Carvings of Green Men appear in churches and on gravestones throughout Western Europe, showing the head of a man or a cat-like creature with foliage emerging from the ears and mouth. These strange and decorative symbols are believed to have originated as much as four thousand years ago, and it is generally assumed that in pagan times they represented the eternal cycle of nature, with life renewed after death. It is easy to understand why Christians then felt able to adopt them to symbolise the resurrection of Christ.
Rosslyn Chapel, not far from Edinburgh, records that it has over 100 Green Men, and at the last count St Giles’ had at least 66 and probably more. Because they tend to be high up on the pillars and vaulted ceilings of the Cathedral, many are not visible to the naked eye and each time scaffolding is erected for repairs to the ceiling, more are noted. The most obvious, in the south transept, is a restored medieval Green Man which was painted and gilded in about 1991, with the leaves above the face rather than emerging from it. Others are to be found on an archway in the Albany Aisle, on the elaborately carved pre-Reformation tomb in the Holy Blood Aisle and on the pillars of the Preston Aisle. Most are believed to date from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries, although four at the west end were installed in 1830, at the time of the William Burn restoration of the building.