Ever seen this face before? Perhaps on a tree in the woods somewhere, or in a painting?
This is the Green Man (also called Jack in the Green, John Barleycorn, Herne of the Hunt, the Green Knight, and many, many other names) and he’s a feature of much of the pastoral lore in the Celtic countries, including Great Britain and Ireland where he’s been a constant for thousands of years. But his rule extends far beyond the Celts. Art of the Green Man (or Green Man-esque figures) is common in Arabic, Indian, and even far-Asian cultures. You can even find him in the old Norse stomping grounds– and for those of you who are fans of Game of Thrones, just where do you think George R.R. Martin got the inspiration for the faces in his weirwood trees, hm?
In fact, our Jack in the Green finds himself all over the place in literature. He’s commonly considered to be the Green Knight that Sir Gawain of Arthuian lore battles. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series features a Green Man of sorts (named Someshta). Tolkien’s Treebeard has his roots (get it?) in Green Man lore. Peter Pan, while more of a Green Boy instead of a Green Man, can count his roots back to this mythological figure. And you probably have a Green Man somewhere in your kitchen right now, encouraging you to eat your veggies– that’s right! He’s the inspiration for the Jolly Green Giant.
The Green Man is mainly a symbol of untamed nature. He can be a trickster and a symbol of life and fertility– especially male virility. Typically, the Green Man dies or goes into hiding in winter, and then wakes up in spring, ready to party. He dances and sings and brings all the plants back to life– and encourages people to join him in the partying. And the boning. He’s super into boning.
The more metal version of the Green Man is a representation of death and rebirth. Instead of having a face made of plants, this Green Man has plants coming out of his eyes, nose, mouth, and even ears. Bran the Blessed, who we talked about last week, is often featured in paintings and other artwork like this. When Bran died, his head was cut off but continued to offer advice to friends and family for a while. Like Bran, this Green Man is meant to reassure us that there is rebirth after death– whether in a religious aspect or in a purely biological one. It still looks metal as hell.
This is one of those pagan symbols that the Catholic Church didn’t have too many problems with. Instead of repurposing the Green Man (like they did with the magical Celtic cauldrons, and the mother goddesses from all over Europe), the church embraced the Green Man through architecture. Most European churches have Green Men hiding in their facades and ceilings. The reasoning seems pretty obvious– Jesus Christ also came back from the dead and was a symbol of death and resurrection. In all aspects, he truly is a Green Man himself– as is the Egyptian God, Osiris (who even has a green face) and the Zoroastrian god, Mithra.
The Green Man’s face is a good emblem for any drinking horn. If you’re giving it as a gift, he’d be a real blessing to a newly-married husband, or a new father. Or a dad with LOTS of kids. And though the Green Man is a, well, man, his foliated visage isn’t just for the menfolk. These days, the Green Man is one of the most recognizable Neopagan symbols, especially due to his close relationship to the Celtic god Cernunnos and the Greek gods, Dionysus and Pan.
Want to worship the Green Man and bring a little spring to your step? Here are some ideas:
- Join your local environmental rights group
- Throw a dance party in the woods
- Have some afternoon delight with your partner outside (and on your own property!)
- Plant a tree
- Make a spice cake