This is my seventh post about the Green Man, a figure from traditional folk culture. To find all the posts about the Green Man, visit this link!
In the last Green Man post, I looked into the popular 1939 article “The Green Man in Church Architecture” by Lady Raglan, as well as criticism by Richard Hayman in “The Ballad of the Green Man,” Emily Tesh in “Inventing Folklore: The Origins of the Green Man,” and Ronald Hutton in an epilogue to the book Queens of the Wild. I concluded that Lady Raglan did not likely hold the position she is presumed to have held by these contemporary scholars, namely that the Green Man was a pagan god still being worshipped in the Middle Ages. Rather, I suggested she more likely believed the image was derived from a folk custom which had pagan roots, but which represented to medieval Christians the resurrection of Christ and other Christian ideals, and that the Green Man image was used on churches for these Christian meanings.
Because the ritual she imagined to be behind the image, as well as the image itself, had originated in pagan culture, Lady Raglan used the phrase “unofficial paganism” to describe them. Today we might frame this the opposite way, and say instead that the Green Man was an element of vernacular Christianity.
Unofficial Paganism and Vernacular Christianity
If my interpretation is right, Lady Raglan’s theory, and the idea of “unofficial paganism,” accord 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 which are not officially approved by those religions. Often these traditions are manifest in visual imagery. For example, in America much of the imagery surrounding the Christian holiday of Christmas involves a chubby man in a red suit, elves, decorated evergreen trees, and reindeer, none of which is part of most official denominations’ Christmas beliefs. Even in churches, these images may be displayed during the season; a great many churches have Christmas trees, for example, and some even sponsor “Santa’s Village” installations. But observers might search in vain for any scriptural or theological explanation of these symbols, and strict church followers are even sometimes offended by them. (In fact, since elves were part of pre-Christian belief and since some people believe the Bible considers decorated trees to be pagan, some Christians accuse this complex of imagery of being unofficial paganism!)
Many 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.”
Note that Yoder considers church-approved religion “official” and other practices “unofficial,” and that it’s the unofficial practices that constitute “folk religion.” This accords well with Raglan’s observation that “unofficial paganism” was part of everyday life for Christians in the Middle Ages; as we’ve seen, some aspects of Christian folk or unofficial religion were pagan in origin.
However, this definition of “folk religion” is not always easy to apply in practice; for starters, the division between “official” and “unofficial” may be difficult to establish. For example, Christmas trees are not mentioned in scripture but today are allowed in many churches. Foliate Heads are in a similar category; they are physically present in churches, paid for by church funds, but they aren’t mentioned in scripture or church law. Thus, it might be hard to say if these elements are “folk” or “official” in any given church or parish.
For this reason among others, Yoder’s student, my late friend Leonard Primiano, preferred to write about “vernacular religion,” which he defined as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it.” This has the advantage that it doesn’t require the observers, or the believers themselves, to know or establish what might be “official” in any given context. We might not know if the Christmas tree in our church hall or the Green Man on a roof boss is “official,” but it is certainly part of vernacular Christianity.
Many aspects of vernacular Christianity are derived from pagan practices. Indeed, some of these pre-Christian practices are undeniable and quite obvious in today’s world, such as decorating eggs for holidays such as Easter, referring to the Christmas season as “Yule,” and depositing votive offerings at holy wells and other bodies of water. Doing these things doesn’t make one “defiantly pagan,” but it does demonstrate that, to some degree even today, “unofficial paganism subsists side by side with the official religion.”
The May Day ritual observed by Sidney Addy in 1901 and described by Lady Raglan in 1939 undoubtedly included aspects of English vernacular religion. Sidney Addy and Lady Raglan seem to have believed it was an adaptation of a very old pagan rite, and Raglan came to believe that the foliate heads and the earliest “Green Man” pub signs were illustrations of figures from similar vernacular rituals as they existed among Christians in the artists’ respective eras. As we’ve seen, this theory doesn’t require medieval English people to be “defiantly pagan,” or carvers to be “subversive;” it requires them to be Christians whose vernacular religious practices included a seasonal ritual adapted from their pagan ancestors, much as modern Christians visit holy wells and assure their children they will be visited by a “jolly old elf.” Raglan further suggested, through analogy with Attis and Odin, that medieval Christians understood the symbolic connection of their ritual to Christianity, and therefore adopted the central figure of the ritual as a Christian symbol, depicting him as the Green Man within their churches.
The foliate head, as we have seen, is certainly based on pagan antecedents; you can see some examples above and below. The “Silvanus” head on a fountain at St. Denis Abbey, which I described in a previous post, shows that at least some Foliate Heads were understood by Christians as representing pagan gods, but were still allowed in Christian religious contexts.
If it was indeed an aspect of vernacular Christianity despite its pagan origins, the image of a leafy person must have some meaning consistent with Christian ideals. Luckily, there are many ways to interpret the Foliate Head and other leaf-covered people as vernacular Christian symbols. Jeremy Harte points out one such interpretation, which comes from the work of Janet Dowling:
Dowling has ingeniously proposed that [Foliate Heads] illustrate the old legend of the ‘Tree of Mercy’, in which Adam grows old and his son Seth is given pips from the tree in the Garden of Eden, and told to put them under the tongue of his dying dad. Then when Adam is buried, a tree grows out of his grave and…. well, it’s a long story, but the wood of this tree ends up being used as the Cross of Christ. As a symbolic story, this is tops, but unfortunately it was made up more than a century after the initial popularity of Green Men. Also, as we have seen, their foliage isn’t necessarily arboreal; trees take their place alongside leafy shrubs, creepers and sometimes flowers. It’s not as if there was an otherwise unrecorded Buttercup of Mercy.
Harte’s objections, obviously, apply to Green Men that predate the legend and to Green Men whose foliage is not tree-based. But there are still a lot of Green Man that could be either intended as or interpreted as representations of this Christian legend, which you can read more about here. Even Green Men that predated the legend could be perceived by later churchgoers to be representing the story, so the Tree of Mercy could well be a part of their vernacular Christian meaning for many people, even if that wasn’t the carver’s intention.
Rita Wood, in her article “Before the Green Man” in Medieval Life magazine (Autumn 2000), found that the most common meanings for foliage in early medieval art were life and death. She suggested such biblical images as the True Vine and the Tree of Life as the basis for early Green Man carvings, and that in its basic form the Foliate Head represents resurrection:
“Deciduous foliage has the facility of combining the ideas of Death and Resurrection. […] The ivy and cypress, evergreens associated with classical funerary sculpture, were superseded by the imagery of deciduous plants – pruned stems, fresh sappy growths. The coincidence of springtime with the Easter festival clinched the adoption of deciduous foliage as a powerful Christian symbol of resurrection. […] The puzzling motif of a man with branches of foliage coming out of his mouth depicts this ‘breath of life’, first given in the earthly Eden, restored in the heavenly Paradise.”
In a more general sense, the idea of greenness, verdure, or viriditas has been part of Christian philosophy at least since the writings of Gregory the Great, specifically his treatise Moralia in Job, circa 580-595 CE. As Jeanette Jones has shown, Gregory posits greenness (viriditas) and plant growth in the book of Job to be a metaphor for the coming of Christ. Hayman himself suggests that the Moralia influenced not only all of Christian thought, but specifically the motifs carved into medieval churches. This suggests the idea of viriditas should be quite relevant to Foliate Head carvings as a Christian context for the meaning of foliage, and a potential source for the idea of placing such images in churches.
Centuries after Gregory, in the same era during which Foliate Head carvings were becoming common in churches, the German visionary Hildegard of Bingen developed Gregory’s idea of viriditas throughout her works. In her Liber Divinorum Operum Hildegard connects viriditas with the cycle of the seasons and also both the natural and the spiritual life-cycles of Christians, including birth, death, and rebirth in heaven after Judgment Day:
“For as the earth and the human person each grow green and flourish—the one in summertime, the other in youth—and again each dries up and withers—the one in winter, the other in old age—so too the soul, while it dwells in the body and compels the body to serve it, grows green in the good works and examples of the Son of God, mounting from virtue unto virtue and afterwards is led from the body, adorned as with precious stones, while it breathlessly waits to receive again the body in which it labored, to rest before God.” [Read the translation here.]
Hildegard’s notion of viriditas thus encapsulates many of the meanings people ascribe to the Green Man, in a markedly Christian way.
Viriditas in Hildegard’s philosophy is wide-ranging, but one facet of the idea is that God is a source of spiritual greenness, which he placed in Mary’s womb to create Jesus; humans in turn grow green (which means physically, spiritually, and morally healthy and vigorous) from their relationship with Christ. Hildegard scholar and minister Matthew Fox interprets some passages of Hildegard’s work as saying the Jesus is himself a Green Man, and many contemporary Christians find it plausible that Green Man carvings represent an aspect of Christ. Alternatively, we can interpret the Green Man as a representation of a person who has a proper and healthy relationship with Christ, leading to a state of viriditas. This gives us some more ways to understand the image in a medieval Christian context.
There are also more negative or challenging takes on the image, which nonetheless are Christian interpretations and make the Green Man part of vernacular Christianity. Kathleen Basford, in her highly influential book The Green Man, suggested that most Green Men represented sin and suffering; her evidence was primarily her own subjective impression that the faces have tortured expressions. Rita Wood directly disagreed with Basford, suggesting instead that most Green Men represented resurrection and renewed life.
What these interpretations all have in common–from Lady Raglan on, I would argue–is that they presuppose that the Green Man or Foliate Head in the Middle Ages was an element of vernacular Christianity with roots in pagan culture, rather than continuing paganism. There are undoubtedly many other Christian stories and ideas which might be represented by the image as well.
The Green Man and the Folk Saint
One interesting aspect of vernacular Christianity which may be relevant to the Green Man is the existence of what the folklorist Jim Griffith has called folk saints. In brief, folk saints are holy people or other beings which are revered as saints by devotees, but not recognized in a formal way by the church. Folk saints may be historical people who have died, legendary people, animals, entities formerly worshipped as gods, the personification of abstract concepts (such as Santa Muerte or “Saint Death”), or even idols such as statues of the Virgin Mary or the Christ Child.
There has been a lot of scholarly and popular attention on the folk saint in recent years, especially in Latin America, but it is not a new phenomenon. Folk saints go back to the very founding of the church. In fact, in Christianity, revering saints appears to have been a folk practice adopted by the Church, and all saints begin as what we call “folk saints.” For many years, there was no official process for canonization, and many prominent saints (including St. Patrick) were therefore never canonized. Once the process of canonization was established, it required testimony that the saint had interceded with God to perform a miracle. This in turn means that someone needed already to believe in the saint’s power before the Saint became official. Even official saints thus must spend some period of time as unofficial “folk saints,” with some group of believers, before becoming officially recognized, a situation that persists to the current day. It’s also true that there have always been “folk saints” that had little hope of ever becoming official; criminals, heretics, and even animals have been revered as folk saints.
Typically, the story surrounding a canonical saint or a folk saint and the details of the saint’s following are referred to as that saint’s “cult.” The “Cult of St. Martin,” for example, refers to the ways in which people revere the perfectly canonical St. Martin of Tours; the “Cult of St. Guinefort,” on the other hand, revered a heroic French dog of the 13th century, while the “Cult of Charlene Richard” refers to a modern community of Catholics devoted to a young Cajun girl who died in 1959. This meaning of “cult” was well established in folklore and medieval studies before the 20th century.
Both Lord Raglan in The Hero and Lady Raglan in her article on the Green Man recount an incident in which Bishop Hugh Latimer (1487-1555) was refused the opportunity to preach in a certain parish because, as a parishioner said, “sir, this is a busy day with us, we cannot hear you; it is Robin Hood’s day.” Lord Raglan realized that Robin Hood having his own day made him very like a saint, but not an official one: “Robin Hood’s day, then, was observed as a religious festival, yet he certainly was not a saint.” Lord Raglan also believed that the Green Man of church architecture was just another aspect of Robin Hood, which suggests it too might have been the focus of unofficial saint-like veneration.
Lady Raglan, too, describes the Green Man and Robin Hood in terms suggestive of folk saints:
“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.”
This last is a strange sentence if we think Lady Raglan is suggesting that Robin Hood was simply a pre-Christian pagan deity whose worship had survived unbroken from antiquity until the fifteenth century. In that case she would say his cult was STILL important in the fifteenth century, not that it was important “BY the fifteenth century.” As we have seen, “cult” is the usual word for the practice of revering a saint, and saints’ cults became established and important throughout the Middle Ages. By speaking of the Green Man or Robin Hood having a “cult” that became important by the fifteenth century, Lady Raglan seemed to suggest emergent devotional followings akin to those of saints more than persistent ones associated with pagan gods from antiquity. Robin Hood might thus in her theory have taken the place of pagan gods as ceremonial practices were secularized or Christianized. This is at least a plausible theory; we’ll see that a similar process occurred in which saints replaced gods on household altars.
Going beyond the Raglans’ theories and observations, we find many other similarities between the Green Man mythos and the devotional followings of folk saints. To pick an obvious example, folk saints are frequently revered in the form of images, icons, or works of art. Jim Griffith’s research on folk saints began in his extensive collection of printed religious ephemera, including “holy cards” with pictures of all kinds of saints, canonical and vernacular. Other art objects, too, are used as the focus of reverence for folk saints: The Mexican Santa Muerte and the Guatemalan Maximon or Rilaj Maam are typically represented by a statue or diorama, while the Argentinian Gauchito Gil is represented by paintings, figurines, and relief carvings. Medieval folk saints, too, were found in many artistic media, including painting, sculpture, and stained glass, and the same was true of the Green Man.
The Green Man’s context also sometimes suggests sainthood. Let’s remember Lady Raglan’s example of the stained glass window from St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol; the Green Man appeared in a context in which the other heads appeared to be saints. In other churches too, Green Men regularly appear alongside saints–although, of course, they appear in other contexts too.
Just like folk practices involving holy wells, which were discussed in the last section, folk saints can have pagan origins, and many folk saints are demonstrably derived from pagan or non-Christian deities. The Mexican Santa Muerte borrows from the Jewish and Christian Angel of Death, but also from indigenous Mexican deities. The Guatemalan Maximon or Rilaj Maam has roots in Mayan myths. The cult of the Irish Saint Brigid is at least partly derived from that of the Celtic goddess Brigid. If the Green Man was imported into Christianity from a pagan ritual or a carving on a pagan temple and made into a focus of vernacular devotion, it would be neither the first nor the last time such a figure arose in this way.
Folk saints appear in churches, an example being St. Guglielma, whose image is displayed in churches near her homeplace. But they can also be represented by different icons and images in different places, including private homes, just as Green Men of all types appear in secular spaces. Folk saints can also be the focus of processions like the Castleton Garland Day celebration.
As Judith Herrin has argued, pagan worship and the reverence for saints are directly related; new converts to Christianity in antiquity seem to have continued their practice of honoring household gods and requesting their protection, simply substituting saints’ icons for the traditional statuettes of the gods in their Lararium or home shrine. This seems to be the origin of the traditional “icon corner” of Orthodox Christianity and other Christian home altars.
Conversely, if a pagan god is simply adopted as a folk saint, in many cases devotees don’t need to do anything differently except adjust their attitude. The reverence for folk saints in Christianity quite closely resembles what we know of the reverence for minor gods in the pagan world. A key difference between a folk saint and a pagan deity or spirit is its place in the larger cosmology: a folk saint in a monotheistic religion petitions God for help on behalf of the devotee, but pagan gods are able to render direct help. Still, the general idea, and the processes for making the request, are often very much the same: lighting a candle or lamp, writing down the request, leaving food, drink, or money on the altar…all have been part of the worship of folk saints as well as of pagan gods.
Folk or canonical saints may include among their meanings the importance of the turning seasons and the natural world, and the obvious connections of nature to human life. Saints can represent viriditas, the greenness that signifies health, hope, and connection with Jesus. We see this in the cult of the canonical saint Jude Thaddeus, who wears green because, as his National Shrine tells us: “Just as in spring when foliage and flowers spring up with renewed life, we turn to St. Jude, our Patron of Hope, in difficult or seemingly hopeless times.”
Many writers on the Green Man point out that he resembles the Islamic figure Al-Khidr or Al-Khadir, who is a prophet or wali not mentioned by name in the Koran; essentially a Muslim folk saint. Al-Khidr means “The Green One” or “The Green Man” in Arabic. Hutton follows Mercia MacDermott in downplaying this association because, he argues, Al-Khidr “only wore green robes, and had no connection to foliage.” In this he ignores the example of St. Jude, contradicts the millennium-old, widely accepted understanding of Al-Khidr within Islam, and also seems unaware of modern ethnographic inquiry into Al-Khidr’s devotees. The 9th century hadith scholar Imām al-Bukhāri established Al-Khidr’s fundamental connection to vegetation, stating that the saint’s name came from the fact that, when he sat over a barren white land, it turned green with vegetation. His green robes, then, are a mere reflection of this power over green growing plant life. Folklorists Warren S. Walker and Ahmet E. Uysal studied oral traditions of Al-Khidr in Turkey (where he is known as Hizir) in the 1970s. They reported that he was associated “with fertility, with the annual renewal of vegetation, and with the seasonal life cycle.” They called him “one of the oldest gods of the Middle East — pre-Moslem, pre-Christian, pre-Roman, pre-Greek — a vegetation god and a water deity.” They observed a widespread cult in which thousands of Turkish Muslims made pilgrimages to Hizir’s shrines seeking fertility.
Walker and Uysal reported that Hizir was especially revered on May 6, which corresponds to April 23 of the Julian Calendar, St. George’s Day, and opined that it is “it is no accident that [St. George’s Day] is April 23, the day sacred to Hizir [Al-Khidr] on the older calendar.” According to historian Jonathan Good and Arabic scholar Diana Darke, in some areas of the Islamic world, including Palestine, the Christian St. George is still believed by many Muslims to be the same spirit as Al-Khidr, and Muslim pilgrims visit Christian churches and shrines dedicated to St. George to ask for help from Al-Khidr. Historian William Dalrymple quotes a priest at the shrine to St. George at Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, as saying that hundreds of Muslim pilgrims visit each year seeking the intercession of St. George, whom they call “Khidr.”
As we saw in a previous post, one of the earliest appearances of the pageant Green Man in the historical record was as part of a St. George’s Day celebration in 1610. Throughout the the Balkan world, St. George’s Day features a “Zeleni Jurij” or “Green George,” the same kind of figure as “Jack-in-the-Green.” The fact that Al-Khidr’s day, essentially a saint’s day closely associated with St. George, now occurs on May 6 gives us perhaps another way to understand the association of early May with the pageant Green Men, Jack-in-the-Green, and other elements of the Green Man mythos. Many people, including Darke, believe that parts of the Green Man mythos, including the Foliate Head, might have been brought to Western Europe by returning crusaders familiar with both St. George and Al-Khidr. This would make the Green Man deeply rooted in vernacular veneration of saints in both the Muslim and Christian faiths.
Suggesting that the Green Man might be understood as a folk saint requires some nuance and flexibility. Richard Hayman is quite right when he points out that Foliate Heads vary greatly in their appearance, their locations within churches and other buildings, and their artistic contexts. Most commenters on the Green Man over the last few decades, including Kathleen Basford, Jeremy Harte, and Mercia McDermott, recognize that different Green Men must have different meanings. In this case, some could be intended or interpreted as folk saints, others as demons, others as mere faces similar to the many non-foliate heads that appear on roof bosses and elsewhere in churches.
More generally, all symbols are polysemic and mean different things to different people at different times. Given this, we can’t even expect any particular Foliate Head to mean the same thing to everyone who sees it–not in the Middle Ages and not today. Some people might look at any given Foliate Head and feel it is a demon or a tortured soul. Others might look at the same face and see a martyr, or a person green with viriditas; a sympathetic and powerful entity willing to intercede with God; in short, a folk saint.
The idea of the folk saint helps to make sense of the fact that the image of the Foliate Head, which has clear pagan roots, was adopted into Christianity and widely represented in both sacred and secular spaces. The folk saint shows us that this kind of thing has happened since the moment the Church was founded, and still happens today. It may not be universally applicable to every Green Man, but thinking of the Green Man as a folk saint, or at least as similar to folk saints, allows us to understand how a figure rooted in paganism, which once appeared on pagan temples, could become, for medieval Christians, a “focal point of [their] religious ideals.”