Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Green Man: Burning Man 2007 Art Theme

After I returned from Burning Man earlier this year I reviewed the festival's website not only to read their reflections on the 2006 festival, but also to see what was in store for 2007. I was especially intrigued by the art theme for next year, The Green Man. Their website describes him this way:

"Peering outward from behind a mottled screen of vines and leaves, the Green Man does not speak or sleep; he waits. His meaning and his origins are largely lost to time — the Green Man wasn't named till 1939. We know, however, that this type of enigmatic figure was the work of artists, anonymous craftsman whose unsigned work adorns the crevices and walls of medieval cathedrals. This year we will appropriate the Green Man and the primeval spell he casts on our imaginations for a modern purpose. Our theme concerns humanity's relationship to nature. Do we, as conscious beings, exist outside of nature's sway, or does its force impel us and inform the central root of who and what we are?"

The history of the Green Man is fascinating and worth considering in his appropriation by Burning Man and other groups concerned with a ecology and a stronger sense of connection to nature and the cosmos. As the paragraph above mentions, the term "Green Man" came into existence in 1939 when Lady Raglan coined the term which refers to the image of a "foliate head or the head of a man sprouting leaves" that were "frequently found carved in the stonework of churches." This figure became a common motif in medieval sculpture. Although the figure has been adopted within many segments of Paganism as an ancient Pagan symbol appropriated by Christianity, the best evidence seems to indicate that the Green Man does not have Pagan origins. The noted Pagan historian Ronald Hutton in his book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Blackwell, 1991) provides an example of some of the fine scholarship against the Pagan origin thesis. As Weir and Jarman indicate, the origin of the Green Man is complex and can likely traced back to Christian artisans who incorporated the figure as part of an intention "to depict the Seven Deadly Sins - with the Green Man Representing Lust (Images of Lust: sexual carvings on medieval churches [B. T. Batsford, 1986]). Even so, "no one is disputing that..Green Men and the like have, over the last few decades, become paganised."

Even without an ancient and Pagan pedigree, the modern appropriation of the Green Man provides a rich and significant motif for those wishing to explore their place in nature and the broader cosmos. The Green Man is a figure to be engaged with not only by Pagans, but by all who care, or should care more deeply, for the environment. A few Christians have wrestled with such challenges. For example John Smulo has written and essay which address the need for Christians to place a holistic ecological ethic on their spiritual agenda, and Richard Thomas has written an interesting essay on "Jesus: The Green Man of the Bible" that he presented to the Pagan Federational International Conference in 2004.
The figure of the Green Man provides an interesting motif for Christian and Pagan alike to reflect theologically and ecologically on a significant facet of life in the twenty-first century. It might also provide a postive point for interaction between Christians and Burners at the 2007 festival.


Sally said...

John I found out today and you might be interested to know there is a figure of the Green Man in Linclon Cathedral here in the UK, the Cathedral guides are instructed not to ignore it but to seek to make connections... interesting I am looking in to this

John W. Morehead said...

Sally, thanks for letting me know about a local manifestation of the Green Man near you. I look forward to hearing more about what you find out.

Pastor Phil said...

John, I think we make plans to bring a Greenman/Jesus art project to Burning Man this next year. We have already created a project on this topic here in Salem. Whadayathink? create a little trouble among onlooking fundies?

Of course, why would onlooking fundies be looking at Burning Man? ;-)