Walking with the Green Man: Father of the Forest, Spirit of Nature

Walking with the Green Man: Father of the Forest, Spirit of Nature

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Almost since the dawn of time, the image of the Green Man--the carven enigmatic head surrounded by leaves and foliage--has both intrigued and mystified viewers and folklorists alike. Appearing in churches, taverns, and even on stately buildings, the carving seems shrouded in supernatural obscurity. Is it merely a fertility symbol, or is it something much deeper, which calls for a response from us all? Though it seems a predominantly Celtic icon, does the concept of the Green Man also appear in other places and in other cultures? What is its relevance for the world today? In an absorbing new book, Dr. Bob Curran traces the many strands that make up this enigmatic image. Tracing its origins from prehistoric times, he explores its significance in the medieval world and discusses its development in the modern world. He also investigates the image's psychological appeal, which has allowed it to continue down through the ages, and, pulling from a variety of sources, its impact upon other cultures in various parts of the world. From heroic archetypes such as Robin Hood to Demigods such as Herne the Hunter; from the King of the Woods to the Jack in the Green, Walking With the Green Man examines the interconnection of man and Nature throughout history. Whether as a man amongst the trees, a man of the trees, or a symbol of Nature used to express secrets and solidarity, the Green Man's visage is traced throughout lands and cultures. Walking With the Green Man will appeal to all those who are interested in the image of the Green Man as an example of symbolic art, as well as to those who are interested in folklore and the interplay between folklore and culture. It is a fascinating study, which not only examines the history of the icon but also its development within human perception.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781564149312
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 03/05/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Dr. Bob Curran is a native of Northern Ireland, born and raised in the Mourne Mountains area of County Down, a region steeped in folklore and legend. Throughout a varied life, he has worked in many fields--as a gravedigger, professional musician, journalist, and civil servant. He is now a history teacher and well known throughout Ireland and beyond as a writer and broadcaster. He has written extensively, in English and several other languages, on various aspects of history and folklore and acted as advisor to the Cultural Committee of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly. He currently lives in Coleraine, County Derry, with his wife and family.

Ian Daniels's illustration projects include Vampires, Encyclopedia of the Undead, Dragonlore (all New Page Books), Classic Celtic Fairytales, and Tales of the Celtic Otherword. He has illustrated book covers for Marion Zimmer Bradley, Orson Scott Card, and Poul Anderson.

Read an Excerpt


The Thing in the Forest

From the earliest times, it seems, there has been an impulse to humanize Natural forces and the Natural world. Today we refer to "Mother Nature," giving the environment a motherly, kind-hearted female aspect similar to a kindly woman who looks after her errant children (Mankind). Even the elements that beset early man were usually given humanistic attributes. Thunder and storms that rumbled across the ancient skies, destroying crops and frightening men, were the work of some seemingly humanoid figure — for the Scandinavian Norse for instance that was Thor, son of Wodin, god of thunder and lightning. Even the so-called civilized societies of the ancient world tried to personify some of their environment in human terms. Thus, the ocean became the realm of Poseidon (Greek) or Neptune (Roman) and those who travelled on it had to show appropriate respect for, and make proper offerings to, that particular deity. Other Natural elements, such as wind, fog, fire, and so on took on human aspects — the world fairly teemed with river gods and mountain deities. And with this personalization there also came a sense of separateness — the deity was somehow separate from the worshipper and could be conversed with, appealed to, or placated. The Natural forces somehow seemed to lie outside humanity and were distinct from it.

This was probably not always the case. The emergence of a distinct, human identity, set apart from the forces of the Natural world, probably evolved over a period of time. We are, of course, unable to establish when the split between Mankind and the rest of Nature actually occurred, but at one time Man must have considered himself to be a part of the Natural world, existing in and perceiving the world just as any other animal might. Of course, Creationists will no doubt argue with such a concept, citing that Man emerged in the world fully formed and with a distinct consciousness all of his own; however, more recognized scientific theories seem to bear this out. We know, for example, that there were several species of men (and there may have been even more than we suspect) who viewed the world in different ways. We also know that originally Man was a hunter who competed with other animals for food.

The consciousness and perceptions of these early men (or as some have described them, quasi-men) may well have been very different from our own. They may have viewed the world in terms of hunting and prey, and may have perceived themselves as part of that dichotomy. They ate, probably performed sexual acts without too much thought, killed, slept, and hunted, largely by instinct. When they hunted, they probably travelled in packs or groups, as some other animals did. Their consciousness was a part of the Natural world. All the same, they were something rather special, for they had within them the power of evolution.

This "Natural consciousness" did not mean that they were unaware of external forces. The early world was certainly shaken by storms, earthquakes, floods, and other dangers. However, it is unclear how these were perceived by the rudimentary mind. They were probably seen in the same way that other animals viewed such events. But as the species evolved, other perceptions took hold. Indeed, for Homo sapiens such notions began to emerge slightly later than they did for other species of men. We know, for example, that Neanderthal Man probably buried his dead before our own ancestors started to (Homo sapiens simply abandoned their dead as meat for scavengers or ate it themselves), hinting at something that might lie outside the immediate sphere of existence.

And with evolution, the perception of the species changed. Neanderthal Men died out and it was left to the more aggressive Homo sapiens to evolve into our ancestors, and to take on new perceptions of the world around them. The idea of separateness and the notion of something that lay beyond the present was beginning to take hold. The elements were still there — there were still storms, earthquakes, and floods — but these were gradually taking on a new significance as the human consciousness developed. They were certainly still to be feared — that was the basic instinct of the animal — but perhaps they were controlled and could be controlled.

This idea arose out of a fundamental shift in the humans' perception of themselves. Previously, they had competed with other animals for food and resources but they had competed as equals. When it came to hunting, they perceived themselves as similar tothe wolf and the bear with whom they fought for available meat. Evolution changed all that. As the human brain grew, together with Mankind's knowledge and skills, a sense of separateness from the Natural world began to enter human thinking. Hunting was no longer conducted by instinct, but by strategy; Homo sapiens noticed that bears, wolves, and wild pigs were less able to control and organize their world than they were. With a newfound cognizance, they were able to plan ahead and work out ways in which they could actually trap their prey rather than simply relying on chasing it down. They were now far better — in their own eyes at least — than other animals that could not. Concomitant with this was a growing sense of individuality, as certain members of the herd began to develop new strategies and methods of organization due to their unique skills, which each one of them held. Suddenly, rather than being a part of the Natural world, the environment became something distinct and something they might be able to control. And if they were able to control their world, other entities might be able to do so as well.

Because, although they could lay traps for their prey, the Natural elements still terrified them. There were storms, eruptions, earthquakes, and great windstorms for which there seemed to be no rhyme or reason. For small clans of humans living upon the edge of subsistence, life was precarious. A sudden flood or a drought could destroy their entire world; a powerful storm could perhaps sweep it away, killing them all. At times too, their prey was plentiful and everyone was well-fed, but at other times there was nothing at all. Why was that? Why could there not be meat available when they wanted it? If they could control the world, then perhaps something else could too. The notion of powers and intelligences outside and separate from themselves was starting to emerge.

The first ideas of these powers were of vague, nebulous beings. The early Semites, for instance, viewed their gods as windstorms or as cloudy pillars, glimpsed either early in the morning or late in the evening. Some other ancient peoples simply worshipped the sun, which was visible throughout the day, or the moon at night. Other parts of the Natural world were worshipped too — for the early Celts, for instance, spirits were everywhere: within stones, trees, rivers, lakes, and wells. They watched Mankind with curious, if not sometimes hostile eyes and were responsible for all the benefits and calamities that befell their human neighbors. In other cases, animals, with whom Men had once competed for resources and food, were often worshipped for qualities that their devotees admired — the bull for strength, the horse for swiftness, the wolf for cunning, and the bear for bravery. What was important, however, was that these forces were out there and were distinct from Humankind and the skills it had.

And yet, there was a memory of the time when Men had actually been an equal part of the Natural world. There was a "stream of consciousness," which lay almost dormant in the human brain and connected our ancestors with the world outside themselves in a very fundamental way. This is what psychoanalysts such as Carl Jung have identified as the psyche — a great body of consciousness to which we have no immediate access that displays elements of both the individual and the collective. This is where the "I," the ego, is defined, but it is defined in relation to the collective — the human is defined as a consciousness beyond that of its environment, but is given its definition by that environment.

Thus, there was an imperative goal amongst early Men to shape and define that environment into an image they could understand, and in terms they could easily recognize. In this way, the forces of Nature could perhaps be controlled and mediated. Rather than being disparate energies that roamed aimlessly through the countryside or that crackled across the skies, they would be given a form and purpose. In that way they could be appealed to, invoked, or commanded by Mankind. Here lay the origins of both magic and religion. By making these forces recognizable, humans also made it possible to interact with them in a recognizable way. Thus, the disembodied spirits and deities began to take on physical characteristics — put in crude terms, they often took on a face. Sometimes, they also took on bodies as well, such as in early cave paintings, perhaps designed to invoke some hunting spirit to ensure success in the hunt. But as Mankind evolved, so the idea of the controlling agencies — the gods — became more complex. They appeared more recognizable in a physical sense and began to display human behavioral characteristics. They were angry, they were petulant, they were capricious, they were crafty, they suffered the pangs of jealousy, they enjoyed a joke, they were drunken. By the time of the great Mediterranean civilizations — Greek and Roman — the gods had become something of an exclusive club, dwelling away in the high mountains and interfering in the affairs of humans often merely for amusement, sport, or for some form of self-gratification. For the most part, they were human in both form and temperament. The personalization of these deities made them both more accessible and more immediate. They also refined the systems of worship — for example, how could a god actually hear a devotee's supplication if he or she had no ears; how could he or she see the supplicant if there were no eyes? How could he or she receive offerings without hands? This humanization of the deity continued in the Christian West well into the 20th century. Many Christians saw God as an old man, a patriarch, who kept a constant watch over the world, perhaps from a cloud high in Heaven. At the time, deities had become largely humanized.

But this is not the whole story, because somewhere, locked away at the back of the human mind, was that basic connection with Nature, which Man had experienced in his earliest days. It found its expression amongst some of the lesser or more lowly regarded deities and in connections between gods and Nature. Satyrs for example embodied nature and Natural behavior, while the satyr-god Bacchus often epitomized drunkenness, hedonism, and earthly pleasures. The Bacchanalia, the great feast in his honor, was one of excess and license, in which humans often emulated the behavior of animals. The portrayal of both satyrs and of Bacchus depicted them as creatures with human torsos and heads, but with the hindlegs of a goat — in effect a merger of both human being and animal. They were earthy, bawdy beings that enjoyed sexuality to excess. This equated well with the ancient deities who were associated with fertility and reproduction, but they also forged a linkage between both the human and Natural worlds. They would later appear as timid fauns — still half man, half goat — to be made famous by Mr. Tumnus in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which formed the basis for the recent film The Chronicles of Narnia. Similarly, entities in Greek Thessaly displayed the characteristics of both humans and horses. These were the centaurs that sported the upper torso of a man and the lower body of a horse, and could travel as fast as the wind. Although the idea may have grown out of the swift horsemen who came from the region, there seems to be little doubt that this was a notion that had grown out of the connection between men and nature. And they were not alone: the Greek Poseidon, god of the sea, is often represented in art as having the tail of a fish or the elongated lower body of an eel. The gods, it seemed, had not all completely developed human characteristics, and some vestiges of the ancient animal/Natural world still remained.

A Bacchanalia

This perception probably stretched back to the developing individuality of early man when he looked beyond the centrality of his campsite towards the dark, gloomy, and threatening forest beyond the comforting circle of light from his fire. Out there were things, which could hurt him or destroy him, but they were beings that were distinct from him and possibly more powerful than he. There were animals of course, but there might be other beings too — the physical manifestations of forces and Natural energies. They had their own agendas that were vastly different from his. He was no longer part of their world.

The most potent symbol, however, is to be found in the Book of Genesis in the Christian Bible. In the original story, told in the first few chapters, Adam and Eve dwell in an earthly paradise known as the Garden of Eden. They are happy there and at one with nature — they are naked but are not conscious of it. They may enjoy all earthly pleasures, says their Creator God, except to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the center of the Garden. Tempted by the serpent (an ancient symbol of evil), however, they eat from the Tree and suddenly realize that they are naked — that is, that they are no longer part of the Natural world. They now have a greater knowledge than the animals around them, but because they disobeyed God, they are cast out of the Garden. They now have to fend for themselves in the wider world. Despite his disobedience, Adam still retains an initial "mastery over the beasts of the field" that God has given him.

This metaphor of a lost connection with Nature is both simple and striking. Adam and Eve (read man and woman) existed on an instinctive level but in harmony with the Natural world around them. As they evolved, however, they gain "knowledge," acknowledged their "nakedness" (therefore, they were not as the animals around them), and were "ashamed" of their primitive state. They cover themselves and leave the earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden, to act as individuals in the world, and separate from nature. The collective unity with the Natural world has been severed.

The Archtype

The Genesis story is unquestionably an early Semitic myth concerning Creation and the origins of the human condition, but it is also a mechanism of explaining and dealing with the separation between Men and Nature. The Green Man is another such mechanism. The humanoid face that peers from amongst the leaves, or the foliage-covered figure that lurks deep in the forest, serves as a symbol of that former union that has now been lost. The face that looks out on the world is that of a recognizable human, not that of an animal or some alien being. It is the representation of humanity, swathed and clothed in the Natural world. And similar to the Genesis story, it portrays Man at one with the living environment around him. It might be described as an archetype — an image denoting that great untapped consciousness within us, both individually and collectively, of which we are vaguely aware but cannot really articulate in fully coherent terms. It is the humanizing of that "stream of consciousness," so to speak, from an analogue (continuous) language into a more digitalized, tangible form. It is the humanness of the face, set amongst growth that links Mankind to the Natural world around us.

A Closer Look

A word also needs to be said about the face itself. It seems invariably to be a masculine countenance, sometimes (though not always) adorned by a beard, which was the symbol of sagacity, power, and authority in the ancient world. It also symbolized recklessness or a Devil-may-care attitude, for a beard was also a hazardous thing to sport during a battle: In hand-to-hand combat, an opponent could grab the warrior's beard (if it were long enough) and hold him until a fatal blow to the head was delivered. So in some cases, rather than denoting sagacity, the beard denoted a more capricious nature, fitting in with the often whimsical and unpredictable Nature of the environment.

Some representations of the Green Man, of course, have no beard at all and often display a kind of bisexual nature. This raises an important question. Although we speak of the Green Man and ascribe to him a long mythological pedigree, should we assume that the earliest gods — as perhaps represented by the figure — are in fact male?

Much of the evidence that we have appears to suggest that the earliest deities were female. While we know that hunting gods (who seem to have been exclusively male) were worshipped in earliest times (female hunting entities would be venerated later), one of the earliest concerns amongst ancient peoples was the idea of birth and reproduction, which was solely a female activity. Amongst the early Celts, for example, the ability to give birth seems to have been highly venerated. We can deduce this from peculiar and very ancient small stone figures that turn up in a number of sites (some of them monasteries and churches) all over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales, and in some parts of Europe, such as Austria and southern Russia. These are known as Sheela- (Sheelagh or Sile) -na-gigs. These are minute depictions of a nude female figure, her face often either indistinct or monstrous, but with heavy, pendulous, milk-filled breasts and a swollen stomach. In most instances she is crouching down, opening or holding open an enormous vulva in what clearly seems to be a sexual invitation. The name of the figure is rather ambiguous. It is usually taken as deriving from the Irish Sile na gCioch (Sheela of the Breasts), although it may also have its origins in Sile na gob (Sheela on her hunkers — displaying her vagina).


Excerpted from "Walking With the Green Man"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Dr. Bob Curran.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Shadows in the Sunlight,
Chapter 1: The Thing in the Forest,
Chapter 2: The Lurker Amongst the Leaves,
Chapter 3: Echoes From the East,
Chapter 4: Unholy Terrors,
Further Reading,
About the Author,

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