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The Hunt for the Green Man
The Green Man signifies irrepressible life. Once he has come into your awareness, you will find him speaking to you wherever you go. He is an image from the depths of prehistory: he appears and seems to die and then comes again after long forgettings at many periods in the past two thousand years. In his origins he is much older than our Christian era. In all his appearances he is an image of renewal and rebirth, and it is my aim in this book to show that his reappearance today in art and as a symbol of environmental movements is of the profoundest significance for humanity.
As a visual image he has three main forms. In the first and oldest form he is a male head formed out of a leaf mask; his hair, features, and physiognomy are all made either of a single leaf or of many leaves (3). In the second form he is a male head disgorging vegetation from his mouth and often from his ears and eyes; the vegetation may curl round to form his hair, beard, eyebrows and moustaches (10). The third form is a category not hitherto linked to the Green Man for which my arguments appear later; here the head is the fruit or flower of vegetation (20). The organic combination of human head with vegetation means that, like the unicorn, the griffin and the centaur, the Green Man is a composite image. The unicorn, as a composite of a horse with the spiral tusk of the narwhal, symbolizes spiritual knowledge; it will only submit to a virgin, that is, the mind in a state of purity. The griffin, as a composite of eagle and lion, is the guardian of treasures which may include secretmysteries. The centaur, as a composite of man and horse, is the tutor of heroes, training them in courage and instinctive responses. The Green Man, as a composite of leaves and a man's head, symbolizes the union of humanity and the vegetable world. He knows and utters the secret laws of Nature. When an image of great power such as the Green Man returns as he does now in a new aspect after a long absence, the purpose of its return is not only to revive forgotten memories but to present fresh truths and emotions necessary to fulfilling the potentialities of the future.
So it is with a full eye on his present and coming significances that I have been pursuing for some years a journey of detection into the origins and past appearances of the Green Man. The investigation began in earnest for me when I was high up in one of the most beautiful towers in Europe: that of the Minster of Freiburg im. Breisgau with its open fretwork spire (6 and 7). I was on the travels that led to the writing of a book on the rise of Gothic civilization.' Though I had long been familiar with the Green Man as an image, I was finding in the course of my travels that he was impressing himself more and more on my awareness. In the nave of the Minster below I had seen the early fourteenth-century Easter Sepulchre (21) with its life-size carving of the dead Christ and the faces of Green Men looking down from the canopy above, their features contorted with grief and suffering. I had climbed the tower and reached the lantern from which you look through high pointed open arches on to the mountains and trees of the Black Forest. When you look upwards, you see the miracle of the fretwork spire with light pouring through the interstices of stone as though you were gazing at the sun pouring through the branches and leaves of a primeval tree. Following the impulse to climb as high as I could, I discovered there was a further staircase that led up above the lantern to a parapet. It is from this level that the octagon of the lantern is bent inwards, so to speak, to make the eight steep triangles of which the spire is formed. And there I had a shock: each of the ribs of the spire rose from the head of a Green Man, entirely hidden from below by the parapet (8). The progression of leaf crockets which loop up each rib, and seem to be transformed into flame forms with their ascent, rose out of the heads of these Green Men. What was this image I had thought of as pagan doing here in the supreme place of honour in this great church? I connected it immediately with the legendary forest that stretched around. I also connected it with the Green Men weeping on the Easter Sepulchre inside the Minster below. And then I thought of the significance of the number eight in medieval numerology. It is the number of rebirth and regeneration, of the complete octave and of beginning again which is why so many fonts are octagonal. Alone up there, with the Green Men and a few jackdaws while level with me a kestrel hovered in the distance over the town I began to reflect on what the Green Man must have meant to the Gothic Masters. He was something I 'knew' about: I was familiar with numerous examples of him from every stage of the Romanesque and Gothic periods from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries; after that experience I realized I hardly knew anything about him at all.
So I began to find out. The Green Man is generally treated as an amusing but often sinister survival of the old pagan religions and as a figure surviving in folk customs. My experience up the tower taught me to look at the contexts in which the Gothic Masters had carved him and as a result I discovered not only the extent to which he had been absorbed into the deepest significances of Christian art so profoundly that it demeans the Green Man to look upon him as a mere survival of decayed beliefs but also the universality and the ever living import of his meanings.Green Man. Copyright © by William Anderson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.