The Halloween Witch's Green Face and the Myth of the Broomstick
Origins of 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 post partum depression, which can be extremely severe. Magic herbs and mental stresses were categorized as the "work of the devil."
Several types of physical abuse that cause greenish skin are outlined below, but not in such a graphic manner as to cause nausea.
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.
Aas found recorded in about 1450 or so, a length of wood was dipped or soaked in liquidfied 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.
- 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.
This seems a wide compilation of material from every known religion and supernatural/paranormal belief system of the era. A full 3332 pages and an index.
As 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.
Not At All Easy Being Green
In comic strips and cartoon strips or graphic novels, a green face traditionally indicates nausea and expected vomiting. It does fnot eel or look good to the victim - or to anyone who sees him. A green witch face looks doubly ugly and sick.
Some historians trace the green witch face all the way back to the Spanish Inquisition of 1478 - 1834; Inquisition from the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabela, who gave the Native Americans Christopher Columbus. Others trace it to the Salem Witch Trials. Both were horrid sequences of continued physical punishment, 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.
Pillory Stocks, Dunking and Fire
Forensic Reconstruction: Gangrene
Some of the women physically tested in the investigations into charges witchcraft during the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials (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.
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 first bruisings. 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.
Other symptoms include confusion and foul smelling discharges (a bit like the smelly rubber masks), which, along with other symptoms, likely reinforced local authorities' belief in the accused's "witch-ness." 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.
What is Gangrene?
- Gangrene - Mayo Clinic
Gangrene — Comprehensive overview covers symptoms, diagnosis, treatment of tissue death.
Old Stocks at Chapeltown, Lancashire, UK
What Are We Celebrating?
As the Hub Question was posed fopr this article, just what are we celebrating at Halloween with the various traditions from UK, America, and elsewhere?
In the case of the green-faced witch of Halloween, I think we are inadvertently celebrating the undeserved torture and execution of many women and men in American and Spanish History.
The green mask and related posters,clipart, 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, personal use of hallucinogens and is not appropriate for children's' costumes.
Thanks for reading!
© 2011 Patty Inglish
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