The Green Man, al Khidr and Me- Archetypes of Transformation in Islam and Other Places
The Green Man has been showing up everywhere for me- do you know him? His face is made of vegetation, or he is disgorging it from his mouth or nostrils, and his hair is made of leaves or flowers. The symbolism represented by the Green Man is the cycle of death and rebirth, regeneration and growth. The image of the Green Man is found in the architecture of secular and spiritual/religious spaces, some almost 2,000 years old, across cultures and religions found nearly in every corner of the world. Osiris, Bacchus, Pan, Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Green, the Green Knight in the legends of King Arthur, and al-Khidr are all examples of Green Man figures.
First a series of dreams came to me, each with some variation of a Trickster Green Man. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in months at the grocery store and she showed me a new tattoo on her arm of the Green Man, vines growing out from his cheeks, twisting all around her arm. At the library a few days later, Green Man: Archetypes of our Oneness with the Earth by William Anderson popped out. The next day my best friend texted a stunning selfie she had taken of her face nestled among the most vibrant bouquet of greenery and flowers. And suddenly, the color green is always around me. This morning I re-checked my grocery list before I popped into the store:
Thai chili peppers (green)
Green curry paste
Even now, I’m looking at my outfit. A green dress and a green scarf. I didn’t do this on purpose, but I’ve decided to take all these appearances as a sign that the archetype of the Green Man is potently surrounding me right now.
A year and half ago I moved from Indonesia back to California, my place of origin. I left an amusing career that garnered fame and money but was ultimately not speaking to the core of my life’s work. The catalyst for this move was the climactic need to escape from an extremely abusive relationship. My seven year old daughter and I landed in the most peaceful place one could imagine: with my mother and grandmother in an airy house by the beach. We are four generations in one home, a very clear cycle of growth and death. On one end my blossoming star child; on the other my frail, demented grandmother, unable to bathe herself. In between are my mother and I, divorced women with glaringly different ways of being and thinking, but still tightly woven together. The natural cycles of the maiden, mother and crone are fully realized here.
Aside from caring for my daughter and grandmother much of my time is spent studying the Q’uran, writing music and recording new music, and indulging in elaborate self-care rituals. I can feel the death of my former life in Indonesia very deeply and while I can’t say that I want to go back, I know that a heavy grieving process is in progress. With the closure of that life I can feel myself in a waiting, liminal period. The trauma of my abusive relationship has proved to be an enormous boulder on my path. I know that something transformative is on the other side of this experience- and I am feeling my way around in the dark. I have my nose to the ground, searching and listening for the voices of God and honoring them in anyway I can.
From the moment I entered Islam ten years ago, I have tried to reconcile my belief in one true God/Source with my life-long interest in the symbolism of gods and goddess from different pantheons. I have always intrinsically felt the value in the study of these figures. It was after my immersion in the work of the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung that I grew to understand it wasn’t the worship of these figures that I was after, but the value of their archetypes.
Archetypes are figures that represent basic human situations, and are present across all cultural and religious paths. Jung’s concept of the Collective Unconscious describes a universal database, with every human born having the same set of archetypes innate within them. A person cannot acquire extra archetypes through power or class, we are all simply born with the same access to the same Collective Unconscious. The emphasis on equality in the eyes of God is very Islamic to me. Many verses found in the Q’uran and Hadith center around the fact that all humans are born from a single source and loved with the same compassion. “O Mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah is he who has most taqwa (God fearing) among you. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (Hujrat, 49:13)
The Green Man in our Present Culture: The Organic Movement————-
The Green Man has a habit of transforming with the tides of social movements and aesthetic trends that honor communion with Nature. The specialness or trendiness surrounding homesteading, farming and DIY has come in waves; either due to necessity, as in the “victory gardens” in the USA during World World II, or the canning, bra-less, macrame-crafting-female archetype of the 1970’s. And the trends of the last 10 years: organic produce, farming, foraging, home-brewing, weaving, hot springs, dumpster diving gloriousness. The Rebel/Punk/Anarchist archetype is also usually connected to these DIY movements, and was even hidden in the seemingly patriotic sentiment of the WWII victory garden: relying on ourselves and Nature to carry us through, a personal connection to the Green world is always empowering and radical.
Angels under the Cloaks of Tyrants: Trickster/al Khidr/Green Man——–
In many spiritual paths, those who cause pain in your life are actually angels in disguise, guiding you on your path and providing contrasting experiences that further reveal your truest self. Think of the most painful experience in your life- was it not transformative? Did it not cause you to carve out what was truly important to you? These difficult experiences provide priceless opportunities for further clarity. What appears to be your misfortune may be your biggest blessing. In Islam there is the saying “Allah knows best.” From the Q’uran, “And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.” (AI-Baqarah, 2:216)
The figure of al Khidr, also known as “the Green One,” is central to this belief. He is often portrayed as sitting upon a white, fur rug and illuminating a green light. He is imbued with powers of transformation. In Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung writes,“his qualities signalize him as such: he is said to have been born in a cave, ie., in darkness. He is the “Long-lived One,” who continually renews himself, like Elijah. Like Osiris, he is dismembered at the end of time, by Antichrist, but is able to restore himself to life. He is analogous to the Second Adam, with whom the reanimated fish is identified; he is a counsellor, a Paraclete, “Brother Khidr.” …Khidr symbolizes not only the higher wisdom but also a way of acting which is in accord with this wisdom and transcends reason.”
I first heard of al-Khidr in Central Java, Indonesia. There are stories of Sunan Kalijaga, one of 9 saints of Javanese Islam, meeting or becoming a student of al-Khidr. In one story, Sunan Kalijaga is in despair and runs away from civilization, fasting and wandering aimlessly. In the sea he meets al-Khidr who, after questioning his motives, agrees to guide Sunan Kalijaga in a process of transmutation.
On the Sufi path, al-Khidr is seen as the great Initiator and Trickster, or one who performs seemingly negative or “naughty” deeds that are actually full of wisdom and goodness. In the Q’uran, Moses accompanies Khidr on a journey during which he is forbidden to ask any questions regarding the actions of Khidr, regardless of his curiosity. During the journey, Khidr kills a boy, rips open a hole in a boat at sea full of passengers, and rebuilds the broken wall of villagers who shun him. Moses cannot contain his dismay at these actions and questions Khidr repeatedly throughout the journey. In the end, Khidr reveals to Moses that his “evil” deeds were actually ones of goodness: the murdered boy would have grown into an evil man and harmed the believers, the ripped boat would have been attacked by a greedy king, and the wall was repaired to provide a safe hiding place for the inheritance of two orphan boys whose father was a pious believer in a village of immorals. With his seemingly villainous acts, al-Khidr acts on behalf of the will of God. The symbolism of al-Khidr calls us to relax into the flow of the Universe, to trust the the process of the refinement of our souls, and to slow down in the midst of what seems to be tragedy or misfortune, for it could be the most significant blessing of your life. God knows, but you do not know.
Love is the Wine: Bacchus/Green Man/Hafiz——-
Bacchus and the Green Man are associated with the energies of drunkenness, abandon, festivities, fertility, ritual magic and spiritual ecstasy. The relationship between the Green Man/Bacchus and wine is reminiscent of the Sufi and the wine of the Beloved. Although alcohol consumption is forbidden in traditional Islamic practice, the Sufi mystics and poets refer to drunkenness as being in a state of ecstasy with the Beloved/God. An excerpt from “A Brimming Cup of Wine” by the great Sufi poet Hafiz:
“A Flower-Tinted cheek, the flowery close
Of the fair earth, these are enough for me
Enough that in the meadow wanes and grows
The shadow of a graceful cypress-tree.
I am no lover of hypocrisy;
Of all the treasures that the earth can boast,
A brimming cup of wine I prize the most–
This is enough for me!
To them that here renowned for virtue live,
A heavenly palace is the meet reward;
To me, the drunkard and the beggar, give.. “ (translation by Gertrude Lothian Bell)
In Bacchus, the Green Man and the poetry of Hafiz, we are invited to abandon ourselves to the ecstatic nature of communion with God. Hafiz refers to wine, drunkenness and the abundance of spring repeatedly in his poetry. The brimming cup of wine could be interpreted as the heart of the believer, full of the love of God. The Turkish sheik Muzzafer Ozak famously said, “God pours the wine, and the believer is the glass. Love is the wine.”
Transition, Death and Regeneration: Osiris/Green Man———-
Osiris, another Green Man from the Ancient Egyptian tradition, is betrayed by his brother Set. He is murdered twice and dismembered, but these events only create a more powerful destiny for him. Osiris, with his green skin, becomes ruler of the Underworld and maintains a perpetual state of death and resurrection. His body below ground is the source from which all grain grows each spring. The common life process of tragedy leading to the death or change of the ego is inherent in both the Jungian and Sufi trajectory of the soul. In Jung, the ego undergoes trauma and change only to stimulate an integration with the Personal and Collective Unconscious, a process Jung calls “Individuation.” In the Sufi tradition, the ego goes through a process of annihilation to merge with the Beloved, or as Thomas Merton writes, “the dissolution of one’s present status in order to be reintegrated on a new level.” From all perspectives, tragedy and trauma are the catalysts for the death and rebirth of our beings.
In the world of plants, death and rebirth are of equal importance. The process of death and decay is pure nourishment for the future growth of plants and all creatures. For plants, death and life are two parts of the whole. If there is no death, there is no transformation, growth or birth. Plants even consume the nutrients of their own dead leaves.
From the symbolism in all of these archetypes, I can only believe that the trauma I’ve encountered will become potent medicine for the path of my soul. I’m not sure where this thread is leading me, but I want to acknowledge the appearance the Green Man has been making in my life, reminding me to relax into the natural flow of the Universe, allowing parts of myself to die, and other parts to be born. I see the Green Man in the pain and pleasure Allah has decreed for me. And I want you to see him from where you are now, too.
The Place Where You Are Now
This place where you are right now
God circled on a map for you.
Wherever your eyes and arms and heart can move
Against the earth and the sky,
The Beloved has bowed there –
Our Beloved has bowed there knowing
You were coming.
I could tell you a priceless secret about
Your real worth, dear pilgrim,
But any unkindness to yourself,
Any confusion about others,
Will keep one
From accepting the grace, the love,
The sublime freedom
Divine knowledge always offers to you.
Never mind, Hafiz, about
The great requirements this path demands
Of the wayfarers,
For your soul is too full of wine tonight
To withhold the wondrous Truth from this world.
But because I am so clever and generous,
I have already clearly woven a resplendent lock
Of his tresses
As a remarkable truth and gift
In this poem for you.
Translation by Daniel Ladinsky, “The Subject Tonight Is Love”
RELATED READING LIST:
Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung
Al Khidr, the Green One, Hugh Talat Halman
Love is the Wine, Sheikh Muzzafer Ozak
Green Man: Archetypes of our Oneness with the Earth, William Anderson
The Green Man in Church Architecture, Lady Raglan