Ballad of the Green Man

Richard Hayman traces the changing significance of the Green Man, a term coined in the 1930s for a medieval image of a face sprouting foliage, the meaning of which has transformed itself across the centuries.

Green Man boss below crossing at Rochester Cathedral.

Most people with a passing interest in history have heard of the Green Man, a face from the Middle Ages that, thanks to its recent reincarnation, is now more recognisable than the saints or even the devil. The Green Man is the latest accretion to the long cast of characters that have featured in annual May celebrations, like Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Green, May Queens and Lords of Misrule. At Clun in Shropshire you can witness a ritual tussle between the Green Man and the Frost Queen, with a rather obvious interpretation. The corresponding ritual at Pilton in Devon sees the Green Man face up to the medieval Prior of Pilton and force the church to accept this ‘pagan’ figure within its walls. Both rituals follow a well-established tradition of a local community coming together to celebrate an identity rooted in a shared environment and its past. Or so it seems.

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