The Green Man

Symbol of Our Care for Mother Earth

H. Talat Halman, Ph.D.

The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Almost every single medieval church has tucked away somewhere—or fully displayed—an image of a face popularly known as “the Green Man.” His face is covered with foliage, often oak leaves. Many eighteenth-century gravestones in the Scottish Lowlands also bear his image. What does he symbolize? John Matthews describes him as “the spirit of nature . . . an ancient symbol of nature and fertility.” Matthews finds the Green Man in the Norse World Tree, Yggdrasil, and the figures of Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Odin, Osiris, the King of the Wood, the May King, the Harvest King, the Green Giant and Tolkien’s Treebeard. Certainly we can learn much from our older brothers, the trees. One of the first boyhood mystical experiences I remember occurred while I gazed upwards within my neighbors’ enormous oak tree and felt the spirit of Abraham and the lineages that descended from him.

While many claim the Green Man as the symbol of fertility, renewal and even immortality, others such as Kathleen Basford assert that he represents the fragility of life as impermanent as the leaves that cover him. In this sense, we should ask: Does his face surface from the foliage, asserting immortality, or does it fade into it, suggesting that we all must die? I suggest that the Green Man symbolizes both the realities of death and immortality. And further, the Green Man reminds us to think not only of our own death and immortality, but that of the Earth as well. In this way the Green Man is a symbol motivating our caring for the Earth and our relationship with her. As Shakespeare said, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

In the Qur’an (18:60-82), the Green Man, as the Prophet Muhammad named him, tutors Moses on the mysteries of predestination and theodicy. The Prophet Muhammad explained that he is called the Green Man because when he would sit on barren ground, the ground would turn green. Here the Green Man represents the Earth’s renewal, or the power to renew the Earth with plants. Rabbi Kook wrote of the vegetable world, “Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song and breaking forth a secret of the divine mystery.”  That reality is al-Khidr. Hazrat Inayat Khan called the Green Man al-Khidr, “the guiding angel of all seeking souls.” Moses found al-Khidr when a cooked fish came back to life in the waters of eternal life. On their subsequent journey, as narrated in the Qur’an, Moses experienced many of al-Khidr’s actions as evil, dangerous and deadly. But al-Khidr, knowing predestination, and acting from discernment, acted in a way that preserved and enhanced life beyond the limited purview of circumstances, chance and passing generations.

Muslim tradition considers al-Khidr to have been born between the generations of Noah and Abraham, and many believe that he continues to live and move among us as an immortal being. He has appeared to almost every Sufi saint and sage to provide a deeper wisdom and often a special blessing and initiation. One Sufi tradition says that we will all encounter al-Khidr at least once in our lifetime. It is from the Green Man, who transforms barren Earth to fertile ground, that the deepest treasures of Sufism are imparted. And as we shall see, Qur’anic Sufism calls us to learn from the Earth. When the Earth serves as our teacher, we will be drawn more fully to honor, nourish and protect her.

Hazrat Inayat Khan stated in the third of the Ten Sufi Thoughts, “There is One Holy Book, the sacred manuscript of nature, the only scripture which can enlighten the reader.” The symbol and story of the Green Man shed light on how we can be enlightened readers of nature. The Qur’an points to nature as a set of “signs” (aya)—the same word as a “verse” of the Qur’an—to underscore three primary lessons. First, from love God established nature as a means to sustain life. Second, nature expresses harmony, beauty and awe. Third, nature demonstrates the principle of the resurrection, that death is not the end, but a new beginning.

The Green Man calls our attention to our ecological crisis because he represents the cycle of death and regeneration. William Anderson describes him as the archetype of many gods and heroes: Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Saint George, al-Khidr, Robin Hood, the Green Knight, and many others, including, as per Hildegard of Bingen’s teaching, Jesus Christ. The cycle of death and immortality is central to these heroes’ stories. I would add to this list Saint Francis, the great lover of Christ in nature whose statue adorns many gardens. St. Francis exemplified a caring love of nature—the original Creation Spirituality—when he spoke with the birds, pacified the fierce wolf of Gubbio, and sang of the elements in his “Canticle of the Sun.” According to Meher Baba, on the night St. Francis received his stigmata at Alvernia, al-Khidr visited St. Francis and gave him the “touch of grace” that made him a perfect master. In his “Canticle of the Sun” St. Francis sang:

“Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”

While both the Green Man and Saint Francis stir our appreciation of the beauty of nature and her bountiful gifts, they also help us turn away from denial about the fact of death in both human life and nature. Once asked what is the greatest miracle of all, Hazret ‘Ali replied, “Though every day people die, we see people act as if they will live forever.” We face the same challenge in our ecological crisis. Every day we continue to treat the Earth as if she will last forever. The Green Man symbolizes, in both human life and nature, an awakening from that negligence.

The Green Man also symbolizes an honest and healing relationship to the phases of our death and our immortality. As St. Francis said:

“Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.”

Those doing God’s “most holy will”—and this includes those who honor and learn from the Earth—will overcome death. St. Francis points straight to the transcendence of bodily death by attaining immortality. Nature’s “sacred manuscript” shows that through nature herself God is the “Sustainer” of life and the “Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty.” Nature reveals that God the Creator (al-Khaliq) is the “Shaper of Beauty” (al-Musawwir), that rejuvenation follows death.

The Qur’an also uses the analogy of nature to instruct us about our immortality through the resurrection:

“It is He who made the night a garment for you, and sleep a rest, and the day like a resurrection.” (Qur’an 25:48)

“He brings the living out of the dead and the dead out of the living. He gives life to the Earth after death, and you will be brought out in the same way… Among His signs too, are that He shows you the lightning that terrifies and inspires hope; that He sends down water from the sky to restore the Earth to life after death. There truly are signs in this for those who use their reason.” (Qur’an 30:19, 24)

The fate of humankind and the Earth are vitally linked. As Gregory Bateson asserted, mind and nature inseparably belong to one interrelated biosphere. The Green Man speaks to us of this connection. He is the bridge between our conscience and the life and mind of nature. When we think about the ecological crisis, we are involved in that crisis as well. As we harm our planet, so we harm ourselves. We can only heal our planet if, like St. Francis, we can understand and accept the challenge of our mortality and that of the Earth, and the urgency of caring action. The “sacred manuscript of nature” teaches the words of the psalmist and the Prophet Isaiah in two verses quoted and paraphrased on those eighteenth-century gravestones in Scotland that bear the Green Man’s face:

“As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16)

“The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

Kathleen Basford writes of a warning that the Green Man faces on Scottish lowland gravestones issue:

“I think the ecological message would have been reinforced and in no way weakened if it had been recognized and shown that the Green Man could be a symbol of sad mortality: a warning, a memento mori. … It is when we are confronted with such poignant reminders of mortality that we become most aware of the strangeness and wonder of our brief life on Earth.”

Steering our way from destroying ourselves will take a level of knowledge that surpasses the knowledge we have had before. So the Green Man echoes Einstein’s thoughts: “No problem can be solved at the level of consciousness that created it;” and “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Al-Khidr intuitively discerns each situation to see the depth of its total meaning and nature, tapping a wellspring of knowledge that we cannot rationally anticipate. Nature is our teacher not merely in physical form, but is also completely at one with our inner being. The Green Man symbolizes this unity of inner nature and Mother Nature. As Emerson says, “Nature is the symbol of the spirit.” By learning to be enlightened readers of nature’s sacred manuscript, we can attune our hearts to know how to take care of the Earth. As we each awaken to our true nature within, we can spread and share the consciousness of the Green Man, and bring compassion and caring to the Earth.

H. Talat Halman is Assistant Professor of Religion at Central Michigan University where he teaches courses in Islamic Studies and World Religions. His book on the Green Man, al-Khidr, is to be published by Fons Vitae as Where Two Seas Meet: The Story of al-Khidr and Spiritual Guidance. Talat holds initiations in the Ruhaniat, the Sufi Order, and Sherif Baba’s Rifa’i-Marufi lineages of Sufism.

Read more about H. Talat Halman, Ph.D.

Footnotes


1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Nature and Other Essays, 2009, p. 1.

2 William Anderson, The Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth, 1990.

3 Kathleen Basford, “A New View of the Green Man Sculptures,” Folklore (Vol 102, no. 2, 1991), p. 239.

4 John Matthews, The Green Man: Spirit of Nature, Boston: Red Wheel, 2002, pp. 7,8,12, 14, 26, 46. Also, The Quest for the Green Man, 2001, p. 11.

 

5 Kathleen Basford, “A New View of the Green Man Sculptures,” Folklore, Vol. 102, No. 2 (1991), pp. 237-239.

6 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 1973, pp. 284-286.

7 Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida, iii. 3.

8 Muhammad ibn Isma’il, Sahih Bukhari Vol. IV, Book 55, Chapter 23, no. 612, 614. ed. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, 1976.

9 Pearl Besserman, The Way of the Jewish Mystic, 1994 , p. 2.

10 Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals, 1927, 1979, p. 105.

11 Qur’an 18:60-82.

12 Farid al-Din Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics. A.J. Arberry, trans. 1966. This text provides one good starting point for such stories of Khidr’s meetings with Sufi masters.

 

13 Ibid. pp. 19-21, 91-93.

14 Kalchuri, Bhau, Lord Meher. Volume 14, p. 5011. Retrieved at:

http://www.lordmeher.org/index.jsp?pageBase=page.jsp&nextPage=5011

15 Qur’an 59:24. Yusuf ‘Ali trans.

16 Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, 1979.

17 Kathleen Basford, op. cit., p. 239

18 Op cit., p. 139.

19 Op cit., p. 139.

23 March 2010


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