Always remember - history is written by the winners.
Here's a short documentary about the history of witches
What is a witch? And who gets falsely accused of being one, or whatever we've swapped in as the modern equivalent? It depends on whether we're talking about the newly fashionable holistic healers and occultist dabblers or about our moral scapegoats. These days a (reclaimed) witch can be a cute blue haired girl on Instagram posting pictures of her crystals and her motivational spells. Or she can be a pretty spell caster writing an essay for a beauty magazine. And sometimes she can be a costumed middle-aged woman who just likes to dance in parades. There's more than one way to be a witch!
In medieval Europe around 80% of people accused of being witches were women. In those pre-Victorian days, women were thought to be the morally weaker, more sexually voracious sex - and as they got older and found fewer sexual partners, they became more susceptible to being seduced by the devil. Women branded witches tended to be on the older, poorer side and more autonomous and outspoken. Often they were midwives, who could be seen rushing around under cover of night to deliver babies, whose occasional deaths were blamed on them. They were cooks and healers with knowledge of medicinal herbs, which they could turn into healing remedies or harmful poisons. Libidinous spinsters and widows were threatening enough to the moral order, and God help them if they had opinions. She's a witch!
Salem witch trials - the first big American witch hunt, which took place in 1692 - were distinctly American in several ways. First, they took place in Salem Village - a very small, agrarian community addled by economic anxiety. Furthermore, the Puritans were misogynists. Women were expected to be silent, submissive and confined to the home. They were thought to be by nature more likely to enlist in the devil's service than a man was.
One American colonist, Anne Hutchinson (founder of Portsmouth, Rhode Island), who resided in Boston 56 years before the events at Salem, had evolved ideas about the rights of women, was openly critical of the church, and held Bible studies in her home that were popular with other women. Hutchinson was among those brought to trial, condemned and banned from the Massachusetts Colony. She was, in a sense, lucky: many others who faced similar censure during the Salem witch trials were sentenced to death. And, as ever, the motivation for the persecution of truth seems to lie at the end of a trail of money.
As the accusations of 1692 began, they mostly consisted of West Salem Villagers accusing East Salem Villagers. Those worried about protecting themselves from witches started filling the church, which meant the minister made more money. Most accusers were young girls, most of the accused were older women, and most witnesses at the trial were married. The trials made money for the judge, the lawyer, and even the local baker who provided food for those locked up awaiting trial. An American industry was born.
The final tally of the Salem witch trials is astounding. In addition to 20 innocent people losing their lives, at least 140 were falsely imprisoned, and countless others faced debilitating rumors. Once someone was accused of witchcraft, even after the shadow lifted, often meant disaster. Those eventually freed from prison faced extreme economic suffering as a result of the accusations. Many had been absent from their homes for months. Others, sent to prison, received staggering bills. In the 17th century prisons charged prisoners for food and shelter, even if the charges were later dropped. For many living hand-to-mouth, such debts could prove crippling, especially because under Massachusetts law, prisoners were not to be released from jail until their fines were paid. One victim of this debtors' system was Lydia Dustin, who died in prison in March 1693 despite being acquitted the month before.
The meaning of the terms "witch" and "witch hunt" have evolved to fit the modern age, now understood to be shorthand for a misguided and unjustified search for perpetrators of some wrong against society. Think back to American Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Although McCarthy's name became synonymous with the hunt for Communist infiltrators, the witch hunt preceded and extended beyond his limited career. The term is still being used today. But as witches in movies and television evolve from one-dimensional stereotypes to multifaceted characters, there are portrayals that are helping to raise onscreen witches to new heights. Think of films like Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, Charmed, A discovery of Witches and Harry Potter. Progress is being made and the stigma of being a witch is starting to lift.
So what's so offensive about green faced witches? The traditions of green witches' faces and flying brooms during Halloween originate in the physical punishment and drug effects suffered by the women of Salem in the 1600s.
Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others. 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.
Historians trace the green to the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834) and the harsh punishment of alleged witches. Green hallucinogenic ointments were also present during the 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.
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 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 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 also includes confusion and foul-smelling discharges that are a bit like the smelly rubber masks we know of. 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 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. 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 can be seen as attractive and desirable, but her green face originates in a history of torture in Spain and America.
So why are some offended by a costumed witch's green face? We have only to look at history. Those who currently self-identify as witches find it difficult to see others minimize the torture and abuse of the women who came before them. They believe that education is power - and that when you know better, you can do better.
So what about modern witchcraft? It seems being a witch is not something people tend to be initiated into, as with Christianity. More likely they become a witch (often as a teenager) after realizing that the philosophies of witchcraft – such as goddess worship, the moon cycles and positive affirmations – resonate. We’ve seen witches describe how they “came out of the broom closet” and started to present themselves as a witch via the use of memes and images on social media. Indeed, by painting the witch as evil, devil-worshipping and harmful, it limits the exploration of the various identities of the witch. Witch is also not a gender-specific term, it’s an empowering faith identity and it should be presented as such.
In the last 30 years, an estimated 30,000 people have been killed in witch hunts on every continent except Antarctica. That divides out to 1,000 people per year, or two to three people per day, and that’s a conservative estimate.
The witch has never been a simple being. Depending on context, she can be a cultural archetype, a historical figure, or a current corpse; she is a fictional character and the excuse for the torture of hundreds of thousands of people; she is the ultimate scapegoat and a feminist lightning rod of resistance. Also, she’s one of the most popular costumes in a Halloween industry on which Americans are projected to spend $8.8 billion this year alone. Our modern image of the witch was distilled during the great European witch hunts that took place from the late 15th to the 17th centuries, in which thousands of people, the vast majority of whom were women, were tortured and executed. (It’s quite possible that hundreds of thousands were killed; the numbers are debated.) The witch that you’ll be dressing up as—broomstick, big nose, pointy hat—was forged in the crucible of thousands of burnings. – excerpt from The Nation.com article The Problem With Dressing Up as a Witch for Halloween | The Nation
Forget the dusty stereotypes: today's magical practitioners are vibrant and diverse, embracing a nature-centered spirituality that evolves and grows with each new generation of witches. Witchcraft can't be defined precisely, since different cultures continue to have different practices that fall under the moniker. Both modern Wicca and witchcraft celebrate individuality, allowing seemingly boundless freedom for interpretation and practice. Both Wiccans and witches have the option of cultivating a solitary practice or joining a coven. Society is always evolving, things are changing, and many witches are coming out of the closet, beginning to celebrate feasts and holy days in public, in fun and creative ways. Some of them even perform a synchronized dance down the middle of the street, complete with music and beautiful colorful costumes. Just remember, there are witches all around you. One of them may even be you. Embrace your magick!