Green Witch Village

The MGM movie of The Wizard of Oz popularized the idea of the Wicked Witch of the West having green skin, something she didn’t have in the book. And at this time of year, it’s common to see witches with light green skin. That, along with the broom and the pointed hat, is an indication that you’re seeing a witch. So where did this idea get started? This was a topic of discussion on the now-defunct International Wizard of Oz Club message board back in 2009, and it appears that there weren’t that many green witches prior to 1939, but they did appear in some Halloween decorations as early as the 1920s.

It’s likely the case that the Wicked Witch was made more colorful in the film for the same reason the Silver Shoes were turned into Ruby Slippers, but still, why green?

The color seems to have been associated with disease and the decomposition of dead bodies. Death is said to have ridden on a pale green horse. It’s still considered a rather sickly color. Ruth Berman points out that copper arsenate dye, which was discovered in the eighteenth century and remained popular throughout the nineteenth, had a pale green color and was discovered to be poisonous. A search on the Internet turns up several suggestions that the Halloween witch was based on a bruised and battered witch facing execution, but this seems a bit unlikely. Another possibility is that it has to do with witches working with plants, but that would suggest a deeper green.

Then again, witches probably would grow mint in their herb gardens. Green was also considered a magical color in Celtic folklore, and tended to be associated with fairies.

I don’t know whether any of these was consciously the reason for green-skinned witches, but they might well have contributed to the idea.

It also applies to other monsters, like how Frankenstein’s monster was colored in green on movie posters, although that could just be to highlight his decomposition.

Even Mr. Hyde was green in Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo cartoons.

And I’ve also discussed green Martians. I guess the main remaining question is why Halloween witches have long noses, but that’s probably just because it’s generally agreed to look ugly.

This entry was posted in Cartoons, Celtic, Characters, Fairy Tales, Halloween, Holidays, L. Frank Baum, Magic, Monsters, Mythology, Oz, Oz Authors and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Green Witch Village

  1. caelesti says:

    There are some people who try to tie the “big nose” thing to anti-Semitic stereotypes, but many people who are not Jewish have big noses.

    • Nathan says:

      There’s also a long association of Judaism with black magic, even though the bit about not suffering a witch to live is from the Jewish scriptures. I don’t know that witch noses look much like stereotypical Semitic noses, though.

  2. Bryan Babel says:

    I have heard that Boris Karloff’s make-up in the original “Frankenstein” was green; when it was filmed it came off as this ghastly white. This is confirmed by, of all people, Mel Brooks, who in his commentary on “Young Frankenstein” mentions the same fact about Peter Boyle’s Monster. Interestingly enough, a print from an early Nineteenth Century (1800’s) stage production shows the Monster tinted green already.

    As for the witch’s long nose, it is a fact that cartilage in the nose and ears keeps growing as you get older, and many of the victims of the witch hysteria were elderly women.

    I would be interested in seeing some of these 1920’s green witches, mentioned in the Oz-thread that you linked. I notice in the sample that you post that the witch’s skin isn’t green, though her surroundings are. Why witches are green and when the image entered the popular imagination are subjects I’ve long thought about.

    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, I did a little bit of looking for a pre-1939 green witch, and that image on eBay was as close as I could get. That’s not to say there weren’t green witches around back then, just that I’d like to see some concrete examples.

  3. I imagine it has to do with green skin being other-wordly and strange.

  4. Glenn I says:

    Witches are generally elderly. As you age (especially in the pre-Modern era), your teeth fall out. When you don’t have teeth, your nose looks bigger. The green, though? Tin Man had silver covered.

  5. Pingback: NaNoWriMo 2014: Janette Lennox | The Claire Violet Thorpe Express

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