The Green Man and the
Green Woman

 

     The paintings, drawings, and sculptures on this page have been inspired by myths of the forest — the Green Man, the Green Woman, and nature spirits of the wilderness. (To view the art, click on the thumbnail images below.) The works herein have been contributed by artists Brian Froud, Robert Gould, Wendy Froud, Mark Wagner, Beckie Kravetz, Virginia Lee, Terri Windling, Iain McCaig, Alan Lee, Charles Vess (with a new painting created especially for this exhibition), and Ari Berk. In the Coffee House section of this Web site you'll find Green Man poetry by Ari Berk and Bill Lewis. To learn more about the Green Man, we offer an article on the subject by Terri Windling (below), and suggest you visit the following Web sites, where photographs of ancient Green Man carvings can be found: The Green Man: Variations on a Theme and Search for the Greenman.

 

Tales of the Mythic Forest

by Terri Windling

 

"The King of the Green Men" by Brian Froud © 1998
"The King of the
Green Men"
by Brian Froud © 1998
Click to see this and 4 more woodland paintings by Brian Froud
     When we peer into the shadows of the Mythic Forest, a startling face stares back at us: the Green Man, masked with leaves or disgorging foliage from his mouth. The Green Man is a pre–Christian symbol found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves, of medieval churches and cathedrals, and used as a Victorian architectural motif, across an area stretching from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. Although commonly perceived as an ancient Celtic symbol, in fact its origins and original meaning are shrouded in mystery. The name dates back only to 1939, when folklorist Lady Raglan drew a connection between the foliate faces in English churches and the Green Man (or "Jack of the Green") tales of folklore. The evocative name has been widely adopted, but the legitimacy of the connection still remains controversial, with little real evidence to settle the question one way or the other. Earliest known examples of the foliate head (as it was known prior to Lady Raglan) date back to classical Rome — yet it was not until this pagan symbol was adopted by the Christian church that the form fully developed and proliferated across Europe. No known writings exist that explain what the foliate head represented in earlier religions, or why precisely it became incorporated into Christian architecture, but most folklorists conjecture that the foliate head symbolized mythic rebirth and regeneration, and thus became linked to Christian iconography of resurrection. (The Tree of Life, a virtually universal symbol of life, death and regeneration, was adapted to Christian symbolism in a similar manner.)

"Woman and Mask" by Robert Gould © 1998
"Woman and Mask"
by Robert Gould © 1998
Click to see this and 1 more woodland painting by Robert Gould
     The Jack in the Green is a figure associated with the new growth of spring and May Day celebrations. In Hastings, England, for instance, the Jack pageant is still re–enacted each spring. The Jack in the Green is played by a man in a towering eight–foot–tall costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. He travels through the town accompanied by men whose hair, skin, and clothes are all green, and a young girl bearing flowers, dressed and painted entirely in black. Morris and clog dancers entertain the crowds, while the Jack — a trickster figure — romps and chases pretty girls, playing the fool. At length he reaches a mound in the woods below the local castle. The Morris dancers wield their wooden swords, striking the leaf man dead. A poem is recited over the creature solemnly, then merriment breaks out as each member of the crowd takes a leaf from the Jack for luck. (According to mythologist Sir James Frazer, "the killing of a tree spirit is always associated with a revival or resurrection of him in a more youthful and vigorous form.") In Bavaria, a similar tree–spirit called the Pfingstl roams through rural towns clad in alder and hazel leaves, with a high pointed cap covered by flowers. Two boys with swords accompany him as he knocks on the doors of random houses, asking for presents but often getting thoroughly drenched by water instead. This pageant also ends when the boys draw their wooden swords and kill the green man. In a ritual from Picardy, a member of the "Compagnons du Loup Vert" dressed in a green wolf skin and foliage enters the village church carrying a candle and garlands of flowers. He waits until the Gloria is sung, then he walks to the alter and stands through the mass. At its end, the entire congregation rushes up to strip the green wolf of his leaves, bearing them away for luck.

Greenwood Mask by Wendy Froud © 1999
Greenwood Mask by Wendy Froud © 1999
Click to see this and 2 more woodland sculptures by Wendy Froud
     Such rituals are the debased remnants of pre–Christian rites and festivities. In the older religions, trees were held sacred; forest groves were perceived as the dwelling place of gods, goddesses, and a wide variety of nature spirits. Some scholars now think modern May Day revels were once part of pagan spring fertility rites (complete with pole representing the phallus) since the pageants have overtly sexual elements — and yet we can never really know for certain, for the original meanings of the ceremonies have been lost through the centuries, and the Church was quick to assign lewd connotations to all pagan practices. A staunchly animist outlook (with a strong reverence for trees and the holiness of nature) was particularly entrenched among the peoples in the far north of Europe and in the British Isles — thus these were two of the areas where the Christian priests of the Dark Ages (such as Devon's stern St. Bonifice) waged war against older beliefs, cutting down sacred trees and putting whole groves of woodland to the torch. To the Norse, in the wild, wintry forests of Scandinavia, a giant ash tree called Yggdrasil was the center of the universe. Its three great roots linked Asgard (the realm of the gods), Rime–Thusar (the realm of the Frost Giants), and Niflheim (the realm of the dead) with the human world above. The Celtic tribes of Britain and Ireland assigned each type of tree magical properties, and the twigs from the tops of trees were prized by magicians, warriors, and healers. Each letter in the Celtic "ogham" alphabet stood for a tree and its magical associations, and the symbology of trees is a richly poetic presence in Celtic myths. The English poet Robert Graves, in his extraordinary book The White Goddess, deals at great length with the order and meanings of the letters comprising this tree alphabet. He conjectures that the famous Welsh "Battle of the Trees" (a group of ancient poems preserved in the 16th–century manuscript "The Romance of Taliesin") refers to a druidic battle of words rather than a literal battle of vegetation. Ever since Graves's lengthy reconstruction of the poem was published in 1948, mythic scholars have been arguing whether Graves's scholarship is divinely inspired or completely mad (a question one could also ask about the mythic poet Taliesin himself).

galgra1s.jpg – 11700 Bytes
"Green Man"
by Mark Wagner © 1999
Click to see this and 2 more woodland images by Mark Wagner
     Sacred trees and groves played a central part in Greco–Roman myths. The oak was the tree sacred to Zeus, whose priests heard his voice in its rustling leaves. Adonis, the god of returning seasons and new crops, was born from the trunk of a myrrh tree. The nymph Daphne turned into a laurel tree in order to escape ravishment by Apollo. The laurel was sacred to Goddess cults, and was the tree of poetic inspiration. Many scholars consider the god Dionysus to be a forerunner of the Green Man symbol, for Dionysus was often pictured masked, crowned in vine and ivy leaves. This compelling but dangerous deity was the lord of the wilderness; he was the god of wine (made from wild grapes), ecstasy, and sexual abandon. His presence could drive whole communities mad, and women under his influence (the maenads) roamed ecstatically through the forest, wearing the skins of deer and fox, suckling wolf cubs from their own breasts. Dionysus is also a god of the underworld (in the guise of Okeanos), associated with death and rebirth — particularly as he was "thrice born" himself: first as the son of Persephone and Zeus (devoured as a child by Titans), second as the son of Semele of Thebes (who dies as a result of Hera's jealousy before the baby comes to term), and third, as the fetus from Semele's body born out of the thigh of Zeus. The cult of Dionysus was one of the great Mystery religions, with rites that range from the intellectual and contemplative to those that were drunken and orgiastic — and which may have included (according to Robert Graves) the ritual ingestion of a hallucinogenic mushroom, panaeolus papilionaceus, as an aid to perception of the numinous world. Various scholars have pointed out the parallels between Dionysus and the Celtic stag–man Cernunnos, consort of the Moon–Goddess and lord of the forest in Britain and Gaul, whose followers may also have used a mushroom, psilocybe, as part of their Mystery rites. ("Psilocybe gives a sense of universal illumination," writes Graves, "as I can attest from my own experience of it.") Cernunnos, like Dionysus, was associated with the underworld and the great cycle of death and resurrection. Carved heads representing this forest god were once placed near doorways, springs and woodland shrines, often carved with holes in which stag antlers or foliage was placed.

"Daphne at the moment that Apollo . . . " by Beckie Kravetz © 1999
"Daphne at the moment that Apollo . . . "
by Beckie Kravetz
© 1999
Click to enlarge
     The Greek goddess Artemis was also a creature of the forest, attended by beautiful tree nymphs (dryads) and bands of unmarried girls. Although she was a virgin in the later Greek and Roman traditions, in earlier accounts she was the Mother of All Creatures, and not virginal but free of the control of men, as were her priestesses. Artemis was revered as a great huntress, and feared for the wild side of her nature — many forest groves were sacred to her and thus could not be entered without peril. In the famous story of Actaeon, a beautiful young man out hunting with his friends stumbles into one of her groves and spies the goddess bathing in a pool. For this crime, Artemis transforms Actaeon into a stag (with full human consciousness). Unaware, his own dogs and friends hunt the young man down and tear him apart. (See Sara Maitland's story "Lady Artemis" in her collection Angel Maker for a brilliant modern rendition of the tale.) Despite her later incarnation as a virgin, Artemis remained the goddess of childbirth. Under the name Eileithyia, she was the goddess of release to whom pregnant women prayed during the pain of delivery. In this guise, she is related to the Green Man's wild female counterpart, the Green Woman, depicted in stone carvings as a primitive female form giving birth to a spray of vegetation. (In some carvings, she holds her vulva open as the foliage emerges.) This Green Woman symbol is far less common than the Green Man, of course, being rather hard to adapt to Christian iconography or Victorian decoration — and yet quite a few Green Women appeared on Irish churches built before the 16th century, where they were known by the name Sheela–na–gig. Some of these figures are still intact, others were destroyed or buried during church renovations in the 19th century. Like the "yoni" figures of India, it is customary to lick one's finger and touch the Green Woman's vulva for luck.

     The city of Rome was born of the forest, according to its mythic origin tales. Rhea Silvia (Rhea "of the forest") was the daughter of the king of Alba Longa until her uncle stole the throne. She was packed off to the Roman equivalent of a nunnery, but gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus, after being raped by Mars, god of war. The false king ordered the twins to be drowned, but instead (in the best fairy tale fashion) they were left abandoned in the forest. A she–wolf sucked the infants; then the children were raised to manhood by a forest brigand. When Romulus emerged from the woods, he helped his grandfather to recover the throne of Alba Longa — and then he returned to the
"Dryad" by Virginia Lee © 1999
"Dryad"
by Virginia Lee
© 1999
Click to enlarge
forest, cleared a hill, and founded the city of Rome. By Roman law, the forest at its gates belonged to no one and lay beyond civil jurisdiction. This was the realm of Silvanus, the god of sacred boundaries and wilderness. As Rome grew, the power of Silvanus dwindled — not only locally, but in all the lands where the Roman empire extended. In those times, explains Robert Pogue Harrison (in Forests: the Shadow of Civilization), "the forests were literally everywhere: Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain, the ancient Mediterranean basin as a whole. The prohibitive density of the forests once preserved the relative autonomy and diversity of the family– and city–states of antiquity. The forests were obstacles — to conquest, hegemony, homogenization. By virtue of their buffers, they enabled communities to develop indigenously; hence they served to localize the spirit of place. In their woodlands lived spirits and deities, fauns and nymphs, local to this place and no other. In their drive to universalize their empire, the Romans found ways to denude or traverse this latent sylvan mass . . . building roads, imperial highways, institutions, a broad integrated network of 'telecommunications.' "Mass clearings of land for building and agricultural use had profound ecological implications even in antiquity, as forest after forest was demolished and the soils of once–fertile lands eroded. Our modern despair as we watch woodland disappear from the planet is not an emotion unique to the 20th century. As early as the 4th century B.C., Plato wrote with grief (in the Critias) of the barren hills surrounding Athens as grove after grove fell before the plough or the ship–builder's axe.

     According to Greco–Roman tradition, dryads (the nymphs who live in trees) die when their personal tree is cut down. This is also true of other tree spirits who inhabit the forests of Europe, including the vegetation faeries of many different cultures. In some cautionary tales, the faery folk take their revenge upon humans who dare disturb their haunts. In others, the faery quietly pines when her habitat is destroyed — and when she dies, the beauty and magical soul of the land dies with her. Supernatural forest spirits take many forms, ranging from the exquisite dryads of the Greeks to the ugly tree trolls of Finland and Norway. The swor skogsfru (wood wives) of Sweden are seductive and utterly beautiful . . . from the front. In back, these faery women are made of bark and are hollow as logs. In Italy, the silvane (wood women) mate with silvani (wood men) to produce the folleti, the enchanting faeries of the land. In England, many earthy brownies and piskies make their homes in oak tree roots, and each kind of tree has its own faery to tend it and enable its growth. Men made of bark seduce young maids in the fairy tales of eastern Europe. Some of the men are dangerous, while others make tender lovers. (See Jane Yolen's haunting
"Spirit of Desert Sycamore" T. Windling © 1999
"Green Woman & Child "© T. Windling
Click to see this and 3 more woodland images by Terri Windling
tale "The Tree's Wife" in her collection Dream Weaver for a modern take on this theme.) The wood spirits in the forest of Broceliande (now known as Paimpont) in Brittany also range from the benevolent to the malign. In one old tale, a lost traveler finds his way to a strange chateau in the woods. The beautiful lady of the house offers him food, drink . . . and her own arms to sleep in. He gallantly refuses the latter, which breaks the faery's hold on him. The morning light reveals the chateau in ruins, empty, reclaimed by the forest. Broceliande is the woodland where Merlin the magician lies entrapped in the bowels of a tree, tricked or seduced by the faery sorceress Vivian (also known as Nimue). Merlin is a figure intimately connected with forests in Arthurian lore, for it was during his years of madness roaming the forests of Wales, after the disastrous Battle of Arderydd, that he learned the speech of animals and honed his prophetic powers. A similar tale recounts the trials of Suibhne, an Irish hero cursed in battle, forced to flee to the woods in the shape of a bird. Like Merlin (and other shamanic figures who seek Mysteries in the wilderness), Suibhne goes mad during his long exile — but when he emerges from the trial, he has mastery over creatures of the forest. (For a gorgeous modern rendition of this tale see Sweeny's Flight, an edition containing Seamus Heany's long poem based on the myth, along with photographs of the Irish countryside by Rachel Giese.)
"Green Knight" by Iain McCaig © 1999
"Green Knight"
by Iain McCaig © 1999
Click to see this and 1 more woodland image by Iain McCaig
     In epic romances, heroes go into the woods to test their strength, courage, and faith; yet sometimes, like Merlin, they find madness there — as does the lovelorn Orlando in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, one of the great poems of the Italian Renaissance. In the famous medieval tale of the Green Knight, this mysterious figures rides out of the woods and into Camelot on New Year's eve. His clothes are green, his horse is green, his face is green, as are all his bright jewels. He carries a holly bush in one hand and an axe of green steel in the other. The Green Man issues a challenge that any knight in the court may strike off his head — but in one year's time, his opponent must come to the forest and submit to the same trial. Gawaine agrees to this terrible challenge in order to save the honor of his king. He slices off the Green Knight's head — but the creature merely picks it up and rides back to the forest, bearing the head in the crook of his arm. One year later, Gawaine seeks out the Green Knight in the Green Chapel in the woods. He survives the trial, but is humbled by the green man and his beautiful wife through an act of dishonesty. (I recommend the excellent translation of Gawaine and the Green Knight by J.R.R. Tolkien if you'd like to read the full tale.) In the French romance Valentine and Orson, the Empress of Constantinople is accused of adultery, thrown out of her palace, and gives birth to twins in the wildwood. One son (along with the mother) is rescued by a nobleman and raised at court, while the other son, Orson, is stolen by a she–bear and raised in the wild. The pair eventually meet, fight, then become bosom companions — all before a magical oracle informs them of their kinship. The wild twin becomes civilized, while retaining a primitive kind of strength — but when, at length, his brother dies, he retires back into the forest. This epic presents another great archetypal figure: the Wodehouse or wild man, a primitive yet powerful creature one finds in tales ranging from Gilgamesh (in the figure of Enkidu) to Tarzan of the Apes. "The medieval imagination was fascinated by the wild man," notes Robert Pogue Harrison, "but the latter were by no means merely imaginary in status during the Middle Ages. Such men (and women as well) would every now and then be discovered in the forest — usually insane people who had taken to the woods. If hunters happened upon a wild man, they would frequently try to capture him alive and bring him back for people to marvel and wonder at." Other famous wild men of literature can be found in Chretien de Troyes's romance Yvain, Jacob Wasserman's Casper Hauer (based on the real life incident of a wild child found in the market square of Nuremberg in 1829), and in the heart–stealing figure of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. (For a beautifully–written rendition of the wild man theme in a modern context, try Alice Hoffman's lyrical, memorable novel Second Nature.) Mythic tales of forest outlaws are a sub–category of wild man legends, although in such stories (Robin Hood, for example) the hero is generally a civilized man compelled, through an act of injustice, to seek the wild life. Magical tales of hermits and woodland mystics form another sub–category, and Christian legends are filled with tales of saints living in the wilderness on a diet of honey and acorns. This, again, is bolstered by the actual experience of people in earlier times, when it was not uncommon for folk marginalized by the community (mystics, herbalists or witches, widows, eccentrics, and simpletons) to live in the wilds beyond the village, by choice or necessity. An elderly neighbor of mine in Devon remembers such a figure in her youth — a harmless old soul who lived in a cave and was believed to have prophetic powers.

"Treebeard" by Alan Lee © 1978
"Treebeard"
by Alan Lee © 1978
Click to see this and 3 more woodland images by Alan Lee
     To the German Romantics, forests held the soul of myth and thus of volk culture, believed to be more pure and true than the artifice of civilization. Hoffman, Tieck, Fouque, Novalis and others entered the fairy tale forest to create mystical, darkly magical works making deft use of mythic archetypes. In the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm published their famous German folklore collections, full of tales in which a journey to the dark woods was the catalyst for magic and transformation. The passion for folklore spread across Europe, touching every area of popular arts in addition to fostering a new academic climate for collection of oral tales and ballads. In Scotland, the Reverend George Macdonald, inspired by the works of the German Romantics, began to write folkloric stories — like "The Light Princess" and "The Golden Key" — which are now classics of magical literature. In the faery woods of Macdonald's imagination, talking trees (both wondrous and wicked) are drawn directly from mythic archetypes, forming part of a literary tradition that runs from the prophetic trees in the magical adventures of Alexander the Great, through the "Wood of Suicides" in Dante's Inferno, to the Ents in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Macdonald's son–in–law, the Victorian painter Edward Burne–Jones and his fellow Pre–Raphaelite artists returned again and again to the Archetypal Forest in their paintings, poetry, and prose — including novels such as The Wood Beyond the World by Burne–Jones's great friend William Morris. As the century turned, Celtic Twilight writers like the Irish poet William Butler Yeats found magic in the twilight woods with which to fuel their art. In the early 20th century, writers such as Hope Mirrlees (Lud in the Mist), James Stephens (The Crock of Gold), and Lord Dunsany created modern mythic tales to explore the woodlands that lie (to borrow Dunsany's phrase) "beyond the fields we know." Then three Oxford dons came along (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams), calling themselves the Inklings, whose work has profoundly influenced most magical fiction written since. It is the challenging task of modern fantasists to assimilate the works produced by these three (Tolkien in particular), while avoiding the pitfall of merely producing pale imitations of it. Modern writers who have managed this most successfully (Alan Garner, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman, etc.) are those familiar with the mythic source material which the past Masters used to such great effect — as well as those for whom a strongly personal vision shines through Professor Tolkien's long shadow.

"A Dream of Apples" by Charles Vess © 1999
"A Dream of Apples" by Charles Vess © 1999
Click to see this and 1 more woodland image by Charles Vess
     Neil Gaiman is a good example of a modern myth–maker whose work is never derivative, even when he gives a tip of the hat to Dunsany, Mirrlees, and Christina Rossetti, as in his charming new novel Stardust. This story, set in an English woodland at the Wall separating our world from faerieland, reads like a classic 19th century story yet is utterly fresh and original. Stardust began as a collaborative work — first published in narrative graphic form with enchanting paintings by Charles Vess. The woodland created by this talented pair is not a Generic Fantasy Forest — through Neil's clever yet gentle prose, and Charles's Rackham–flavored pictures, these woods are specifically English and yet archetypal, filled with true magic. The spirit of the woodland is also a captivating presence in the Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke, with its English screenplay adapted by Neil Gaiman — a deeply folkloric work in which all the power and terror of the Mythic Forest is brought vividly to life. Robert Holdstock is a writer who has traveled deeper into the woods than any other mythic writer, and the books of his Mythago Wood sequence are Must Reading for anyone interested in the subject. Charles de Lint writes interstitial works which bring the potent archetypes of the mythic woods into modern urban settings, as in his "Newford" novels Memory and Dream and Someplace to Be Flying. In The Wild Wood, inspired by the art of Brian Froud, Charles takes us deep into the woods of northern Canada — a prismatic landscape where magic and madness waits, as in shamanic tales of old. The woodlands of Patricia A. McKillip's tales are some of the finest in fantasy literature; I recommend her novels Winter Rose and The Book of Atrix Wolfe in particular, as well as her unusual contemporary story Stepping from the Shadows. I also recommend the "imaginary world" novels of Sean Russell (such as World Without End and Sea Without a Shore); The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, with its Freudian flavored fairy tale forests; The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, a mythic mystery set in modern East Anglia; and The Corn King and Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison, a classic work of mythic fiction which draws heavily upon the folklore studies of Frazer and other scholars.

     Visual artists have also been caught by the powerful spell of the Mythic Forest. In addition to the artists on these pages, I highly recommend seeking out art books on the work of two English sculptors: Andy Goldsworthy (Wood) and Peter Randall–Page (Granite Song, available through the Internet Bookshop, www.bookshop.co.uk) — as well as the Scottish photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper (Between Dark and Dark and Dreaming the Gokstadt). For further reading on the subject of the Green Man and forest folklore try: Green Man by William Anderson and Clive Hicks, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization by Robert Pogue Harrison, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. For information on silver–and–wood jewelry based on Celtic tree alphabet symbols, write to Tree of Life Mythic Jewelry in Devon (postal address: Treetops/Beverly House, Manor Road, Chagford, Devon, TQ13 8AS, United Kingdom. And be sure to visit the Green Man Press Web site founded by Charles Vess and Karen Shaffer.

     In the closing of his informative book on Green Man symbolism, William Anderson reminds us that this mysterious creature has altered over the centuries — changing along with our cultural perception of forests and the wilderness as we moved from an ancient animist relationship with nature to a position of dominion over it. Williams ties the recent popularity of the Green Man with the rise of the modern ecology movement. He notes:

"Green Man" by Ari Berk © 1999
"Green Man"
by Ari Berk © 1999
Click to see this and 4 more woodland images by Ari Berk

Our remote ancestors said to their mother Earth, "We are yours."
Modern humanity has said to Nature, "You are mine."
The Green Man has returned as the living face of the whole earth so that through his mouth we may say to the universe, "We are one."



Copyright © 2000 by Terri Windling. This article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine and may not be reproduced without permission.



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