Stories in the Leaves
I‘m often asked who he is and whether there is a Green Lady. The answer to both those questions is that I don’t know, though I do have a several theories that I’m working on. There is a strong reason to believe that the Green Man, as an image, is extremely old. Paintings on cave walls showing shamanic dancers may be depicting an earlier form of the image. Second century CE temple columns from the Mediterranean show him as a leaf mask on the capitals and in Britain, from the eleventh century on he appears in the churches and cathedrals.
The only pattern I have found so far is that he seems to appear in his greatest concentrations in Europe wherever there are stretches of old relict woodlands. Thus the biggest collections I have discovered so far seem to be in Devon and Somerset and on the edge of the great forests of Yorkshire and the Midlands. Southwell Minster for example which has some wonderful Green Men in the Chapter House is on the edge of the old forest of Sherwood. It could be that the images represent the God of the Woods, the Life Spirit, the Spirit of Death and Resurrection and, as an image, the Green Man has his counterpart in one of the oldest English Folk images, the Corn or Barley God whose beginnings stretch back to the camps of the Neolithic farmers.
An old English Folk Song collected in the early years of this century tells of such a god, John Barleycorn, who was cut down by three men (note the magical Celtic number three) who ‘came out of the West their fortunes for to try’. They cut down the corn and so like Old Man Winter himself they have killed the Corn God. The song goes on to tell how.
They let him lie for a long long time
Till the rain from Heaven did fall
Then little Sir John sprung up his head
Which so amazed them all.
They let him lie through the long midsummer
Till he grew both pale and wan
Then little Sir John he grew a long beard
And so became a man.
Jack of the Green
The Green Man has other manifestations like the Jack in the Green, the character who dances ahead of the May Queen in many May Day processions such as those at Hastings and Knutsford. A lord of misrule figure, he may be also linked to Robin Hood, Robin Goodfellow and Puck.