The Halloween Witch's Green Face and the Myth of the Broomstick
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.
- 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.
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 FireClick thumbnail to view full-size
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.
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
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.
© 2011 Patty Inglish