In one of its most ambitious graphics yet, Google recently displayed an animated title with a humorous portrayal of a flying saucer piloted by a tiny spaceman. This commemorated the 66th anniversary of the Roswell incident in New Mexico in which the crash landing of an Unidentified Flying Object spawned numerous theories relating to alien visitors.
It is probably no coincidence that, when the first pulsar was spotted some 20 years later in 1967, regular flashes of light from deep space became known to astronomers as LGMs – an acronym for ‘Little Green Men’.
But you do not have to search outer space to find LGMs. They have been living here among us for centuries – and many have settled in churches. At least 25 reside in Rochester Cathedral.
The origins of these little green men are almost as mysterious as those of the supposed aliens at Roswell. Carvings of leaf masks and foliate heads can be traced back hundreds of years, springing up in ancient Rome, Iraq, Nepal, Borneo and Rajasthan.
Possibly one of the earliest occurrences of a foliate head in a Christian context is that of the foliate head that appears on the tomb of St Abre. This dates from c 400 AD and is now located in the church of St Hilaire-Le-Grand in Poitiers.
Carvings of green men continued to flourish throughout the middle ages, especially in churches. Several 14th century examples can be seen on the scalloped stone canopy which adorns the tomb of Bishop Hamo of Hythe located near the Pilgrim Steps in the North Quire Aisle of Rochester Cathedral.
This popular motif was revived in 1840 when several brightly painted Green Men roof bosses were added to the Crossing ceiling. This was probably influenced by architect Lewis Cottingham who was in charge of Cathedral renovations from 1825 – 1840. Medieval themes were popular with the Victorians, influencing not only contemporary visual arts but also literature.
Another character which is closely related to the Green Man carvings is the character of ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ which regularly accompanies Morris dancers during May Day celebrations. Since 1980, Rochester has hosted its own popular version of these celebrations called the Sweeps’ Festival.
Theories as to the origins and meaning of the Green Man are as numerous as those relating to UFO’s and alien life-forms. Perhaps it is its mystery that has turned this motif into such a popular metaphor for so many cultures. In fact, it is the central theme for a story entitled ‘Jack’; one of a selection of short stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral and its treasures which appear in my new book Barley Bread and Cheese.
When I gave a public reading of ‘Jack’, one of the audience told me that he knew a storyteller who had set himself the task of counting all the stories relating to green men. So far, he said, some 83 had been recorded. That must mean that my story is number 84.
So, in 20th century astronomical parlance, would that be LGM-84?
Additional links and information:
Click here for Barley Bread and Cheese
Click here for T. Thurai’s website
Click here for Rochester Cathedral, UK
Click here for Pulsars
Click here for Victorian medievalism (An article by Megan Morris, Rochester University, USA)
Click here for Rochester Sweeps’ Festival