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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)