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Medieval Heretics and the Green Man

By David Taylor

Published at Beltane 2000

There is a general acceptance that the Green Man is a representation of a pagan deity, but this is not borne out by the abundance of Green Man carvings to be found on or within Christian churches. Could this contradiction be the clue that will lead to our understanding of this archaic figure? Why do we find the Green Many associated with churches?

There have been many fanciful ideas. The most popular is that they were carved by stone masons, who were initiates in a pre-Christian "Old Religion" who created the carvings to ensure the survival of their gods. Nice idea, you may think, but one of the many problems we have with the Green Man as a pre-Christian deity is that there are few archaeological remains that show similar heads. There are Roman carvings that show foliate heads, but these appear to be decorative rather than religious (1). Analysing foliate heads, Anthony Weir and James Jerman concluded ".... often they are confused with 'Jack-in-the-Green' or 'Green Man' motifs". (2) This is a common mistake to make, especially by those who see the Green Man through romantic eyes and mistake guardians of the forest, green knights and woodwose from folklore as the Green Man, which clearly they are not.

A survey of archaic carvings from the Celtic Iron Age shows the lack of evidence for the Green Man as a Celtic deity (3,4). Of course there is the famous letter of 601 from Pope Gregory to Abbot Millitus, a missionary in Britain, that urged the early church to destroy all pagan images. Pagan images were certainly destroyed by the early church, but by no means all of them were destroyed and it would be ludicrous in the extreme to believe that the Green Man was singled out for special attention. As the historical records show, the church destroyed and banned pagan icons so it was aware what pagan iconography was, so bearing this in mind it is highly unlikely that the church would have allowed pagan images to be carved on its churches. There is even a contemporary account from St Bernard concerning Romanesque sculptures such as the Green Man, in which St Bernard opposes such sculptures because they are grotesque, silly and expensive, not because they are pagan. Professor Ronald Hutton is also sceptical about the Green Man's alleged pedigree: "None of these images could have been a beloved pagan deity placed in churches by popular demand." (5) So what is the Green Man if not a pagan fertility deity?

The Medieval genesis of the popular Green Man carvings can be traced to Europe. At about the same time a religious sect was active in Germany. Like all sects, it was considered dangerous by the church and moves were made to suppress it. The Brethren of the Free Spirit (6) were Adamites, and early Christian gnostic sect who believed that mankind's redemption lay in Adam, the first man. The Brethren were considered completely amoral by the church authorities and it is easy to see why. The believed that they were divine, and therefore above the laws that governed ordinary people. Murder, theft and sexual promiscuity were not considered sinful amongst the Brethren. They also practiced ritual nudity and mystic eroticism, amongst other things. These practices would have been abhorrent to the church, and so action was taken to stamp them out.

The influence of the Brethren as an important heretical sect should not be underestimated as their influence was great. The Dutch painter Bosch was influenced by their gnostic philosophy (7). In 'The Gospel of Nicodemus' an early gnostic text, it tells how at the death of Adam he was buried with a branch of the Tree of Life in his mouth and became the tree from which the wood for Christ's cross was made. Here with have a very early reference to Adam with foliate aspects, in essence Adam as Green Man. This could explain one interesting point; it has been noted by many researchers into the Green Man mystery, most notably Kathleen Batsford, that the majority of carvings show tortured faces. (9) These carvings do not show a joyous expression of nature as some researchers and neo-pagans suggest. Another curious observation has been made by Weir and Jerman who consider the medieval symbolism behind Green Man carvings which they suggest ".... may possibly have symbolised blasphemy, heresy, scandal or evil in general" (10). Could it be that the Green Man carvings that we find on medieval churches were indeed commissioned by the church to show the tortured face of a heretical messiah as a warning to the masses about the sins of the flesh and the presumed sins of the Adamites in particular?


1.Billingsley, J - personal communication, 1999
2. Images of Lust: Sexual carvings on medieval churches - Anthony Weir and James Jerman (Batsford 1996)
3. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition - Ann Ross (Constable 1967)
4. Twilight of the Celtic Gods - David Clarke and Andy Roberts (Blandford 1996)
5. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles - Ronald Hutton (Blackwell 1991)
6. Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutions Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages - Norman Cohn (Pimlico 1993)
7. The Secret History of Hieronymous Bosch - Lynda Harris (Floris Books 1995)
8. The Green Man - Anderson & Hicks (HarperCollins 1990)
9. The Green Man - Kathleen Batsford (Ipswich 2978)
10.Weir and Jerman, op cit.