The Green Man, Spirit of the Forest

A Green Man Carved From a Tree Trunk
The green man is an iconic figure in spring mythology. Bill Allsopp/LOOP IMAGES / Getty Images

For our ancient ancestors, many spirits and deities were associated with nature, wildlife, and plant growth. After all, if you had just spent the winter starving and freezing, when spring arrived it was certainly time to give thanks to whatever spirits watched over your tribe. The spring season, particularly around Beltane, is typically tied to a number of pre-Christian nature spirits. Many of these are similar in origin and characteristics, but tend to vary based on region and language.

In English folklore, few characters stand out -- or are as recognizable -- as the Green Man.

Strongly connected to Jack in the Green and the May King, as well as John Barleycorn during the fall harvest, the figure known as the Green Man is a god of vegetation and plant life. He symbolizes the life that is found in the natural plant world, and in the earth itself. Consider, for a moment, the forest. In the British Isles, the forests a thousand years ago were vast, spreading for miles and miles, farther than the eye could see. Because of the sheer size, the forest could be a dark and scary place.

However, it was also a place you had to enter, whether you wanted to or not, because it provided meat for hunting, plants for eating, and wood for burning and building. In the winter, the forest must have seemed quite dead and desolate... but in the spring, it returned to life. It would be logical for early peoples to have applied some sort of spiritual aspect to the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Author Luke Mastin says that the first use of the term "Green Man" seems to have been just before World War II. He writes, "The label “Green Man,” perhaps surprisingly, dates back only to 1939, when it was used by Lady Raglan (wife of the scholar and soldier Major Fitzroy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan) in her article “The Green Man in Church Architecture,” published in the Folklore journal of March 1939.

Prior to this, they were just known as "foliate heads," and few people took much interest in them. Lady Raglan’s interest was piqued by her discovery of the Green Men in St. Jerome’s Church in the village of Llangwn in Monmouthshire (Gwent), Wales."

Folklorist James Frazer associates the Green Man with May Day celebrations, and with the character of Jack in the Green, who is a more modern adaptation of the Green Man. Jack is a more specifically defined version of the nature spirit than the earlier Green Man archetype. Frazer speculates that while some form of the Green Man was probably present in a variety of separate early cultures, he developed independently into a variety of newer, more modern characters. This would explain why in some areas he is Jack, while in others he is Robin of the Hood, or Herne the Hunter in different parts of England. Likewise, other, non-British cultures seem to have similar nature deities.

The Green Man is typically portrayed as a human face surrounded by dense foliage. Such images appear as far back as the eleventh century, in church carvings. As Christianity spread, the Green Man went into hiding, with stonemasons leaving secret images of his face around cathedrals and churches.

He enjoyed a revival during the Victorian era, when he became popular with architects, who used his visage as a decorative aspect in buildings.

According to Ryan Stone of Ancient Origins, "The Green Man is believed to have been intended as a symbol of growth and rebirth, the eternal seasonal cycle of the coming of spring and the life of Man.  This association stems from the pre-Christian notion that Man was born from nature, as evidenced by various mythological accounts of the way in which the world began, and the idea that Man is directly tied to the fate of nature."

Legends connected to the archetype of the Green Man are everywhere. In the Arthurian legend, the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a prime example. The Green Knight represents the pre-Christian nature religion of the British Isles.

Although he originally confronts Gawain as an enemy, the two later are able to work together - perhaps a metaphor for the assimilation of British Paganism with the new Christian theology. Many scholars also suggest that the tales of Robin Hood evolved from Green Man mythology. Allusions to the Green Man can even be found in J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan - an eternally youthful boy, dressed in green and living in the forest with the wild animals.

Today, some traditions of Wicca interpret the Green Man as an aspect of the Horned God, Cernunnos. If you'd like to honor the Green Man as part of your spring celebrations, there are a number of ways to do so. Create a Green Man mask, go walk in a forest, hold a ritual to honor him, or even bake a cake