There are few religious destinations in the world as steeped in mystery, at least since the cultural earthquake known as “The DaVinci Code,” as Rosslyn Chapel south of Edinburgh, Scotland. And, today, our series of stories that began with Celtic themes and the spiritual work of Matthew Fox continues as we introduce you to one of the most intriguing of Rosslyn’s mysteries—the Green Man—overlooked in Dan Brown’s wholesale manufacturing of other symbols that suited his suspenseful plot.
That remark isn’t a bunch of sour grapes tossed at the feet of a mega-best-selling author. The fact is: Dan Brown is a terrific novelist, but careless with his facts. Among other things, Brown’s cutting-and-pasting of fictional symbols literally led to some members of the movie crew pasting a fake Star of David onto one of Rosslyn’s priceless walls. According to Rosslyn staff, the Hollywood crew didn’t even ask before gluing the star-shaped prop onto a fragile stone wall—and the removal of the fake movie prop permanently marred the stonework.
The overlooked symbol we’re going to explore today is known as “The Green Man,” and this rich imagery shows up front and center, once again, in Matthew Fox’s latest book (see our Conversation With him if you missed it).
BUT, first, a word about Rosslyn—the ornately decorated, 15th-century stone church featured in the final scenes of the novel and the movie version of Brown’s book.
I recently spent a day at the fabled chapel, where members of this active Church of Scotland parish don’t speak too kindly about the professionals behind “The DaVinci Code.” They say author Dan Brown never so much as visited the chapel before making up a lot of brand-new mysterious details about what took place in its stone chambers.
“The only time we ever saw him was when the movie crew finally came here to make the movie and then he only popped his head in about 30 minutes and was gone,” said one guide leading dozens of visitors through the dense symbolism packed inside the abbey.
“We have enough symbolism here without adding more. And what did they add? Well, a lot of it was just fiction. They said Rosslyn means ‘Rose Line,’ and of course it doesn’t at all. In Gaelic it means waterfall—a ross is a rock outcropping and the lyn part refers to falling water,” said another guide. “You could pull up our carpeting all day long and all you’d find is perhaps a little dust. There’s no ‘Rose Line’ here at all.”
Another said, “And in the movie when you see the characters walk down into the sacristy? They cut to a Hollywood set after they go down the steps. There’s nothing here like what they showed on screen. You can go down there today and see for yourself.”
“And there never was a six-pointed Star of David here at all,” said the first guide. “In fact, the Hollywood people had one made and stuck it on the wall here without asking us! When they finished, we discovered it and the adhesive left a circle on the wall. We weren’t happy about that!”
That’s not to mention the fact that neither Brown nor the movie studio shared their millions in revenue with the trust that is fighting a last-ditch battle with centuries of decay to save this world-class spiritual landmark. The movie crews paid a basic day-rental fee for the site, “which wasn’t much at all,” said a parishioner.
BUT, here’s the good news about Rosslyn’s encounter with Dan Brown and “DaVinci.” When the movie opened in 2006 and millions of people around the world got a big-screen glimpse inside this amazing chapel, tourism exploded from less than 10,000 per year to more than 170,000 in the next 12 months! By charging modest fees to enter the church, the non-profit trust, which has been struggling for years to save this sacred site, finally began to accumulate the funds to accomplish some serious work.
The chapel itself has been “drying out” under an enormous metal canopy, but an enormous amount of conservation work lies ahead for the congregation. You can see from the Green Man at left, who already has lost many of his features, that the situation is dire.
A complete analysis of every inch of the chapel is still emerging. For example, just a few years ago, Rosslyn staff told visitors that there were slightly more than 100 images of the Green Man around the church’s complex stone surfaces. Now, more images have been found hiding in nooks and crannies and staff tell visitors there are more than 110!
What’s the significance of the Green Man?
Well, there are various versions of the image in sacred sites that range from human faces that appear to be hiding among foliage to faces with open mouths sprouting vines or branches to faces like the one on Matthew Fox’s cover that seem to be made up entirely of vegetation.
Here’s what Matt says about the image from a portion of our Conversation that we didn’t publish yesterday:
“The Green Man archetype is ancient, pre-Christian. In the 12th century, the Green Man came strongly into Christianity in Europe along with the goddess. The Green Man kind of rides her shirt tails. This is a figure often depicted with bows or tree limbs growing out of his mouth. His beard is often leaves or grasses or green things and so it is a metaphor about our relation with nature and with vegetative nature especially.
“In the Celtic tradition, the Green Man will often have antlers. It’s a celebration of male sexuality as well as a part of the generativity of nature and of creation itself. This also awakens our energy to defend nature. … And when we do this, this will heal us along with healing creation.
“This archetype is huge for us in our times, because it supports our ethical view of things today. Because of global warming, we know that humans have to change our ways. … We’re talking about a huge spiritual movement in our time and the Green Man is a marvelous archetype to celebrate that and to bring those energies alive and to connect with our ancestors who were not stupid and who were more aware than we are of the natural world.“
What does Rosslyn itself have to say about trying to preserve one of the world’s major collections of Green Man imagery? Well, the church today houses an active Protestant congregation and the official guide to Rosslyn by the current Earl of Rosslyn skirts the Green Man’s larger spiritual associations. The Earl talks about it mainly as a kind of proud symbol of diversity.
The Earl’s book about Rosslyn says, in part: “The Chapel is rich in carvings of the Green Man. … a profusion of pagan fertility symbols not unexpected in a place so influenced by Celtic tradition. … The story of Robin Hood has its origins in this legend and was a popular maytide play in Scotland during the 15th and 16th centuries, often performed by gypsies.
“The St. Clair family generally and in particular Sir William St. Clair, great grandson of the founder of the Chapel, were known to be sympathetic to the plight of the gypsies in an age when the laws of the country persecuted them severely.”
But what do you think about this powerful spiritual figure and its messages for us today? Tell us!
CARE TO READ MORE?
VISIT ROSSLYN’S OWN WEB SITE: Given Rosslyn’s global fame at the moment, you might expect a Disney-like Web site. On the contrary, the congregation that still worships in the church and the trust that is trying to save this masterpiece of architecture are devoting every available dollar to a massive preservation effort. So, the site appears fairly basic, at first glance. HOWEVER, don’t miss sections on History, Architecture and other gems via links at top and bottom of the site.
CHECK OUT WIKI’S GATEWAY: The Wikipedia page on Rosslyn is very good. In fact, you’ll find a better introductory overview on Wiki than on Rosslyn’s own page. Plus, if you’re really intrigued, Wiki offers a series of other fascinating links.
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(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)