21 July 2014

Flower Beards: Sorry, Boys, But the Green Man Got There First

Flower Beards. The internet has recently been festooned with pictures of young, hirsute men who have chosen to decorate their facial hair with a variety of blooms.

The flower beard trend has blossomed with little warning even though it remains to be seen how a beard decorated with daisies, violets and rosebuds might survive a Friday night pub crawl let alone the opprobrium it might receive from peers who simply don’t get it. If you drink in one of the many pubs named after our subject (see below) then you might just get away with it.

However, perhaps flower beards represent more than a passing fad: maybe these young men are channelling something rather more ancient than urban fashionistas might suspect.

It could be that this fashion is guided by a spirit of primal fecundity, the Green Man.

Before I move on I should say that perhaps the flower beard fad is just that – something a tad tongue in cheek, something a little silly, something that will inevitably pass.

Yet it would be heartening to believe that these men, in their search for a male self-identity of the twenty first century (and let’s face it the last few decades of the twentieth saw a little ambling from whatever the true path may be) have, however unconsciously, tapped in to this ancient symbol of rebirth and the cycle of growth and replenishment.

Whatever the reason, it presents a fine opportunity to delve in to the history of the green man.

Norwich Cathedral, England Image Credit Flickr User Ruth and Dave
His name, to begin with, is less than a century old. A Lady Raglan, august contributor to The Folklore Journal (almost impossible to imagine a magazine with such a title being published today) invented the term to describe an almost bewilderingly diverse tradition.  That was in 1939, but before Lady R and her pursuit of nomenclatary neatness the Green Man was known variously as Jack in the Green, Lud, Cernunnas and Viridius and many more: farther afield parallels can be drawn to Osiris (a corn god, often depicted with a green face), Odin and even Jesus - more of that later.

Bradwell On Sea, England Image Credit Flickr User Chris Metcalfe
Derby Cathedral, England Image Credit Flickr User Duncan
Caen, France Image Credit Wikimedia
The green man may have started out with a few flowers in his beard but, as with fashion, statements can go to the natural extreme.  He is usually seen in one of three forms (although there are many more): the first is the ‘foliate head’ which is completely covered in greenery.  Next there is the ‘disgorging head’ where vegetation is ejected from the mouth (perhaps after one of those pub crawls) and finally there is the ‘bloodsucker head’.  This is where plant life of many kinds erupts from his facial orifices.

Just as his appearance can vary, the green man can represent a number of things.  As the mythology around him rose independently in a number of separate cultures he is found, ever present but soundless, throughout history. He survives in the imagery, most often carved, left behind by our ancestors. It would be superficially easy to say that he is, then, effectively a pagan symbol.  After all in the very much alive pagan religion of Wicca (made public only in 1954) he is a powerful syncretic deity.

Selby Abbey, England    Image Credit Flickr User Holly Hayes
Pennal, Wales    Image Credit Flickr User John Ibbotson
However, that would make him far too easy to classify. Neither would it explain why he is found in abbeys, churches and cathedrals throughout Europe and beyond. The earliest in Europe, near Poitiers in France, dates to around 400CE and that gives us something of a clue.  Now, who effectively ruled the European roost at that particular time?

Acanthus, Turkey Image Credit Flickr User Nick in Exsilio
Acanthus, Turkey Image Credit Flickr User Nick in Exsilio
And what did they ever do for us? One thing they certainly did do was to integrate and adapt local cultures and traditions to their own ends. In the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306–337) Christianity had become the predominant religion of the empire.  Religion was in a state of flux with a myriad of gods being replaced with just one (or three in one, depending on your standpoint). To ease the transition, a tradition of saints had been quickly established as something to be bolted on top of the old, minor gods.

If you have ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation then you will be familiar with the Borg.  In terms of religion, the Romans of the burgeoning, Christian tradition were very much the Borg of their day.

Missionaries would assimilate local religions in to Christianity rather than try to persuade their often potentially quite brutish would-be converts that their old gods never really existed. To paraphrase the TV series the theological and spiritual distinctiveness of local religions were added on to Christianity. Ancient, indigenous gods would often simply become new Christian saints.

Bulmer, England Image Credit Flickr User John Ibbotson
Friggeråker, Sweden Image Wikimedia
And why not?  The Green Man has, it must be said, a numinous presence and it isn’t a stretch to see the connection people might make between their own representations of rebirth and the resurrection of Jesus.  Initially the pictures and carvings of the green man would, it is thought, have been seen as much as symbols of the Christ as those of his crucifixion.  Yet within a few generations they would become figurative symbols rather than literal images.  So it was with the green man and his ilk: when you paint your pink house yellow no one remembers why on earth the old color had been chosen after a while (or even what it was).

So it was with the green man although his image persisted it was without devotion. By the renaissance the many new variations of the green man theme were purely decorative and were more an instance of collective cultural memory represented through art than the manifestation of any deeply held religious belief.  The face of the green man often became those of animals, further removing any religious element in to the realm of the secular.

Toronto, Canada Image Credit Flickr User Jenny Rotten
Monticello, Illinois Image Credit Flickr User nadja.robot
It wasn’t the end for the green man by any means.  Both the Gothic revival and the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century used him to great effect in the architecture of many buildings. The gothic revival (which began in 1740 but really took off in the early 1800s) saw him enter churches and cathedrals once more.   American and Australian architects took him up at the same time and so he moved to continents new.

Montreal, Canada Image  Credit Flickr User AV Graphics
Crich, England Image Credit Flickr User Karlos of Syston
Today, he continues to inspire artists. The green man and variations on the theme appear in science fiction and fantasy literature with some frequency: there are the Nym, Timothy Green and Swamp-Thing to name a few. Now he’s all over Instagram and Twitter in his latest incarnation.

Whatever the media or philosophy, the underlying significance of the green man remains the same. He represents fertility, rebirth, and the ability to influence life.  So, in that case, the new flower beard movement can only be seen as something affirmative. My tongue is incompletely in cheek when I say it enables its adherents to live in the present and look to the future with peaceful positivity and creative, masculine vigor.

But, you know, that’s something that modern civilization desperately needs. In which case, you go for it, boys.

First Image Credit Flickr User Monica Lara
Second Image B&W Credit Flickr User Andrew Pescod
Second hipser Image Credit Imgur