The Face in the Leaves

Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.

Kenneth McIntosh is a pastor, educator, and writer, living in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. He is the author of Soul of the Green Man, Water from an Ancient Well, and Magic Reversed, all published by Anamchara Books.

“Have you seen the Jack in the Green?” asked the English Rock Band Jethro Tull in their 1977 album Songs from the Wood

Yes, I have.

I have seen him in his better-known guise, the Green Man, carved in stone in Medieval chapels and cathedrals. He danced beside me in a crowded street during an English May Fair and moved to the pulsing beat at a rave in Salt Lake City. He pops out of the pages of novels, and thrills audiences on the theater screen. For over a decade I’ve been on a quest to spot, photograph, and—ultimately—to understand what this face in the leaves means for us today. The result is my book published in 2020, The Soul of the Green Man.

It’s a blend of artwork, photography, and text, exploring this multi-valent image from his first appearances in ancient Mesopotamia and among the Iron-Age Celts, into magical Medieval Europe, in King Arthur’s Court, Islam, the churches of the Templar warrior-monks, underneath choir stalls in cathedrals, with the Merry Men in Sherwood Forest, in May Pole dances, and finally into our time of Burning Man Festivals and global climate crisis. As a symbol, the Green Man contains within himself a great many shoots of meaning, changing across time and space. In this article I can just begin to peel back the Green Man’s leafy layers.

Our modern notions of the Green Man are largely based on an influential article titled “The Green Man in Church Architecture” written by Lady Julia Somerset, Duchess of Raglan, in the late 1930s. I only know her from a couple of portraits and brief descriptions. From these, I imagine her as someone like Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter of on the Masterpiece Theater television series Downton Abbey. Both Lady Julia and Lady Mary are fashionable, elegant, and self-assured; they take advantage of the expanding opportunities afforded to their gender following the end of the first world war.

 In her article, Julia Somerset gave “the Green Man” that moniker. Before Lady Somerset, writers just called them… “foliated heads.” And that’s much less exciting than “the Green Man,” wouldn’t you say? Seeing her first foliated head in Llangwm church, in Wales, she remembered that many English pubs are named “The Green Man”—and she gave that name to all these foliated faces.

 Her second major impact was the assumption—based on intuition– that the foliated heads in Medieval churches and the Jack-in-the-Green who appears in folk dances are one and the same. She wrote, “I do not think that anyone who has seen these carvings can doubt that they are portraits” and asserted that the church sculptor “copied what he saw” in the May Day rites of his time. The Duchess of Raglan was an outstanding scholar of her time, but theories about history are constantly challenged. It now appears more likely that the foliated faces in Medieval church architecture and the Jack-in-the-Green of Mayday dances were two distinct beings, whose meaning has become conflated closer to our own time.

Let’s take a closer look at Jack-in-the-Green, the leafy dancer in Beltane revels. May Day of 2016, I, my wife, and our friend Ellyn started out at the magical hour of 3:30 AM and drove over an hour between hedge rows through unlit roads, arriving in the chilly pre-dawn at Haytoor Rocks in Dartmoor. Dartmoor is one of the most haunting environments in England, its desolate moors and dramatic rock escarpments seem in the dawn light as strange as the surface of Mars.

Beneath the craggy granite outcropping at Haytoor Rocks we gathered with a small crowd of folks to celebrate the Beltane dawn with Morris dances. There were three dance troupes there, with their attendant musicians. Onlookers were friends or family of the dancers. Part of the excitement being there was the sense that this was not a performance—at least not performance for a human audience.  I experienced the dances as ritual, enacted for the land, the rising sun, the ancestors.

No one is certain where we get the expression “Morris Dance.” Some suggest the word derives from the medieval word “Moorish” (Muslim), but that is by no means certain. We know these dances are older than the Reformation, because Protestants protested them—but how far back in history are their origins? Julia Somerset and other folklorists point to the Morris Dance tradition as a survival of pre-Christian rites having to do with both fertility and the resurrection of new life out of death. Some Morris dancers hold up deer’s antlers as they dance—why? No one remembers, but customs like that seem to give credence to an origin in the ancient nature religion.

As a Morris troupe danced, a vegetative figure strode in their midst—our friend Jack in the Green! He served as a human maypole, standing amidst the dancers whose movements swirled round about him. As I stood in the cold dawn of Beltane morning, watching the Morris Dancers and their friend Jack in the Green, there was a palpable sense of continuity with the ancient past. Those dancers silhouetted before the rising of the sun on this chilly morning, liminal between winter and summer, seemed to echo a primordial heritage. As I look into the eyes of the Jack in the Green, he seems to wink at me saying, “I am the symbol of your ancestors’ faith in the summertime renewal of the land.” 

In the 21st century, little in the above paragraph will seem surprising; there’s a strong modern association between the Green Man and ancient nature-religion. Less commonly known is the Christian symbolism of the foliated faces found in Medieval churches and cathedrals. The Green Man carvings in churches must have indicated a well understood common meaning, agreed upon by artists, clerics, and nobles.  They are finely executed and most often placed in prominent places. Furthermore, they appear at the most-sacred locations within Christian sanctuaries: on baptismal fonts where infants were welcomed to the family of Christ, and altar screens where the faithful were served the eucharist, the cup that assured them of their continuing status in God’s covenant.

Yet the church Green Man’s core identity remains hidden, for in all the writing that survives from the Middle Ages, not a single document says, “Those foliated faces that we carved in hundreds of churches, those represent such-and-such.” There is a notebook from 1230 by French artist Villard de Honnecourt, with several faces that we would now call Green Men. The artist labeled his drawings “faces with leaves.” But Honnecourt’s book tells us nothing of the meaning of those faces. Modern thinkers have suggested a number of intriguing suggestions, based on the language of symbols, and I discuss those ideas in my book. There is one understanding that seems especially convincing.

The foundation of this theory is based on a book titled The Golden Legend, a hugely popular collection of Christian tales penned in the thirteenth century. The Golden Legend was so popular in medieval Europe that a thousand handwritten manuscripts still exist. Contained in this text is the tale of Adam and the Tree of Life. This fable is a sequel to the story contained in the Bible, in Genesis chapter 3. In the Bible’s account, God creates Paradise and sets Adam and Eve in the presence of two trees: one is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the other is the Tree of Life. When Adam and Eve are seduced by the serpent to eat of the first tree, God expels them from Paradise. The Golden Legend includes a follow-up to the account, a fable that tells of the end of Adam’s life: 

And in the end of his life when he should die, it is said, but of none authority, that he sent Seth his son into Paradise for to fetch the oil of mercy, where he received certain grains of the fruit of the tree of mercy by an angel. And when he came again he found his father Adam yet alive and told him what he had done. And then Adam laughed first and then died. And then he laid the grains or kernels under his father’s tongue and buried him in the vale of Hebron; and out of his mouth grew three trees of the three grains, of which trees the cross that our Lord suffered his passion on was made, by virtue of which he gat very mercy, and was brought out of darkness into very light of heaven.

Medieval people loved the tales in The Golden Legend and considered them part of their faith. The tale of the Tree of Life sprouting from Adam’s mouth reverses the negativity of original sin, and given this significance, we can understand why the Green Man appears on the sacred thresholds in so many Medieval places of worship. The image of the Tree of Life sprouting from Adam’s mouth would be appropriate for rituals of baptism and communion. Some Green Men are skulls with leaves coming from their mouths, a perfect illustration of this fable. It also explains why the Green Man found in churches is almost always a man, representing the typical Medieval portrayal of Adam. 

The story of new life sprouting from Adam’s sin, told in the Golden Legend, suggests that the seeds of a better future may grow out of mistakes. And taking this insight into the 21stth century we can nurture seeds of sustainability for Planet Earth rising up from the scars we have inflicted upon her. 

The Green Man’s recent resurgence in film, art, festivals, and environmental events can be accounted for at a level of things which proceed from the depths of our subconscious. Carl Jung proposed that certain symbolic characters—the hero, the dragon, the goddess, for example—are universal archetypes proceeding from humanity’s collective unconscious. When we see these figures, we are already familiar with them, even if we have not yet heard their stories—because they are in our ancestral blood. Jung suggests such archetypes rise to the surface of human consciousness when they are especially needed, and The Green Man is certainly needed today. In his environmental role, the Green Man is a symbol of hope we can claim both as individuals and as a planetary community. He reminds us of the power and potential of green life to rise and heal the terrible mistakes we have committed. 

When we gaze into the face of the Green Man, who gazes back at us? In the depths of his eyes, we see reflections of ourselves. Medieval people, concerned with mortality and the fate of their souls, saw the face of Adam—who symbolizes each one of us—and the Tree of Life growing hope from his tongue. In our time, we cannot escape the brooding fear that our separation from nature imperils our collective existence. In such a time, we see in the Green Man a symbol of our destinies inter-twined with the natural world. He says, “We are united—you, me, the plants, the earth—we are one” and whatever blight may lie upon the earth new life may spring forth.

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