Blog Posts for Context re Green Men and Christianisation

At least nine, and possibly more than twenty, people have read yesterday’s post, Brief Thoughts on the Green Man. I would like to draw the attention of my readers to some posts here that may de-fuse any sticky situations that may arise from people who think I’m off my rocker or have no clue what I’m talking about. In anti-chronological order, they are:

A Few Thoughts About ‘Celtic’ Christianity

Christianisation Under Justinian Part 1 and Part 2

Rosslyn Chapel, ‘the Celts’, and the Christianisation of Europe

I thought there were more that would be useful, but they seem not to be. Enjoy!

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Brief Thoughts on the Green Man

Green Man, Rosslyn Chapel

If you look for the Green Man on the internet (as with popular books), most people you will find who discuss this allegedly mythological figure will tie connections between High and Late Mediaeval grotesques and some Imperial Roman art, which is fair enough, and then often run off telling you about vaguely similar things in other cultures and then trying to convince you that Bacchus is Okeanos is the Green Man. It’s all a bit breathless and doesn’t really work.

One can reasonably demonstrate that the visual motif in Roman art is about the same thing we’re getting on mediaeval cathedrals. No dispute there. The links with Bacchus and Okeanos, however, are tenuous at best.

However, to say that a motif from pagan art is because the sculptors themselves were still pagans is a bit silly. All sorts of magnificent, wonderful, bizarre things are going on in mediaeval churches. These are the things that lurk about in the edges of the consciousness of the human mind. Things go bump in the night. Man is a creature of Earth, even if he can look to the heavens. We are physically of the same stuff as everything else. And so things make their way onto church walls and pillars and roofs, not only Green Men but other, stranger figures.

We like to parse the world of wonder and mystery in our Enlightenment world. And so there is nature and, perhaps, super-nature. But living with the inheritance of the thought-purges of the Renaissance and Reformation, super-nature is God and his angels, and — depending your mood — the devil and his minions. Full stop.

That mediaeval people may have believed in other facets of the numinous world makes them no less Christian than we. It means that their universe was larger in many ways. Indeed, it is not the Green Men who make you pause and question the level of Christian commitment held by the mediaeval world so much as the Platonic worldview so many held!

However, for me, the idea of a visual motif from the pagan world surviving into the Middle Ages cannot mean that these people were half-Christianised pagans (although some/many of them likely were). This is partly because Peter Brown has aptly and amply demonstrated that the Cult of the Saints is not a paganised version of Christianity, even when it so strikingly resembles paganism (see The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity).

Green Man, York Minster (not my photo, it was blurry!)

A second reason is the fact that the mythology neo-pagan websites attach to the Green Man is extrapolated entirely from the architecture itself. We know nothing of what a stonemason in 13th-century York was thinking when he carved a Green Man. All we have is a visual motif that bears a resemblance to a Roman pagan visual motif. To tie it in to Druids and pre-Christian Germanic religion and specific ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature — we cannot go this far. The evidence is unable to bring us to these conclusions, because the Classical framework wherein our first properly attested Green Men arise gives us no such help and is so philosophically plural that there is no single Graeco-Roman pagan vision of humanity’s relationship to nature.

Goddess Victory, Ephesus

A third reason why the Green Man does not proclaim to me that these people were still pagans who worshipped whatever it is that pagans worshipped is the fact that we know full well that an angel is an angel, and not the goddess Victoria (Nike) or Cupid. Yet more than enough art shows angels who resemble one or the other. Motifs from pagan art carry over into Christian art to a very large degree; this is the classical inheritance of the mediaeval world. It comes along with allegorical readings of texts, Ptolemaic astronomy, dactylic hexameter, and Ciceronian rhetoric. For a good, readable treatment of the mediaeval and Renaissance use of classical pagan literary and philosophical ideas, read C S Lewis’ The Discarded Image.

Third, Green Men appear in churches. Mediaeval piety as represented by illuminated manuscripts, the rest of church architecture, Books of Hours, Breviaries, the Cult of the Saints, the Cult of the Cross, the Cult of the Virgin, Corpus Christi festivals, mystery and miracle plays, devotional poetry, and eucharistic devotion shows me people who have a strong Classical inheritance, sometimes (even among the ‘elites’) un-Christian and pagan, but always overlaid and refashioned and reinterpreted in light of the Christian message and Christian gospel.

Green Men tell me nothing of survivals of pagan piety into the Middle Ages. And they tell me nothing of ancient pagan beliefs about nature. For that, I will turn to Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius or Plato or Aristotle. They do, however, tell me of the survival of pagan artistic motifs of one form or another through the Middle Ages. And this I already knew.

One final thought: perhaps these modern re-imaginings lie in the false dichotomy forged between popular religion and the elites by David Hume. Peter Brown deals with this is in his opening chapters ofThe Cult of the Saints. Perhaps that is precisely the problem. We see the monks as cut off from these barbarians who, through forced, mass conversions never actually abandoned their old religions. In some ways, that is a story Northern Europe tells. However, this is not the story of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity, the place where our Green Men have their best earliest attestation.

So much for now. I think we should re-think the Green Man as a pagan visual motif surviving in a Christian setting. This may give us a thoroughly different narrative.

Rosslyn Chapel, “the Celts”, and the Christianisation of Europe

My wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel, a Scottish Episcopal Church in the village of Roslin just outside Edinburgh, the other day. It has been made famous by the infamous Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code. Its (probable/possible) connexions to the Knights Templar has made for a wealth of exuberant speculation about the myriad decorations in this Collegiate Church of St. Matthew.

Outside of things directly traceable to the Freemasons, with whom the St. Clairs — the Lords of Rosslyn — have historically-attested connexions, most of this speculation is … silly, in my opinion. The sort of silliness borne of people who hear “Freemason” think “Templar” and then see something ornate and think “Code,” rather than “MEDIAEVAL.”

In this beautiful, ornate chapel there are 110 Green Men. Now, if you don’t know about the Green Man, he’s not a mediaeval proto-extraterrestrial. He is a carven image of a man’s head surrounded by foliage and with foliage coming out of his mouth. Some modern renderings of the Green Man make him entirely out of plants. The Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel, from what I saw, are of the former variety.

Here is what the current Earl of Rosslyn in Rosslyn Chapel says:

Over one hundred [Green Men] have been counted in the interior of the building, a profusion of pagan fertility symbols not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition. … The green man symbolised the capacity for great goodness and the parallel scope for significant evil. (21-22)

The Earl goes on to give us a bit of Robin Hood, connecting him with the Green Man.

What surprised me and provoked this post was the statement that pagan fertility symbols are “not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition.” What Celtic tradition, exactly? That of Freemasonry? Or that of the Irish monks who were virulently anti-pagan and Christianised Scotland? Or that of the … continental … Gothic … architecture of Rosslyn Chapel …??

Facts: The Green Man is not peculiarly Celtic, and Rosslyn Chapel is not especially “Celtic”, and this region of Scotland was settled by Anglo-Saxons in the Early Middle Ages, so it was not really very “Celtic” by 1446 when construction began on the chapel.

I’m not going to argue that the Green Man is something other than a pagan fertility symbol (I reckon that’s exactly where he comes from — as to why he’s on churches, that’s a different question altogether), although I’m curious as to the stuff about goodness and evil — it sounds like romanticised neo-paganism to me.

But I am going to argue that the presence of pagan things has nothing to do with Celtic-ness in these whereabouts, even if the Pictish population of Mid- and East Lothian had not been assimilated by the Germanic invaders. Or, at least, if it’s related to Celtic-ness here, it’s just as related to Italian-ness in Italy, Cypriot-ness in Cyprus, Spanish-ness in Spain, French-ness in France, Germanic-ness in the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.

Conversion to Christianity took a new turn after Constantine’s conversion in the early 300’s, a turn that was kicked into high gear by Theodosius I in 381 when pagan rites in the Roman Empire were outlawed. Justinian (r. 527-565) sought the forcible conversion of pagans throughout Asia Minor and hunted down idolaters in his Christian capital of Constantinople. With a growing number of Christian rulers and potentates, conversion to Christianity became a matter of more than merely personal conviction.

In some cases, as with Olav in Norway or Charlemagne amongst the mainland Saxons, converting meant that you got to keep your life. In other cases, converting meant you got to keep your land, your titles, your money. In some cases, converting meant that you got a better job at court, or extra land, extra titles, and extra money. There were very compelling reasons to become a “Christian”, and not all of them had to do with the death of a Jewish rabbi c. AD 33.

The Christianisation of Europe is an interesting phenomenon as a result. It is true that there has always been a notable population of sincere, honest, devout, catechised Christians in the cities and towns of Europe. It is also true that paganism often went underground in the Middle Ages — even in an ostensibly “Christian” city such as Constantinople; this is often what “witches” were up to, I suspect — worshipping pre-Christian deities with pre-Christian rites.

Sometimes, paganism was simply syncretised into Christianity. Thus, at the Church built on the site of the Temple of Aphrodite in Paphos, Cyprus, to this day women wishing to conceive wrap threads around the building. There is the possibility that St. Brigid of Kildare (not to be confused with the many other Sts. Brigid) was just the slapping of an ST onto a local deity. A lot of local festivals of fire have been maintained to this day. There are more, but I’m tired.

All of this is to say that the Celtic-speaking peoples of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were no more keen on paganism than the Germanic-, Romance-, Greek-, and Slavic-speaking peoples of mainland Europe. Any pagan connexion the Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel may have is not due to any so-called “Celtic” connexions the area may have had.

But, you see, this problem is the problem of the mythic “Celts.” Everyone lays claim to the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Celtic-speaking peoples of these isles, sometimes tossing in some of the continental Gauls for fun. The evangelicals see them as some sort of Church free from Roman influence, while the Catholics see them as good Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox as good Western Orthodox. The Neo-pagans and New Agers get all excited about them, too, and lay claim to these peoples as their own. One article I’ve seen discusses the similarities between “Celtic” thought and St. Maximus the Confessor; another wonders at the great similarities between “Celts” and Buddhists.

Basically, say anything you like about being free-spirited, and earthy, and in touch with nature, and making distinctive art forms, and believing in the closeness of the numinous, and being free from oppressive hierarchies, and about making Christianity real to the culture you’re in — or about resisting subversively the influx of Christian ideas — and attribute it to “the Celts”, and you have a hit. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

So many of the things people imagine to be distinctively Celtic, such as Green Men or the persistence of pagan images and ideas throughout the Middle Ages, are, quite simply, Mediaeval. But we don’t have enough Mediaevalists to go around, do we?