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The Green Man

The Origins of “Stay Green”

The Green Man is a figure whose association with fireworks is rapidly waning amongst the current generation of pyrotechnicians and fireworks practitioners.

For centuries, the traditional salutation amongst the firework fraternity has been ‘stay green’ but with communications – emails and texting – becoming more informal it is now an expression which is seldom encountered. As the year’s pass, the connection with fireworks becomes ever more distant and it is at risk of dying out altogether.

Myth, mystery and Medieval pageantry combine in the concept of Green Man. He has no single identity but a number of different forms which are interwoven. Despite appearing frequently as a carving in churches The character with greenery sprouting from ears, nose and mouth is almost certainly pagan in origin. Symbolising the regeneration of Nature in the Spring. Even Robin Hood can be said to be part of the myth with his dress of Lincoln Green as well as Robin Goodfellow, Puck, the Samhain Holly Lord and other similar characters.

The connection with fireworks though is much more mundane and practical. Although it may never be known which came first. The greenery a symbol and tradition, or as protection. It is recorded that in the 1600s the firework men of the day wore copious coverings of foliage, mainly about their heads. Working with fireworks at that time involved the handling and manipulation of ignited devices and greenery provided the best defence against showers of sparks. As early as 1838 it was suggested (in The Mirror by Reuben Percy, John Timbs) that this is the origin of the many Green Man pubs which are found throughout the country.

“With obscure and mythical origins, ‘green men’ dressed in foliage and garlands traditionally led processions of fireworks from medieval times. Their role was in part to maintain order; according to one scholar. Strewing fire from large clubs, they cleared the way for certain festive processions. The “wild men”, “very ugly to behold” are described as having black beards and black hair. With garlands on their heads, and wearing costumes of green ivy.’” – Julie Gardham, Glasgow University

The best-known contemporaneous image of Green Man is this one. It appeared on the fly-title page of the second book by Bate entitled The Mysteries of Nature and Art, published in London in 1635. This is the book which reputedly inspired Isaac Newton’s interest in scientific method and study.
First editions are today priced at £12,500

There is a striking similarity between the depictions of the medieval Green Man ‘strewing fire from large clubs’ and the flourishing tradition of Squibbing in Bridgwater. The video above shows a new squibber plying the ‘cosh’ for the first time in preparation for the main event.

Green Man is described by Donald J Haarman in the PGI (Pyrotechnics Guild International) Bulletin No 47, May 1985.

Have you ever wondered who the grizzled figure is encircled within the PGI logo, and found on the back cover of the bulletin? Well, wonder no more, for what follows is more than you ever wanted to know about the PGI’s logo. It is truly written that; upon founding the PGI (March 1969): Max P. Vander Horck chose the venerable “Green Man”, who, with his “fyre clubbe”, traditionally led processions of fireworkers at royal (and sometimes not-so-royal) celebrations in Jolly Olde England. To be the representative symbol of this the first non-commercial organization devoted to the love of fireworks.

The drawing of this strange apparition appears on the cover of the second of the four books comprising John Bate’s The Mysteries of Nature and Art (1635). (The “Second Booke:” Teaching most plainly, and with all most exactly, the composing of all manner of Fire-works for Triumph and Recreation.) However, the exact origin of the Green Man has been, until now, as Brock puts it, “obscure”. For as luck-would-have-it during my never-ending search for references about fireworks; in the Sociological Abstracts Backfile database I came upon a paper by Barbara Widenor Maggs, entitled, “Firework Art and Literature: Eighteenth-Century Pyrotechnical Tradition in Russia and Western Europe”, published in the Slavonic and East European Review (Vol. 54), January 1976), in which during a discussion of similarities between Russian and Western European pyrotechnical tradition, she presents new information about our Green man!

“Similarities between Russian and Western European pyrotechnical tradition are to be found at several points in the early history of Russian displays. Some of the first presentations for entertainment purposes in Russia as in the West. For instance, were those connected with religious festivities. In sixteenth and seventeenth century Russia, it was customary at Christmas time for buffoons in wooden hats and with beards covered with honey so that they would not burn. To run about the streets setting off a primitive type of firework and igniting the beards of passers-by. Those who wanted mercy were required to pay a kopeck. Called ‘Chaldeans’, these actors portrayed the servants who were to prepare the fiery furnace into which King Nebuchadnezzar, according to the Biblical story, threw three men. The ‘Chaldeans’ were regarded as pagan and unclean and were traditionally rebaptized on Twelfth-Day. “These ‘Chaldeans’ would appear to be related to the traditional medieval ‘wild man’, a figure who was prominent in the art, literature and dramatic productions of Western Europe, and was sometimes linked with pyrotechnics. An observance bearing a striking resemblance to the Russian Twelfth-Day celebrations was the Schembartlaufen in Nuremberg, held periodically at Carnival time between 1449 and 1539. A contemporary police report notes that ‘wild men and other mummers’ customarily chased and attacked the onlookers. To prevent the crowd from interfering with a traditional pageant dance, the masked, hairy performers also set off fireworks from a kind of gun concealed in greenery that they carried. This particular representation of the ‘wild man’ may have been connected with spring rituals, or it may be that the participants in the ceremony were involved in secret pagan societies.”

One finds further associations of the ‘wild man’ with pyrotechnics in Western Europe in John Bate’s The Mysteries of Nature and Art (in part a fireworks manual), published in London in 1635, which shows on the title page the traditional figure brandishing a ‘fire-club’, and again in a Danish engraving, probably of the seventeenth century, portraying several bearded men dressed in loincloths of flowers and wielding flaming sticks.