One thing that never changes about the larger pagan community is that there are always trends going around. This year I keep running across a poem written in 1999 by "Angel" that talks about witches being depicted with green faces as a result of torture ( Halloween Witch if you want to read it). It's been going around for a while of course but this year it seems to have really gained steam and more than that people are believing it and repeating the idea that witches were believed historically to have green faces and that the green color was actually a result of being tortured during trial. One site even went so far as to describe a very long theory about the green faces being the result of gangrene, while another had people linking it to Celtic mythology. Suffice to say I am sufficiently annoyed by this trend now that I have decided to devote a whole blog to trying to educate people about the reality of where the green faced witch came from and why it has nothing to do with the witch hunts.
So just to get this out of the way - as far as I have been able to find the earliest appearance of a green faced witch is in the Wizard of Oz movie - the movie specifically because in the book the character of the Wicked Witch of the West did not have a green face. It seems likely that this was a purely cinematic decision, based on a desire to show off the new technology of color film (Gerry, 2011). I suspect that the Wicked Witch in the movie was so scary and so memorable that after the movie came out the idea of green faced witches became embedded in our collective minds.
Now that we have that out of the way lets look at the idea - visceral and emotional - that victims of torture would have green faces and that people seeing this would think it was a sign of witchcraft. Everyone knows that older bruises turn greenish colored so at first glance this idea seems plausible. But lets stop and think about this for a minute. First of all is it possible to bruise someone's entire face - every inch of it? I don't think so; the shape of the face with it's curves and crevices would make such a thing very difficult and unlikely and the way blood pools would mean that you would never see any kind of even coloring that could be described as "green faced". Secondly this idea assumes that the people seeing the person would not realize that it was bruises turning green and I find that highly unlikely. People hundreds of years ago may have had less technology and a more primitive understanding of physiology but they weren't stupid; they knew as well as we do about bruises and the colors they turn over time. These accused witches were members of the community, well known to friends and neighbors and don't think for a moment that everyone didn't know that the person had been tortured. Thirdly most accused witches were tortured in complex ways but not necessarily beaten - and remember the point of the torture was to gain a confession so beating the person around the face in a way that might limit their ability to speak would be counter-productive. Finally, this green-faced theory assumes a fairly quick turn over between confession and execution which is also unrealistic. In fact an accused person was involved in a long trial where witnesses spoke against them and they may be tortured but often with a week or more between each interview with the court (Kors & Peters, 1972).
And since this sometimes was mentioned on some of the sites, I want to be perfectly clear that none of the Salem witches were tortured to obtain confessions. The only person who could have been said to be tortured was Giles Cory and that was because he refused to enter a plea either innocent or guilty; without a plea either way his land could not be seized and he could not be brought to trial (Giles was pretty darn smart, even if he was crushed to death under big freakin' rocks). Nobody was burned at Salem either - they were all hung or died in prison during their extended stay. Never trust any source that says different.
As to the idea of gangrene being the cause of the green face - gangrene is not actually green. The word gangrene comes originally from the Greek gangraina which means an eating sore, and that says a lot right there. It is an infection that occurs when blood flow is cut off and tissue dies and there are multiple types of gangrene; however in this case wet gangrene is the only possibility. When caused by trauma it creates a tight red swelling that slowly turns purplish-blue and then black and can cause a secondary septic infection which is fatal. I'll spare you the visual and won't include pictures but trust me it doesn't include the color green that I have ever seen or heard of and large infections will kill you, especially if they happen to be on your face. If you don't believe me you can read more here: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gangrene/DS00993/DSECTION=symptoms
Now finally the Celtic mythology link. I have read stories that link the color green to fairies and stories about green skinned children that came from the world of faery. I have read stories about "green" hags who lurked in rivers and ate children. And I am familiar with the idea of people wearing green, or described as wearing green, being connected to faery. But I have never personally read anything or heard anything about green skinned witches in Celtic mythology; if anyone can point me towards any such evidence I would certainly be interested in seeing it, but until then I have to conclude that people talking about green faced witches in Celtic myth is a mistaken conflation of the two separate mythologies.
During the period of the witch hunts witches were not seen as ugly or scary to look at. In point of fact they weren't seen as only being women; both men and women were suspected, accused, and tried. The Malleus Maleficarum has an entire section on male witches, for example. That same text makes a point of noting that witches could be anyone, young or old, and would often use their beauty to lure good men into sin (hey, it's considered a glaring example of misogynistic writing for a reason). That was part of what drove the hysteria, the idea that absolutely anyone could be a witch.
So basically I think there is no basis for believing that the green faced witch is anything but a modern 20th century invention. I also think that we need to seriously consider how disrespectful we are being by creating this false history of the green faced witch as a sort of emotional touchstone for modern pagans. Real people, men, women, and children, died during the witch hunts and those people deserve to be respected and remembered not exploited as yet another thing for neopagans to hold up as a symbol of modern "persecution".
Gerry, D (2011). The Secret Symbolism of a Witch's Wardrobe. http://www.life123.com/holidays/halloween/witches/witch-symbolism.shtml
Kors, A. and Peters, E. (1972). Witchcraft in Europe 1100 - 1700. University of Pennsylvania Press