Search This Blog

Thursday, November 17, 2011


  Tomorrow I head out to the changing times changing worlds conference up at Amherst in Massachusetts, which runs from Friday through Sunday. This is the conference's second year and I am excited to see how it has grown since last year. The main theme of this year is healing/wholing/holistic and the workshops cover a variety of topics under that theme. My own contribution is four workshops: healing magic and chronic illness, the shadow of death (how healers relate to the concept of death), the healing well and clootie tree (healing magic in the Celtic tradition), and Under Airmed's cloak (healing with Celtic deities). I am also on three panels: Otherworldly guides, Offerings and the modern practitioner, and teaching children. I'm pretty excited about all of this, but especially the two Celtic classes I am doing. And of course besides my own workshops there are many interesting workshops I would like to go to, so I expect the weekend to be busy and educational.
  After the conference I will blog about how it goes and also post my handouts from my classes along with an abridged version of the class itself. I have had a lot of fun researching the healing deities especially as I leanred about several that I had never previously interacted with at all.
  Have a great weekend everyone, I will be back to blogging on Monday, but I leave you all with a W. B. Yeats quote from 1902:
 “I believe when I am in the mood that all nature is full of people whom we cannot see, and that some of these are ugly or grotesque, and some wicked or foolish, but very many beautiful beyond anyone we have ever seen, and that these are not far away. I will not of a certainty believe that there is nothing in the sunset, where our forefathers imagined the dead following their shepherd the sun....If beauty is not a gateway out of the net we were taken in at our birth, it will not long be beauty, and we will find it better to sit at home by the fire and fatten a lazy body or to run hither and thither in some foolish sport than to look at the finest show that light and shadow ever made among green leaves. I say to myself, when I am well out of that thicket of argument, that they are surely there, the divine people, for only we who have neither simplicity nor wisdom have denied them, the simple of all times and the wise men of ancient times have seen them and even spoken to them.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book review - Heathen Gods

  I'm doing my weekly book review on Thursday this week...
  I have a new book to add to my recommended reading for new heathens: Heathen Gods by Mark Ludwig Stinson. This book is a great way for anyone to get a feel for what heathenry is and not only learn the basics of it but get some good advice about starting out as a new heathen, starting a group, and living as a heathen.
  The book itself is a collection of short essays, each of which has a different topic. It is broken into roughly 7 sections: Essays for new heathens, Building a kindred or tribe, Maintaining a kindred or tribe, Living a heathen life, Personal and miscellaneous essays, Iceland trip journal, and Poetry by the author. It also includes a good recommended reading list at the back. Each of the first 4 sections contains around a dozen individual essays that fall under the larger section topic, such as "What is a Heathen?", "Differing Views within the Heathen Community", "Why Start a Kindred", and "Wyrd and Worth", to name but a few. The final three sections are much more personal to the author's life and experiences, including personal anecdotes and reflections as well as his journal about a trip to Iceland and provide a look at one person's journey living as a heathen.
  One of the main strengths of this book for me was the way that it touches lightly on many important topics without overwhelming the reader or getting bogged down in details or history. The writing style is engaging and interesting while still being informative and the author tackles difficult topics in a way that encourages the reader to think about the issues. It manages to present a workable modern heathenry in a way that is both understandable and often unflinching to the realities that people in community-based faith face, such as jump-starting spiritual practice and dealing with bad experiences in the community.
   Another thing that I really like about the book is the essay-based format. I admit initially I was unsure about it because I wasn't sure how all the short essays would flow together, but I found that it was perfect for reading a few a day, or skipping around to whatever essay seemed most appropriate each day. It made referencing specific ideas much easier and having the material organized the way it is actually does flow very well.
  All in all a good addition to any heathen's library and definitely a good starting place for a new heathen looking for a better understanding of what modern heathen practice is.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Green Faced Witches

   One thing that never changes about the larger pagan community is that there are always trends going around. When I originally wrote this in 2011 I kept 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). Written in 1999 it had been circulated for a while but around 2011 it seemed to have really gained steam and more than that people were believing it as factual 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. At the time I was sufficiently annoyed by this trend that I 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. Now, twelve years later, the concept has been untethered from its poetic root and is shared as a prose meme as well as by various social media sites, pages, and personalities as if it were an inarguable fact of the past. Every year I reshare this blog so this year (2023) I am updating it slightly, making sure all the links actually work, and adding some art history and Andrew Sneddon for spice. 

Jean Veber, Les Sorcières ou Tandem (1900); public domain

  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.

In early modern sources we find no reference to witches with green faces, or to the idea that a green face was the witches' natural appearance. Looking to artwork from the 15th century forward we find that wild hair, bare breasts, and debauched imagery were the hallmarks of witch depictions, positioning the female witch in contrast to the expected civilized behaviour of women (Sneddon, 2021). Witches in art were either depicted as very old women or as young beautiful women, but usually with those key features; witches hair was often red, connecting them to folklore around the danger or uncanniness of redheads (Sneddon, 2021). These depictions of witches also often incorporated anti-Semitic themes and concepts as well, playing into existing cultural prejudices to link imagery of witches with images of anti-Jewish propaganda, magnifying a fear of the other. Witches were most often depicted with human skin tones, and there are no examples that I am aware of a green skinned witch in pre-20th century European or American art. Rather than skin tone in art it was the witches wild, unbound hair and overt, even grotesque, sexualization that signaled their nature and separation from the community. 

  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 ignorant; 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:

   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 fairy. 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 fairy. 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 concepts. Green dressed witches, possibly, green faced witches, no.

   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 (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 and that there was no easy visual cue to indicate who was a witch.

   So basically there is no basis for believing that the green faced witch is anything but a modern 20th century invention. While there certainly are several stereotypical images used historically of witches, as discussed above, they relate to hair and nudity not to inhuman skin colors. We can blame Hollywood for the green faced witch, not the witch trials. 

   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.
  Kors, A. and Peters, E. (1972). Witchcraft in Europe 1100 - 1700. University of Pennsylvania Press
Rodriguez, L., (2014) Why Are Witches Green? Retrieved from 
Sneddon, A., (2021) 'Bad Hair: Folklore Witches and Hair'; online lecture