Creative Thoughts, Wood Carving

Green Man as Memento Mori for a Dying Planet

As a woodcarver it seems almost inevitable that one will eventually carve a Green Man. When I was first learning how to carve I subscribed to the video carving lessons expertly produced by Chris Pye, and he has created some of the more appealing Green Man carvings I have seen. Following his inspiration I have tried to design a Green Man carving on several occasions, and have each time been unsatisfied with the results. I began again recently by first doing some research into the history of this motif, going back before the figure became a popular emblem of the newly pagan and environmentally conscious folks of the late 20th century, to the medieval origins of the figure as it first appears in European churches.

I first became aware of the Green Man motif in my medieval art history class I took in college in the 1980s. Both the Green Man and the Sheila-na-Gig are interesting examples of pagan emblems seemingly snuck into the religious contexts of medieval churches, and that is what I was taught about them – that they were pagan symbols that crossed over from earlier times into the Christian landscape. Many of the more popular books about the Green Man focus on the Jethro Tull Songs from the Wood type of interpretation of the motif – that he represents the balanced connection of man with nature. He is seen and celebrated as a symbol of the renewal that awaits us when we learn to live in balance with nature – as an ancient pagan ideal that endured the Christianization of Europe and has emerged again to guide us. This view of the symbol is due in large part to the original study published in 1939 by Lady Raglan – she coined the name “Green Man” and linked the motif to “Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May and the Garland.” Her theory endures, and every source that celebrates the symbol of the Green Man as an environmental hero references her work.

When you look at earlier examples of the Green Man carved in stone, one thing that stands out is that the vast majority of them are more like gargoyles than tree spirits. They have beast-like faces and distorted features, with various forms of plants and leaves issuing from their mouths, as well as eyes and ears. My first impression of this symbol was that of a memento mori – a reminder that earth will eventually reclaim us, the plants will grow over our bones. I could easily imagine someone in the early centuries travelling through the woods and coming across a long-forgotten skeleton with plant life growing through the gaps – the green of life reclaiming them after death – and having this be the inspiration for the emblem. We don’t really know how they first became a staple of the stone carver’s art in medieval Europe, or even what that symbol meant to them, but when you start to look at the range of images gathered from various sources across the centuries, it is not as easy to automatically associate the archetype to the modern interpretation.

In Kathleen Basford’s book The Green Man she provides a very thorough exploration of the motif, and her conclusion is this: “Not only would a Jack in the Green make nonsense in this strictly monastic church but the derelict head, invaded and taken over by vegetation, is an image of death and ruin rather than that of life and resurrection. It is, indeed, a ‘thing of sorrow’. That suits it best.”

It is not like the Jack in the Green version of the Green Man is a bad archetype for us as humans to have – he has merrily accompanied us through the decades as our awareness of the environmental impact that our living on the earth has exacted from nature. He has been a good guide and inspiration for quite a long time, but his message has not fully succeeded. We are in a place now as humans on this planet where we are collectively and more rapidly warming the planet to a point of no return. How then do we continue to embrace this symbol?

It was with this kind of thinking that I set about trying to design a Green Man again. In my research I discovered a grainy image of a foliate head from Tewkesbury Abbey, in Gloucestershire, England. The skull-like head issues forth two branches of rough and wild looking leaves – its eyes without expression. Additionally, it is a skull without gender, and in this version of the motif we can no longer assume that a man alone can represent this symbolism. This suited my feeling about this motif exactly. I used this version as the starting point for my design, and I finally felt I could carve this symbol in a way that would feel true to me.

It seems to me that now, more than ever, we need to embrace the historic aspect of this symbol – as a warning, a reminder, that death is waiting. If we allow ourselves to reimagine the Green Man in this way, as an evolution of the symbol that better meets the needs of our time, then the Green Man becomes a memento mori for our dying planet – the planet we ourselves are killing. It is a warning that we are on a path of destruction, and that unless we embrace the natural world around us, we will be reclaimed by it – made extinct by our own doing.


 

Research sources:

I consulted the following sources in writing this article:

Basford, Kathleen. The Green Man. New York, D.S. Brewer, and imprint of Boydell & Brewer, 2009.

“A New View of ‘Green Man’ Sculptures.” Folklore, vol. 102, no. 2, 1991, pp. 237-39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1260962.

“The Foliate Head.” Folklore, vol. 79, no. 1, 1968, pp. 59-61. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1259297.

Negus, Tina. “Medieval Foliate Heads: A Photographic Study of Green Men and Green Beasts in Britain.” Folklore, vol. 114, no. 2, 2003, pp. 247-61. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30035102.

Raglan, Lady. “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture.” Folklore, vol. 50, no. 1, 1939, pp. 45-57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1257090.

Young, Francis. “The Myth of Medieval Paganism.” First Things, www.firstthings.com/article/2020/02/the-myth-of-medieval-paganism.

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