Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

by C. Austin
The Greenman Heralds the Light of Solstice

As the sun travels to the southernmost point of its voyage, we 
enter the season of the Winter solstice. In this midnight time 
of year, we find ourselves in a still darkness, awaiting the 
return of light to our lives and the landscape. 

Symbols and mythology are the clothing of divinity. While we may 
not be able to see a god or goddess in mortal terms, they are
immediately and personally available to us through the symbols 
which come to us from the ages. In this season, icons such as 
St. Nicholas and the Christmas tree represent much more than 
the tinsel and commercialism with which they have become 

The Old Ways inform us the goddess gives birth to a sun-child 
at the Winter solstice on about December 21. This masculine 
solar god becomes the consort of the goddess and together they 
return warmth and fecundity to the barren and cold world before 
he fades away to die at Samhain. 

This essential male force is known to friends as Cernunnos, 
Pan, Dagda, the Old One and Nick. His horned, half human, half
animal appearance, once a symbol of the integration of man and 
nature became a leering, twisted demon in the minds of 
Christians.  As Christmas subsumed the Pagan solstice festival, 
so Nick became our jolly, gift giving elf, "Saint Nicholas." 
Despite these theological turns, the god is still available to 
us in the rarely seen "Greenman" or spirit of the forest. 

The Greenman is a representation of these old nature gods. 
Often carved on old churches and cathedrals, the Greenman is
identified by a male face peering out of dense leaves or 
branches. The earliest Greenmen are depicted with horns and 
oftentimes the leaves will appear to be twining out of the 
mouth of the entity. 

Aptly named, the magic and vegetative colour of green 
reinforces the spirit's association with the Otherworld and 
his beloved goddess. Although reduced to peeking out from trees 
and perturbing unwitting passersby, the existence of the Greenman 
side by side with Christian iconography, is evidence of the 
lasting power of this potent, organic god. 

The foliage of the great long-lived tree of the Celts, the oak, 
is that which most often shelters the Greenman. The Druids 
revered the oak tree and the mistletoe which they cut from the 
oak for their Winter solstice festival of Alban Arthan still 
figures prominently in contemporary Christmas tradition. Even 
the name "Druid" derives from the old English word "Derwydd" 
or "oak seer." 

The oak is the tree of the Dagda, King of the Tuatha de Danaan 
and from its branches the solstice duel of the Robin and the 
Wren is played out. Frequently depicted as the World Tree or 
Tree of Life, its branches support the sun, moon and stars and 
at the top; where our Christmas angels sit today, perched the 
goddess herself. "As above, so below," with its spreading 
branches above and deep reaching roots below, the oak tree still 
mirrors the magic of our ancestors. 

Deep in the forest, somewhere off a time worn path, there is a 
spirit in the woods. From the silent forest he appears, light 
in dark, to guide us to the illuminated point where our journey 
begins again, and the great wheel turns once more.