The Green Man’s message about rebirth is why he is so popular today. He’s come to symbolize the green movement. He’s a friend of the earth who is whispering to us to wake up and grow up, to march and dance with him in celebration of our relationship with nature. What green thing can we do today?
Spring has, as they say, has sprung, and we who live in the Northern Hemisphere are witnessing the annual greening of the earth. Grasses and grains are growing, trees are leafing, flowers are budding. I like to imagine the goddesses who rule the springtime—Anna Perenna (classical Roman, probably Etruscan), Butterfly Maiden (Hopi), Freya (Norse), Hu-Tu (Chinese), the Rusalky (Russian), and others—calling their worshippers and gatheringthem on the village green to dance and celebrate the revival of the earth.
Our crops are growing. The grain mothers are active again. Let’s imagine Tellus Mater and Ceres (two grain mothers) walking arm in arm along the paths under the earth and telling the seeds, “It’s past time for you to be pushing up? Hurry up and grow!” Ceres, whose name comes from the same root as “create,” is one of the earliest Latin goddesses. She ruled the Roman Cerealia, a festival held in April. And of course we all know that in the springtime Persephone has ended her journey into the underworld and come back to her mama. (In a pre-Olympian version of their story, Persephone is not kidnapped or raped, but goes down to Hades’ realm to comfort the shadows of the dead. I think she tells them stories.)
Either the consort or one of the best beloved sons of the Great Mother is a frisky fellow called the Green Man. The best book about him, The Green Man, written by William Anderson with gorgeous photographs by Clive Hicks, is worth adding to your library. Although his foliate head or leaf mask is a popular icon for our domestic gardens, I suspect that the Green Man isn’t quite as tame as we like to think he is. Anderson writes that he “signifies irrepressible life” and is “an image from the depths of prehistory.” He’s the spirit of growth, the wilderness lover, the fecund gentleman who broadcasts his seed across the land. If we could understand the leafy words flowing out of his mouth, we’d learn the secrets of nature. Like the Lorax, he’s saying, “Pay attention!”
The face of the Green Man appears on cathedrals all over Europe. We don’t see him at first, but suddenly, lurking among the saints or peering down from the top of a leafy column—there he is! Looking out at us from spires, chancels, arches, tympanums, bosses, corbels, crypts, and tombs, he appears to be expressing emotions that range from serenity to rage. Sometimes he looks like he’s in a trance. He may be related to those ithyphallic Paleolithic shamans painted on cave walls, or perhaps he’s the unfathered brother of our familiar vegetation gods, Dionysus, Adonis, Osiris (who was known to be green), and the rest. Foliate heads are found on early pagan temples, too, but we have to ask—what on earth is this pagan fellow doing in Christian cathedrals? It’s likely that the masons and stone carvers were recording a message about birth, death, and rebirth. The fathers of the medieval church knew about birth and death, but what did they know about rebirth?
It’s the Green Man’s message about rebirth, Anderson writes, that explains why he is so popular today. He’s come to symbolize the green movement. He’s a friend of the earth who is whispering to us to wake up and grow up, to march and dance with him in celebration of our relationship with nature. What green thing can we do today? Let’s water and weed the garden. Let’s visit the nursery and buy new plants. Let’s donate money or time to our city’s tree-planting program. Let’s sit quietly and watch the Green Man dancing in the leaves.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.