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Often hidden high up in the roofs of these magnificent medieval buildings, the carved images of the Green Man look down on the congregation and visitors alike. The Green Man though, is not a Christian figure, he dates from pagan times when trees and woodland formed the basis of our religions. Indeed, the area of Devon where he can be found in number is full of place names such as Nymet and Nympton, both of which are old Celtic terms meaning sacred groves. The Heart of Devon was once a very special place for tree worshippers.
The image of the Green Man is that of a face, surrounded by foliage and with leafy shoots sprouting forth from the mouth, nostrils and sometimes even the eyes. These images are carved in to the oak bosses that brace the timber of the church roofs, they are sometimes also carved in to the Rood screens that separate the chancel from the nave. They are not always immediately obvious; the Green Man tends to lurk in the shadows. In the area around North Tawton and Bow in mid Devon, several churches can be found that are home to the Green Man, whilst other parts of the county have none. Is it, perhaps, connected to the old sacred woodland groves that once were part of this rural landscape. It is tempting to think so; the importance of the area to past religions was underlined in 1984 when the soil marks of a large woodhenge were spotted, during an aerial survey, alongside the River Yeo on the edge of the village of Bow. The woodhenge dates back to the third millennium B.C and would have measured some 45 metres across, making it a large and very important structure that would have been used for religious purposes. One writer, the late Roger Deakin, reflecting on the area around Bow, described the River Yeo as Devon’s river Ganges.
The Green Man images would have been made by local woodworkers as they carried out the timber work in the construction of the areas churches. The creators of these images were talented craftsmen indeed, a look at the oak bosses of these churches will reveal a whole host of intricate designs, all carved by hand and dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The skill of these unknown workers is further demonstrated in some of the churches by a design showing three hares sat around the oak boss. At first glance, these hares all appear normal, but a closer look reveals that there are only three ears between them, making them, perhaps, some of the oldest optical illusions in the country.
There are conflicting arguments as to why the Green Man is so well represented in this part of the county, but most have their origin in the Celtic sacred groves of the area. When the churches of mid Devon were being constructed in medieval times, the pagan worship of sacred groves was still something that lingered in the local population. One theory is that the Christian church deliberately incorporated the pagan Green Man image into the new buildings to demonstrate to the local population that Christianity was their religion. The other theory is that the local population had strongly held views when it came to their sacred groves and they weren’t prepared to let them go easily. Could it be that the local craftsmen employed to build the churches deliberately created the images as an act of rebellion against the rigidly enforced doctrines of the church?
The simple truth is that nobody really knows why these symbols are so prevalent in the churches of the area, for every theory put forward at least another two are proposed to contradict it. Whatever the reason for their existence, one thing cannot be argued with; the images of the Green Man are true works of art that should be enjoyed and celebrated by us all.
By Ian Parsons