Spirit of the Forest

Linked with The Pagan Experience.

When I was growing up we always took our summer holidays in Cornwall. We would hire a caravan and spend our days exploring the sleepy fishing villages of the Cornish coast. Cornwall itself is a land full of magic, with tales of smugglers coves, piskies and mermaids and in nearly every wood and hedgerow you can almost hear the lingering music of Pan.

I came across this little folk tale in relation to the small fishing village of Polperro. The story is of ‘The Spirit of the Forest’ who is an apparition that comes down from the woods above the village and leaves sweetmeats at the doorsteps of the deserving. This is only said to happen in times of hardship and was last reported during the Second World War. The good fortune is supposed to be increased if you then take the sweetmeats and offer them to the sea or a river.

I have only been able to find one account of this story and it linked it to the folklore of the Green Man – but this sounded very different to me. Although the Green Man is thought to represent the spirit of the forest, I had never heard him described as a apparition, or any fondness for leaving people meat.

The Green Man is a pre–Christian symbol found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves, of medieval churches and cathedrals, and used as a Victorian architectural motif, across an area stretching from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. Although commonly perceived as an ancient Celtic symbol, in fact its origins and original meaning are shrouded in mystery. The name dates back only to 1939, when folklorist Lady Raglan drew a connection between the foliate faces in English churches and the Green Man (or “Jack of the Green”) tales of folklore. The evocative name has been widely adopted, but the legitimacy of the connection still remains controversial, with little real evidence to settle the question one way or the other.

The ‘Jack in the Green’ is a figure associated with the new growth of spring, fertility, and May Day celebrations. In a number of English towns the Jack pageant is still re-enacted each year. The Jack in the Green is played by a man in a towering eight–foot–tall costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. He travels through the streets accompanied by men (and now women) dressed and painted all in green, others dressed and painted entirely black, and children bearing flowers. Morris and clog dancers entertain the crowds while the Jack, a trickster figure (and traditionally lecherous) chases pretty girls and plays the fool. When he reaches a certain place, the Morris dancers wield their wooden swords and strike the leaf man dead. A poem is solemnly recited over his body,  and then general merriment breaks out as the crowd plucks Jack’s leaves off for luck. “The killing of a tree spirit,”  notes James Frazer in The Golden Bough, “is always associated with a revival or resurrection of him in a more youthful and vigorous form.”

As for ‘the spirit of the forest’ I am visiting Polperro in August so I am going to have an ask around to see of I can find any more about the ‘Spirit of the Forest’ as this is a story that has intrigued me.


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