Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Green Man: Spirit of Nature

Book Review: The Green Man: Spirit of Nature by John Matthews (Red Wheel/Weiser 2002)

This is a small but wonderful and well-illustrated book about the archetype of the Green Man from ancient and medieval times. It is well written and evocative. The Green Man, of course, represents the natural world and our relationship to it. Certainly ancient observations of green vegetative growth suggested an animating force and this force became only semi-anthropomorphized as the Green Man motif. The Green man is often depicted as a face bedecked with leaves and appears often carved into the outsides of European churches and buildings.

The Green Man is the animating force of the forests that cover the earth. Of course, sacred trees exist in many cultures as well as the World Tree that is a representation of all the ‘planes’ or realms where beings live. The forest gods predate the agricultural gods and are likely precursors to them as well.

The author discusses the Sumerian Enkidu as an early representation of the Green Man from the Epic of Gigamesh. Leaf-mask carvings are present there in Babylonian times. Another version is the dying-and-rising god Attis from the Near East Mediterranean who was associated with a sacred pine tree. Probably the most famous of the vegetation gods is the Egyptian Osiris, as a seasonal grain god. The dying-and-rising god motif often represents agriculture but can also represent recurring vegetation from the wild. In Egypt the color green was sacred and there was a saying, “do green things” which referred to the good and the wholesome. Conversely, “doing red things” referred to the unwholesome. This is probably in response to the fertility of the earth around the Nile which changes drastically from black earth near the river and its floodplain which fosters the green growth, and the infertile red earth beyond where everything burns up, dries up, and dies. Osiris is associated with the black and the green while his sometimes enemy Set of the desert is Red. The resurrection of the god and the regeneration of vegetation are both part of the mythos.

Pan is a major deity of nature. He is the all, the universal force of nature, and the wild man of the woods who haunts the lonely and secluded places of nature. He is also untamable and uncontrollable. Dionysus is another of the old wild gods of nature. He is associated with agriculture and of course viticulture as well. He is credited with carrying the magic of the vine and its intoxicating essence to new lands - not only the wild essence of the wine, but of the unruly growth of plants and forest that are also hard to tame and control.

Arabic and Islamic legends depict green as the color of rebirth and of paradise itself. The Koran has references to “Al-Khidir” or “the Green One” probably derived from an ancient vegetation cult but later described as a guide to both Moses and Alexander the Great.

Krisna, with blue skin, and forest-dwelling Rama, with dark-green skin, may be Eastern forms of the Green Man as both are lords of trees and nature.

“Some of the oldest concrete images of the Green Man date from the 2nd century CE, in an area once part of the vast Mesopotamian Empire but by then ruled over by the Romans.” These were male masks with leaves often at the base of fountains and temple columns. This form on architecture would remain to grace buildings of Europe as a remnant of living in the green for those living in the stone edifices. He is pagan remnant on Christian churches. Even in those times people were dependent on the harvest as food preservation and freezing had not yet come about. So influencing the harvest magically was still practiced and honoring the Green Man was one way of doing it.

In terms of the year, the Green Man appears with the greening and the month of May. He is venerated at Midsummer too. He was King of the Winter Wood as well. As King of the Wood the rites of Rex Nemorensis reach back in time to rites where the Year King ruled for a year and then was sacrificed. Human sacrificial traditions of this sort are well documented. In some cases the slayer takes over as king for the next year and is slain as the cycle went on. In other versions a king is slain during a bad harvest year. Another aspect of the Year King is the battle of the Summer King and the Winter King for the Spring Maiden.

The author notes several mythic cycles that refer to the battle for the year. Although he doesn’t mention it the battle of the Oak King and Holly King is one such myth often portrayed in Wiccan and pagan circles. The mythic features of the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men suggest him as a 12th century representation of the Green Man and King of the Wood. He died like a Year King and his lover Marion was much as the Queen of the May. A related Green Man motif is that of Robin Goodfellow, the trickster also known as the fairy Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The author mentions the remnants of this trickster spirit of the woods in the Bucca of Britain and the Bosgou of North-west Spain.

The Arthurian tale of the Green Knight is another Green Man myth. The 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best known version. The Green Man in knight form challenges anyone to exchange blows with him – first the challenger may give him a blow but must accept a blow in return. Gawain faces the giant Knight and uses the knight’s own axe to cut off his head. The Green Knight then holds his own head aloft as it speaks – saying that Gawain should return to the Green Chapel in a year’s time to receive his return blow. Gawain travels to look for the Green Chapel and is given shelter by Sir Bercilak and Lady Bercilak. Gawain is repeatedly tested by Lady Bercilak and passes except that he accepted a small talisman of protection from her. It turns out that Sir Bercilak is none other than the Green Knight who was put under a spell by the “Goddess Morgane.” Sir Bercilak is satisfied with nicking Gawain’s neck and the matter is settled. Lady Bercilak can be seen as the Spring Maiden.

Another Green Man manifestation is the sometimes comical Jack-in-the-Green. He is typically a man bedecked with leaves and branches, appearing sometimes as a moving bush or tree. I have donned this form myself a time or two. A similar manifestation is that of the Wildman in the Green, often depicted with a club or uprooted tree and like the Sumerian hero Enkidu, representative of untamed nature. Matthews goes on to describe some aspects of springtime Morris Dancing possibly related to the Green Jack traditions.

There is a section discussing – The Return of the Green Man – which mentions popular media of Green Man-like themes and the interest in “back to nature” and “green living” as newfangled aspects of the Green Man mythos. Rediscovering a more symbiotic and healthy relationship with the green world is important as our industrial society has degraded the environment.

The author gives suggestions of how to celebrate the Green Man as garden spirit, office mascot, a presence of nature at rather unnatural places like hospitals, in ceremonies of beginnings and rededication, as guardian of animals, and in gift giving. I like his idea of placing an image of the Green Man in a pet cemetery as a guardian. Also given is a nice Walking Meditation preferably among trees where one takes in the power of nature through mindful awareness and explores without expectations.

The last section is about places where there are images of the Green Man, especially in Europe but also in other places around the world. One such manifestation is known as Kirtimukha in India and Borneo where he is a spirit of good luck and fertility and adorns many Jain temples in India. Some other mentions are in the Middle East and Tunisia where faces in leaves are found in very old art and in some of the Aztec depictions in Mexico. He lists many exact places throughout Europe as well as festivals where one might find Green Man themes.

Really cool book with great pictures. Small, but a nice one for the whole family to peruse. This is the 2nd book I have read and reviewed by John Matthews (and Kaitlyn Matthews). Their work on Celtic mythic themes is very good.






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