TODAY is midsummer’s day, when greenery is in full bloom and according to legend, the spirit of the Green Man presides.
He’s the lord of the woods, an old Celtic and Saxon fertility deity, or god of greenery and vegetation, depending on how you view him.
His face can be seen staring down at us from churches and cathedrals, and he lurks in little nooks and crannies all over the world.
There are plenty of places to see him in Dorset, if you know where to look.
He takes various forms. In earlier incarnations he is a foliate mask where the face itself is made up of leaves. In others he spews branches from his mouth and sometimes nose and eyes. Or he can be simply a type of woodsman, dressed in green.
Indeed, Robin Hood was almost certainly derived from the so-called Green Man, and other guises include Robin Goodfellow, John Barleycorn, Jack in the Green, The Green Knight, The Wild Man and Shakespeare’s Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who, at the summer solstice, presides over fertility and nuptials.
Despite being a very English image, with today’s Morris dancers often donning green foliage in homage to him, the Green Man is found in all cultures and is said to pre-date history.
The god Osiris with his green face was the Egyptian version of the Green Man while the Romans have his image on columns dating back to the second century.
But while he certainly has Pagan connections, he is most often seen in places of worship.
Peter Knight, author and specialist in the earth mysteries of Wessex, explained: “In past centuries, the church would try to ‘recruit’ people by connecting them with images they would recognise.
“The Green Man was the medieval equivalent of today’s McDonalds or Shell logo – something they could instantly recognise. In days when people couldn’t read or write, an image they would immediately connect with was particularly powerful.
“You see, for medieval people, the foliate head was a symbol of hope. It represented fruitfulness of the earth which was needed to survive. Hundreds of years ago, food could be scant and plagues were rife, so they put their trust in a deity of the earth.”
John Hughes, verger at Wimborne’s impressive Minster explained how many churches had an association with oak trees. The cross was thought to be made of this wood, and as such, oak became a symbol of Christ.
“The oak also represents strength and renewal of life, and therefore, the resurrection,” he said.
“But people didn’t like to admit it was also a pagan symbol of generation and rebirth. That’s why the Green Man here at the Minster is hidden away underneath a wooden rector’s stall in the choir area.”
So what is a pagan symbol doing in a Christian building?
John Hughes explained: “People had one foot in the new Christianity, and one foot in the old paganism.
“They didn’t want to completely do away with something their forefathers had believed in for generations.”
One of the best examples of such a carving is at Christchurch Priory. On a bench end in the choir area is the image of a foliate man held by a giant with a club.
But the image isn’t just associated with churches.
There are two pubs in Dorset called the Green Man. One is at Kings Stag, near Sturminster Newton, whose sign depicts what is believed to be the oldest known image of a foliate head.
This month, the Green Man pub in Wimborne unveiled a new sign – again of the foliate head. The previous sign was of a forester, perhaps a representation of those who worked in the woodlands of the Kingston Lacy Estate and were the original regulars.
The Victorians, a lot of whom were freemasons, loved their good luck images and effigies to ward off evil spirits, and a beautifully carved head can be seen at Southbourne High Street – on the corner of Hosker and Seabourne Road.
“There are loads of Green Men scattered around Dorset,” said Peter.
“After all, they are one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of mythology and creative fertility.
“While many people know Mother Nature as the female spirit of the land, there is also a male energy.
“There has to be the combination of the two balancing things out.”
- The Green Man can also be seen at the following Dorset churches: Child Okeford Cattistock Iwerne Minster (three men in total) Charminster cemetary chapel – foliage coming out of his head Bere Regis Mappowder – near Cerne Abbas Shipton Gorge Winterborne Witchurch Sherborne (Abbey) Christchurch (Priory)