Woodland Spirit or the embodiment of English resistance?
Half hidden on the walls of many of our old buildings and churches can be found a strange figure, a face surrounded by leaves. Although we do not know his real name, if indeed he ever had one, we call him the Green Man for convenience. He appears in many different guises and in thousands of locations, up and down the length and breadth of the country, but for all their differences, these carvings give a common impression of something – or someone – living among the green buds of summer or the brown leaves of autumn.
The true origins of the Green Man are lost in the mists of early English history but there are many theories about who he is and what he stands for. For some he is an ancient woodland spirit, something pagan and magical. For others he is an amalgamation of other folkish legends, a coming together of Herne the Hunter, John Barleycorn, with his beard of bristling barley, and the green leaved Jack o the Green who traditionally appears in many May Day celebrations.
And yet there is another theory that is given extra credibility by the fact that the earliest known English Green men carved in stone date from the 11th century. This theory draws on the legends of Robin Hood, Eadric the Wild and Hereward the Wake.
For many years after the Norman Conquest in 1066 the English rebels continued a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the new rulers. They hid out in the English forests [in a similar vein to the Robin Hood tales] and were known by the Normans as the Silvatici or "men of the woods". It is entirely possible that the English stonemasons were showing their support by carving their faces in the new Norman buildings. In this guise the Green Man was neither woodland spirit nor folkish myth but in fact the very embodiment of English resistance against their Norman oppressors and all those who would them down.
No matter what, whether early English freedom fighters or medieval carvings inspired by a long forgotten folk memory of something far, far older, the green man is a rich part of our English cultural heritage.
Display your green man (and your resistance) with pride!