I’ve often wondered why we humans thought up religion, which has benefited us with social adhesion, ethical ideas, solace, great music and art, but it has a lot to answer for. Religion plays a conspicuous role in intolerance, authoritarianism, violence, oppression of women and minorities, and war.
Before the modern global mega-faiths, there were the old religions, often despairingly referred to as “pagan”, but with rich cultures and traditions that persist with native peoples around the world. What little we have from antiquity in ritual objects, cave paintings, sagas, and the like confirms how powerful the impetus was to create spirituality. We humans needed protection, fertility, and success in hunting. We needed to pass down a story, an explanation of the powerful forces of nature, the universe, and the miracle of our living planet. So, deities arose from storms, the sun, and scary animals.
The mother goddess was revered in many early societies as new life, nature’s abundance, and guardian. Some of the oldest relics found are of a female fertility figures. But newer religions emerged which exalted male power and a patriarchal social structure. Even so, the mother is too potent a symbol and is still very much with us – notably in Mary, the Corn Maiden, Durga, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, wise crones demonized as witches…and the Green Beings.
As a magical soul of the woods, the Green Woman’s face emerges from foliage or crowned with a garland of leaves. In one guise, she was Sheela-Na-Gig, the goddess of the Celtic old religion, depicted with an exaggerated vulva, carved in stone on Norman churches, particularly in Ireland. High up on pillars and vaults, the medieval stone masons put her out of reach, but not out of mind. Imagine my surprise looking up at the clock tower at Whittlesford’s St. Mary and St. Andrew’s Church on the Welsh borders and seeing a full-on Sheela!
And who or what is the Green Man? Part-tree and part-human, the Green Man has a wry, fierce, or wise expression. His hair, lips, and mouth erupt with vines and leaves. The Green Man of the old religion endures in European spring festivals, pub names; and like Sheela, a favorite image in medieval churches. It’s said that you’ll have good harvests if you have a Green Being in your garden. I have a wall plaque of one that looks out over my veg patch and have no complaints.
I imagine that these Green Beings live on from a time, tens of thousands of years ago, when an ancient dreamer saw the outline of a human face in the deep grooves and hollows of a tree, partly out of hope for a year of plenty and safety, and partly out of fear and awe of the mysterious, dark forest. Have we changed that much today?