Rosslyn’s Green Men

Posted by in Articles on Sep 13, 2015

In previous articles, I have tried to deepen my understanding of Rosslyn Chapel, the 15th century building just south of Edinburgh. This remarkable building still holds many secrets for me, but from time to time, it reveals a little more of its meaning.


On a recent visit, the truth of the discovery by storyteller Janet Dowling was borne in on me with ever more vivid clarity. It is a truth concerning one of the most famous aspects of the manifold carvings and decorations within and outside the chapel, namely the Green Men, who are to be found in almost every nook and cranny in Rosslyn. They might appear to be pagan in their symbolism, but Janet Dowling has made clear that the meaning of the Green Men is entirely of a piece with the Christian symbolism of the chapel. The Green men are representative of Adam, and thus of the human spirit, and of humanity’s intimate relationship to the world of Nature.


In my book A Rosslyn Treasury I connected the Green Men with the myth of the Dying God; those gods in various mythologies who die and are resurrected, in accordance with the changing seasons of the year. In the chapel itself, as many have pointed out, if you follow a path clockwise round the chapel, you can see the Green Men are at first pictured as very young, and then grow older, until one returns to the point of departure in the east of the chapel. In the same way, the year begins in youthfulness, and grows steadily older until winter holds sway. But then spring returns, and the life of nature begins again.


However, Janet Dowling relates the Green Men to the Legend of the Rood. This is a tale with which I was fairly familiar, but needed her insight to make the connection with the Green Men not only of Rosslyn, but wherever they appear in churches and chapels in these islands. Janet Dowling’s phrase for Green men is the Foliate Adam.


If we see Rosslyn’s Green Men as representing the Foliate Adam, then, in connection with the profusion of plant-life carvings in the chapel, we see Adam in his more well-known role as representative of all humanity but also as intimately connected with the world of nature that supports all humanity. The world and the human being are one, just as Adam and Nature are a unity, and we must never forget our identity with the world that gives us life.


The following is a retelling of the part of the story that shows this connection of the Green Men with the Foliate Adam. You will no doubt notice some variations from the version of the story best known through the Bible.




There is a stream of life that flows for all humankind.  Some men may dig ditches, ponds and canals to shape it, fence it and call it their own; for they do not understand that it is for all people of goodwill. The water may grow stale, and the surface freeze hard in those ditches and ponds, but the stream still runs deep for those who would seek it or have need of it.


The source of this stream was in a beautiful garden, called Eden where it sprang up in a great fountain and ran to the four corners of the Earth. Not far from the fountain of the Stream of Life there grew two trees. One was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was white as the nerves that spread their branches throughout the body, and the other was the Tree of Life, which was red as blood.


The god who looked over this garden was called Adonai Jahve. He was of the gods called Elohim, who, with the higher and lower gods, attend the Throne of the Father of Greatness, and sing His praises. The dwelling of Adonai Jahve was all the spaces where the moon shines its light, while the rest of the Elohim dwelled in the realm of the sun. Adonai Jahve and the Elohim had created the world and the garden in it. They placed two people in the garden, a man and a woman. The woman was called Havah, and the man, Adam. They were forbidden by Adonai Jahve to eat of the fruit of the trees, but Havah, who saw deep into the mind of Elohim, saw that it was unavoidable that, sooner or later, Adam would eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for he lived as in a dream, and the voice of the Serpent who dwelled in the garden was so persuasive. This Serpent spoke with the voice of a bright archangel who had rebelled against the Throne on High, and had been thrust out of the Heavenly Heights.


Havah took counsel with herself and allowed pictures to form in her mind of what would befall. She saw that great unhappiness would follow from eating the fruit, but that if the unhappiness came through her act, it would not be as disastrous as it would be if Adam ate first of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. If Adam ate of the fruit first, as he was in danger of doing, he would lose all sight of the Heavenly Heights and think of himself as godlike. He would weigh and measure all things in the garden and divide them into what was useful to him and what was not, and those things he deemed of no use he would heap up and destroy, even though they were of divine creation.


And so Havah approached the Serpent, and allowed him to break some of the fruit from the tree and give it to her to eat. What a change came over her then! The Heavenly Heights became no more than a distant brightness and dull echoes. All the beautiful things in the garden now appeared to her as if another light than the sun shone upon them. She called in sadness to the Elohim, and cried, “What is this that has come over me? The light of the Heavenly Heights has faded and the music of Heaven is no more than a far away echo.”


The Elohim answered her and said, “Havah, it is a noble thing that you have done, to take the sin of the fruit of the Tree upon you. You must now share the fruit with your husband Adam, but first, we shall father upon you your first child, and you shall name him Cain. The cunning of his hand shall be of service to all of humankind for ever.”


Havah fell into a deep sleep, but when she awoke, she knew that a child was growing in her womb. She kept this knowledge a secret treasure in her heart. Then she went to Adam.


“See the fruit of this Tree,” she said, showing him the fruit: “I have tasted it, and now I am changed. You must do likewise.”


“Have we not been forbidden the fruit of the Tree?” Adam asked.


“I have looked into the heart of the Elohim,” she replied, “and it is better thus. Take it and eat.”


Adam looked at Havah, and wondered that she was still standing and talking to him, though she had tasted the fruit of the Tree. But he took it from her, and tasted it.


“Ah, what is this that has befallen me?” he cried, dropping the fruit on the ground. “My very soul is overthrown! Look, you and I are changed beyond all helping! Ah, I should never have tasted the fruit!”


Just then, there was a rushing in the branches of the trees, and a wind blew through the garden.


“It is Adonai Jahve,” said Adam, “and see, we are naked! Come, we must hide our shame!”


They took leaves from the trees and covered their nakedness. Then Adam walked out into the clear meadow.


“You heard me coming, yet you hid away from me,” said Adonai Jahve. “Why did you do so?”


“We wished to hide our nakedness before You,” said Adam.


“Who told you that you were naked?” demanded Adonai Jahve, “Have you eaten of the fruit of the Tree that was forbidden to you?”


Adam admitted that he had done so.


“Who was it told you that you should eat it?” demanded Adonai Jahve.


“Havah, my wife. I saw her taking counsel with the Serpent,” said Adam. Adonai Jahve called Havah forth.


“Is this true, as Adam has said?” he asked.


“It is even so, just as he said,” Havah replied.


“Then the Serpent shall go for ever on his belly and eat the dust of the Earth,” said Adonai Jahve, “and there shall be enmity between the Serpent and all womankind for ever.”


“What must become of us?” asked Havah?”


“The garden closed to you for ever,” commanded Adonai Jahve, and in the distance, the gates of Eden opened, and Adam and Havah made their way out.


When the gates had closed behind them, a mighty angel stood at the gates with a flaming sword, which he waved three times above their heads, and they were aflame all over their bodies.


“Ah, Gods, forsake me not, I pray!” called Havah to the Heavens. The voice of the Elohim spoke in her heart and told her to put all fear away. The sojourn beyond Eden would be long, and the work of the world hard, but her faith in the Gods would bring the forgiveness of Adonai Jahve.


And Adonai Jahve spoke in the heart of Adam, and said that the Highest Gods had ordained that the Oil of Grace would be granted to Adam, Havah and all their children and children’s children at the turning point of time.


Then Adam and Havah ran, and their feet burned the earth where they ran, so that no plants grew where their feet had trodden, and all was sand and grit in the place of their footsteps.


They began to work and toil to make their living, where before, all was given to them by the garden’s bounty.




Much time passed, and human kind began to fill the Earth. Havah gave birth to her first son, Cain, who was fathered on her by the Elohim. Her second son, Abel, was her son by Adam.


Abel grew up to be a shepherd, taking the world as he found it, and tending his flocks, bringing a sacrifice from his flock to Adonai Jahve when it fell due. Cain worked the land and worked with the fruits of the soil. He transformed what he found.


But when Cain brought his offering to the altar of Adonai Jahve, it was rejected, for Adonai Jahve had created the world, and He did not recognize what had been changed and transformed.


“How is this,” Cain wondered, with bitterness in his heart, “that I work the land and bring forth the fruits of my labours as a sacrifice, and it is not pleasing to Adonai Jahve, whereas my brother Abel follows his flocks and his sacrifice is received gladly?”


The voice of Adonai Jahve spoke in his heart and said, “Why are you angry? If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.”


But the bitterness in Cain’s heart grew and made sour all his days, until at last, he felt hatred for his brother kindling in his soul.


Then one day, Cain met his brother Abel in the fields, and a quarrel grew up between them, and Cain slew Abel, and hid his body in the ground.


Adonai Jahve called to Cain, saying, “where is your brother Abel? His blood cries to me from the ground.”


Cain answered, “I know not where he is. Am I my brother’s keeper?”


“You have lifted your hand against your brother,” said Adonai Jahve, “and you have opened the ground to receive his blood, and the virgin earth is no longer chaste. Henceforth you shall be a vagabond and a fugitive. The earth shall no longer yield her riches to you without a struggle.”


Cain cried aloud, saying, “This punishment is more than I can bear! You have driven me from the face of the earth to wander and hide. All men shall lift their hands against me. Every man who finds me shall take and slay me.”


“If any man shall slay you,” said Adonai Jahve, “vengeance shall follow him sevenfold. I shall put my mark upon you so that all men know that vengeance shall be upon him who lifts his hand to slay you.”


So Cain went away from that country, into the Land of Nod, east of Eden. He took a wife, and their firstborn son was called Enoch. Among their descendants was born Jubal, who was the first to make instruments and play music. His cousin was Tubal Cain, the first artificer in brass and iron. But it was so that with all that the tribe of Cain fathered, the work became harder with each passing generation, and new ways had to be found to solve the puzzles of life on Earth beyond the Gates of Eden.




Adam and Havah had a third son, who was called Seth. Now when Adam was far stricken in years and close to death, he called Seth to him and asked that he go to the Garden of Eden to ask for the Oil of Grace.


“How shall I know the way?” asked Seth, “for I have never been there.”


“On our flight from Eden,” said Adam, “our feet burned the ground where the touched the earth, and the way is sand and grit where we trod. You have only to follow the path.”


Seth gathered those things necessary for the journey, and set off.


The path to the Garden was long and arduous, but always plainly to be seen, the marks where Adam and Havah’s feet had trod clearly marked; sand and grit among the lush green grass.


At last he stood marvelling before the gates of Eden.  He took a step towards them, but there came a mighty rushing wind, though the grass did not bow before it and the treetops around were not stirred. Seth bowed down, for he knew that he was in the presence of a mighty angel of the Cherubim, who spoke in his heart.


“What do you seek here, Seth, son of Adam?” the angel asked.


“I come on behalf of my father Adam,” Seth replied. “He is sick unto death, and has asked for the Oil of Grace in his last moments of earthly breath.”


“It cannot be that your father Adam can be saved from death,” said the angel, “but look, Seth, son of Adam. Look through the chink between the gates and say what you see.”


Seth went and did as the angel told him.


“I see a beautiful garden,” he said, “more beautiful than anything I have ever seen. There is a great fountain in the midst and four streams flow out from it.”


“Look again,” said the angel,” for you must tell all that you see.”


Seth put his eye to the chink between the gates again.


“I see a mighty tree,” said Seth, “but it has no leaves, and there is no bark on the trunk or the bole. A serpent of deadly aspect winds himself around it. It is a fearsome sight.”


“Look once more,” said the angel, “for you must tell all that you see.”


Seth looked a third time, and said, “I see where the roots of the tree go down into Hell, and my brother Abel lies there among the shadows. But high in the branches of the tree I see a wondrous child. If my father Adam had not sinned, I think he may have looked as this child does, though it is a child of rare beauty.”


“That child is called the Oil of Grace,” said the angel, “and in the fullness of time the stream of life that flows from the fountain shall be for all people. Now step back from the gates.”


Seth stepped back as he was bid, and the angel told him to hold out his hands. Seth did so, and when he looked, there was in one hand a little crystal cruse with drops of sacred oil in it, and in the other there were three seeds in the palm of his hand. They resembled the seed of a cypress, a cedar and a pine.


“You must anoint your father Adam’s brow, heart and hands with the oil before he breathes his last,” said the angel.”


“What must I do with these seeds?” Seth asked.


“These seeds are from the Tree,” said the angel: “Take them to your father Adam, and place them under his tongue when he breathes his last breath. But you must tell him all you have seen here.”


Seth, following the footsteps of his parents, made his way back to his father, and when he came to him again, he told him all that had befallen. Adam laughed for joy at the words of the angel, and with a great sigh, breathed his spirit out across the threshold of death.


Seth anointed his father’s brow, heart and hands with the oil, and placed the three seeds under Adam’s tongue. Then he buried him in a secret place, where many generations later, after the Great Flood of Noah, Father Abraham met the Priest King Melchizedek. The hill where Adam lay buried was called the Place of the Skull.


In time, three saplings grew from the grave. They grew to the height of an ell, or, what is the same thing, a cubit, which is the length from a man’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger. They were green through all seasons, but they grew no higher until they were found by Moses. But that is another story…