Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.
Halloween and 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.
Causes of Green Skin
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 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 World War II, 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, hook nose, chin hair, and bad teeth. However, these features have roots in stories of torture.
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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.
Physical Torture of Suspected Witches
During the Spanish Inquisition, some of the women were physically tortured as a test for witchcraft. During the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1690s, accused witches were are also tortured. 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 and Gangrene
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.
Gangrene and Odorous Discharge
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
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on September 12, 2017:
Betty - Surprising, isn't it? I'm disgusted with being in those school days Halloween parades.
Try a different color face!
Betty on September 12, 2017:
I am dressing up as a witch tonight with broom and maybe green face. But I had no idea it meant that
Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on November 01, 2011:
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.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 26, 2011:
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a favorite!
Celestial Elf on October 26, 2011:
Great Post :D
Maude Keating from Tennessee on October 12, 2011:
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.
Xenonlit on October 10, 2011:
I had no clue about this either. What horrible things we humans do.
Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on October 05, 2011:
Well I must say I didn't know any of this. Thanks for a really interesting hub.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 04, 2011:
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!
Hello, hello, from London, UK on October 04, 2011:
I bet nobody ever thought about it. Thank you for digging into the mystery and give us all these information. Fascinating.
Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 03, 2011:
Interesting hub! Thanks for the history.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 03, 2011:
Now if we could all research the candidates for the 2012 election so well...
Thanks for reading, all!
Earth Angel on October 03, 2011:
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!
breakfastpop on October 03, 2011:
I always feel a little bit smarter afterI read your hubs. Up, interesting and awesome.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 02, 2011:
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!
Joseph De Cross from New York on October 02, 2011:
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!
FloraBreenRobison on October 02, 2011:
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.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 02, 2011:
Haha ..green...Thanks for reading!
ThoughtSandwiches from Reno, Nevada on October 02, 2011:
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...