Why Are Witches Green?

We all know that witches ride brooms and keep black cats for sidekick pets, but why the green witch? That tradition started more recently than you might think.

The history of witches is terrifying and sad and is basically the story of marginalised people. Worse, people around the contemporary world are still abused because of supernatural beliefs about their so-called witchcraft.

In children’s literature, however, witches are a useful trope.

We’re all familiar with the idea that witches ride brooms.

But when did witches become green?

Below is an illustration for the Charles Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty. The wicked fairy is depicted as an ugly green witch, to match her ugly personality.

La belle au bois dormant : The Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, retold by Shirley Goulden; illustrated by Benvenuti, 1961

In the version below the skin is grey and sallow but the greenness is still there, in her gown. To make use of some very basic symbolism — the fairy is experiencing feelings of envy because she has not been invited to the party.

Sleeping Beauty grey green witch
Illustration by Sheilah Beckett, 1977

Witches in popular literature and media […] became sexual entities, conniving and disgraceful. […] “witches are accused of crimes similar to those which made the femme fatale of 19th-century novels and dramas such a menacing literary persona” […] Through their magic and their sensual nature, they would tempt people, and trick them into doing inherently evil things, or make them vulnerable. Thus, the witch was seen as a villain, and sexual women were seen as menacing as well. Through this process of othering, this characterization of sexually deviant women as witches, “the witch became the incarnation of the sins of the flesh, of female sexual function”.

However, witches are not always represented as being overly feminine and sexual in nature. Sometimes, they sit on the other end of the spectrum, as masculine, hideous creatures; still outliers from society’s usual expectations for women. These witches, with green skin and crooked noses, match our typical descriptions of the Halloween monsters, cursing maidens and keeping black cats or crows as company.

Socademia

The Green Witch In The Wizard Of Oz

Just as Disney has forever placed in our minds the names of the dwarfs (who were never named before that), the film starring Judy Garland forever left us with the image of the green Wicked Witch Of The West. A film, if successful, changes a work permanently. Maguire therefore creates Elphaba (after the letters of L. Frank Baum’s name) as a green-skinned creature.

Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film

The green-skinned crone is actually a relatively new incarnation of the evil witch – in fact, while the evil witch as a cultural narrative dates back millennia, the green skin dates precisely back to 1939 and the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s cackling and emerald-tinted portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, rendered in vivid Technicolor, is the onlyreason that anyone associates green skin with witches. As Professor Marion Gibson, associate professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter and an expert in popular depictions of witches, explained, via email, “There are a few images of witches – for instance, on Halloween postcards – with odd coloured faces (usually red/orange, surprisingly) but MGM’s green-faced witch is the first to make a key feature of a completely non-human skin colour.”

Why Are Witches Green? from Boing Boing

There is a sad story of actor abuse behind Margaret Hamilton’s greenness.

On 23 December 1938, while filming the Wicked Witch’s exit from Munchkinland in a blaze of fire, Hamilton suffered first-degree burns on the right side of her face and second-degree burns on her right hand; the flames rose too soon, before she had descended below the stage. Hamilton’s green makeup was copper-based and potentially toxic, and had to be removed from her burned flesh with alcohol — an intensely painful process. She was not able to return to the movie until 10 February. When she did return, she wore green gloves, since her hand was not yet fully healed.

OzWikia

Green skin makes a character unambiguously non-human, so there’s one reason for the green skin. But there are real-world illnesses which can give skin a greenish hue.

Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others.

Holidappy

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked

There have been many, many retellings of The Wizard of Oz but the most culturally significant of those must be Wicked, in which Elphaba’s greenness is central.

[A] witch whose image was recently remade is Elphaba, from Wicked, who is also the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”. In Wicked, the witch retains her original appearance, “with her green skin, black clothes, and flying broom Elphaba matches our physical conception of a witch” (Boyd 99). Her personality, on the other hand, is completely different. She remains a bit rough around the edges, but this is more defensiveness and a lack of social skills than an actual evil. She is given a sympathetic back-story, and the best intentions. Overall, Elphaba is a good person, and remains that way throughout both the novel and the play, thus becoming a relatable protagonist, rather than a villain.

Socademia

 

Witches are now so commonly understood to be green that I decided yesterday to paint a green witch. Looking at my reference photo compared to the output feels like a kind of symbol — the way witches are very real and ordinary but our thoughts about them are not. (I accidentally left the pot in my office and wondered where it was when it came time to steam the cabbage.)

halloween witch reference halloween candy witch

 

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline book cover

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the female myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the female myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.) Continue reading “Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline”

Monster House Film Study

monster house

Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by  Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Brave, of 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)

Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.

MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE

Continue reading “Monster House Film Study”