Green Men of Scripps

by Lindsey Galloway '07

My British literature professor warned us about them. She spoke of strange men that lurked in the most unsuspecting places around campus. And unless we knew what we were looking for, they might elude us students entirely.

These were the green men of Scripps. They could be in any number of mysterious forms, she explained, but we would know them by the vegetation growing out of their bodies. My mission was to find their hideouts on campus.

Thought by many to be a pagan symbol of nature and regeneration, green-man images appeared on cathedrals throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. One of the most famous green-man tales involved King Arthur’s court and the knight Sir Gawain.

The story “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was published in the 14th century; in the heroic epic, a towering green warrior enters the court carrying a holly branch in one hand and a battle axe in the other and expresses his desire to play a game of wit and will with Sir Gawain. He starts by letting Gawain chop off his head with his own axe. Apparently, this activity is great fun for green men.

I certainly hoped that the green men of Scripps didn’t want me to handle any dangerous weapons. I figured I’d be safe if I started small, exploring the tiny architectural details of the historic residence halls and Denison Library. If any place was harboring a green man, it was more likely to be one of the older buildings on campus.

The carvings surrounding the Ella Strong doors on Denison Library looked promising, but on closer inspection, it was clear that the architect wanted to keep nature and man separated. The squirrel and dog sculptures clearly belonged to a different realm than the “civilized” men holding instruments.

Heading north, I knew that Grace Scripps Clark Hall has plenty of intricate exterior work; there had to be a green man there. But no, this was the realm of the Greeks, with terra cotta medallions enshrining ancient gods and goddesses.

It wasn’t until I reached the entrance of Toll Hall that I completed the first part of my quest. Right above the door, at the pinnacle of an intricate design, was the head of a man with wings sprouting from his head and a leaf serving as his beard. His ears appeared to be a cross between leaves and elfish ears, while his mustache curled upward like vines. This was a green man if I ever saw one. Why the architect decided to place him in such a prominent place in the first residence hall of a women’s college, I can only guess; perhaps he had hopes that the students would be mindful of both humanity and nature and find wisdom in both realms.

Satisfied by my initial discovery, I sought out more of these green men, but couldn’t find them in any of the other residence halls. Maybe Scripps housed only a solitary green man. But in heading back to my own hall, I caught the sight of something not quite human in the courtyard of the Humanities Building. The sculpture appeared mostly human, but were those branches growing out of his back? And what’s with the birds grafted to his chest and the leaves crawling up his stomach? His right leg disappears into the trunk of a tree and houses a raccoon. Though he looks more modern than the green man guarding Toll Hall, he definitely belongs to the same woodland family.

After a full day of hunting green men, I rested my quest, though I’m not totally sure I found all the hideouts of the green men. Despite their male status, these nature creatures blend in so well with the rest of the campus, they can easily be missed.

They can also be notoriously tricky. Don’t be surprised if the next time you’re wandering the grounds, a little green man appears and asks you to chop off his head, just for the fun of it.

 

« »