Most ancient traditions of Northern Europe represent a version of the “Green man”. He is a very powerful vegetative deity who has a role in fertility rites and particularly in Springtime and May Day celebrations. Ancient links go back to Nuada Silverarm of the Irish Celtic Mythology, and the Welsh Ludd of the Silver Hand.
Several of the ancient Celtic demigods, Bran the Blessed being one of the best known, become prophetic oracles once their heads had been cut off and, although these figures were not traditionally represented as decorated with leaves, there may be a link between them and the later stand-alone Green Man heads.
There is strong evidence to say that the Robin Hood cycle of stories from the 13th Century are a retelling of the Green Man legend. Not a noble, but a common Yeoman, Robin takes from the Rich and gives to the Poor. He lives outside the Law and brings the nobles to book with his archery. He lives with his band in the Forest of Sherwood. In a sense he represents the innate and irresistible power of nature over the vicissitudes and greed of man. When greedy nobles turn the world awry he steps in to set everything to rights.
The notion of Robin being the “Earl of Huntington” is probably a later revision intended to wrest control away from the commons to the nobility. Alternatively it may be a play on words. Outlaws were poachers, hunting game that legally belonged to the landowning royalty. Robin, living on poached venison, might be said to exist on his hunting and archery. Jokingly the lord of all he hunts becoming “Earl of Huntington”. If so this can be seen as an early allusion to Marxism/socialism alluding to the theft of property and confiscation of the commons by the nobles.
The Green Man is later represented in the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” from the Arthurian romances of the 14th Century.
The Green Man motif is a common architectural feature in Christian churches, a face made of leaves, often with roots or shoots emerging from eyes, ears or mouth.
The fact that the Green Knight can have his head cut off and rise from the dead links into the Mystery of Christ. This idea of death and rebirth is very ancient and goes way back to Sumer, Egypt and Babylon, predating Christianity by millennia.
Prototypes for the Green man from Eastern religions include Humbaba, the ancient Sumerian guardian of the cedar forest, Enkidu, the wild man of the forest in Sumerian mythology, both of which date back to at least 3000 BCE. The Egyptian corn-god Osiris, who is often depicted with a green face representing vegetation and rebirth. Attis, a Phrygian god of vegetation and nature; the Tibetan Buddhist deity Amoghasiddhi; the Hindu demon Kirtimukha.
Some experts on Islamic mysticism and architecture have identified the Green Man with a deity known as Al-Khidr from esoteric Islamic Sufism. The name Khidr itself means “The Green One”, and he is seen as representing freshness of spirit and eternal liveliness.
Many Templar churches, including the Basilica of Neuvy St. Sepulchre in France, Garway Church in England and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, bear Green Man carvings. It has been suggested that it was Crusading knights, with their experience of Middle Eastern culture and architecture, who re-introduced the foliage and Green Man motifs into early medieval Gothic churches. Some of these figures also exhibit small horns, and this may be associated with a Middle Eastern figure of a horned “Green Prophet” rather than with the devil.
If there is a common theme for the Green Man it appears to be a restoration of the balance of nature after a period of turmoil. In annual terms it is the triumph of spring over winter. In longer cyclical terms it represents recovery from disasters such as plague and invasion.
In the 20th Century some see Peter Pan as a representation of the ancient figure, an eternally regenerating presence, reappearing always as a child, clothed in leaves, rooted in nature, living beyond the bounds of society and physics. He can fly! Peter marks a different type of transformation, that of Wendy, from girl to woman, with its own connotations of fertility.
For fans of Game of Thrones you may see where this has impacted on the storyline of Brandon Stark who is a Greenseer. The faces carved into the wierwoods conjure up the Green Man Stones of Medieval Architecture. Is Bran Stark the savior? When the world goes awry, when the Others clash with the Dragons and there is a war of Ice and Fire how will it end? For the small folk where is the benefit to being ruled by ice demons or dragons? Will Bran restore the balance and breathe new life into Westeros?
A tantalizing hint for you, how were you introduced to Bran in the TV series? Do you remember? He was practicing his archery!
Inscription on a grave in Kirklees Priory, West Yorkshire :
“Hear underneath dis laitl stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen.”