, Gauchito Gil, The Green Man, Santissima Muerte, and Juan el Conquistador, also known as High John the Conqueror. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Soon after its initial appearance in Queens of the Wild, Ronald Hutton’s essay on the Green Man was reprinted in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (JSRNC), as part of vol. 17 no. 2, a special issue on the Green Man. That issue also includes several other essays treating the Green Man in the modern world, which reveal people’s devotional or religious engagement with the image. In particular, it looks at the re-emergence of the Green Man as a symbol within the context of neopaganism. Ethan Doyle White discusses how modern pagan religions adapt elements of pre-Christian paganism, and also how they are informed by scholarship from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–including the Green Man as discussed and theorized by Lady Raglan. Amy Whitehead and Andy Letcher provide a survey of ritual enactments involving the Green Man, including related figures such as Jack in the Green. They discuss the Green Man’s connection to ecological awareness and nature spirituality, and explore the Green Man as a source for ritual religious creativity among neopagan groups, which has brought the figure full circle back to its pagan roots.

Ronald Hutton has mentioned that the Green Man in the works of modern writers like William Anderson represents ideals we feel are lacking in modern society, particularly a devotion to nature and the environment. This concern is becoming more and more urgent as climate change progresses and the time we have to address it decreases, leading some to feel a fundamental shift in values is necessary. Tara Isabella Burton has pointed out that many figures venerated today as folk saints likewise reflect a “desire for a radical reframing of our collective values.” Burton shows that such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Wilde, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, each representing ideals we feel are neglected, have taken their place beside other folk saints in modern discourse and devotional practice. Books like those of Anderson, Neasham, and Matthews maintain a certain ambiguity between pagan god and folk saint, but they suggest that whichever way you look at the Green Man, his spiritual function may not have changed that much over the centuries.

The Green Man in the Arts

Two books and framed art print
Green Man books and art from my personal collection: “The Green Man,” an anthology of fiction and poetry edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling with cover art by Charles Vess; a framed print of “The Green Man” signed to me by the artist, Robert Gould, and the novel “Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh.

Nonfiction writing, both scholarly and popular, has had an important role in introducing people to the Green Man; this topic is covered well in Hutton’s article. But there are many more ways in which modern people encounter the Green Man, which are worth bringing up here.

One of these is literature and the arts. There is a long precedent for this; obviously, both the Foliate Head and the pageant Green Man were encountered as art in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In a previous post I discussed the Pageant of Britain at the Festival of Empire (1911) and its use of the Green Man and related characters. Hutton mentions novels by Henry Treece and Kingsley Amis, as well as the opera “Down by the Greenwood Side” by Harrison Birtwistle, all from the mid twentieth century.

To this midcentury list we can also add the towering figure of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose three part novel The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) introduced the Ents, figures who looked like giant pageant Green Men and acted as stewards of the environment and fierce defenders of the trees. Tom Shippey has pointed out that the Ents were a form of wish-fulfillment for Tolkien, who was concerned about environmental degradation in England. This makes them an early example of the use of Green Man imagery to express environmentalist ideals.

Starting in the later 20th century, we have seen the flowering of a movement sometimes referred to as “Mythic Arts”: artists and creative writers working in the realms of myth and fantasy, many of them deeply inspired by Tolkien. The prolific and talented writer and editor Terri Windling has written two thought-provoking essays involving the Green Man’s place in this movement, the earlier one at this link and the later one at this link. She includes artists such as painters and illustrators Brian Froud, Charles Vess, Wendy Froud, Alan Lee, and Robert Gould; poets such as Ari Berk and Bill Lewis; and novelists such as Robert Holdstock and Charles de Lint. Such artists and writers (including Windling herself, as well as the formidable Emily Tesh) are important to the Green Man’s presence in the modern world, in that many people first encounter the image and the idea of the Green Man in their work, and are led from there to explore the Green Man in other ways.

A woman plays guitar on stage
Stella Donnelly headlining the Green Man Festival in 2019. Photo by Stewpots90, shared online with a Creative Commons license.

Modern people may also encounter the Green Man in musical form. Whitehead and Letcher mention Martin Graebe’s song “Jack in the Green,” which is written in traditional folk style, but the Green Man is not limited to folk music; Green Man songs run the stylistic gamut from folk to metal. Songs about the Green Man include Jethro Tull’s “Jack in the Green” and “Cup of Wonder,” as well as original songs called “Green Man” by artists as diverse as XTC, Jennifer Cutting’s OCEAN Orchestra, Shaman, Type O Negative, and Steeleye Span. In addition to individual songs and bands, people encounter the idea of the Green Man at music and arts festivals, including the Green Man Festival in Wales, which is attended by 25,000 people annually; and at Burning Man, which made The Green Man its theme in 2009.

Enacting the Green Man

Farmer and environmentalist Rob Wood has portrayed the Green Man for over 30 years, as the guiding spirit of the May Day Fairie Festival in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Photo by Stephen Winick.

A neglected but crucial aspect of the Green Man in the modern world is his enactment in live performances, which has been common since the 1960s. As we have seen, the Green Man was a character in sixteenth century pageants, and this tradition has been revived periodically, including for the Festival of Empire in 1911. We are now in a major revival of Green Man performance. During a typical year, hundreds of people dress as Green Men in processions, pageants, and performances, and thousands of people attend those performances. Since in performance a Green Man is almost never a disembodied Foliate Head, more and more people are encountering the Green Man in the form of a person covered in leaves or other greenery. It’s also quite common for such Green Men to wear masks, making them a combination of two traditional Green Man figures: the pageant Green Men and the Foliate Head.

There are several social movements or traditions within which such Green Man enactments have emerged. One of them is what is often called the “Second Folk Revival” in Britain: a resurgence of interest in traditional folk music and dance that began in the later 1940s, peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, and still continues today. Within this revival, many people became interested in revisiting traditional seasonal folk customs, as contexts and performance venues for music and dance, and as fascinating pursuits of their own. These folk customs sometimes include Green Men.

As a single example, William Anderson’s book begins with a description and a photo of the Hastings Traditional Jack-in-the-Green, an annual May Day procession revived in 1983 after having ceased to operate about a hundred years previously. The central feature of the festival is the procession of a Jack-in-the-Green with attendant characters, as well as music and morris dancing. (As we have seen in this previous post, the Jack-in-the-Green himself was considered a Green Man in the early 19th century when the tradition was young, and continued to be called a “green man” in references right down to the current time.)

Pageant Green Men (called “bogies” in this group’s tradition) accompany the Jack in the Green at the Hastings Jack in the Green festival in 2023. Note the patch on the tatter suit worn by the Bogie nearest the camera; it features a Foliate Head. Photo by Doyle of London, shared online with a Creative Commons license.

The Hastings procession includes not only the Jack-in-the-Green himself, but a group of attendants called “bogies,” who are essentially pageant Green Men: men covered in leaves, green cloth strips resembling leaves, and green makeup. (The Bogies also sometimes wear a patch identifying them as official participants; it features the word “Bogie” and a Foliate Head.) According to Keith Leech, one of the founders of the revived tradition, the bogies were inspired by several sources: the descriptions of “Green Men” and Wild Men from 16th and 17th century England; the tattercoats of the 19th century Hastings Jack-in-the-Green procession; and, especially, similar procession characters from continental Europe.

The Hastings event is only one of many festivals featuring Jack-in-the-Green and the Green Man; Britain has about 30 such festivals each year. At most of them, folk dancers, especially morris dance teams, are among the driving forces organizing the festivities. While some of these events may have a spiritual air or an environmental focus, they are generally centered on folk custom, dance, and music, and are secular in nature, welcoming to practitioners of any religion or none. This type of event has also spread all over the world, from the Greenbelt Green Man Festival in Maryland to the English Ale in Mylor, South Australia.

Most festivals featuring the Green Man are spring or summer events, reflecting the traditional association of the pageant Green Man and Jack in the Green with May. However, as I observed in a previous post, characters associated with one seasonal holiday frequently become generalized so they appear at more than one. The pageant Green Man in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, was associated with both the transition from April to May (including St. George’s Day) and from October to November (particularly the Lord Mayor’s Pageant on October 29). Today as well, Green Men are part of the celebration of midsummer, harvest, and midwinter at venues all over Britain and the U.S. This highlights some of what scholars have identified as the Green Man’s traditional meanings, such as the connection of human life with the turning seasons.

A Green Man who was part of a Twelfth Night (Christmas) celebration in London, England in 2009. The photo is by Sarah Louise Hathaway and was shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

In North America, another cultural movement has been important to the revival of the Green Man. This is the Renaissance Faire, which typically recreates (or imaginatively enacts) some version of an English village or market of the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The people who came together for the first annual fair of this type, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire of southern California, were informed both by their countercultural leanings and by their love of history and education. They were naturally drawn to magic, mystery, and drama, both as ways of entertaining themselves and their audiences, and as teaching tools to interest people in further studying Renaissance history. From the early days of this first faire, the cast included the Green Man, portrayed by actor and mime Billy Scudder.

Portrait of Billy Scudder as the Green Man
Actor Billy Scudder has been portraying the Green Man for about 50 years. He was in the cast of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, the first American “Ren Faire,” for 35 years beginning in the late 1960s, and later portrayed the Green Man at annual festivals sponsored by Faerieworlds. This photo from 2007 is by Pat Kight and was shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

There are currently about 200 Renaissance and medieval fairs in the United States, and a further 50 or so in Canada. There’s no telling how many of them feature one or more Green Men, but as the “ren faire” tradition grew and spread, it certainly carried Green Men with it. As a single example, every year in October, a procession of Green Men marches a circuit of the grounds at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, visiting the booth of every vendor. During the “Green Man March,” which celebrated its 24th annual edition in 2023, the Green Men offer a blessing, represented by an acorn and a chant of “green blessings” or “harvest blessings.” They refer to themselves as the Beneficent Order of the Greenman (BOG) and their members are called BOG brothers. Their leadership includes an Abbott, a Prior, and a Bard, evoking both pre-Christian and Christian spirituality. The order has several chapters, or “Groves,” which live in different areas of the country. The group is dedicated to marching at faires and festivals as a way of raising awareness of the Green Man’s history.

Like the Hastings Bogies, the Bog brothers are inspired by English antecedents such as the pageant Green Men, by Foliate Heads from medieval churches, and by similar seasonal and performance traditions from continental Europe, such as Silvesterchlausen in Switzerland. While BOG generally subscribes to environmentalist ideals, it does not officially engage in advocacy or action on the environment. Similarly, while its members generally consider themselves spiritual, they do not engage in religious activities as a group, and do not share a single religion; members include Unitarians, Pagans, Christians, Jews, secular humanists, and other faith traditions. Performing the roles of both pageant Green Men and non-denominational holy men, these Green Men offer love and benedictions to all who cross their path.

A group of men dressed in green leaves and gold flowers.
The Beneficent Order of the Greenman on the march at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, led by Abbot Shane Odom. Since the festival runs from August to October, late summer and harvest colors are typical of this enactment. Photo courtesy of Shane Odom.

The Beneficent Order of the Greenman was born at a Renaissance faire but participates also in another type of event: the Faerie Festival or mythic faire. Connected to but separate from Renaissance faires, these events constitute a growing trend of the last 30 or so years: festivals dedicated to faerie, myth, and fantasy. There are at least 50 such annual events in the United States and many in Britain as well. The May Day Faerie Festival, the oldest and one of the largest such festivals in the United States, features the Green Man as its central character and guiding spirit, portrayed by the festival’s founder, Rob Wood. Founded in 1991 in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, and now occurring in Baltimore County, Maryland, the festival at its height (before the COVID 19 pandemic) attracted about 17,000 audience members annually. In addition to Faerie and Fantasy, this festival is one of the few with a truly strong environmentalist focus, reflected in its eco-friendly activities and its zero-waste policy.

In the western United States, the organization Faerieworlds, which existed from 2002 until its dissolution in 2023, sponsored several annual Faerie festivals, and at its height entertained over 25,000 audience members a year. Run by musicians and artists, these events were essentially festivals of the mythic arts, with visual artists Brian and Wendy Froud (who feature Green Men prominently in their art) as central participants. One of the Masters of Ceremonies for these festivals was the Green Man, played by Renaissance Pleasure Faire veteran Billy Scudder, possibly the longest-running Green Man performer in the world.

Green Man performances, especially these modern iterations of the tradition, aren’t typically concerned with giving an accurate history of the Green Man. They’re not usually religious, though there may be generally spiritual elements to a performance, such as blessings and invocations of spirits or faeries. However, the insights of religious scholars can help us understand them. In their article in the JSRNC special issue, Whitehead and Letcher discuss such performances from a religious perspective, suggesting that among pagans they represent resistance and reterritorialization on behalf green nature; creation of living idols through embodiment of the sacred figure; and a “giving back” in the form of performance energy to the green world, as understood in an animistic context. These observations make sense in the context of neopaganism, and to some extent in general contexts; people who aren’t pagan can feel that they are resisting deforestation and giving back to Nature too.

A man dressed as a Green Man stretches up toward the sky with a shout. Other people are behind him following suit.
Green Man Rob Wood gives energy to the faeries with a cry of “Kubiando!” at the 2016 May Day Faerie Festival. Photo by David Fimbres. Courtesy of May Day Faerie Festival.

Within the faerie faire culture especially, Whitehead and Letcher’s observation that Green Man performance involves “giving back” to animistic nature is particularly relevant. Faerie festivals tend to develop a backstory based on the idea of local faeries, and to directly or indirectly express the ideal of “giving back” to them in the form of spiritual energy as well as effort. The May Day Faerie Festival has several ceremonies each day highlighting their local (largely invented) faerie mythology, which feature invocations and blessings of four tribes of local faeries, a dark fae embassy, and other groups, as well as blessings of the land and nature, all presided over by the festival’s Green Man. Other festivals have followed suit, and many festivals now include a similar ceremonial component, which is reminiscent of Pagan practice but framed as non-religious. Within the May Day Faerie Festival especially, there is a particular way of calling out a special faerie word, “kubiando,” which is said to distribute energy to the universe and particularly to the faeries. The leading proponent of this at the festival is the Green Man himself.

Whitehead and Letcher’s general principle of resistance also applies in other ways. Both the folk revival and the Renaissance Faire movement look to an idealized version of the past to find forms of expression that feel more satisfying to their community than modern popular culture. Both include traditional music and dance as well as handmade crafts and costume. The British folk revival has deep connections to socialist movement politics, while the Renaissance faire was an early expression of the American counterculture movement. For these reasons, the folk revival has been described as seeking an “Imagined Village,” while the Renaissance Faire tends to occur within an actual imagined village, both of them situated in an idealized British past. These common threads linking the two movements suggest forms of resistance that may be symbolized by the Green Man in these contexts: resistance to the modern world, and especially a few of its components, such as urbanization, mass production, capitalism, and materialism.

The faerie festival culture embodies many of the same ideals, though it expresses them differently. There is less emphasis on nostalgic history and the politics that such history implies. As among Pagan practitioners, “resistance on behalf of green nature” is certainly a part of the sentiment of some faerie festivals, especially the May Day Faerie Festival. For others, the focus is more on magic and enchantment, make-believe and wonder. Faerie faires resist the serious in favor of the playful. Here the Green Man’s leafiness represents not only the local natural world, but the combination of vegetable and animal life as an exotic possibility full of magic and wonder. In this context, the Green Man’s resistance is more to the mundane than the modern.

The Green Man and Gender

Two women with leafy headdresses and green makeup.
Two Green Women at the 2023 Hastings Jack-in-the-Green Festival. Photo by Jennifer Cutting.

Another of the Green Man’s cultural meanings seems to me to be a neglected area in scholarship: the Green Man as a symbol of masculinity, and the place of gender and sexuality in interpreting the image. Scholars of the Green Man rarely mention that he is an important symbol in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, in which he accompanies and sometimes replaces the Wild Man as one of the movement’s archetypal aspects of masculinity. Among insiders, the Green Man’s recognition as an archetype is often heralded as part of a “second wave” of the movement; as one example, Michael Meade identifies him as a more approachable version of the “Wild Man” originally brought into the movement by Robert Bly. For some, the Green Man is a way to incorporate what they see as more feminine patterns of thought into the male psyche.

It’s interesting also that female Foliate Heads, while not as common as male ones, certainly existed in the Middle Ages. The wider European Wild Man tradition, which seems to be the most important source of the pageant Green Man tradition in England, also included Wild Women. Thus, there is no particular reason not to imagine or enact Green Women. Beyond this, as the culture generally tends toward both gender-inclusiveness and the transgression of normative gender behaviors, we would expect Green Women, non-binary green beings, and LGBTQ Green folk to be more fully acknowledged. This is indeed the case, and many events featuring Green Man performances now include diverse other Green People as well. As examples of this, the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green’s attendants have included women and an LGBTQ contingent known as The Gay Bogies since the early 1990s.

Several people dressed in elaborate Green Man costumes
Members of the Gay Bogies of Hastings Jack in the Green, photographed by Andy Wilson in 2008. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Carolyn Dinshaw has also discussed the adoption of the Green Man within the community known as Radical Faeries, who embody a more forceful type of the resistance seen in the folk revival, Renaissance faire, and faerie festival movements:

Radical Faeries gather outside the built environment of cities and its imposition of social constraints; living close to Nature with a capital N holds out the promise to liberate gender and sexuality from these repressive and exclusionary conditions of modernity and to allow discovery of the ‘ancient spiritual roots of being gay.’ Faeries have intensively explored the spiritual dimensions of sexual liberation…. This is where the Green Man is resonant, that living pagan figure resistant to dominant religion.

As their name suggests, the Radical Faeries resist not only religion, but other aspects of the dominant culture. These begin with sexual and gender normativity, but also according to Dinshaw, extend in complex ways so that the Faeries can at times both embody and subvert settler colonialist ideologies. The importance of the Green Man within this movement suggests that oral history or ethnography with Radical Faeries might help shed light on one of the Green Man’s core meanings among an unusual and fascinating group.

Conclusion

Three men in elaborate Green Man costumes, photographed from behind.
Three Green Men look out over the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Photo by Stephen Winick

In this series, we have traced the Green Man from antiquity to its adoption by the British Royal Family as a sort of mascot in 2023. Of course, its meaning has changed over the centuries. The phrase has meant a wild man or wodewose since the sixteenth century. It has been used to refer to the the Jack-in-the-Green since at least 1820. In the early 20th century observers began noting similarities between these leaf-covered figures and the Foliate Head of church architecture, and the name was expanded to encompass that tradition as well by 1939.

As the referential meaning of the phrase “Green Man” has changed, so have the deeper meanings of all the characters and figures to which it was applied. At the root of all such meanings lies the essence of the figures themselves: the combination of a human form with leaves and flowers. This combination obviously had significance in both pre-Christian and Christian religious contexts, since some of these figures appeared in churches and temples; but these meanings are obscure and remain the subject of scholarly speculation. Nonetheless, the Green Man continues as a figure of vernacular veneration to this day. The Green Man also appeared in more secular arenas like seasonal observances and festive drama, with which several of the Green Man figures have been associated from at least the sixteenth century until the current day. In modern times, new meanings continue to be added in both religious and secular contexts, as exemplified by the Green Man’s association with environmentalism, men’s movements, and the Radical Faeries.

Richard Hayman rightly points out that the Green Man’s specific significance in the environmental movement has no medieval precedent, because the context of humanity’s relationship to nature has changed:

The reinvention of the Green Man as an ecological icon has been made possible by the need to censure a society for being anti-Nature, an entirely modern and not a medieval idea.

Although we’ve had occasion to disagree with Hayman, here we find common ground–as the world changes, so must the meanings of the Green Man. We can thus agree with his observation that the Green Man functions as an exemplary folk tradition, “a perfect example in our modern world of how the past is reinterpreted to suit the needs of the present.”

A man with a green beard wearing a mask with leaves and flowers in his hair.
“Selfie” of the author as a Green Man in 2022.

In a more general sense, we can also agree with Emily Tesh’s conclusion, a simple truth that may be more important than questions of the Green Man’s specific functions or meanings:

“[The Green Man] is a mystery,” she tells us, “but he has not left us yet.”

Note: The author of this post is both an ethnographer and a performer, and has been a participant observer in some of the events discussed, including the May Day Faerie Festival, several Faerieworlds productions, and the Beneficent Order of the Greenman. Like Whitehead and Letcher, whose work he discusses above, he is a “critical insider” to the Green Man tradition. 

Comments (10)

  1. This series about the Green Man been a pleasure to read. Thank you for writing about a complicated and challenging subject.

  2. Amazing!

  3. Steve, just wanted to thank you for this enriching series. I have been passively enjoying this deep dive on the foliate head and, after 7 (now 8) installments, my eye has been sufficiently trained to recognize one from a distance in the proper context. My first 3 dimensional encounter with a “Jolly Green Giant” was at the (now departed) Georgetown Halloween parade in 1987. Thanks to you, I recently spotted a 19th century wooden chair with an exquisitely carved “green man” in a Philadelphia hotel. Something I probably would have overlooked in the past. I took a picture if you are interested. Happy New Year.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful series! You’ve helped me to understand the broader and deeper context of my own journey: I’ve lived out parts of this story, from playing John Barleycorn in mummers’ plays, to Morris Dancing, to working at the original Renaissance Faire, to singing Robin Hood ballads, to reading the same books you mention here, usually as soon as they’ve come out. And you’ve illuminated the broader context of this spiritual zeitgeist, and deepened my appreciation for its historical roots and creative appeal. If we can still embrace Campbell’s idea of “myths to live by,” certainly the Green Man that calls attention to our need to get into a right relationship with all of nature fits the bill. Again, thank you!

  5. Stephen! What a marvelous, insightful, and comprehensive essay! Great stuff! Bravo!

  6. What a great conversation about The Green man, I started wearing the leaves in1974. The word Pagan is the wrong definition. If you look closer at his roots You’ll discover an ancient culture? All the people that celebrate The changing of the seasons , Followed the Suns track as the Earth moved around the Sun. These people Did not Worship these events, they respected how the Earth journeyed Around Our Sun. Our ancestor’s were not into controlling the people, It was about the math. I believe we are beginning to understanding The Truth!

  7. very nice
    -i suggest that the word pagan is not helpful as it falsely implies thousands of years of cultural continuity

    the jack in thr green is a garland-more mysterious

    the hastings-jitg event is not a pagent
    lots of schoiars quoted
    -very traditional
    gopd extension to the present day
    we must acknowedge that some faIRY/GM ACtibities are fraud-s fantasy is not to be confused wih tradition –
    not belief-its own thing
    -a vaialuable work
    i will feel better paying taxes

    • Thanks, Conrad! The word “Pagan” in this context does not necessarily imply cultural continuity at all; it simply recognizes that the Green Man was an image among Pagan Romans. Historians recognize that the Foliate Head was inherited from classical antiquity and that the Wild Man was influenced by Silvanus. But they differ as to whether this implies continuity or simply borrowing. Both the Foliate Head and the Wild Man became popular during the so-called “twelfth-century Renaissance,” when medieval artists took note of Classical models, and both Silvanus and Foliate Heads remained in durable form for medieval artists to copy, so it could have been a rediscovery of ancient forgotten lore rather than continuity.

      I didn’t mean to imply that the Hastings event is a pageant; I just use the phrase “pageant Green Man” to refer to the type of figure that first appears in the historical record at the Lord Mayor’s Pageant in the 16th century.

  8. Fascinating!

  9. What a great series to read through! Thank you for the scholarly AND wonderful photographic entries, bringing this “entity” into sharper focus. I think for many of us, male or female (or whatever) it calls to our connection to Nature, which as has been known, felt, and pointed out in your last entry, to have been severely attenuated if not truncated in its entirety for oh so many. All symbolism moves with the times, even against the wishes of conservative folk (meant in a non-political way, please) anywhere, but connection to Nature must certainly be a biological function of any animal, including Homo sapiens. For someone like myself, who has access to the “great outdoors” and will take active steps to access it, it still feels TOO FAR AWAY. Seeing Green Men, Green Women, Green humanoids is uplifting! Yesssss!

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