The Halloween Witch's Green Face and the Myth of the Broomstick

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Origins of Witch Myths and Costumes

The disrespectful traditions of green witches' faces and flying brooms on Halloween originate in physical abuse and drug actions suffered by women hundreds of years ago.

These women and teenage girls were thought often to be witches, because of the medicinal properties they discovered in herbs grown in the colony settlements of the New World. Other cases of witchcraft likely stemmed from the discomfort some women caused to the colonists through symptoms of mental illnesses, including postpartum depression, which can be extremely severe. Magic herbs and mental stresses were categorized as the "work of the devil."

Several types of physical damage can cause greenish skin and are outlined later in this article.

The flying broom is a sanitized rendition of the ingestion of hallucinogenic compounds by women whom others called "witches." Some of the garden and forest herbs that New England women used in the 1600s proved to have mind altering properties.

As found recorded circa 1450, a length of wood was dipped or soaked in liquefied herbs or an herb-based ointment to absorb the drug properties and then inserted into the body at natural points which produced fast intoxication. The women were thereafter "flying" on a drug high from the piece of wood for a time. This is the reason that witches are pictured sitting on a boom handle to fly -- The broom stick is a reference to the shorter drugged stick or to the broom handle that was used to rub in the ointment at delicate points of the body.

In the 1500s, a Spanish doctor, Andrés de Laguna, stated that he took "a pot full of a certain green ointment … composed of herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake" from the house of two witches. There's that color green, again.

References:

  • Garber, Megan. Why Do Witches Ride Brooms? October 31, 2013. The Atlantic.
  • Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. 2001. Random House.
  • Cavendish, Richard; Ed. Man, Myth and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural. 1970.

Propagating a Myth

The witch with a green face was featured in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" and for decades afterward in cartoons and magazine pictures.

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Halloween Hallmarks

When I was a child, my teachers in grades 1 through 3 (ages 6-8 or so) encouraged students to dress in Halloween costumes for an afternoon parade around the neighborhood and some cake or cookies back in the classroom afterwards. This was done on October 31 or a day or two before the holiday and it was fun. Most of the kids dressed as their favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters or a range of fairy tale heroes.

Most of the children enjoyed the day and, if not dressed as well known characters, they costumed themselves as animals, superheroes, and fairies, although a few wore no special costumes at all. Those in street clothes still had a good time walking with us and waving at the neighbors as some spectators tried to guess what the non-costume costumes were. We all laughed!

The department stores of the day carried a popular line of costumes for the holiday in a fairly wide range of prices, but the commonality among them was the heavy, smelly rubbery mask for all the witch costumes. They smelled HORRIBLE! They also made us sweat, so we refused to wear them.

The mask was usually green or a yellowish-green and included warts, a huge hooked nose, wrinkles, and the odd bristly hair. Some included a cobweb on one cheek. None of the kids wanted to smell the rubbery odor and sweat from this mask all day at school, so not many of these costumes were sold.

We didn't think much about the green. We just hated the smell.

Gangrene and Green Skin

In comic strips and graphic novels, a green face traditionally indicates nausea and expected vomiting. It does not feel or look good to the victim, or to anyone who sees them. A green witch face looks doubly ugly and sick, because it usually includes warts and bad teeth as well.

Some historians trace the green witch face all the way back to the Spanish Inquisition of 1478 - 1834. The Inquisition came down from the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabela, who sent the the New World and its Native Americans Christopher Columbus, who is documented to have physically abused some of them. This was a harsh historic period.

Other researchers trace the green face to the Salem Witch Trials its horrid sequences of continued physical punishment that sometimes resulted in gangrenous skin. This was all torture designed to result in confessions of witchcraft from the accused. Once so confessed, the labeled witches were executed.

In Popular Film

After having reviewed many films and seen several versions of the Oz characters and of witches, it is easy to see why the green-faced witch became iconic. While the concept did not originate with Walt Disney Studios, the Margaret Hamilton wicked witch in 1939's The Wizard of Oz made by Disney was green complexioned, with a large nose and a black mole, and the image stuck.

Whether staff and officials at Disney knew that they were copying green skin resulting form gangrene, bruises, and infections among women beaten for wtchcraft, we may never know. See the discussion below for additional insights.

Gangrene in a Green Face

Gangrene, dead tissues, include skin discoloration from whitish- pale to blue (rather greenish at times), purple, black, bronze or red, depending on the type of gangrene working on the tissues - there is more than one type.

Forensic Reconstruction of Gangrene

Some of the women physically tested in the witchcraft investigations during the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1690s, and other time periods were tortured long-term.

Many were pilloried and tied into stocks where they stood with their necks and wrists restrained in a yoke 24 hours a day. They were not fed, but beaten regularly, bruised, and burdened with broken noses, cheekbones, and teeth.

Pillory Stocks, Dunking and Fire

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Dunking Stool - Held underwater as punishment for being a public nusiance.Spanish Inquisitors burn male and female witches. Click to enlarge.Giles Corey (died Sept. 19, 1692). Pressed with heavy stones for failing to answer a charge of witchcraft. He lay between the boards shown and was pressed to death.
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Dunking Stool - Held underwater as punishment for being a public nusiance.
Dunking Stool - Held underwater as punishment for being a public nusiance. | Source
Spanish Inquisitors burn male and female witches. Click to enlarge.
Spanish Inquisitors burn male and female witches. Click to enlarge. | Source
Giles Corey (died Sept. 19, 1692). Pressed with heavy stones for failing to answer a charge of witchcraft. He lay between the boards shown and was pressed to death.
Giles Corey (died Sept. 19, 1692). Pressed with heavy stones for failing to answer a charge of witchcraft. He lay between the boards shown and was pressed to death. | Source

Bruises and Gangrene

Bruises on these women's faces, necks, arms, and hands began to change color from black and blue to green and brown after a few days of standing in the stocks and regular beatings. Some of the skin discolorations were covered by fresh bruises and bleeding as tissues underneath began to die.

Under the bruises, cases of gangrene began to develop in these women, as the blood supply began to fail to reach the hands and face because of the restrictions of the stocks and damaged blood vessels. The skin would also be black and blue, similar to initial bruising. Tissues under the skin experienced different changes.

Tissues just under the skin's surface in the tortured women, affected by gangrene, began to turn brown and bronze (in some cases, almost a yellow-greenish-brown). This is the first recorded indication of a type of greenish skin hue among witches, to my knowledge.

Additional Evidence

Other symptoms of gangrene include confusion and foul smelling discharges (a bit like the smelly rubber masks). These physical signals likely reinforced local authorities' belief in the accused person's status as a witch.

Many of these women were paraded through town for spectators, spat upon, stoned, and then killed by the dunking stool, a burning at the stake, or by other methods. Some died before they could be tied to the stool or wooden stake. The idea of the elementary school Halloween parade through neighborhood is a little less happy now.

Additional stories about the color green and its relation to witches appeared in popular legends in the UK and America from the 1600s onward and by the 20th Century, the green-faced witch had become a distasteful joke.

Old Stocks at Chapeltown, Lancashire, UK

The prisoner was required to kneel or lie down , face up or face down, in these stocks.
The prisoner was required to kneel or lie down , face up or face down, in these stocks. | Source

What Are We Celebrating?

Exactly what are we celebrating at Halloween with the various traditions from UK, America, and elsewhere?

In the case of the green-faced witch, I think we are inadvertently celebrating the undeserved torture and execution of many women and men in American and Spanish history, reaching back into time over 600 years.

The green mask and related posters, clip art, and coloring sheet imagery of a green-skinned Halloween witch is a set of traditions that I can do without.

The broomstick traces back to delicate and private personal use of hallucinogens and is not appropriate for children's' costumes.

Black slaves in a pillory in Brazil in the 1830s. They are permitted to sit or lie face up.
Black slaves in a pillory in Brazil in the 1830s. They are permitted to sit or lie face up. | Source

© 2011 Patty Inglish

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Comments 17 comments

ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

Hi Patty...wow. I had always assumed that witches faces were green because...you know...they were green (probably because of the Wizard of Oz). I now feel intellectually lazy. Thank you for your excellent research and engaging write-up! I am going to hit the 'Up' button...but...it's green...


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 5 years ago from North America Author

Haha ..green...Thanks for reading!


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

For all that green faces are the the traditional colour of witches depicted in the entertainment world-the only time I've even seen anyone in person with a green face as a witch was when I was in The Wizard of Oz-whenever I've seen trick or treaters in my area growing up, girls wanted to look like pretty witches. There was no green make-up. I remember I didn't use green make-up the year I was a witch. I was a different costume every year. I never wanted to look scary.


Lord De Cross profile image

Lord De Cross 5 years ago

Same as thought submarines..or sandwiches..was gonna flag up your hub and my hand turned green too. Is this a curse? fLAGGED UP AND STOCKED UP!

LORD


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 5 years ago from North America Author

Flora - Yes, i don't like the green faces, either.

lord de cross - You must wear gloves until the mext full moon to be rid of the curse. lol Thanks for vommenting!


breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 5 years ago

I always feel a little bit smarter afterI read your hubs. Up, interesting and awesome.


Earth Angel profile image

Earth Angel 5 years ago

Dearest Patty! Halloween is not my favorite either! And now, learning about green witches faces from torture, makes it even less so! Like so many injustices in history, we've sanitized it, humorized it and turned it into another marketing strategy! Thank you so much for sharing this; even if it is a bit discomforting! Blessings to you Ms. Research! Earth Angel!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 5 years ago from North America Author

Now if we could all research the candidates for the 2012 election so well...

Thanks for reading, all!


randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Interesting hub! Thanks for the history.


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

I bet nobody ever thought about it. Thank you for digging into the mystery and give us all these information. Fascinating.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 5 years ago from North America Author

That is an interesting point, Heloo-hello, that people adopt behaviors without examining them or accepting responsibility for furthering something possibly heinous. --

Another example is "planking" among college and high school students, which was first used to stack slaves in the bottoms of slave ships in order to transport more of them. If the slaves relaxed very much, they did not need punishment because they suffocated.

Thanks to all the commenters!


alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 5 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Well I must say I didn't know any of this. Thanks for a really interesting hub.


Xenonlit profile image

Xenonlit 5 years ago

I had no clue about this either. What horrible things we humans do.


My Minds Eye53 profile image

My Minds Eye53 5 years ago from Tennessee

Halloween today for most people has nothing to do with Halloween of old. I love Halloween. I suspect it is because of the colors and the mystery...oh and the candy.

Halloween comes from everywhere, a mix of traditions and lore.

I enjoyed this hub and I didn't know about the people in the stocks. How horrible. Voted up.


Celestial Elf 5 years ago

Great Post :D

Happy Halloween

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lhnhJHezmU


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 5 years ago from North America Author

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a favorite!


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 5 years ago from Great Britain

You are a gem.! l have wondered often about the green face of a witch and never thought of researching it... Shame on me... l seem to research everything else.

Wonderful read, Patti. Thank you.

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