A Green Man is a sculpture, or other representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves. Branches or vines may sprout from the mouth, nostrils, or other parts of the face and these shoots may bear flowers or fruit. Commonly used as a decorative architectural ornament, Green Men are frequently found in carvings on both secular and ecclesiastical buildings. "The Green Man" is also a popular name for English public houses and various interpretations of the name appear on inn signs, which sometimes show a full figure rather than just the head.
The Green Man motif has many variations. Found in many cultures from many ages around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities. It is primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of growth each spring. Some speculate that the mythology of the Green Man developed independently in the traditions of separate ancient cultures and evolved into the wide variety of examples found throughout history.
Usually referred to in works on architecture as foliate heads or foliate masks, carvings of the Green Man may take many forms, naturalistic or decorative. The simplest depict a man's face peering out of dense foliage. Some may have leaves for hair, perhaps with a leafy beard. Often leaves or leafy shoots are shown growing from his open mouth and sometimes even from the nose and eyes as well. In the most abstract examples, the carving at first glance appears to be merely stylised foliage, with the facial element only becoming apparent on closer examination. The face is almost always male; green women are rare.
Julia, Lady Raglan applied the term "Green Man" to this type of architectural feature in her 1939 article "The Green Man in Church Architecture" in The Folklore Journal. It is thought that her interest stemmed from carvings at St. Jerome’s Church in Llangwm, Monmouthshire.
Some commentators conflate or associate the term with "Jack in the Green". Green cats, lions, and demons are also found. On gravestones and other memorials, human skulls are sometimes shown sprouting grape vines or other vegetation, presumably as a symbol of resurrection (as at Shebbear, Devon, England).
The Green Man appears in many forms, with the three most common types categorized as:
- the Foliate Head: completely covered in green leaves
- the Disgorging Head: spews vegetation from its mouth
- the Bloodsucker Head: sprouts vegetation from all facial orifices (e.g. tear ducts, nostrils and mouth)
Superficially the Green Man would appear to be polytheistic, perhaps a fertility figure or a nature spirit, similar to the woodwose (the wild man of the woods), and yet he frequently appears, carved in wood or stone, in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals, where examples can be found dating through to the 20th century. The earliest example of a green man disgorging vegetation from his mouth is from St. Abre, in St. Hilaire-le-grand, c. 400 AD.
The tradition of the Green Man being carved on to Christian churches exists across Europe, including examples such as the Seven Green Men of Nicosia in Cyprus, a series of seven green men carved in the thirteenth century on to the facade of St Nicholas Church in Nicosia.