This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day. The First Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was inspired by the idea of a national “Teach-in” to educate the public about environmental issues. It has become an annual global event to raise awareness of these issues, including global warming.
This year the novel coronavrus COVID-19 pandemic has shut down much of the world’s commerce and industry. All over the world fewer planes are flying and fewer cars are on the highways. Many factories are shut down. And suddenly in even the most polluted areas in the world people are discovering that the air is clearer, plants are greener, and that it is easier to breathe. Without toxic gases being poured into the atmosphere, the atmosphere is cleansing itself. There are lessons to be learned here as economies get going again.
Many people have become disenchanted with the modern technological pollution of the environment, so it’s not surprising that we become re-enchanted with the natural world. In traditional fairy tales or fantasy enchantment can refer to a magical spell, a charm, or bewitchment. Enchantment also refers to the sense of wonder or delight. A sense of wonder and delight in the natural world is communicated in folklore. That’s what I offer here in this (whimsical) Earth Day article.
The above forest scene could evoke all of the senses of enchantment. It could be the habitat of figures from medieval folklore, including the green men, wood sprites, sheela na gig, and the Celtic forest god Cernunnos. While some of these figures are common throughout Europe, they are most associated with the Celtic lands of Gaul, Britain and Ireland. The following map shows the extent of the ancient Celtic culture. So it is not surprising to find vestiges and variants of figures in Celtic folklore also in these other countries.
This map shows the Celtic nations, regions, and peoples of Europe today.
It is from these areas in particular that the folklore explored in this article comes. The Celtic people had an intimate relationship to nature and to the body as a part of the natural world. This is not to say that other peoples didn’t or don’t have a strong bond with nature. Many indigenous people around the world feel a connection to nature that modern Western people lack. The Green Man, as we’ve come to know him, was a part of Celtic folklore and has been adopted as the symbol of the Environmental Movement.
This figure, whose face appears in stone on many medieval church buildings in Europe (see the image above this article and below), is believed to be the spirit of nature, or, more particularly, the spirit of vegetation. The idea of the Green Man comes from representations throughout history that show a man’s face covered in foliage with vegetation coming out of his ears, nose, and mouth.
Some scholars believe that the original “Green Man” was the Greek god Dionysius (Roman: Bacchus), the god of wine and festivity, who was always portrayed with a wreath of grape leaves on his head, a bunch of grapes nearby, and a cup of wine in his hand. Roman influences are found in Gaul and Britain from the time of late antiquity when these lands were part of the Roman Empire.
The very concept of a green man who is a part of nature is a fitting symbol for the Gaia idea that humans are part of the Earth, not separate from it. Our ancestors saw in green men and wood sprites a human connection with the natural world. Whatever meaning the spirit of vegetation had in pre-Christian folklore, his face was ubiquitously carved in stone on church arches and columns in the Western Middle Ages.
Perhaps the retention of this figure from pre-Christian paganism was a way of affirming the goodness of God’s creation. In the springtime especially the church prayed for the blessings of the seedtime in rogation processions through the fields and continued to support fall harvest festivals. Gallican eucharistic prayers and Irish hymns like St. Patrick’s Breastplate evoke nature. One of the stanzas of the hymn is paeraphrased by Cecil Alexander thus:
“I bind unto myself today,/ The virtues of the starlit heaven,/ The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,/ The whiteness of the moon at even,/ The flashing of the lightning free,/ The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,/ The stable earth, the deep salt sea,/ Around the old eternal rocks.” This was a cultural attuned to its natural surroundings.
There is hardly any medieval church building that lacks green man faces. Chartres Cathedral in France (completed in 1220), widely considered one of the masterpieces of Western architecture, features up to 70 green men in a whole variety of different forms, including leaf masks, disgorgers of vegetation, and human facial features in the midst of plants. Located in Western France, Chartres would have been an area with Celtic cultural influence.
The medieval gothic cathedrals had the appearance of a forest on their interior because of tall columns, vaulted ceilings, and natural light coming in through colorful stained glass windows between the arches.
In spite of these faces on medieval churches, the name “Green Man” is actually an invention of the 20th century. Julia Somerset, wife of Major Fitzroy Richard Somerset, fourth Baron Raglan, who was noted for his independent scholarship and writings on folklore topics, also investigated the mythic-ritualistic origins of underlying popular culture. Lady Raglan wrote only one article on a folklore topic and it’s what she became famous for. She was interested in the persistence of this vegetable-human figure on church walls throughout Europe and set out to study its origins. Her single article appeared in the journal Folklore and it almost certainly has had a more lasting influence than anything else written by her or her husband. No name existed for this figure until Lady Raglan gave him a name in this article: the Green Man. The name stuck.
While the Green Man earned his name because of the green foliage of spring, Lady Raglan didn’t take into account that there were also figures of this nature man with fall foliage, suggesting that he is a symbol of death and decay as well as well as new life and fruition.
The Green Man, as we have come to regard him, is a symbol of the cyclical rebirth of nature in the coming of spring with its fresh green foliage. So on Earth Day we should recognize and celebrate the renewal of nature that the Green Man personifies and enjoy the bloom of spring.
As the spirit of nature the face of the Green Man has been carved into trees as well as stone, although those carvings don’t last as long as stone sculptures.
Perhaps the green man carved into trees inspired the creation of the giant ents in the Lord of the Rings series of books and films.
Perhaps the most colossal figure incorporating the green man motif is the late 16th century sandstone figure sculpted on river bluffs in Florence, Italy.
Green men sculpted in stone and trees inspired the creation of bronze sculptures (which will turn green as they weather) of green men placed in outdoor gardens.
As the figure of the Green Man became more known, photographers became interested in living artistic photographic portrayals of the Green Man surrounded by foliage and entwined with vines.
Completely naked green men and green boy sculptures with their penises showing have been placed in gardens. The Green Man is also a symbol of fertility.
The following naked green boy photographed in the bushes has attained a little more physical maturity than the above green boy statue.
The following erotic bronze figure, for sale by Zibbet, is suitable for indoor or outdoor display. It features male generative power with its erect phallus.
But this boy, with shades of green and bronze as Earth and Sun reflect on his body, is the real thing.
Moving to far northern Europe, artist Veijo Rönkkönen has created a whole tribe of green people in a beautiful garden that turned into a Sculpture Park in Finland. Many of his figures are doing various yoga poses.
Veijo Rönkkönen built his remarkable park in Koitsanlahti, Parikkala, close to the Russian border. He worked on the site of half a hectare for nearly 50 years. His hard work resulted in completing about 550 concrete statues and a magnificent garden. The young Veijo Rönkkönen was known to be very guarded. Making art was his way of communicating with the outside world; he did not dare to venture out into the world but instead invited the world to come and see him. Most of his figures are in yoga poses. He said that they reflect his own youthful body and many of the figures bear the resemblance of his own face.
Yoga has also had its naturist advocates who enjoy doing yoga poses outdoors in natural areas. Many of the yoga poses are named after plants (tree, lotus) and animals (cobra, pigeon).
Yoga also taps into the cosmological elements of fire (sun), air (wind), earth, and water, as well as the element of space (ether). Naked yoga outdoors enables us to feel these elements more directly.
The Green Man had his counterparts in wood sprites. The pre-Christian Celts believed that the divine pervaded every aspect of life, and that spirits were everywhere. These spirits tied human beings to nature. Irish bards used erotic language to describe the landscape, identifying it with various parts of a woman’s body. Hills were compared with breasts and valleys with vulvas.
Wood sprites, along with water sprites, are often associated with faeries as miniature creatures. But faeries had magical powers. Wood sprites are the spirits of the forest and of the trees. Like the green men, they are often shown residing within trees or with tree-like features or with foliage wrapped around their bodies, like this male winged sprite with small horns growing out of his head.
This female wood sprite seems to be part of the tree itself.
A recent painting couples two wood sprites in an erotic embrace. Trees reproduce and therefore have sex organs. Their sex organs are their blooms. Lots of trees are hermaphroditic — that is, their flowers contain both male and female reproductive parts. The male reproductive parts are the pollen-laden stamen; the female parts are their egg-holding pistils.
Some species of trees become either female or male over time.
Both the female and the male models in these paired images are photographed to blend into the tree itself in terms of color and light.
Returning to female figures, there are figurative carvings on medieval churches all over Europe of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. These figures represent Sheela na gigs. Scholars disagree about the origins and purpose of these grotesque figures. It is most commonly believed that Sheela was a pre-Christian fertility goddess, which would explain the extended and welcoming vulva.
An article on Sheela na gig in Mircea Eliade’s 16-volume The Encyclopedia of Religion (1993) draws parallels between Sheela and the ancient Irish myth of the goddess who granted kingship. She would appear as a lustful hag, and most men would refuse her advances. But the one man who slept with her found her transformed into a beautiful maiden who conferred royalty on him and blessed his reign.
A variant of the Green Man in Celtic mythology is the god Cernunnos. The basis of his name (and even its spelling) and his exact mythology is lost in the mists of pre-history. He is viewed as a god of vegetation like the Green Man, but also of animals. With his mighty antlers he is the Lord of the forest and of wild things. He relates especially to male animals, such as the stag in rut.
His antlers put him in the category of horned gods and his sexual prowess suggests that the Greek and Roman god Pan (portrayed as a satyr — half man and beast with an enlarged penis) could be a relative in that culture.
This metal etching on the on the first century B.C. Gundestrup Cauldron found in Jutland, now on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, shows features of the Cernunnos mythology. He has antlers and holds in his right hand the Celtic torc, a symbol of nobility. In his left hand is the serpent who guards the treasure of the earth. He is surrounded by forest animals — a stag to his right with identical antlers, a wolf and lion to his upper left, rams butting each other in the lower right, a boy on a dolphin, and two bulls in the upper corners.
Stags and the hornless deer were important cult creatures for the Celtic people. The stag was admired for its grace, speed and sexual prowess during the rutting season. Because of the stag’s association with sexual prowess, phallic amulets were made and worn by those wishing to be imbued with that animal’s sexual power.
The ancient Celts, as witnessed by the Romans, were head hunters. They believed that the head and phallus connected sexual power and wisdom. They honored their enemies by cutting off their heads and cleaning out their skulls to serve as drinking vessels. The stag’s antlers (and the horns of other beasts) were extensions of the head and therefore of sexual power and wisdom. Cernunnos possessed both. He understood the mysteries of life and death and was associated with both. Celtic warriors, like the Vikings, attached horns to their helmets to scare their enemies. They were also known by Greeks and Romans who encountered them in battle to fight naked.
Cernunnos is known for his bi-directionality. He relates to both animals and humans, and perhaps also to both male and female sexes. Edward C. Sellner, The Double: Male Eros, Friendships, and Mentoring: From Gilgamesh to Kerouac (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2013), writes: “Contrary to the religious formation many of us have received which made us wary of anything related to sexuality, certain of our friendship, including male [i.e. same-sex} friendships, will have an erotic quality to them—as the ancient Celts realized. They were grateful for this life-giving energy, expressed in their pagan devotion to Cernunnos, the archetype of sensuality and the instinctual world. As that powerful archetype, Cernunnos can be found in all of us: in our desire at times to shed clothes and be naked in the rich presence of nature, to be one with the landscape; to be naked, like our first parents who walked the earth; naked as when we were first born; naked as when we had our first sexual intimacies.”
Sellner continues: “The ancient Celts did not limit the erotic to the human body alone. Their eros included the beautiful landscape in which they lived which caused them to be filled with wonder and awe at its mysterious beauty and power. They believed that the rivers and trees had a melodious voice and that one could hear music in the moving waters and rustling leaves. The positive side of their erotic traditions included a profound appreciation of physicality, of natural beauty – whether in nature or in the feminine and masculine expression of beautiful bodies. Above all, their sexuality was perceived as a sacred phenomenon, including even when Celtic men expressed themselves with one another as bed-partners or simply as friends” (p. 101).
In the natural world same-sex relationships are not uncommon among animal species and humans. Same-sex behavior has been studied by modern biologists and anthropologists, but it was surely noticed by ancient people like the Celts who were more attuned to nature than we are. To such ancient peoples homosexual behavior would not have been regarded as “contrary to nature.” What was “contrary to nature” to Romans was Celtic adult men’s egalitarian approach to sex by taking both active and passive roles. Adult men taking the passive or receiving role would have been taboo for the aggressive Romans.
As in other hunter/warrior societies, Celtic boys were initiated into manhood by learning the arts of hunting and warfare. They spent a lot of time with other boys and older men and away from girls and women. The first century BC Roman geographer Diodorus Siculus stated that, “Despite the fact that their wives are beautiful, the Celts…abandon themselves to a passion for other men. They usually sleep on the ground on skins of wild animals and tumble about with a bedfellow on either side.” The Greek philosopher Posidonius also stated that in Gaul “men prefer to have sex with each other.” In such a society a god with a preference for stags like Cernunnos would seem appropriate.
With this historical background it’s not surprising that gay men have been attracted to Cernunnos as a model by which to address serious issues of mental health, depression, and suicide among gay men in the U.K., as well as toxic masculinity among straight men. Men’s organizations have encouraged men to return to the outdoors and to cleanse their minds and souls in nature. Experiencing the natural world in the natural state, without the enclothment of human culture and its social expectations, aids in connecting with the natural environment.
Cernunnos made quite a different comeback in the early 20th century with the emergence of neo-pagan movements like Wicca. Wicca is really a nature religion that sees a relationship between green spirituality and sexuality.
Witches historically had less interaction with devils than with herbs, which they used as potions for healing and fertility. Cernunnos proved to be an ideal model for modern wiccans because of his relationship to the forest and his evident sexual vitality in mythic traditions.
However, medieval Christians began to use the figure of Cernunnos to pictorially represent Satan because of his horns and serpent, representing the evil one who seduced Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Because witches’ association with nature, they were associated with the horned nature god who was transformed into Satan. This did not prove a good association for witches in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages and up through the 17th century.
Wiccans venerate both a goddess and a horned god. Often the horned god in Wicca lore had a rams head rather than Cernunnos’ human head with stag antlers. But as the horned god of the forest in Celtic mythology he was a suitable candidate for marrying the goddess to bring about the return of spring and to ensure the fertility of the land. Goddess cults in world religions are almost always associated with nature and sexuality. In the Wicca view the horned god dies during the Fall as the vegetation and land go dormant, and in the Spring he is resurrected to impregnate the fertile goddess of the land. Cernunnos, like the Green Man, as been associated with seasonal variations. But in Celtic mythology he does not appear to be a dying and rising god like Adonis and his relationship with the goddess is a relatively new concept.
The following images of a romantic love scene with a young nude couple enjoying each other in a natural setting, from the 1978 East German film, Sieben Sommarsprossen (Seven Freckles), can be our contemporary stand-ins for the stag god and the goddess.
One final aspect of Cernunnos I should mention is that in Berkshire he is also identified as Herne the god of the hunt. In Margaret Murray’s 1931 book, God of the Witches, she posits that Herne is a manifestation of Cernunnos. Because Herne is found only in Berkshire, he is considered a “localized” god, and could indeed be the Berkshire interpretation of Cernunnos.
Herne is depicted wearing the antlers of a great stag. He is the god of the wild hunt of game in the forest, equipped with bow and arrow. Herne’s antlers connect him to the deer, which were given a position of great honor in Celtic culture. After all, killing a single stag could mean the difference between survival and starvation. So this was a powerful thing indeed.
There are several folk legends in the Berkshire area that Herne was the hunter for King Richard II and out of jealousy other nobles hanged him from a tree in the forest. During hunts the ghost of Herne haunts the forest.
Finally, we should note the importance of “green” men and women in the modern world. Farmers who plant seed and nurture the growth of plants are our own vegetable people. Many farmers today are trying to grow crops organically without adding chemical pesticides and fertilizers that damage soils, water, air, and affect climate. Beyond this, however, there is a whole new field of research devoted agroecology: the science of managing farms as ecosystems. By working with nature rather than against it, farms using agroecological principles can avoid damaging ecological impacts without sacrificing productivity or profitability.
Protecting trees is another important activity of the Environmental Movement. Humans have a symbiotic relationship with trees. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. We need to protect and manage our forests.
There are many ways in which we are becoming more environmentally aware. The ecosystem is an important things to know since it is also our human environment. The Green Man and his friends can perhaps enchant us into relating to the natural world and taking care of it as good stewards. Perhaps we need green men on our church buildings. May the Green Man’s tribe increase!