With all the troublesome weather making things at least uncomfortable for many parts of my country, it’s probably hard for a lot of people to believe that February 2nd, Wednesday last, was the Celtic first day of spring. The day was known as Imolc or Imbolc and, despite the snow on the ground, the Celts recognized spring in the lambing of their sheep and the crocuses and irises that poked up through the white blanket at their feet.
With spring came the return of the spirit known as the Green Man. This male nature spirit was essentially the son of Earth and was thought to be present in every form of plant life. Given that many of the later Celts lived in areas where the thick forests were prevalent even into the late Medieval period – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Northern France – this is not surprising.
Some writers place the Green Man’s origin firmly at the doorstep of agriculture. In this he is related to the later John Barleycorn who represents the life-death-life cycle of the harvest, particularly in the case of grains. Others see an ancient spirit, perhaps Neolithic in origin, that is the ancestor of Jack-in-the-Green. Jack was the spirit of the wild wood and could be either friendly or hostile depending on how he was approached.
The Green Man is probably the ancestor of both of these figures. He is the essence of all things that grow as is made obvious by representations of him throughout Europe. Generally the Green Man is shown as a face with leaves, twigs and vines growing over his skin so that only his eyes and lips can be seen. Even his hair appears made of foliage and sometimes stalks grow forth from his mouth. These images can still be seen in churches and on other buildings. An example is the Green Man sculpture at the header carved during the Roman period at Bath, England.
Clearly, the Green Man is a fertility symbol but he is not concerned directly with animals or humans. His purview is the biological life of plants down to the cellular level. That his plants feed the creatures around them is virtually of no consequence to the Green Man. He is verdant growth without conscience or concern. Just as wheat grows neatly in rows to be harvested, moss and molds grow unhindered over what is dead and rotten. The Green Man does not distinguish one as good or one as bad; they are all part of the urge to live, reproduce, die and be reborn.
It follows, then, that the Green Man’s descendants – his sons if you will – have each chosen a different path. John Barleycorn resides in those neat fields of grain, feeding the farmers who settled down to reap and sow. Jack-in-the-Green still lives wild where the moss grows on the northern faces of his beloved trees. Humans can find shelter in his realm, but only a certain type of humans. In the later Middle Ages, Jack-in-the-Green became closely associated with Robin Hood which hints at the kind of company Jack prefers to keep. The wilder outlaw, albeit with good intentions, is more to Jack’s taste than the diligent farmer.
The Green Man is still celebrated today, and not just by pagans. As an example, I offer you “The Green Man”, a song from the band Type O Negative’s album October Rust. There is not video for the song but this YouTube clip does a nice job with the rich, melodic sound. Here the Green Man, who is the narrator, takes on the guise of the May King courting the May Queen whom he worships and praises as “her highness”. A decidedly pagan sentiment coming from a Catholic from Brooklyn; RIP, Peter Steele.