Tall stoneware pot with pink foxglove


OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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The Origins of the Green Man

Green Men have attracted attention ever since amateur folklorist Julia Hamilton Somerset (Lady Raglan) coined that name in “The Green Man in Church Architecture," an article published in The Folklore Journal in 1939. These foliate faces have been interpreted as devils, archetypal nature spirits, images comic and tragic, divine and diabolical. Since none of the artists who created them -- as statuary, wood carvings, manuscript images or frescos -- provided a written record to say exactly what these images were intended to represent, we are left to theorize.

The green in "Green Man" refers to foliage. Green men are surrounded by, and sometimes formed of, leaves. They are usually male (green women also occur, though rarely) and are usually human (but green cats, lions, and other beasts are found). This discussion will limit itself to Green Men, as opposed to all foliate faces, and to those Green Men created prior to 1400 CE.

Green Men can be found in Britain and throughout northern Europe, in buildings religious and secular, as part of interior and exterior ornament. They can be found on capitals, corbels, misericords, choir stalls, bench ends, rood screens, roof bosses, floors, walls, and stained glass windows. Green Men also appear in manuscripts.

Green Men are most commonly portrayed from the neck up, and in one of three forms:

  1. 1. Foliage faces

  2. 2. Sprouting faces

  3. 3. Hiding faces

I. Foliage faces are composed entirely of leaves, branches, and tendrils. Some examples of foliage faces:
Green Man from Church of St. Martin, Ancaster, Lincs Church of St. Martin, Ancaster, Lincs, 1100s Green Man from Bamburg Cathedral Bamburg Cathedral, Germany, early 1200s
Green Man from Bangor Cathedral, Wales




Bangor Cathedral, Wales, 1100s Green Man from Canterbury Cathedral Canterbury Cathedral, Black Prince's Chantry, Britain, 1300s

II. Sprouting faces are the most common type of Green Man, and have foliage emerging from hair, eyes, nose, ears, and. mouth. They have been described as "spewing" or "uttering," a metaphor that is apt when foliage emerges from the mouth. Some examples of sprouting faces:

Green Man, St. John the Baptist church, Alkborough, Lincs; photo by S. Garbutt

Church of St. John the Baptist, Alkborough, Lincs, 1100s

Green Man, Bolton Priory

Bolton Abbey, Yorks, 1100s CE

Green Man, font, Brecon Cathedral, Wales

Brecon Cathedral, font, Wales, 1100s

Green Man, Church of St. Peter, Claypole, Lincs

Church of St. Peter, Claypole, Lincs, 1300s

Green Man, St. Bartholomew Church, Much Marcle

St. Bartholomew's Church, Much Marcle, Herefordshire, 1200s

Notice the solar wheel worn as a necklace  

Green Man in the Stowe Breviary, BL Stowe 12 f. 23v

Stowe Breviary,
Norwich, 1300s

Green Man from the Hales Bible, BL Royal 1 B XII
The Bible of William Hales,

III. Hiding faces peer out from within sheltering foliage. Some examples:

Green Man, St. Oswald's Church, Asbourne, Derbys

Asbourne St. Oswald’s Church, Asbourne, Derbys., 1200s

Green Man, Sutton Benger, Perths






All Saints Church, Sutton Benger, Pershire, 1400s?

Green Man in BL Stowe 3, The Four Gospels The Four Gospels, canon tables, Netherlands or Germany, 1000s Symbol for the Corona Borealis from an  astrological manuscript, c.1000 CE. Dionysus gave this leafy crown to his bride Ariadne; later he placed it in the sky as a constellation.

Though many theories have been put forth about the mythological lineage of the Green Man, the most convincing is that these images are a vestige of the worship of the Greek god Dionysus, who was also known as Bacchus.

Christian and Dionysian traditions share many similarities:

  • The births of Dionysus and Jesus were both celebrated during the time of the winter solstice.

  • Both had unusual origins, with Jesus being born to a virgin, and Dionysus being born from the thigh of his father, Zeus.

  • Both were the offspring of human mothers (Semele, Mary) and divine fathers (Zeus, Yahweh).

Dionysus emerging from the thigh of Zeus; Greek, 400 BCE, Museo Archeologia, Taranto, Italy
Dionysus emerging from the thigh of Zeus; Greek, 400 BCE

  • By the 1st century CE, both Jesus and Dionysus are portrayed as young men in the prime of life

Bronze weight in form of head of Dionysus; photographer G. Dall'Orto, Wikicommons
Bronze scale weight showing
Dionysus, c. 100 BCE, Italy

Dionysus, from a small statue found in Pompeii; photographer WM Pearl, WikiCommons

Small bronze Dionysus, from Pompeii, now in the National Museum of Archeology, Naples

  • Both were peripatetic teachers. Dionysus discovered the art of viniculture, and taught others how to grow grapes, make wine, and use inebriation and ecstatic dancing to reach spiritual enlightenment (such dancing was also part of early Christian worship). Like Jesus, Dionysus was part of a mystery religion that promised life after death.



Dionysian rites, though condemned by Christian sects,
were a form of ecstatic spirituality, seen in this
relief from the Museo Archeologico, Naples

  • Both sects used wine in their rituals and the writings of both told of water turned into wine -- by Dionysus in the court of King Anius, by Jesus at Cana.

Greek kylix showing Dionysis

Greek kylix showing Dionysis

Greek kylix, drinking cup, showing Dionysus, 6th century BC (Bellini Civic Museum, Asola, Italy)

  •  The traditions of both Jesus and Dionysus tell of triumphant cavalcades, Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem; Dionysus when he returned from victory in India. In Dionysian iconography, that procession came to represent victory over death, and is found on many Roman sarcophagi.

Mosaic floor showing the Triumph of
Dionysus, c. 200 CE, Musée
du Bardo, Tunisia

Mosaic showing the triumph of Bacchus, Musee du Bardo, Tunisia; photographer P. Radiguel, WIkicommons

Triumphant procession, from a sarcophagus in a chamber tomb north of
Rome, c. 190 CEm now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.

  • Both Jesus and Dionysus visited the Afterworld; Jesus, to bring salvation to the righteous; Dionysus, to rescue his mother, Semele.


Dionysus (with halo) sitting on his
mother's lap; mosaic in the
House of Dionysus,
Cyprus, 300s CE

  • Both were killed at the instigation of a god, then resurrected.

Athena fighting the Titans,
who killed the infant Dionysus



  • Both religions were particularly attractive to the poor, the stranger, the military recruit, the outcast.

Found in a London temple dedicated to Bacchus, this small statue shows Dionysus with his foster father Silenus; a male follower or satyr; a
female follower or
maenad; and his
animal companion, a panther,
a symbol of his travels.
The inscription along
the base says:

To wandering men, life

Small statue of Bacchus from a London temple; now in the Museum of London

Green Man from Perigueux, France

Romans continued to use foliate faces to ornament both secular and religious settings as they conquered western Europe. The face at the left, from Perigueux, France, dates to c. 100 CE; the face at the right, dating to about 125 CE, is now in the collections of the Landesmuseum in Trier, Germany.

Green Man from Trier, France

While Christianity is described as the worship of a single god, for many of its followers it was never truly monotheistic. Many Christians worshipped a father god, a son god, a holy ghost, a mother god in the form of Mary, and hundreds of demigods called saints. These divine figures populate the art of the Christian temples of the late Classical and early medieval periods. That Dionysus is found in this throng of deities is understandable.

Gregory the Great wrote to Bishop Mellitus in 601 CE to express his belief that it was better to absorb rather than confront when proselytizing in Britain:

...quia fana idolorum destrui in eadem gente minime debeant; sed ipsa, quae in eis sunt, idola destruantur; aqua benedicta fiat, in eisdem fanis aspergatur, altaria construantur, reliquiae ponantur. Quia, si fana eadem bene constructa sunt, necesse est, ut a cultu daemonum in obsequio ueri dei debeant commutari; ut dum gens ipsa eadem fana sua non uidet destrui, de corde errorem deponat, et deum uerum cognoscens ac adorans, ad loca, quae consueuit, familiarius concurrat.


...the temples of the other deities in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but the things which are in them, the images, should be destroyed. Make holy water and asperge these temples: let altars be erected, relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is necessary that they be converted from the worship of other deities to the service of the real god. When the people see that their temples are not destroyed, they may depose error from their hearts; and knowing and adoring the real god, assemble in these familiar places.

Pope Gegory I, Letter to Abbot Mellitus, quoted in chapter 30 of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum

Part of this process of acculturation, of preserving the revered familiarum locarum, familiar places, may have been the inclusion of the iconography of daemonum along with that of the "real god," the verum deum.

Head of Dionysus, from the Naples Archeological Museum, Italy

The argument for Green Men having their origins in the cult of Dionysus is buttressed by the imagery used, that of the foliate face. While several Roman gods are associated with forests and fields, only one – Dionysus – is consistently shown with his face or head surrounded by foliage, usually of ivy leaves, sometimes of grape leaves, sometimes of both. In the early Greek portrayals, the crown of leaves is unobtrusive, but it becomes more evident as time goes on.

Dionysus, Prado Museum; Wikimedia
Dionysus, Prado
Museum, Spain

Other possible archetypes
Other figures from folklore and from religion have also been proposed as the archetypes for Green Men, and you can learn more about them
here, But none is as convincing as Dionysus.

The grape and the ivy
Two plants -- the grape (vitis vinifera) and the ivy (hedera helix) -- are most frequently associated with the Green Man. The association with grapes is a strong argument for Dionysus as the source  for this imagery, for Dionysus was the god of viniculture.

Wine was very important in both Classical and medieval times. Archaeologists believe that winemaking using grapes began as early as 6000 BCE, in what is now the country of Georgia. The process of making wine -- from planting the vineyard to picking the fruit, pressing it, and then fermenting the juice to make wine -- came to be seen as a metaphor for life.

As a safe beverage in a time when water was often very unsanitary, wine was an important foodstuff throughout the Classical and early medieval periods. In addition to being easy to store, and providing nutrition, wine was also a means of attaining a state of heightened spirituality:

Wine is to bread
as the contemplative life is...to the active life...
Saint Clement of Alexandria

Grape harvest, Fecamp Psalter, c. 1180
(National Library of the Netherlands)

The other plant that accompanied Dionysus was ivy, hedera helix, an evergreen plant. Ivy was seen in Classical times as a symbol of fidelity, fertility, and immortality. Poets and newlyweds were crowned with ivy leaves, as was Dionysus.

Dionysus' staff or thyrsus was made of the woody stalk of the giant fennel (ferula communis), a symbol of cultivated fields. The dried sap of giant fennel was the source of a pungent, highly valued seasoning called asafetida, the "food of the gods." This fennel rod was entwined with ivy vines and topped with a pine cone, representing the forest. Dionysus and his followers are frequently depicted with the thyrsus in their right hands.

...To raise my Bacchic shout,
     and clothe all who respond
In fawn skin habits,
     and put my thyrsus in their hands --
The weapon wreathed  
     with ivy-shoots...

There's a brute wildness
     in the fennel-wands --
Reverence it well.

Euripides, The Bacchae and Other Play,
P. Vellacott, trans

It was believed that drunkenness could be prevented, and a hangover treated, by drinking a cup of wine in which a handful of bruised ivy leaves had been simmered. Later on, British taverns would hang the sign of an ivy bush over their doors, indicating that they served a wine their customers could drink without fear, knowing they “would need no bush” after imbibing.

By the early middle ages, ivy’s religious and perhaps Dionysian connotations were such that early church councils forbid its use as a Christmas decoration in churches. The tensions between these competing cults may be the subscript of the carols about the holly and the ivy that were traditionally performed during the winter holy days. The very name, carol, from the Latin choraula -- a dance to flute music; originally a round dance accompanied by singers -- is suggestive of a form of worship that was not entirely approved by the Christian establishment.  In the end, of course, the holly did defeat the ivy; the prevailing cult would be that of Jesus, not Dionysus.







Dionysus, from a sarcophagus in the Puskin Museum, photo from Wikimedia Green Man, Sutton Benger, Perths Dore Abbey Green Man, photographer S. Garbutt; image from Wikimedia Green Man, St.Oswald, Ashbourn; Poliphilo image from Wikimedia


Garden Folklore

Anglo-Saxon charms

Æcerbot prayer

Nine herbs prayer

Other Green Man archetypes

Garden gnomes

Medieval calendars, months, and labors
Saints for your garden



Dore Abbey Green Man, photographer S. Garbutt; image from Wikimedia
Green Man, Dore Abbey, 1200s


Dionysus, from a sarcophagus in the Puskin Museum, photo from Wikimedia
Dionysus, Roman sarcophagus, c. 210 CE. Pushkin Museum

Green Man, St.Oswald, Ashbourn; Poliphilo image from Wikimedia
Green Man, St. Oswald's, Ashbourne, 1200s



































Coin from Thebes showing Dionysos wearing ivy wreath; photo by Exekias, Wikimedia

Silver coin showing Dionysus as an older man wearing an ivy wreath; Thebes,
c. 400 BCE


Marble bust of Dionysus, c. 150 CE



Dionysus, covered in grapes, from Pompeii
Dionysus covered in grapes, fresco, House of the Centenary lararium, Pompeii,
c. 100 CE




Hymn to Dionysus


I call upon loud-roaring reveling Dionysus,

primeval, double-natured, twice-born,
Bacchic lord,

wild, ineffable....

Ivy-covered, bull-faced, warlike, howling, pure,

You take raw flesh, you have feasts, wrapped in foliage, decked with clustered grapes.

Hearken to my voice, blessed one

...breathe on me with a spirit of perfect love...


Dionysus, from a small statue found in Pompeii; photographer WM Pearl, WikiCommons










































































...many are the thyrsus bearers,
but few are the mystics...




Holly Carol


Holly stands in the hall,

Fair to behold:

Ivy stands without the door,

She is full sore a cold.


Nay, ivy, nay,

It shall not be I wis;
Let holly have mastery,

As the manner is.


Holly and his merry men,

They dance and they sing,

Ivy and her maidens,

They weep and they wring.


Ivy hath chapped fingers,

She caught them from the cold,

So might they all have, aye,

That with ivy hold.


Holly hath berries

Red as any rose,

The forester, the hunter,

Keep them from the does.


Ivy hath berries

Black as any sloe;

There comes the owl

And eat them as she go.


Holly hath birds

A fair full flock,

The nightingale, the popinjay,

The gentle laverock.


Good ivy, what birds

Hast thou?

None but the owlet

That cries how, how.



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F.D. Drewitt


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