On 6th August, 2017, on a fine Summer’s day in Nottingham Arboretum, thousands of people walking the Pagan pathways celebrated together at the UK’s largest free Pagan festival, Pagan Pride. This was my fifth time in attendance and my fourth time to be asked to be a speaker there¹. The subject I chose to speak on was “Jesus and the Green Man”, something I’ve been exploring for a while and where I see a lot of overlaps between Christian and Pagan (capital “P”) observations and understandings of matters pertaining to the natural and spiritual worlds.
Quite a number of people afterwards asked if I could let them have my talk, but because it’s quite long and I’d like to do a bit of tidying up of it, especially as some new information came my way afterwards which looks quite interesting, I am presenting the talk as a six-part series, for as the old saying goes, “One eats an elephant in bite sized chunks”.
Many Green Men too numerous to mention exist outside of the green isles of Albion (the land I love and which I call my home). In this series we’ll explore five characters associated with the Green Man of these isles, analysing them for what they might have to teach us and, like Rat and Mole in the Wind in the Willows, we will follow the direction of the music until it brings us to stand at the feet of who I call the ‘Deep Green One’, someone who deeply loves, cares for, and flows through the creation we are a part of: animal, vegetable and mineral.
Given the distance in time over which we can observe the Green Man, I’d like to use the analogy of the telescope (or indeed microscope if one wishes) to bring him closer to study and attempt to understand. However, as with any scope, the end you put your eye to affects your interpretation of whether things are big and near, or small and far away as we’ll see shortly. I therefore propose there are two scopes through which one can view the Green Man…
The first scope is an empirical one – as a historical curiosity which find in many Christian buildings around this land, and subsequently in many other buildings as time has gone by. This scope has been the one used by academics and those with a keen interest in spotting Green Men to study further. Mercia MacDermott and Dr Alison Millbank a professor at Nottingham University have explored and written on the various foliate heads worldwide and the various theories surrounding the Green Man. It is the empirical scope I will be using during the science bit where we go multidimensional and explore the spaces within the spaces. However, I will not be going into a history of the carvings themselves as many websites and books have been written on these and they will be able to do the carvings more justice than I ever could.
The second scope is a mythopoeic one, one which has come about since 1939 thanks to Lady Raglan and her article in Folklore magazine where the term “Green Man” is first used of these foliate heads. Her inspiration came from James Fraser’s idea of an ancient vegetation spirit found in his book, The Golden Bough. Raglan was also inspired by folklorist Margaret Murray’s suggestions (in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute) that the carved naked female figures in churches were representations of pagan goddesses of fertility – an alleged proof of the “old religion” Murray claimed had remained amongst the masses throughout the medieval period.
It is through this second scope that academic historian, Ronald Hutton (in The Triumph of the Moon) observes writers of folklore such as Margaret Murray and James Fraser laying the foundations of the modern mythopoeia of the Green Man that we read of in many Pagan books and articles on the Green Man today. In using the word mythopoeia, I’m in no way denigrating the Green Man, but am using the term in the way Tolkien (who coined the phrase) did, that we have created a mythic narrative around these foliate heads to attempt to understand them and their meaning in our lives in the present day. Again, myth in this series is not used in a negative, derogatory way, but in a beautiful way that endorses the use of narrative to portray that which is true. In our post-Enlightenment thinking, we have downgraded the word myth to mean falsehoods, and that is sadly to our loss. Thankfully things are changing on that score and I’m happy to see the negative meaning of the word being put aside as we quest to discover more about the spiritual journey we are all on. I see no problem whatsoever with creating a narrative to give meaning to a mystery, but when using myth in our spiritual toolkit we seek that which is true, we have to be discerning regarding that which is mythic and false (may be beneficial in the living of everyday life but has no historical evidence) and that which is mythic and true (is beneficial to all in the living of everyday life and claimed historicity may be verified by academic historians). And yes, I do realise I’m using an imperial way of thinking, having been trained as a scientist and engineer, but we all have our worldview and ways of making sense of the world around us.
As with any telescope, it’s difficult to get a full picture of a situation, complete with depth perception. But, by placing both telescopes together, side by side (ie binoculars / a binocular microscope), one may be able to get a deeper appreciation of the wonders and meaning of that which we now call the Green Man. I believe sometimes we may get a scope the wrong way around, projecting that which we wish to see upon the that which is provided by the other scope – something called confirmation bias. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Well, if it causes people to engage in more environmentally friendly ways, then no, I think there is merit in that approach. If it’s misused to dogmatically say this is definitely what people believed then I would urge caution and encourage one to take a step back and reflect upon the implications of this in how we relate to the modern world, for to dogmatically insist on something for which there is no verifiable evidence, one risks that the whole argument you’re building will collapse and any good therein is thrown out without recognition.
Thus a more harmonious way of investigating and understanding the Green Man is to use both an empirical, academic, historical scope and the mythopoeic scope – revealing much we can learn from and so piece together what I term the fingerprints of the Divine found throughout all cultures and belief systems in human history. Both approaches I believe should be brought alongside each other, not in competition, but working together. I an not naive enough to not recognise it will require some rough edges on all scope lenses to be polished out, and this can be done through mutually respectful dialogue (hopefully whilst sat around a campfire with a good horn full of mead on more than one occasion).
So, come with me now as we journey through ways both ancient and modern. Let us open our spiritual eyes to see the face within the leaves peeping out at us. Let us listen with our hearts and hear the pipes of the Eternal One playing across this sacred landscape of old, beckoning us to come and join in the sacred dance of life in all its fullness. Let us take the first words Mark Olly, author of Revealing the Green Man uses in his book as he quotes the Gospel of Thomas, “Let not him who seeks cease until he finds, and when he finds he shall be astonished.” words found on the lips of Jesus, “Seek and you will find.”
The links below to the five characters explored in this series will become live as the individual parts are uploaded over time:
¹ I would like to give a huge thanks to the organisers of this wonderful event which I’m proud to be a part of. These dear Pagan friends have taught me a great deal about tolerance and patience, as well as their belief systems, and through mutually respectful dialogue and challenge, coupled with deep listening I have been sent back to my own Sacred Texts as well as the natural world in order to further my own understanding of the omnipresent nature of God and who Jesus really is. I have gained a much deeper appreciation of the Creator and Creation by reading the two Books – Scripture and Nature. Thank you for letting me come alongside and walk with you as companion explorers on the journey of life – you will never know how much this means to me.
The Featured Image at the top of this article is called “The Tree of Life” by the artist Mary Fleeson. It can be purchased, together with more of her work at the website Lindisfarne Scriptorium.