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05/13/2003 Archived Entry: "The Green Man"
The Green Man is among the most popular of inn signs throughout England and although we seldom query the source of this character, it is in fact a reminder of a mythical figure who dates into bygone pagan times.
There have been many attempts at explaining the origins of the Green Man and some authorities believe he gave birth to other characters like Jack-in-the-Green, Jack-in-the-Bush, The Lord of the May (sometimes known as the May King), Robin Goodfellow and even the Robin Hood legends. After all, Robin Hood was always portrayed dressed in Lincoln green and these characters are associated with trees or forests. In some May Day celebrations, the May Queen was accompanied by The Lord of the May or the May King, a handsome youth bedecked with ribbons and silk finery while carrying a sword. I believe some of these customs have continued in parts of Britain, although it is now rare to find a May King featured.
Jack-in-the-Green was a forest dweller whose clothes matched the surroundings like those of Robin Hood, and he has likenesses in other parts of Europe where they are variously known as Green George, The Garland or the Wild Man of Germany. In some parts of England, where the Green Man appears in folk customs during late spring, he is depicted inside a large wicker cage which completely envelopes him. It is covered with flowers, branches and leaves so that only his eyes can be seen.
On those occasions where he is not shown in this cage, his clothing is always green, and it symbolises new foliage on the trees and new leaves on the other plants. The Green Man, whether in his guise as Jack-in-the-Green or some other character, used to appear regularly in a range of festivals, processions, mummers' plays and dances, invariably with a rural setting. Oddly enough, he did appear in some towns, albeit as part of processions involving chimney sweeps. Sweeps had their annual holiday on May Day which might explain the presence of the Green Man, but it is otherwise difficult to see any connection between this essentially rural character and the rather more urban profession of chimney sweeping. When the practice of using small boys to sweep chimneys came to an end, so did these processions and thus ended this odd association.
In some former celebrations the Green Man would appear alone whilst in other places he would be part of a procession of several characters whose function was to chase away winter and prepare a welcome for the coming summer, sometimes in his guise as the spirit of new vegetation. His role was often shown as a bringer-of-plenty which is why he appeared in spring with its abundance of new greenery and blossom, adding to the mystery of his appearance alongside chimney sweeps. I believe he was sometimes depicted in illustrations of St George and the Dragon too - another association which appears somewhat mysterious.
But there are other green men? When people believed in fairies, a woman at Fryup, in Yorkshire's Eskdale, spotted a small green man wearing a strange cap. She saw him several times and he always disappeared into a hole in the ground near a stone bridge. Who was he? Or what was he? We shall never know.
But what about Green Ladies? There are Scottish folk stories which feature unpleasant Green Ladies. One was the Green Lady of Cromarty who dressed in green and carried a goblin baby. She wandered at night and when she found a cottage in which the inhabitants were asleep, she would enter and kill any child she found. Another beautiful wandering Green Lady was thought to carry the small-pox germ and she would sit by the fire of her intended victim in the evening or early morning. To catch sight of her heralded bad news.
But not all Green Ladies were wicked. In Derbyshire there is the story of a farmer who on the first day of summer, laid flowers by three trees on his farm. He believed that these three Green Ladies, as he called them, protected his crops. He had three sons and when their father died, the two eldest sons each felled one of the Green Ladies and suffered ill fortune, but the youngest son continued his father's custom and he prospered.