Molise Misterioso: The Green Man of Pagliara in Fossalto

by Andrea Romanazzi

The English Green Man, also known as Jack o’ the Green, is a popular tradition associated with the celebration of May Day. This custom involves the creation of a pyramid or cone-shaped structure made of wicker or wood, decorated with foliage, which is worn by a person during a procession, often accompanied by musicians.

The structure, as mentioned, is made of wood or wicker, covered with woven foliage, including green branches, leaves, and flowers, and is worn on the upper body of a person. It often has a slit in the structure that allows the person inside to see, and the person’s feet may be visible beneath the structure.

The tradition of Jack in the Green developed in England during the 18th century but has even older roots. Originally, during the May Day celebration in the 17th century, milkmaids carried decorated milk pails with flowers and other objects in a procession. Over time, these decorated pails were replaced by adorned pyramids worn on the head. In the second half of the 18th century, the tradition was also adopted by other professional groups such as bunters and chimney sweeps. The earliest documented account of Jack in the Green dates back to 1770 in a description of a May Day procession in London. Throughout the 19th century, the tradition was mainly associated with chimney sweeps.

The tradition of Jack in the Green gradually declined in the early 20th century, but in the following century, several revivalist groups continued to practice it during May Day processions in various parts of England. The custom of Jack in the Green has attracted the interest of folklore scholars and historians since the early 20th century. Initially, Lady Raglan suggested that it was a survival of an ancient pre-Christian fertility ritual, based on an interpretation influenced by James Frazer and Margaret Murray. In particular, Frazer argued that these practices were anthropomorphized expressions of the life force of nature, associated with the annual cycle of death and rebirth. Margaret Murray, a British historian and anthropologist, had a similar theory, hypothesizing that the Green Man was a central figure in ancient European pagan religions, representing the god of fertility and vegetation. According to her interpretation, the Green Man was a symbol of the union between humanity and nature, and his figure was associated with fertility and regeneration rites. Murray also identified the Green Man with the mythological horned god present in various European pagan traditions. Connected to the Green Man is the figure of the Green George or “Jack in the Green.” In this case as well, according to Hutton, it is a pre-Christian survival of a “very ancient figure” representing “summer itself, the most ancient bearer of the time of abundance.” An interesting interpretation was provided by Lady Raglan in the 20th century, who, inspired by the theories of James Frazer, suggested that Green George was a survival of an ancient pre-Christian fertility ritual.

Although there are similarities between the Green Man and the Green George, it is important to emphasize that the Green Man is a broader and older symbol, present in various cultures and traditions worldwide. While the Green George is a specific figure in the English May Day custom, both reflect a deep connection between humanity and the natural world, highlighting the importance of preserving and honoring nature itself.

The Italian Green Man

Initially, the deity is seen and conceived as immanent, permeating everything surrounding the wilderness, in a strongly animistic view where vegetation, animals, and the sky are expressions of the divinity. Later, with the transition from animism to polytheism, a new idea takes hold in the primitive mind. The tree is no longer seen as an embodiment of divinity but rather as a dwelling place for the gods, a sacred space where the divine and human realms intersect.

In Italy, the figure of the Green Man is known as “Il Verde.” Similar to the English Green Man, Il Verde is often depicted as a face or mask made of leaves, branches, and foliage, symbolizing the vitality and regenerative power of nature. The presence of Il Verde can be found in various Italian regions, particularly in folklore, mythology, and traditional celebrations.

One notable example is the region of Molise, specifically the town of Fossalto, which is known for its mysterious rituals associated with Il Verde. The small community of Pagliara, located near Fossalto, is the epicenter of these ancient customs that have been passed down through generations.

The rituals of Pagliara involve the creation of a large structure resembling Il Verde, which is paraded through the streets during a traditional procession. This structure, known as the “Palio di Fossalto,” is constructed using wooden frames covered with green branches, leaves, and flowers. The Palio di Fossalto is carried on the shoulders of strong men, who are chosen to represent the strength and vitality of nature.

The procession is accompanied by music, songs, and dances, creating a festive atmosphere. The locals, dressed in traditional costumes, follow the Palio di Fossalto, paying homage to Il Verde and celebrating the arrival of spring and the renewal of life.

The rituals of Pagliara and the veneration of Il Verde in Fossalto have deep roots in local folklore and are believed to have originated from ancient pagan traditions. The symbolic representation of nature’s abundance and fertility is an essential aspect of these rituals, reminding the community of their dependence on the natural world and the importance of living in harmony with it.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in preserving and promoting these ancient customs, not only as a way to connect with local history and traditions but also as a means to raise awareness about environmental conservation and sustainable living. The rituals of Pagliara in Fossalto continue to be a source of fascination and intrigue, attracting visitors from near and far who wish to witness and participate in this unique cultural experience.

In conclusion, the figure of the Green Man, whether in the English or Italian context, symbolizes the interconnection between humanity and nature, reminding us of the vital role that the natural world plays in our lives. The traditions and rituals associated with Il Verde in Italy, particularly in Fossalto, showcase the enduring power of these ancient beliefs and their relevance in today’s world. By honoring and preserving these customs, we can cultivate a deeper appreciation for the environment and work towards a more sustainable future.


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