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The legend of the mysterious Green Man

Figure appearing on British royal invitations has uncanny parallels with the legendary Islamic figure al-Khidr
Al-Khidr and the Prophet Elijah are depicted praying together in an illuminated manuscript version of 'Stories of the Prophets' (Wikimedia Commons)

The colourful royal invitation to King Charles III’s coronation is rich with images of the natural world.

It is a fitting reflection of the new king’s profound interest in nature and the environment. Prominently featured in the centre is what the BBC calls “the folklore figure of the ‘green man’”, described by Buckingham Palace as a symbol of spring and rebirth that celebrates a new reign.

But what do people, including those at Buckingham Palace, really know about the mysterious Green Man? Seen peeping out from the carved foliage of so many Norman churches, he did not appear in England until the 12th century. His origins are shrouded in mystery, and his meaning was lost by the end of the Middle Ages. 

As part of my research into Islamic influences on Norman architecture, I have been studying the Green Man for some time now. The more I saw him - in all his moods, from menacing to humorous, welcoming to ferocious - the more I saw his uncanny parallels with al-Khidr, a popular and well-known Islamic figure with many mystical associations. 

Al-Khidr means "the Green One" in Arabic, and the Arabic root conveys everything to do with greenery, green pastures, verdure, and vegetation. The colour green was supposedly the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite colour, and al-Khudeira, in one form of the Arabic root, means paradise. 

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The timing of the Green Man's appearance in our foliage and in this country, coupled with the fact that he was not known before, but appeared suddenly, suggests he was very likely brought back to England by returning Norman Crusaders. 

They would have first encountered him in the Holy Land, where he is deeply embedded in local folklore and Sufi mysticism as an omnipresent figure, a force for both good and evil. Given the powers with which al-Khidr is associated, his appeal to Christian Crusaders would have been considerable. It is not for nothing that he is conflated with St George, the patron saint of England who, incidentally, is also the patron saint of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian Christians. 

St George, who was martyred by pagan Roman soldiers, had the power to appear to people at moments of crisis and give them strength - as can be seen in the legend of his timely appearance at the 1098 Battle of Antioch, part of the First Crusade, riding on a white horse and carrying his famous lance, just in time to save the day and turn the battle in the Crusaders’ favour. 

Warrior saint

This scene is recreated in medieval church murals, such as the 12th-century painting at St Botolph’s Church in Hardham, West Sussex, completed by the monks of the powerful Cluniac Priory of Lewes.

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These monks, who were associated with returning Crusaders, would have been entirely familiar with the legendary appearance of St George at Antioch, and his presence in the mural means it can safely be dated to the early 12th century after news of the victory at the battle would have reached England.

St George was especially venerated as a warrior saint from the Crusades onwards.

The Green Man's various forms and facial expressions depict him as very much alive, like some kind of primeval spirit living among the foliage. Part deity, part prophet, part pagan, part saint, part human, his appeal has proved to be universal - a unifying figure among the three great monotheistic religions.

In the Holy Land, the Green Man is revered by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike, conflated not just as al-Khidr and St George, but also as the Prophet Elijah. 

Of his many tombs, the most likely one to contain an actual body is thought to be in Lod or Lydd, where the Crusader Church of Saint George was built atop an earlier Byzantine one, alongside the mosque of al-Khidr. 

At Bait Jala near Bethlehem, a shrine is believed by Christians to be the birthplace of St George, and by Hebrews to be the burial place of Elijah. William Dalrymple, in his book From the Holy Mountain, also came across this kind of syncretism and fluidity between religions in the Holy Land.

royal invitation

Of Bait Jala, he wrote: “With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem - an illness, or something more complicated - they preferred to seek the intercession of George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.”

He asked a priest at the shrine whether many Muslims came too, and the priest replied: “We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down.” 

The shrine’s reputation as a place of healing was nothing new, but stretched back as far as anyone could remember; a continuous tradition. Such places carry a very special power and atmosphere.

Magical powers

My own first encounter with al-Khidr was in Aleppo, Syria, at a visit to the citadel in 1978, when I noticed his cenotaph to the right of the zigzag path that leads up through the succession of defensive gates into the citadel itself. It was as if it had been placed there to give thanks for surviving the dangers represented in the archway above the entrance by a pair of intertwined serpent dragons. 

The interior wall paintings at St Botolph’s Church are pictured in Hardham, West Sussex (Michael Coppins/Wikimedia Commons)
The interior wall paintings at St Botolph’s Church, West Sussex (Michael Coppins/Wikimedia Commons)

Having navigated the fifth and final zigzag, with smiling lions and sad lions carved into the stone walls, seen as having magical powers and protecting against evil, I emerged into the sunlight of the open citadel summit. 

These are exactly the properties with which the Green Man is credited today, in his many revivals in garden furniture and ornaments of the 21st century - the same powers with which he was credited in England from the Middle Ages onwards. 

King Charles himself, I’d like to think, with his own freely acknowledged appreciation of Islam, would be happy to learn of such deep cross-cultural connections

It is no accident that the oldest forms of him in England are to be found in early Norman churches, where his religious imagery shows itself in full flourish.

The fact that he appears on doorways and entrances on the outside of churches, and again on the interiors - on chancel arches, capitals, and columns, marking the transition into the holiest parts of the church - is not just coincidence.

His role is to ward off evil spirits, to protect against harm, but also to celebrate the fertility of nature and to welcome worshippers into the presence of God.

He could be carved in wood or stone but was rarely to be found in illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, or jewellery. In the forms where his mouth, nostrils and sometimes even ears and eyes, appear to be sprouting foliage and vegetation, he also symbolises rebirth - the endless cycle of nature, of which he is an integral part. 

His face was often the only sculpture to survive the obsessive destruction of the Reformation, presumably because he was not seen as idolatrous, but rather as a harmless representation of nature that offended no one. This interpretation confirms that his origins as a saint were already lost to Christians by the 16th century. 

Wild spirit

The first Green Men to appear in England during the 1100s were the work of masons brought over from France after the Norman conquest in 1066. Their faces were not classical by any stretch of the imagination. The Green Men on the capitals of the main portal of Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire, for example, have protruding eyes with carved holes for pupils, as found in early Oriental statues of kings and pagan gods. 

The Kilpeck foliage carvings also show Coptic/Fatimid style in the way the stems are bound together with ties, and how the leaves have deeply incised v-shaped grooves. 

At the Barfrestone church in Kent, sometimes called “the Kilpeck of the south”, a pair of Green Men on the north door likewise show no classical influence, and are evidently protecting the church from evil spirits. They may thus have given comfort and reassurance to a highly superstitious medieval population who would have wholeheartedly believed in evil spirits and their power. Sometimes, when smiling, the Green Man serves to welcome worshippers into the church.

The Gothic revival brought the Green Man back into public consciousness, as did 20thcentury writers, such as JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, who introduced characters called Ents who were half-tree, half-man, leading lives of quiet wisdom deep in the forest. 

Morris dancers are more versions of the Green Man, reenacting old traditions that have been largely forgotten. He has well and truly entered the public imagination as an immediately recognisable figure, usually benign these days, but with occasional overtones of a wild spirit in league with nature. 

In this dual function, the Green Man again echoes the characteristics of al-Khidr. King Charles himself, I’d like to think, with his own freely acknowledged appreciation of Islam, would be happy to learn of such deep cross-cultural connections. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Diana Darke is a Middle East cultural expert with special focus on Syria. A graduate in Arabic from Oxford University, she has spent over 30 years specialising in the Middle East and Turkey, working for both government and commercial sectors. She is the author of several books on Turkey, including Eastern Turkey (2014) and The Ottomans (2022) as well as on Middle East society, including My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016), The Merchant of Syria (2018), a socio-economic history and “Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe” (2020).
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