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

Updated on July 29, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish offers 25+ years successful experience in medicine, psychology, STEM courses, and aerospace education (CAP).

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz"; 1939.
Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz"; 1939. | Source

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.

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 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 Wicked Witch of the West with makeup better resembling real gangrene infection. Seen in the Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
The Wicked Witch of the West with makeup better resembling real gangrene infection. Seen in the Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios. | Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Not for ChildrenThe origin of this cute image is not cute.
Not for Children
Not for Children | Source
The origin of this cute image is not cute.
The origin of this cute image is not cute. | Source

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 boom 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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Henbane like that used in Salem and Spanish ointments.HemlockBelladonnaMandrake depicted as a grumpy character of man-like features.
Henbane like that used in Salem and Spanish ointments.
Henbane like that used in Salem and Spanish ointments. | Source
Hemlock
Hemlock | Source
Belladonna
Belladonna | Source
Mandrake depicted as a grumpy character of man-like features.
Mandrake depicted as a grumpy character of man-like features. | Source

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.

A mural for the play "Wicked" in 2016.
A mural for the play "Wicked" in 2016. | Source

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.

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.
Source
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

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.

Old Stocks at Chapeltown, Lancashire, UK. The prisoner was required to kneel or lie down , face up or face down, in these stocks.
Old Stocks at Chapeltown, Lancashire, UK. The prisoner was required to kneel or lie down , face up or face down, in these stocks. | Source

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.

Sources

  • 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

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    • 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.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      The Nightmare Before Christmas is a favorite!

    • profile image

      Celestial Elf 5 years ago

      Great Post :D

      Happy Halloween

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

    • 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.

    • Xenonlit profile image

      Xenonlit 5 years ago

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

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 5 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

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

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      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, 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.

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Interesting hub! Thanks for the history.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

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

      Thanks for reading, all!

    • 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!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 5 years ago

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

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      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!

    • Lord De Cross profile image

      Joseph 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

    • 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.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      Haha ..green...Thanks for reading!

    • 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...