In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, said Tennyson in Locksley Hall v.10
Especially if you don’t understand Spanish, I invite you to listen to this rendition of Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘Verde Que Te Quiero Verde’. (Although the English translation primly corrects this with a comma after the first ‘Verde’, the original has no such constraints on its flow). Lorca illustrates so beautifully with the sound of his words (not so much his meaning) why thoughts of ‘the young green corn divinely springing, the young green corn for ever singing‘ lift our spirits as we wait impatiently for Flora or Freya, the goddesses of spring, to overcome the dreariness of a long winter. And this year especially, as we have undergone the long, long winter of the plague.
In Europe we tend to think of the first appearances of The Green Man as being medieval.
But there is a primordial force about the return of spring, both literally and metaphorically, which certainly predates Christianity. The twin gods of Dionysos and Bacchus are epitomised by the Bacchanalia which, no doubt, led to the worst excesses of the French Revolution, but nevertheless expressed unbounded joy, a U-rated version of which can be found in CS Lewis’s ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as he brings the statues to life after the permanent winter imposed by The White Witch:
Everywhere the statues were coming to life. The courtyard looked no longer like a museum; it looked more like a zoo. Creatures were running after Aslan and dancing round him till he was almost hidden in the crowd. Instead of all that deadly white the courtyard was now a blaze of colours; glossy chestnut sides of centaurs, indigo horns of unicorns, dazzling plumage of birds, reddy-brown of foxes, dogs and satyrs, yellow stockings and crimson hoods of dwarfs; and the birch-girls in silver, and the beech-girls in fresh, transparent green, and the larch-girls in green so bright that it was almost yellow. And instead of the deadly silence the whole place rang with the sound of happy roarings, brayings, yelpings, barkings, squealings, cooings, neighings, stampings, shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter. Lucy looked and saw that Aslan had just breathed on the feet of the stone giant. “It’s all right!” shouted Aslan joyously. “Once the feet are put right, all the rest of him will follow.”The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Here is a Roman period Green Man found in the Dordogne (home of the Paleolithic civilisations of Lascaux etc). Could the Green Man possibly stretch back beyond the period of Asterix as far as Early Man?
Between the 10th and 12th centuries, European foliate masks were fantastic, sometimes nightmarish inventions, but the 13th century re-interpreted the image in a naturalistic way, focussing on the lifelike quality of the carved leaves. It is said that the greatest concentrations of green men in European churches are near stretches of historic woodlands: it is almost as if, when the trees were chopped down to build, their spirit inhabitants insisted on taking up residence with ‘their’ timbers in the new home.
“The Green Man probably arrived in the Christian Church as a part of a general sense of Spirit in Nature, an inheritance from the Pagan past which was doubtless more sub-conscious than deliberate. Green men are far too prominent in churches, at a time when heresy and non-conformity were fiercely punished, to have entered the church in a gesture of knowing respect to Pagan deities.. [Our] God is also the God of nature, there is some mysterious link between the pattern of death and resurrection which is at the heart of salvation and the dying to rise again, the winters before spring, that are patterned into nature herself…The God who made Spring could not be less than the gods we worshipped once in sacred groves…there is more, not less exuberance in him than in Pan and Bacchus. He is more than the Green Man but he is also everything the Green Man ever was.” [i][i] The Green Man by The Revd Malcolm Guite, Anglican priest and poet based in Cambridge; see www.malcolmguite.com