The Green Man in Cumbria

By Satchell, John | Folklore, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

The Green Man in Cumbria


Satchell, John, Folklore


With a few exceptions, the very numerous examples of Green Man carvings are benign, vigorous, cheerful and even noble (see Anderson 1990). Exceptions noted by Anderson include those on the west front at Chartres and Lincoln, where the human figures trapped by writhing vegetation suggest an analogy with the dangers of human sexuality.

Little attention appears to have been paid, however, to some carvings in Cumbria where the Green Man is portrayed as a figure of unmitigated evil. Sculpture of any sort is relatively sparse in Cumbrian churches, and Green Man carvings are few. There are examples at Crosby Garret, Cartmel and Gosforth, and an interesting set on the capitals of pillars in the nave of Carlisle Cathedral which Thirlie Grundy has interpreted as tree gods breathing life into the foliage issuing from their mouths (Grundy 1998).

There is, however, another example in the Treasury of Carlisle Cathedral where a former roof boss, dated to the early-fifteenth century, is displayed. It depicts a malevolent-looking Green Man with a squint (Figure 1). A squint, a drooping eyelid or any other malformation of the eyes or eyelids was regarded at one time as the "evil eye," an unquestionable proof of the possession of the witch-powers of "overlooking" or casting spells. According to tradition, the Lancashire witches all possessed a definite squint (see Wickwar n.d. [c. 1926], 41). Wickwar doubtless refers to Thomas Potts's Discoverie of Witches (1612), in which he describes one of the women executed for witchcraft as having "a preposterous mark in Nature ... her left eye standing lower than the other, the one looking downe, the other looking up" (Peel and Southern 1969, 59). Ethel Rudkin quotes a Lincolnshire saying: "She has a winkersome eye--said of a witch with a `power' in her eye" (Rudkin 1934, 249)--presumably a twitching eyelid. More generally, Hughes writes that: "The evil eye was merely the physical sign of bewitchment ... The squint was abnormal, and evil ..." (Hughes 1952, 137; see also Campion-Vincent, this volume). The intention in creating a squinting Green Man must surely have been to portray him as an ally of the devil. …

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