The Halloween Witch's Green Face and the Myth of the Broomstick
Origins of the Green Flying Witch
The traditions of green witches' faces and flying brooms during Halloween originate in the physical punishment and and drug effects suffered by the women of Salem in the 1600s.
Most of these women and teenage girls who were accused of witchcraft had only discovered the medicinal properties of native plants and kitchen herbs. A few likely suffered mental conditions like postpartum depression and a psychosis associated with it, along with symptoms of using hallucinogenic plant extracts.
The emerald face popularized by Margaret Hamilton in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) allowed film producers to showcase Technicolor. However, this wizardry also sanitized the results of physical torture suffered by the Salem women accused of witchcraft in the 1600s.
The Green Face of Torture
Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others.
The Hallucinogenic Broomstick
The flying broom is a sanitized version of of hallucinogenic substance use. Certain New England garden and forest herbs have mind-altering properties, as the Salem women learned.
As found recorded circa 1450, a length of wood about the diameter of a broomstick was dipped or soaked in an herb extract or an herb-based ointment.
The hallucinogenic substance was absorbed as the wood was rubbed against a lower body orifice, offering a quick "high" or what some call "flying." This is the rationale for illustrations of witches sitting or flying on a broom handle.
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 (belladonna or devil's cherries), henbane, and mandrake" from the house of two witches. Ironically, even the ointment was green.
American Halloween Masks
After WWII, department stores began carrying a larger number of Halloween costumes. One of the most common features we saw was the heavy, smelly rubber mask, especially the green one for witch costumes based on the Margaret Hamilton character.
The masks smelled so bad we thought they must be toxic. Plastic masks began appearing in the mid-1950s, but some of the witch masks were still green. The mask was usually green or yellowish-green, with warts, a huge hooked nose, wrinkles, and the odd bristly hair. Some even included a cobweb on one cheek.
During the 1970s, Halloween makeup became more popular and children and adults painted their faces green. People were unaware of the connection of gangrene to a green face.
Gangrene and Green Skin
Comic and graphic novels use a green face to indicate nausea and expected vomiting, or deadly radiation exposure. A green witch face is doubly ugly, because of the warts, a hook nose, chin hair, and bad teeth; but, it is based on stories of torture.
Historians trace the green to the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834) and the harsh punishment of alleged witches. Green hallucinogenic ointments were also present during Inquisition years, as mentioned above.
American researchers trace the green face to the Salem Witch Trial punishments that caused gangrenous skin, infections, burning deaths, and other damaging actions. Many faces did turn green with infection and bruising.
Forensic Reconstruction of Gangrene
Some of the women physically tortured as a test for witchcraft during the Spanish Inquisition and during the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1690s were tortured long-term.
Many of the accused were pilloried and tied standing into stocks with their necks and wrists restrained in a yoke. They were not fed, but they were beaten regularly, bruised, and punished with broken noses, cheekbones, and teeth.
Bruises on the faces, necks, arms, and hands began to change color from black and blue to green and brown after a few days. Some of the skin discolorations were covered by fresh bruises and new bleeding as tissues underneath began to die.
Under the layers of bruises, gangrene began as the blood supply failed to reach the hands and face because of being tied tightly at the stocks and suffering damaged blood vessels. Tissues began to turn whitish-pale to blue and greenish, purple, black, bronze, and red, depending on the type of gangrene working on the tissues.
A Horror Parade
Gangrene also includes confusion and foul-smelling discharges that are a bit like the smelly rubber masks mentioned above. In Salem, this odor added to the "proof" of witchcraft. Odorous women with discolored faces were paraded through town, spat upon, stoned, and then killed. Some died during the parade.
The idea of a Halloween parade of elementary school children today in green witch faces is unpalatable.
The Green Icon
The green witch has become iconic. She is famous on Broadway in Wicked, in Walt Disney films, and in TV's Once Upon a Time. Today, the green witch is seen as attractive and desirable, but her green face originates in a history of torture in Spain and America. Her flying broomstick links to hallucinogen usage and is not appropriate for children's costumes.
- Garber, Megan. Why Do Witches Ride Brooms? The Atlantic. October 31, 2013.
- Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. Random House. 2001.
- Cavendish, Richard; Ed. Man, Myth and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural. 1970.
© 2011 Patty Inglish MS