The Green Man’s Relationships with the Mother Goddess, Eve and Virgin Mary
The Green Man pops up when you’re least expecting him, in literature and music, jewellery and décor, from popular culture to global architecture and the tombstones of the long deceased. He is physically depicted in countless ways, though he often falls into one of three categories: a face concealed by leaves with only the eyes peeping out, a head with vegetation growing out of the mouth (and sometimes the eyes and nose), or a flower containing a face of vegetation.
The meaning of the Green Man is continually discussed: interpretations span from his proposed origins in Roman art up until the gradual rise of Christianity from the fourth century onwards. The Green Man has evoked wide-ranging interpretations around nature, masculinity, humanitarianism, sin, sacrifice, rebirth and renewal. Though we can justify many, the search continues to highlight one core meaning. But how can we justifiably aim to pinpoint one meaning of a symbol that has evolved over thousands of years?
This essay will not focus on defining the principal symbolism of the Green Man as other studies do. Instead, the essay will examine interpretations of the Green Man as a sexed symbol of sin and renewal, considering the impact that religious female characters – the Mother Goddess, Eve and Virgin Mary – have had on both medieval and Victorian interpretations of the Green Man. Sin isn’t often discussed in relation to Green Men, so I intend to re-situate the Green Man in a Christian and pre-Christian context that has been occluded by more recent interpretations. The Christian context also impelled a fascination with sacrifice, death and renewal to the forefront of Green Man interpretations.
Most archetypes of life and death are feminised: examples include the Mother Goddess, Eve and Virgin Mary, as well as the Queen of May and Little May Rose, who are connected to the rebirth celebrations of May Day. The Green Man is an exception. Many interpretations position him as a symbol of renewal that cures repressed masculinity. For example, some Victorian interpretations liken the vegetation disgorged from the Green Man’s mouth to a masculine alternative of the birthing process, revolutionising the Green Man into a symbol of life and creation. During the 1800s, it was widely believed that this birthing process stemmed from the brain instead of the womb. By masculinising birth, the Green Man morphs feminised images of life into masculine images. This allocation of sexed meaning gradually reformed ideas of female biological power into ideas of male intellectual power, which were prominent in the Victorian era’s patriarchal society.
Green Man interpretations of male renewal are indicative of early Christian discourses that label women as sinful. These discourses extend from Eve’s representation of carnality versus Adam’s representation of spirituality. Adam represents the mind on behalf of man, while Eve represents the body on behalf of woman. Critic Camille Paglia explains that early Christian teachings label menstrual blood ‘the birthmark of original sin’. While male renewal is intellectual and pure, female renewal is a bodily process that results in menstruation, a punishment served to account for Eve’s sins. In the New Testament (Peter 4.1), Peter says: ‘whoever suffers physically is no longer involved with sin.’ Perhaps menstruation, as part of Eve’s punishment, affords redemption for female sin, hence the saying we must suffer for our sins. The belief that the body is made to suffer is deeply embedded in Christianity, and menstruation is representative of this belief.
Other images of the Green Man further represent female suffering. One example is a carving in St-Bertrand-de-Comminges (Haute-Garonne, France) of a Mother Goddess – goddess of earth’s fertility – giving birth to a Green Man. During the Victorian era, childbirth and its associated suffering were widely associated with hysteria, which many believed to originate in the womb. The Roman Census declares that uterus movements compress the organs, causing sin-induced hysteria – Scull explains that meanwhile, men were considered less likely to suffer psychological maladies due to their apparently stronger psyches. Interestingly, these nineteenth-century views were prominent only slightly earlier than the reintroduction of Green Men into Western culture at a time of growing ecological crisis. During this time, a patriarchal influence dominated society, and the Green Man reformed symbols of nature and renewal with connotations of masculinity.
The carving of the Mother Goddess giving birth to the Green Man is comparable to many of the earliest goddess sculptures from over twenty thousand years ago. In The Myth of the Goddess, scholars Anne Baring and Jules Cashford note that these are sculpted with rounded motherly figures, often pregnant. From these sculptures, we can determine that goddesses – feminised characters – were one of the first symbols of life. In particular, the Mother Goddess was considered to preside over the earth as the goddess of life, death and renewal. Mother of all animal and plant life, her power resided in her femininity.
Christian teachings connect the Mother Goddess and the birthing process to the moon, recognising the moon’s phases as stages of birth, growth, decay, death and renewal, the full moon representing pregnancy. Baring and Cashford go on to explain that for thousands of years B.C., it was widely believed that stars represented drops of the Mother Goddess’s breast milk, streaming through the sky as she nourished the world – hence the Milky Way. Personified as a human mother, just as Christian teachings personify God as a human father, it is no surprise that the Green Man – even in his name – is also personified as human.
Baring and Cashford discuss mythology surrounding the Mother Goddess, explaining that her ‘womb is the depths of the earth: from her new life comes forth and back to her that life, grown old, returns.’ This mythology, represented by the sculpture of the Mother Goddess birthing the Green Man, implies that the Green Man is a product of femininity. As the son of the Mother Goddess, the Green Man inherits her gift of creation, which he develops with masculine connotations. He shares the Mother Goddess’s flower hair, marking both as symbols of life and renewal. The origins of femininity in Green Man images blend ideals of masculinity and femininity to such an extent that the Green Man arguably transcends sex altogether.
However, we cannot wholly understand the nature of sex until we understand attitudes towards nature. Paglia highlights that sex is ‘the point of contact between man and nature’. This premise is reminiscent of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, which controversially embeds sin in nature and, therefore, in sex. Feminist critic Mary Rossi concludes that ‘Augustine locates the source of original sin in the male erection and women are the cause of it’. Sex, administered by men, poisons women, who are then held culpable for their corruption. This idea is reminiscent of Professor Judith Plaskow’s argument that sin has a tendency to ‘blame the victim’.
While this theory is representative of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, it does not match up with the story of Genesis, in which Eve sins on behalf of all womanhood by consuming the forbidden fruit. Though fruit is an overtly sexual symbol, Eve is tempted by a serpent, a feminised creature, not a man. Feminist scholar Angela West claims that ‘maleness was present in the serpent who seduced women into heterosexual slavery.’ But the serpent first appeared in mythology as a serpent variation of the Mother Goddess in the Neolithic era, which Baring and Cashford recognise as a symbol of renewal. The tendency to blame women for the sin associated with sex in early Christian teachings led West to position Augustine as responsible for the Christian belief that sin is passed on through sexual transmission, creating an ‘unfortunate legacy’ of ‘unnecessary guilt and shame’. Eve’s shame manifests in her knowledge of mortality – she is also responsible for Adam sharing her punishment. The Green Man is therefore the watchful eye that reminds us of the Christian consequences of sin. Rather than being portrayed as an icon of sin, he is depicted as a warning against it.
The Green Man became widely associated with sin following the Great Plague (1347-1351), which many Christians blamed on original sin. Philosopher Gary R. Varner explains that the calm, dignified expressions of earlier Green Men evolved to depict expressions of pain and suffering. Many of these Green Men disgorge vegetation from the eyes and nose as well as the mouth – these were recognised symbols of sin. One example is a leaf mask carved into the doorway of Kilpeck Church (Hertfordshire). This Green Man sprouts branches that bear fruit. He appears as a reminder of Eve and the Forbidden Tree and, by extension, a warning against original sin. It is carvings like these that provide insights into how images of the Green Man evolved once Christianity adopted him. Another example of the Green Man appearing as a warning against Christian sin is a sculpture of the Forbidden Tree in Rosslyn Chapel (near Edinburgh). The sculpture, known as the Prentice Pillar, is carved with numerous Green Men. With so many figures watching Eve, these Green Men appear as accusers, warning of the punishment that Eve endured for her ‘sins’ – awareness of not only mortality, but also her nudity, and therefore, her sexual identity.
While Eve, an incarnation of the Mother Goddess, is an emblem of sin and suffering, anthropological readings of Christian doctrines position Mary as a follow-up incarnation, this time a symbol of sexual purity. Mary remains paradoxically both fertile and virginal, redeeming Eve’s sin. Perhaps this is because, in the words of William Anderson, ‘Jesus chose the modesty of the virgin womb.’ Just as the Green Man is the son of the pure Mother Goddess, Jesus is the son of the pure Virgin Mary. It is this idealisation of virginity that paints sexuality as sinful and marks women as corrupted by sex.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, images of Mary were increasingly portrayed amongst vines and flowers. Unlike Eve, who is doomed to death, Mary is typically surrounded by symbols of growth and renewal. The Green Man can often be found amid these vines and flowers, where both figures warn against sin. Examples include a stained-glass window in St. Mary Redcliffe Church (Bristol) and the walls of Notre Dame (Paris). Not only is Mary’s capacity for both virginity and pregnancy non-human, but her exclusion from sin as a female is too. She is the (unachievable) Christian ideal for females. Like the Green Man, she remains exempt from sin, sitting demurely in a mass of flowers and vines.
Vines are significant to images of the Green Man, not just in relation to the Virgin Mary, but in wider Christianity, in which they also represent growth and renewal. For example, in John 15.1, Jesus refers to himself as ‘the real vine’. As Jesus is the emblem of life after death, vines have developed connotations of rebirth and reincarnation. A Danish Christian depiction of the crucifixion even shows Jesus entangled in vines and plant tendrils. Vines may bind him and lead him to death, but they also promise new life in reincarnation and renewal. Many post-religious readings of the Green Man do not acknowledge these organic, biblical images, though they are influential in Green Man interpretations.
The intrinsic link between death and renewal is particularly relevant to Jesus’s crucifixion – a story that encompasses the transcendence between life and death as Jesus is sacrificed for human sin. The Green Man watches as Jesus’s death is embedded in nature – he dies on a wooden cross, a product of a tree. As author G. Ronald Murphy notes, ‘It is the wood of the tree that provides salvation for life.’ The promise of new life is rooted in Christian thought and nature. Trees and plants are not only symbolic of life and death – without them, humans and animals cannot live. Trees are humanised as the lungs of the earth: without them inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen, there would be no animal life.
The connection between Green Men and life after death is apparent in numerous Christian tombs and memorials, in which Green Men are carved as symbols of resurrection. One of the tombstones in an ambulatory in Tewkesbury is carved with a Green Man above a man and a demon. Anderson determines that the carving signifies the Green Man’s judgement of right and wrong and the transition from human life to Purgatory. This almost deity-like symbol of the Green Man as an image of resurrection is representative of Peter watching over the natural world in the New Testament (Peter 1.24): ‘For all flesh is grass and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth and the flower thereof falleth away’. The Bible highlights that all greenness withers before it is renewed, that winter is always followed by spring and that for new life to begin, existing life must be sacrificed. The Green Man reminds us that according to Christian teachings, sin can be forgiven, often upon death. This purging forms the preparation for renewal.
Though the Green Man is rarely analysed in relation to the Mother Goddess, Eve and Virgin Mary, they are core to his Christian meaning. As a symbol of nature, life and renewal, the Green Man represents masculinised developments of Christian notions. Images of life and renewal that had previously been feminised – represented by the Mother Goddess and Virgin Mary – have evolved to form new masculinised meanings. Meanwhile, the pejorative feminised trait – sin – is not embodied by the Green Man; it is simply warned against, particularly in relation to Eve.
While the Green Man’s connotations of renewal and cautions against sin cannot be held as definitive meanings, these interpretations help us to understand the evolution of the Green Man’s meaning in the Christian world and his possible meaning to us as individuals. As Anderson explains, ‘The Green Man offers a new understanding of the relationship between the macrocosm – the universal world – and the microcosm in ourselves’. Still, the Green Man remains an enigma. He is a reminder of the evergreen cycle of life – both for plants and animals. He is a reminder of the energy of the universe, which cannot be destroyed but may transcend the boundaries of life and death. Just as no two animals or plants are the same, no two Green Men are the same. Like a plant or flower in fertile ground, the Green Man, regardless of definitive meaning, continues to renew.
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