From the aliens of Toy Story to The Flintstones’ Great Gazoo, images of extraterrestrial beings—no matter how wide and varied they might be—often have one thing in common: Their bright green color. But why do we call aliens “little green men” at all? Why have we so frequently imagined them as that single shade for so long? The answer, it turns out, is more complicated than you might think.
The phrase “little green men” has been closely associated with aliens and UFOs for a number of decades, but leaf-hued, non-human beings have popped up in stories for quite a long time. As is often the case, though, a few notable instances have helped to popularize the idea of extraterrestrial lifeforms as “little green men” as well as to cement that particular phrase in our cultural consciousness.
From fairy creatures to Martians and beyond, here’s what you need to know about “little green men.”
Possible Folkloric Roots
Green beings are rife throughout folklore—but not as visitors from other planets or galaxies. Rather, they’re deeply connected with nature, although their true origins remain somewhat hazy.
“Foliate heads,” as they’re called—stone representations of humanoid male faces made up of vines, leaves, and such—can be found as architectural detailing on churches and ecclesiastical buildings throughout Europe dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries. These days, they’re known as Green Men; however, both that moniker and much of the mythology surrounding the so-called Green Men are much more recent inventions: As Emily Tesh pointed out at Tor.com in 2019, they only gained the name “Green Men” in 1939 thanks to Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan’s article on folklore—the only one she ever published—titled “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture.”
Lady Raglan posited that these “Green Men,” as she dubbed them, may have been remnants of pagan religions or folklore—figures representing fertility and life—which had since been folded into Christianity. However, there’s no evidence to support this theory; in fact, most modern historians and folklorists consider it demonstrably false. As Josephine Livingston put it at The New Yorker in 2016, “Despite his face being everywhere in the medieval period, a historical Green man story seems to be attested precisely nowhere.” What’s more, foliate faces can be found in places and periods as disparate as ancient Rome and Mesopotamia; one of the oldest examples, which is located in present-day Iraq, is believed to date back as early as 300 B.C.E.
And yet, due to the theory of Lady Raglan and folklorists who proliferated it in the mid-20th century as well as lines writers drew to such figures as the Green Knight in the Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the 12th-century legend of the Green Children of Woolpit, the myth of the Green Man persists.
The Green Knight was named for the color of both his garb and skin; meanwhile, the Green Children were a brother and sister with green skin said to have appeared in the English village of Woolpit sometime in the 12th century. There’s some debate about what the story of the Green Children actually is—is it a folktale, or is it a misinterpretation of an actual event?—but it remains an interesting if unresolved incident. The Green Children reportedly spoke a language unknown to the villagers and ate only a certain type of raw bean; when the girl learned English later on, she explained that she and her brother were from “Saint Martin’s Land,” an underground community which was home to a large population of green people.
In any event, what all of this demonstrates is that the color green has long been associated with otherworldly people and beings—so, it’s perhaps to be expected that “otherworldly” would, over time, come to mean not only “from the land of the fairies” or what have you, but also “from another planet entirely.”
The Sci-Fi Connection
Much like the link between the color green and folkloric figures, there’s a similar one between that same color and figures from science fiction stories.
To be fair, the earliest mentions of the phrase “little green men” in fiction are focused more around fantasy than sci-fi; Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1801 poem “The Little Green Man: A German Story,” Cesar Otway’s 1827 work Sketches in Ireland, and Kathleen Knox’s story “The Old Clock” in the 1873 children’s book Father Time’s Story Book all use the phrase “little green men” (or, in some cases, the singular form, “little green man”) to refer to fairy-like, folkloric creatures. But by the turn of the 20th century, the phrase—and, more generally, green-tinted beings—had begun to become associated with extraterrestrial beings, as well.
Folklorist and UFO researcher Chris Aubeck has spent considerable time compiling historical instances of green aliens occurring in fiction under a section of his now-defunct website fittingly titled “Little Green Men.” Although Aubeck is careful to note that this list is “an exercise in historical investigation, not a thesis of enormous implications,” it does demonstrate, as he puts it, “that the term ‘Little Green Man’ was in popular use long before UFOs ever came on the scene, and that its transition from the world of folklore to ufology was seamless.”
The earliest mention of a small, green, extraterrestrial being that Aubeck dug up appears in the short story by Charles Battell Loomis titled “Green Boy from ‘Harrah,’” which was published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1899. Loomis describes the titular boy as being “funny looking” and “with skin as green as a maple leaf in midsummer and wearing a silken cloak of the color of old gold.” When the story’s protagonist asks him where he is from, the boy replies, “From Harrah”—and when asked in turn where Harrah is, he simply points to the sky. The protagonist accordingly assumes that Harrah is a star.
Then, in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs began publishing one of the most influential science fiction works in history—which, incidentally, also contains green aliens: The first Barsoom novel, A Princess of Mars, appeared serially under the title “Under the Moons of Mars” in the magazine The All-Story between February and July of 1912. The novel would be published as its own volume under the title by which it’s now known in 1917.
The beings of Barsoom, whom Burroughs (in the voice of protagonist John Carter) calls Martians, are either green or red. When Carter first encounters the Green Martians, he initially describes them as having hairless bodies “of a very light yellow-ish green color” which “deepens to an olive green” as they age. He then goes on to refer repeatedly to this group of people as “green Martians,” “green men,” “green men of Mars,” and other similar monikers throughout the story.
The Green Martians of Barsoom are far from “little”—they’re actually about 15 feet tall—but the Barsoom series, which consists of 11 volumes published serially through 1943, represents one of the most notable instances of green aliens in science fiction. More followed, of course—but in 1955, something else happened that took the phrase “little green men” out of the realm of fiction and seemingly placed it in reality.
That something is now known as the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter.
The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter
It happened like this:
On Aug. 21, 1955, the Sutton family was allegedly besieged for nearly four hours by a small army of what they claimed were extraterrestrials at their farmhouse near Kelly and Hopkinsville in western Kentucky. They survived quite the shoot-out by their own account. Oddest of all, though, was how they said these beings looked: When the family went to the police about the incident, they described the creatures as no more than four feet tall, with “oversized [heads], arms extended almost to the ground, hands [with] talons, and [oversized] eyes [which] glowed with a yellowish light.” The bodies of these “little men,” as they called them, looked as if they were made of “silver metal.”
Or at least, that’s how the family claimed it happened. Skeptics believe that the incident was simply a misinterpretation of events—that the family was besieged not by “little men” from outer space, but by Great Horned Owls or other entirely earthly creatures. Additionally, the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter was eventually classified in the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book files as a hoax. Even so, though, Ufologists consider it to be one of the most significant UFO incidents in history, if only because of its documentation.
The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter is also pointed to as the moment upon which the idea of aliens as “little green men” became cemented in the public’s imagination—because of that documentation. The incident was widely covered in the media at the time, and although early reports—such as the story published in the Kentucky New Era on Aug. 22, 1955—simply called the creatures “little men,” later reports made the description more colorful—literally. By 1957, it was right in the headlines: As a feature published in the Nashville Tennessean Magazine on Oct. 13 that year told it, the night of the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter was nothing short of the “Night of the ‘Little Green Men.’” The fact remained that the Sutton family never once described the “little men” as “green” themselves—they maintained that they were silver—but the public latched onto the media-driven embellishment. The community of Kelly even holds a festival called “Little Green Men Days” around the anniversary of the alleged encounter each year.
Nowadays, of course, you’re more likely to hear these beings referred to as “Greys”—as Mulder put in the first season of The X-Files, “Grey. You said green men. A Reticulan’s skin tone is actually grey.” Even so, 65 years after the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter, the idea of aliens as “little green men” still looms large in our imaginations. Whether you believe in them or not, little green men are here to stay.