The Green Man Legend: Pagan Origins & Modern Sightings
The Green Man is a forest spirit steeped in folklore dating back hundreds (possibly thousands) of years. Sources say the Green Man legend originated in Europe; however, stories and evidence circulate worldwide. If you google “The Green Man”, you’ll find a plethora of information on the Green Man motifs and sculptures found on churches all over Europe. But there’s much more to the Green Man legend. Is this forest god merely an old pagan legend or is he real? These are the Green Man pagan origins and TRUE modern sightings.
The Green Man Legend: Pagan Origins
The first time I’d read about the Green Man, the legend grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. I’ve always had a fascination with forest spirits, fairies, and old gods but the Green Man holds a special place in my wild heart. The Green Man, while overlooked in modern times as a piece of garden art, was once a forest god to our pagan ancestors. He wasn’t just a forest god – he was the ultimate guardian of the forest.
Who is the Green Man?
The Green Man is an omnipresent, ancient guardian of the forest. He’s depicted as being a man with green skin and covered completely in foliage of various types. The most popular Green Man illustrations depict oak leaves and acorns, hawthorn leaves, and sometimes holly leaves and berries. Sometimes leaves spew from his mouth. He’s an ever-present symbol of rebirth, rejuvenation, and the life and death cycle of nature. His job is to keep the woods wild – to preserve the sanctity of the forest (plants, trees, rivers, and animals) threatened by our modern advancements. He is essentially a king of the forest.
The Green Man in Architecture
Before we dive into the different architectural depictions of the Green Man, first let’s talk about WHY the green man is even included on church walls and architecture. Especially since the church’s goal was to “stamp out” paganism and the like. There are a couple of theories: one, that the people who built the churches still held onto their old pagan belief systems. And two that the church felt the only way to appease the old gods (or “devils”) was to give them a small honorary space of their own – on the walls of the church. And yet another theory says the green men were included in the church’s architecture as a way to show the locals that the old gods were like stone and therefore conquered by the church.
The Green Man on Gothic Medieval Churches and In Graveyards:
At the Chartres Cathedral in France – the Green MEN on this church’s wall interestingly come in 3. Literally 3 Green Men heads all together…seemingly like a triple deity or trinity. This Gothic church dates back to 1194. Long after the Church had converted the pagans in the area. It appears like the two on either side have leaves/foliage emerging from their mouths while the middle Green Man does not. Homeboy on the left seems to have grapes in his foliage while the other two look more oak covered.
At the Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England – built in the 12th century, around the same time as the Chartres Cathedral, this Norman Gothic church boasts at least 20 depictions of the Green Man throughout its architecture. Many of them have greenery coming out of their mouths.
The Green Man is also a popular motif in Scottish cemeteries, likely representing creation and life springing out of death. There are literally dozens of churches besides the two mentioned that feature the Green Man as a motif. Or is he more than just a design? We think so. While not a part of church architecture, it’s also interesting to note that many old Inns and pubs in Britain and the U.S. are named for the Green Man (possibly a tradition linking this entity to old apothecaries that gathered herbs centuries ago OR as a forester (lumberjack) that dressed in Green)
The Green Man Pagan God, Jack in the Green, and the Burryman
There’s a theory that Green Man was once a central figure of May Day, in ancient Ireland called Beltane, a fire and fertility festival. While this theory is debated, we see a glimpse of the Green Man in figure Jack in the Green.
Jack in the Green is a man clothed in foliage and paraded in a procession on May Day in modern times. The tradition nearly died out but has seen a revival because of pagan and historical groups in England. While seemingly odd in modern times, in ancient times it was performed to ensure a bountiful crop.
A similar tradition in Scotland called the Burryman still exists, in which a man is covered in sticky burdock heads (called burries) and waltzed around town to ensure good luck for the coming year. And again, in Derbyshire, the Garland King is dressed all in flowers. The tradition of covering oneself in foliage isn’t a new idea.
The Wild Men of the Woods
The Green Man myth mirrors various woodland creatures and gods. In fact, he may be the same or may have inspired the legends of other similar beings such as the Wild Men of the Woods (AKA woodwose, wodwose, wudwas), the horned god Cernunnos, and Greek forest spirits called fauns.
Wildmen of the Woods are forest beings whose origins are now somewhat shrouded in mystery – just like the Green Man. They were men who lived in the forest, covered in hair, with an otherworldly wisdom. Wildmen of the Woods might have once been pagan gods, demonized by the Church, who have fallen into the category of “folklore” after their cults fell under the pressure of conversion. With the Dark Ages, people were warned of going too deep into the woods for fear of encountering beasts, fairies, and wild men. Were these Wildmen of the Woods the German version of the Romans’ fauns? Were they the same as the Green Man?
Sasquatch IS the Green Man?
Being that the Wild Men of the Woods, aka the Woodwose, were hair-covered men who lived deep in the woods and were often seen with leaves and branches stuck or woven through their hair, couldn’t this possibly be a link to the Sasquatch of American legend? Sure, sasquatch has gotten a bad rap over the years mainly due to charlatans faking their existence for a few bucks. But Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest have legends about the sasquatch and how he is essentially a guardian of the forest. We see similar beliefs with the Himalayan Yeti – an ape-like creature who guards the Himalayan mountains of Tibet. Another name for the Yeti being Migoi, which translates to “Wild Man”.
Robin of the Merry Greenwood
Robin Hood, also called Robin of the Merry Greenwood, has been linked to the Green Man. Citing the website LeftLion, “Robin was not so much the vigilante hero he is thought of today, being more reminiscent of capricious pagan fairies and goblins. Popular until the reign of Elizabeth I, festival-goers would often dress as this embodiment of misrule and mirth, with men riotously tearing about town. One case from 1492, cited by the folklorist J.C. Holt, sees a group of young men dressed as Robin and his entourage, defending their drunken behavior by claiming that acting in such a manner was a long-standing tradition, turning an intoxicated spree into the preservation of cultural heritage.”
Let us note that Robin is known to wear green and is “of the forest”. And the legend of the green man is ubiquitous to the same area of England from which Robin Hood emerges.
Listen to An Entire Podcast Episode on the GREEN MAN:
The Fauns and Cernunnos
Fauns are a Roman mythological creature mirroring the Wild Men of the Woods. The difference between the two was the faun’s goat-like features. The faun has goat legs, cloven hooves, and tail. But make no mistake – both were hairy beasts that lived in the forests. Both were feared and revered. Very similar to the Green Man (except the Green Man was covered in leaves instead of hair).
I’d also like to point out the legend and cult of Cernunnos – the horned god of the Celts. Again, we have a being who was lord of the forest, who bore horns on his head whose evidence is seen all over Europe. I’m not the first to make the comparison between fauns and Cernunnos, nor am I the first to compare Cernunnos to the Green Man legend. For they ALL represent that primal, wild part of man who was once so deeply connected to nature. They ALL symbolize the untouched parts of the forest that refuse to be tamed. They are ALL fertile, virile creatures with a love for the wild. And while most of us see these beings as fantasy, they were once more than that.
Modern Green Man Sightings
There have been numerous green man sightings in modern times, leaving us to wonder if the Green Man is more than a mythical figure. Via the Sasquatch Chronicles, a man in England recalls his Green Man sighting as a boy. He and his friends were putting up a swing in the woods, where he encountered a seven-foot-tall man with long hair cloaked in leaves. He believes this to be the Green Man and still has nightmares about it. There are those who believe Big Foot might also be the Green Man or at least in the same “family”. People who see Big Foot also claim he’s covered in leaves! I’ll lead you back to the section on the Wildmen of the Woods for further conclusions.
In a recent trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, my mom and I snapped some random photos of the woods near our cabin. We could literally feel the presence of nature spirits all around us. While it was exciting, it was also unnerving, and we felt a little paranoid at one point. After looking at the photos taken of the woods that night, a large, leafy face emerged – the Green Man. I believe he is either one of many forest spirits, or he is the same spirit that is omnipresent in the world’s forests. He is the protector of wildlife and will make his presence known if he feels you’re threatening his forest.