The Celtic Green Man

Vance, WILD’s president, has recently been working hard to spruce up our office.  One of his projects was to paint the entrance which required taking down artwork.  One of the pieces that hangs right next to the door was a small, circular, green face surrounded by leaves.  Vance asked around the office to see if anyone knew what it was; most of us didn’t realize it was there (even though we walk by it every time we come in).  Turns out that this figure is the Celtic green man, who is the perfect symbol for The WILD Foundation.

The green man originated as a Celtic pagan symbol to show to connection between  humans and nature, the cycle of life and death, and resurrection.  It is also thought to be a depiction of the Celtic god of spring and summer.   One of the most interesting things about this symbol is that although it is most known in Europe,  examples can be found all around the world throughout history.  This shows that many groups of people though out time noticed and cared about their connection to nature.

When the Christians began to convert pagans throughout Europe most pagan symbols and traditions were condemned, but some were slightly altered to fit with the Christian traditions and beliefs, like the green man.  It is not known why this symbol out of so many was kept, but it is prominent in European churches.  The first example of a green man dates back to the 4th or 5th century and is located in the tomb of St. Abre in the St.-Hilaire-le-Grand at Poitiers in France.

The green man at the tomb of St. Abre

There was a revival of the use of the green man during the gothic period where it was widely used in churches and memorials, either symbolically or simply for decoration and has remained as a prominent symbol since.   Today it is a common subject for artists and goes by many names including Jack in the Green, John Barleycorn, the Green Knight (From the tail of Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight), Robin Goodfellow, Herne the Hunter, and Robin Hood.

There are three different types of green man that have showed up in architecture, gravestones, literature, and other memorials:  the Foliate Head, the Disgorging Head, and the Bloodsucker Head.

A Foliate Head appears as a head either completely covered in leaves or leaves that form either a human or animal face.

A Disgorging Head can be a very similar to a foliate head but is spewing vegetation from its mouth.  It could also be a simple human or animal head spewing vegetation from its mouth.  This is the type of green man head we have displayed at WILD.

The Bloodsucker Head is much harder to find examples of, the Foliate and Disgorging heads are much more common.  It is distinct because it spews vegetation from all of its facial orifices.

The green man pops up all around Europe in architecture, pubs, artwork , and grave stones and other memorials.  One estimate says that there are about 2,000 examples in Europe alone, but examples can be found all around the world.

There are many interpretations of the symbolism of the green man.  Some believe that it is a symbol used to ward off bad spirits, others that is the depiction of a Celtic god or a symbol of rebirth, and it could also be a sign of the gifts of nature. For WILD the interpretation that fits is the connection between humans and nature, depicting the  deep inter-relationship between the two  —  a reminder of why WILD’s mission is important.  Nature Needs Half sets out the goal of protecting at least half of all land and water in an interconnected way to maintain ecosystems and save the wildlife that we, as humans, are so connected to and reliant on.  Check out the Nature Need’s Half Facebook page for updates and information!

**We encourage readers to comment on this post, the information for which was consolidated from numerous on-line references**

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