Ubiquitous British folk symbol found to have deep historical roots that presage the later sacrificial and redemptive aspects of Christianity! Wow! Who knew? Not me!
Mark Olly´s new book, Revealing the Green Man, tells this story and builds his argument plank by plank, surveying ancient religions around the world to find that far from being a Brythonic decorative figure, the Green Man existed throughout pre-Bronze Age civilizations world-wide as a dark figure of sacrifice and resurrection.
¨Depictions span the full reach of time and geography. The impulse to depict this essential life force can be found way back in the mists of prehistory, from Middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures before 4000 BC, in jungles and forests, mountains and rivers, and even deserts and wildernesses, where the desire to see the life force return was most likely the strongest of all.¨
As an American I have no context for the Green Man other than the most apparent being within nature. I have seen the heads of Green Men peering out beneath their leafy foliage in carvings on church pews in tiny British country parishes, and I have seen larger statues of the Green Man in British public spaces, but without context I found these images to be mere curiosities.
Olly situates the emergence of the Green Man to the discovery of copper, which was first smelted in 6000 BC in the Caucasus and only appeared in Britain 4000 years later when it was first mined in Wales. That there was a shamanic cultus during that time is not in doubt and Olly traces the Green Man idea from the discovery of this magical metal throughout the geographic range and artistic expression of copper mining and fabrication, specifically tieing it to shamanic rituals for the health of the land and for nature´s rebirth after the death of winter.
Olly looks to the distant past for hints as to the meaning and emergence of the Green Man. Beginning with an analysis of a passage from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh that correlates to aspects of later Celtic sacrifice (beheadings and triple sacrifice), Olly next looks at the archeological discovery of Otzi, the remains of the last prehistoric hunter found in 1991 buried in ice in the Italian Tyrol, along with his kit which included a copper axe. Why would this hunter carry a copper axe when stone axes were available and more durable? Perhaps the copper axe was not used for the usual purposes but rather carried for ritual purposes related to the hunt.
In exploring the metaphorical capacity of the element of copper, Olly develops his hypothesis about its probable shamanic and ritual uses. Rather than spoil the pleasure of the reader discovering these, I will only say that all of the remainder of the book and explanation of the Green Man cult ties back to the understanding of the nature and interrelationship of copper, the gold of the sun, and the green of nature. It should also be noted that these various elements relate to the emergence of the Neolithic age when the relationship between society and the land was changing focus from hunter gatherers to farmers; a time when the land was seen as more and more sacred and worthy of worship and honor.
Once this hypothesis is laid out, Olly weaves together various disparate threads found in different cultures and in different time periods, including the Foresters Guild, the times of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, and the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to bring the Green Man up to 16th century Britain.
Sixteenth century Britain is marked as the point after which the Green Man story fades. Copper became just another tool as copper plates were used in the printing process. The appetite for knowledge and certainty grew rapidly as scientific discovery built upon discovery. Shamanic practice was out of favor in this new age of truth and the Green Man, stripped of his shamanic valence and controlled by the religious forces and wars of the time, slipped from view. That this period was followed by the industrial age in which all things were broken down into component parts and turned all consideration of objects into machines, speaks to the loss of soul represented in part by the Green Man legend. The Green Man itself became a tie to the folk traditions of the past absent its sacred function.
However, with the Victorian interest in the romantic revitalization of the druids and a resulting increase in curiosity about the uses of ritual, the Green Man has come back into his own. The Green Man, a potent symbol of standing with Nature against the forces of technology that would despoil her, has breathed new life into our understanding of what he might offer us today.
I quite enjoyed this book and found that it was well written and, in spite of covering quite a bit of information, easy to follow. I particularly liked the fact that the narrative circled back around itself so that where it started it also ended. There is more for me to ponder and that is always a sign for me of a good read, when I am left wanting to know more.