There is more than one "Green Man" to discuss, but I have divided the exploration into two branches and two articles. In the first one we will be going back from the Celtic Green Man to the old Egyptians and Sumerians.
The second part, The Green Man II: Al-Khidr, Teacher of Moses, deals with Al-Khidr, the Green Man of pre-Islamic & Islamic Middle Eastern tradition.
The Green man is a symbol frequently occurring in the British Isles, in English folklore, or perhaps one should say in English-Celtic folklore. But as we will see, this is a character leading far back in time, as far back as it is possible to reach: to ancient Sumer and Egypt. He has undergone considerable changes on the way, but the correspondence is striking. The same Green Man or similar but independent thinking? Who knows - the differences are also striking; perhaps the type is archetypal and born independently in every human culture.
In English and Scottish churches, and outside pubs, one can often find carvings of a man with foliage around his head, sometimes growing out from his mouth and ears. That is the Green Man of myth. A vegetation and fertility deity. Some people see him as a symbol of the "old" religion prior to Christianity - that is the Celtic religion. He represents a parallel universe of faerie, and he is associated with May-Day celebrations, with an old Celtic fertility rite. All sexual restrictions were laid aside then, an orgy took place. Children born nine months later, were considered as fathered by "Robin", and, at least in later Celtic times, they were given the surname "Robinson". Robin Hood, as named Robin, has some connection with this folklore, although unclear exactly how. Also note that he is traditionally dressed in green. Another Robin in this context is Robin Goodfellow.
The term "The Green Man" was coined by folklorist Lady Raglan in 1939. She suggests that he is a combination of several mythic figures, as Jack-in-the-green and Robin Goodfellow. She also connects him with the Arthur legend's Green Knight.
Robin Goodfellow is portraited by Shakespeare in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", there called Puck. An interesting detail is that Robin's love is the Queen of Heaven, who is also linked to waters. This is reflected in Robin Hood's Maid Marian, or Marion, [from "mer" or "mare", sea]. It is possible to go very far in parallelism here, and also to link the Green Man to Dionysos of the Greeks, a horned god of vegetation, fertility and orgy. Puck is also depicted as a goat, just like the Greek Pan had goat horns, and so had the Dionysos's satyrs. This might even be the Christian Devil. Not necessarily the biblical Satan, but another being who only later came to be associated with Satan, something representing an old religion, and therefore being "evil" from that perspective.
Confusing? Well, perhaps we should simply see The Green Man as Nature contra the "denatured" Culture? Rather that than general Paganism contra Christianity, even if that to some extent can be the same thing. Friedrich Nietzsche defined the terms Dionysian and Apollonian as the opposites in his dualistic system, opposites he discovered in Greek literature, and thus in the Greek mind. They can be seen as a form of Yin and Yang, The rational Apollonic force and the Dionysian instinct; culture and nature, thought and passion, order and chaos. Both forces coexist in every human, it is just a matter of which one of them dominates.
But most of all, The Green man leads to Osiris of Ancient Egypt. Not the element of orgy, it might have been added along the way, the Egyptians where not dualistic in that sense; but the Pyramid texts refer to him as the "Great Green", and he is a symbol of vegetation and rebirth, just as the spring is reborn each year. His wife is Isis, Queen of Heaven [compare Robin Goodfellow's beloved above].
There are also similarities with certain aspects of Sumerian god Damuzid [later Aramaic "Tammuz"], a shepherd-god, who was also associated with fertility, vegetation, and the cycle of life and death. He was dead and resurrected by his wife Inanna [compare Osiris and Isis]. Damuzid may live only half the year, the other half he is doomed to the Underworld. [The Greeks called this couple Adonis and Aphrodite.]
Sometimes one can see attempts to view the death and resurrection of Christ as a reflection of the story of Damuzid. This, however, does not hold to closer scrutiny. There is nothing supporting such a claim. Damuzid's death and resurrection is a cyclical event taking place every year, and the cyclical nature of it is a part of its very essence. The role of Innana, his wife, is also central. The story of Christ is very different, despite some outer similarities, it is based on completely different ideas and concepts.
As for the horns of many beings: the Sumerians, whose culture is the only one that can match Ancient Egypt in age, depicted every deity with horns, a symbolism that spread itself in the area. It was a sign of their divinity, nothing meant as a depiction of a physical feature. As an example can be mentioned that Alexander the Great, when he began claiming divine descent, were depicted with ram horns.
Generally old pictures are full of symbolism and should be interpreted from that perspective, rather than as naturalistic representations. One could say that symbols are everything.
(This article is based on material previously published in Meriondho Leo)
Copyright © 2011, 2021 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.
(Lead image by Sue Rickhuss/Pixabay, CC0/Public Domain.)
Here you can find:
Interested in history, legends and myths, join my community History, Myths, Legends & Mysteries (be45).
Here you find all my writings on Read.Cash, sorted by topic.
My 5 most recent articles: