The Green Man: A Craft Tradition


by Michael Colebrook

My introduction to the Green Man was a conducted tour of Exeter Cathedral by Clive Hicks, an avid Green Man photographer, who introduced us to many of the thirty-odd Green Men to be found there in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. The most unlikely, for what is clearly a pagan image, is an elaborate Green Man supporting a statue of the Virgin and Child!

Exeter green man

While the Green Man is clearly a decorative element it is also equally clearly an icon. In one of the better books about the Green Man, a collaboration between Clive Hicks and William Anderson, they characterise the significance of the Green Man:

Our remote ancestors said to their mother earth: ‘We are yours.’
Modern humanity has said to Nature: ‘You are mine.’
The Green Man has returned as the living face of the whole earth so that through his mouth we may say to the universe: ‘We are one.”

Although written in the modern era this dialogue is probably valid for the whole of the history of the image of the Green Man, ever since its emergence in the 2nd century CE, and it places the Green Man firmly within the spiritual domain.

The name Green Man is in fact a fairly recent invention and was coined by Lady Raglan, a leading member of the Folklore Society, in a paper published in 1939.

There are lots of books and even more web sites devoted to various aspects of the Green Man. Browsing among these it becomes clear that no two Green Man are ever the same, or hardly ever. There is a bewildering variety of shapes and forms and the Green Man has been fashioned in many different media. In this article I want to focus on the Green Man from the point of view of the artisans who have created them in the past, and continue to do so in the present, in his  dual role of spiritual icon and decorative feature. The main studies of the Green Man focus on the images themselves and they say little or nothing about how they were created. Most of what follows is inevitably speculative but there is a question here that is worth asking even if the answer can only be tentative and partial.

I have to declare that my own contribution is restricted to making prints on fabric of a Green Man using transfers produced by a computer printer. These are then sewn onto re-useable shopping bags. But there is still the almost magic moment when you peel away the backing paper and the usually perfect print emerges.

One thing is quite clear there is no Green Man pattern book for ready reference as to how one should appear. I have a strong intuitive feeling that the vast majority of Green Men have been the spontaneous creations of individual craftspeople. They have not been produced to order. What we have, I am convinced, is an ongoing craft tradition spanning a range of media. This poses the problem of why the Green Man in its almost infinite variety has stirred the imaginations of so many craftspeople over a period of nearly two thousand years coupled with a very considerable geographical spread, albeit centred on Western Europe.

For most of the history of the Green Man the setting of the images has been architectural and the locations, primarily but not exclusively, in churches and other religious buildings.  Clearly the craftspeople involved in creating the images considered these buildings not only as providing a wide variety of opportunities for crafting Green Men but also as suitable places for their iconic message.

When you enter a church with the intention of looking for a Green Man one has to keep an open mind. The obvious places are column capitals, ceiling bosses and corbels. A Green Man in any of these places is obviously meant to be seen and is created as part of a decorative feature. There are other examples where the Green Man is clearly not an integral element, but has been added almost as an extraneous  feature. Green Men can also be found in less obvious places.  In Sparkwell Parish church, for example, there is a relatively small carving of a Green Man (c 10cm square) in the central arch of the Rood Screen: you have to know it is there in order to see it. There are many instances where it would seem that the craftsperson created the image simply for personal satisfaction and in the knowledge of the presence of the Green Man with all that this implies.

Stone masons and wood carvers usually have a real feel for wood and stone, and I don’t doubt that many of them were involved with their materials all the way from the quarry or the forest to the finished image. The feeling for a relationship with the natural world is strong and I cant help wondering whether the image of the Green Man was/is a means of expressing this in the essentially human centred milieu of church, cathedral or abbey.  As an institution the church can feel uneasy about the presence of the Green Man. The church in Lostwithial, Cornwall, has a elaborately carved font and one of the features is clearly a Green Man, the church guidebook, however, refers to him as a Bishop as he is wearing a Mitre. An abbey I visited had an excellent collection of postcards showing the ceiling bosses, except for the one of a Green Man, and I don’t think it had sold out.

The Subtitle of William Anderson and Clive Hicks’ book about the Green Man is:  The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. I think this is absolutely right and as an archetype the Green Man has spoken to the imaginations of generations of craftspeople who have sought spiritual expression of their feelings for the natural world by creating images which continue to enrich our experience through their presence and our appreciation.