12 March 2024

Th Green Man (1)

In church buildings all over the Three Kingdoms, one can find carvings, in stone or wood, of the Green Man. He is a grotesque figure, usually showing just a rather unhappy (or hostile) head and face, with foliage emerging from its orifices. 

This is a relic of the pre-Christian fertility cults which, after a long battle with the increasingly dominant and intolerant Christian Religion, finally lost the battle.

Except that this is not true. You will find it, or parts of it, in the 'popular' guide books which, at the back of church after church,  you are invited to buy. I recently found it in the little book currently on offer in Dorchester Abbey near Oxford. But it will be convenient to begin with a factual account of the present academic status quo ... and that means Stations of the Sun (1996) by Ronald Hutton. (Curiously, the Green Man is missing from the index: so I will give you the page numbers ... 241-2 and 424-5.) Hutton explains that we have here, according to 1930s writers, "representations of pre-Christian deities or spirits of nature and fertility. This supposition was not based upon any research into the history of either: it was, rather, an extension of Sir James Frazer's preoccupation with tree spirits encouraged by the proposal of another member of the [Folklore] Society and follower of Sir James, Margaret Muurray, that some of the more enigmatic images in medieval churches were representations of pagan deities in which much of the population still believed. This notion was itself equally devoid of any research into medieval sources, but it so perfectly reflected what mid-twentieth-century folklorists wished to believe that it became an orthodoxy."

In 1979, Roy Judge had published his account of the evidence, based on a systematic investigation of historical evidence; but after the publication of Hutton's Stations, Eamon Duffy gave Stations a highly positive review, speaking of : "a great deal of pseudo-science and sheer gobbledegook, for which the great Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer must bear much of the blame ... Like many other late nineteenth century neo-pagan intellectuals, Frazer was convinced that under the Christian veneer of modern society, older and deeper beliefs persisted, enshrined in 'folk' customs and recoverable from a srtructural anthropological scrutiny of those customs. This was a theory taken up with enthusiasm by students of folklore ..." In 2014, Tom Shippey wrote about how "over the last hundred years and more, it has been popular to think that past ages worshipped what is variously called the Great Mother, Earth Mother or Mother Goddess. DIstinguished scholars pioneered the idea, including Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos, and the Cambridge classiciist Jane Harrison ... D H Lawrence , Robert Graves, and Rudyard Kipling ... so that by the early 20th century, Mircea Eliade commented : 'A search for the Mother' had become a major component of the 'unconscious nostalgia of the Western intellectual'".

In 2010, Richard Hayman wrote a small but stylish volume (The Green Man) in which he demonstrated that "The term 'green man' does not have any currency earlier than the 1930s ... That the term has become firmly established is due initially to Lady Raglan, who was inspired to enquire into the green man in the church at Llangwn Uchaf near her home ... In 1939 she published an article in the journal of the Folklore Society in which she argued that the green man in church architecture was a relic of pagan nature worship that had somehow weathered several centuries of Christian culture ... these were 'pagan' images on the margin of a later culture, the work of anonymous craftsmen stubbornly resisting orthodox Christian teaching and carving green men as a silent affirmation of an older faith ... pagan survival ... Upon this foundation the green man was reinterpeted in the latter part of the twentieth century to suit the needs of the post-modern world, as representing some sort of spiritual union with nature ... the assumptions made about the green man in the 1950s are no longer convincing."

!939?? Lady Raglan?? Who on earth was ... 

I hope to complete this piece later.


motuproprio said...

Dear Father,
I hesitate to spike your gun, but a most illuminating essay is to be found at https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-remarkable-persistence-of-the-green-man

gsk said...

'A search for the Mother' had become a major component of the 'unconscious nostalgia of the Western intellectual'

I have no doubt that this is true. When Christianity is stripped of its profound and legitimate maternal elements, they surface elsewhere. How can we be “born again” if there is no Mother Church to receive us, no Blessed Mother to suckle us? The male and female are in a healthy relationship with Christ the Bridegroom and Our Lady revealing the beauty of virgin-bride-mother. When the protestants eliminated the latter and stressed Jesus alone, then people had to pursue their instinctual need for Mother-love elsewhere, digging into myths and bolstering them where necessary.

Gregory said...

Should this nonsense about the "Green Man" be classified as what today's chattering classes call "misinformation"? Last night, in the grip of insomnia, I was reading Waugh's "Scoop" and came across this: "sub-editors busied themselves with their humdrum task of reducing to blank nonsense the sheaves of misinformation which whistling machines piled before them." I see that the OED records a use of the word from Elizabethan times, but Waugh seems to capture the modern meaning. Or perhaps "twaddle" is apt here?

Jhayes said...

Over a period of three years, ending recently, Stephen Winick at the Library of Congress published a series of eight blog posts on the Green Man. The sixth post was on Lady Raglan, and begins:

“We began our explorations of the Green Man hoping to find some middle ground between the work of Lady Raglan in her classic essay “The Green Man in Church Architecture,” and that of her detractors: Richard Hayman in “The Ballad of the Green Man” and Emily Tesh in “Inventing Folklore: The Origins of the Green Man.” To get here, we’ve shown that drawing connections between the Foliate Head and the other figures called “Green Man” was a longstanding tradition by Lady Raglan’s time, and that various of those figures had also genuinely been associated with calendar customs for a long time; despite the claims of many commentators, Lady Raglan did not originate these ideas. In this post, I’ll continue to elucidate what I believe Lady Raglan was driving at: that the Green Man was ultimately derived from pre-Christian religious ideas, but was by the Middle Ages a Christian symbol. When Lady Raglan’s work is read this way, her core beliefs about the Green Man image, and the details of her examples, become more coherent and more plausible. I believe her essay has been misunderstood by other scholars for years, and deserves a fair reading and reassessment today.”


There are links to all eight articles here:


Dr Tafaro said...

Please excuse my rambling personal thoughts:
I've just finished reading the Winnick article. My sense is that the sensationalism attributed to the continued presence of"pagan mythograms" within Christian Faith originates with protestant predilection for hyper-intellectualized purity of belief. It seems to me that,made in the image of God, human beings probably have universal interior longings towards divine themes. Catholic culture can incorporate much of it. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared wearing Aztec inspired clothing, with cultural motifs that expressed fulfilment. The fulfillment we experience through the Faith isn't simply intellectual: but cultural, artistic, emotional, socisl, subconscious... the list goes on. In the Eucharist Christ feeds us physically, spiritually, intellectually, morally; he heals, nourishes and integrates all parts.