The Green Man is most notably known as a pagan nature spirit, a symbol of man’s reliance on and union with nature, a symbol of the underlying life-force, and of the renewed cycle of growth each spring. It is in this aspect that he is known as the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan and Dionysus. It is said that the Green Man represents the male counterpart – as son, lover or guardian – to Gaia (or the Great MotherGoddess. Certainly his is a figure which has appeared throughout history in almost all cultures. There is even an example of a winged Earth Mother apparently giving birth to a smiling Green Man.
By far the most common occurrences of the Green Man are the stone and wood carvings in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals in Europe (particularly in Britain and France). The Green Man is also known as the “foliate head”, often appearing over main doorways and surprisingly often in close proximity to representations of the Christ figure.
Some see the Green Man image incorporated into the design of a medieval church or cathedral as a kind of small act of faith on the part of the carver that life and fresh crops will return to the soil each spring and that the harvest will be plentiful. Pre-Christian pagan traditions and superstitions, particularly those related to nature and trees, were still a significant influence in early medieval times, as exemplified by the planting of yew trees (a prominent pagan symbol) in churchyards, and the maintenance of ancient “sacred groves” of trees.
The Green Man can be seen as a continuing symbol of such beliefs, in much the same way as the later May Day pageants, many of which were led by the related figure of Jack-in-the-Green.
The disgorging Green Man, sprouting vegetation from his orifices, may also be seen as a reminder of the death that await all men, as well as the Pagan representation of resurrection and rebirth, as new life naturally springs out of our human remains. The Greek and Roman god Dionysus/Bacchus, often suggested as an early precursor of the Green Man, was also associated with death and rebirth in his guise as Okeanus.
Although the Green Man is usually interpreted as a positive and benevolent force, it is by no means certain that he was always seen that way. He has often been portrayed more as a devil than as a god, sometimes complete with diabolical horns.
The Green Man with vegetation coming out his mouth is almost always interpreted as disgorging or creating vegetation, a positive and creative force. However, as with Ourobouros (the circular snake biting its own tail), there is also an element of ambivalence in the image, and a compelling argument can be made that the Green Man might in fact be swallowing or devouring all of nature, rather than creating it.
Many modern Neo-Paganists and Wiccans see the Green Man as a variant of the pagan Horned God, which is in turn a syncretism of several older nature and fertility deities, including the Greek gods Pan and Dionysus, the Roman Silvanus, the Celtic Cernunnos, the Hindu Pashupati, etc (both Dionysus and Cernunnos were sometimes portrayed with hair composed of stylized leaves and vegetation).
Figures such as Cernunnos, Sylvanus, Derg Corra, Green George, Jack in the green, John Barleycorn, Robin Goodfellow, Puck, and the Green Knight all share aspects of the Green Man’s nature; it has also been suggested that the story of Robin Hood was born of the same mythology. A more modern embodiment is found in Peter Pan, who enters the civilized world from Neverland, clothed in green leaves. Even Father Christmas, who was often shown wreathed in ivy in early depictions, has been suggested as a similar woodland spirit.