A Green Man is a sculpture, drawing, or other representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves. Branches or vines may sprout from the nose, mouth, nostrils or other parts of the face and these shoots may bear flowers or fruit. Commonly used as a decorative architectural ornament, Green Men are frequently found on carvings in churches and other buildings (both secular and ecclesiastical). "The Green Man" is also a popular name for British public houses and various interpretations of the name appear on inn signs, which sometimes show a full figure rather than just the head.
The Green Man motif has many variations. Found in many cultures around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities springing up in different cultures throughout the ages. Primarily it is interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, or "renaissance," representing the cycle of growth each spring. Some speculate that the mythology of the Green Man developed independently in the traditions of separate ancient cultures and evolved into the wide variety of examples found throughout history.
Usually referred to in works on architecture as foliate heads or foliate masks, carvings of the Green Man may take many forms, naturalistic or decorative. The simplest depict a man's face peering out of dense foliage. Some may have leaves for hair, perhaps with a leafy beard. Often leaves or leafy shoots are shown growing from his open mouth and sometimes even from the nose and eyes as well. In the most abstract examples, the carving at first glance appears to be merely stylised foliage, with the facial element only becoming apparent on closer examination. The face is almost always male; green women are rare. Green cats, lions and demons are also found. On gravestones and other memorials, human skulls are sometimes shown sprouting grape vines or other vegetation, presumably as a symbol of resurrection (see Shebbear, England).
The Green Man appears in many forms; the three most common types have been categorized as:
The term "Green Man" was coined by Lady Raglan, in her article "The Green Man in Church Architecture" in The Folklore Journal. The figure is also often referred to (perhaps erroneously) as Jack in the green.
Superficially the Green Man would appear to be pagan, perhaps a fertility figure or a nature spirit, similar to the woodwose (the wild man of the woods), and yet he frequently appears, carved in wood or stone, in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals, where examples found dating from the 11th century through to the 20th century.
To the modern observer the earlier (Romanesque and medieval) carvings often have an unnervingly eerie or numinous quality. This is sometimes said to indicate the vitality of the Green Man, who was able to survive as a symbol of pre-Christian traditions despite, and at the same time complementary to, the influence of Christianity. (Rather than alienate their new converts, early Christian missionaries would often adopt and adapt local gods, sometimes turning them into obscure saints.)
From the Renaissance onwards, elaborate variations on the Green Man theme, often with animal heads rather than human faces, appear in many media other than carvings (including manuscripts, metalwork, bookplates, and stained glass). They seem to have been used for purely decorative effect rather than reflecting any deeply-held belief. A Swiss engraver, Numa Guyot created a bookplate depicting a Green Man in exquisite detail. It was completed circa 1887.
In Britain, the image of the Green Man enjoyed a revival in the 19th century, becoming popular with architects during the Gothic revival and the "Arts and Crafts" era, when it appeared as a decorative motif in and on many buildings, both religious and secular. American architects took up the motif around the same time. The Green Man travelled with the Europeans as they colonized the world. Many variations can be found in Victorian-style Neo gothic architecture. He was very popular amongst Australian stonemasons and can be found on many secular and sacred buildings.
Parallels have been drawn between the Green Man and various deities. Many see the Green Man as being connected to many heathen gods such as Osiris, Odin and even the Christian Jesus, as well as later folkloric and literary characters such as the Green Knight, John Barleycorn, the Holly King and Thamuz of the Mesopotamians who is thought by some to symbolize the triumph of Green Life over Winter and Death.
In Thomas Nashe's masque Summer's Last Will and Testament (1592, printed 1600), the character commenting upon the action remarks, after the exit of "Satyrs and wood-Nymphs", "The rest of the green men have reasonable voices…". Mythical figures such as Woden, Cernunnos, Sylvanus, Derg Corra, Green George, Jack in the green, John Barleycorn, Robin Goodfellow, Puck, and the Green Knight all partake of the Green Man's nature; it has also been suggested that the story of Robin Hood was born of the Green Man mythology. A more modern embodiment is found in Peter Pan, who enters the civilized world from a nether land, clothed in green leaves. Even Father Christmas, who was often shown wreathed in ivy in early depictions, has been suggested as a similar woodland spirit.
The Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight serves as both monster and mentor to Gawain, belonging to a pre-Christian world which seems antagonistic to but is in the end harmonious with the Christian one.
In the Germanic nations such as Germany, Iceland and England, depictions of the Green Man could have been inspired by deities such as Freyr or Woden, as both have many attributes of the later Green Men from throughout Europe.
Etymological research by the University of Wales into the meaning of the names of Celtic gods and goddesses shows that one Celtic deity, Viridios, has a name meaning "Green Man" in both the Celtic languages and Latin.
Tom Cheetham, an authority on Islamic mysticism, identifies Khidr of esoteric Sufism with the Green Man. In his book about the work of Henry Corbin and others concerning the 12th-century Muslim saint Ibn Arabi, he develops the idea of the Green Man/Khidr as the principle mediating between the imaginary realm and the physical world.
On a similar theme, author on spirituality and architecture William Anderson writes:
There are legends of him (Khidr) in which, like Osiris, he is dismembered and reborn; and prophecies connecting him, like the Green Man, with the end of time. His name means the Green One or Verdant One, he is the voice of inspiration to the aspirant and committed artist. He can come as a white light or the gleam on a blade of grass, but more often as an inner mood. The sign of his presence is the ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one's normal capacities. In this there may be a link across cultures, …one reason for the enthusiasm of the medieval sculptors for the Green Man may be that he was the source of inspiration.
Other gods depicted green are (in Tibet) Amogha-siddhi and (in Mexico) Tlaloc.
In Sanskrit the Green Man is cognate with the gana Kirtimukha or "Face of Glory" which is related to a lila of Shiva and Rahu. The Face of Glory is often seen in Vajrayana Buddhist Thanka art and iconography where it is often incorporated as a cloudform simulacrum; and depicted crowning the 'Wheel of Becoming' or the Bhavachakra.