How to Spot a Witch

Amina Hussain - Mar. 24, 2024 - 7 min read - #History

Green and warty, brewing and flying, various characteristics have evolved over the centuries to detail what witches look like and how they behave. Unsurprisingly, these notions are based upon eons of hypothesising and historical phenomena to which we owe the modern portrayal of a witch. 

Green skin

The origins of the classically viridescent crone are highly debated, with a particular cult favourite being the film of The Wizard of Oz. This piece featured the iconic Wicked Witch of the West in her recognisable green hue. Due to recent adoption of technicolour, it is claimed that filmmakers wanted to utilise the latest technology to its maximum and decided green skin would allow the film’s villain to pop. There is no doubt the film popularised contemporary depictions of the witch, and perhaps it was the first of its kind in American popular media; nonetheless, it is hardly the first reference to witches and their green faces. 

Jenny Greenteeth is a character from English folklore dating back to the 19th century, said to possess long hair, sharp teeth and, of course, green skin. She is a notorious river-hag, inhabiting lakes and rivers where she awaits victims and has many equivalents including the Slavic Rusalka and the Japanese Kappa. Most likely an invention to frighten children away from the waters she was said to occupy, Jenny Greenteeth is also predated by another theory to the origin of necromantic verdigris.

Naturally, our contemporary understanding of witches is heavily influenced by the events and consequences of the 1690s Salem witch trials. Many of the women accused and convicted of witchcraft had a peculiar commonality: green-black patches on their skin. Later investigation reveals that this oddity was in fact caused by ergotism, a disease commonly contracted by rye bread, a staple of the American diet. Ergotism forms in rye when stark winters are followed by a damp spring; these conditions provide a haven for the fungus that causes ergotism. The indicative purple-black growths on the bread called sclerotia were mindlessly explained by overexposure to the sun. The results of this were severe convulsions, muscle spasms, delusions, and for more extreme cases, gangrene of the extremities. 

With a village plagued by not only disease but fear of it, it was all too easy for the inhabitants to select a scapegoat and eradicate it. The women’s strange behaviour combined with their frightening appearance would produce a rhetoric powerful enough to transcend the eras. 

Broomsticks and flying

The notion that witches fly on broomsticks has a rather scientific explanation. Early plant pharmacology reveals certain hallucinogens called tropane alkaloids. These alkaloids were found in common plants such as belladonna, henbane, and mandrake. When consumed in small doses, the hallucinogens relieved nausea from travel sickness, a useful ailment in times of sea travel and a lack of carriage suspension. However, when in excess, the chemical was capable of inducing vivid dreams filled with “wild rides” and “frenzied dancing”. The 20th century photographer Gustav Schenk commented that he “experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying”. 

Such a phenomenon was undoubtedly misunderstood by contemporaries as nothing but a result of satanic collusions. It is fascinating to observe how something now classed as drugged delinquency was once interpreted as perpetual depravity. 

Broomsticks can be traced back to pagan fertility rituals, as theorised by historian Robert Skelton, in which rural farmers leapt and danced astride poles, pitchforks, and brooms in order to encourage crop growth. This harmless albeit foolish custom was, once again, taken drastically out of context and redefined as an indicator of demonic affiliation.

The hat

The hats commonly worn by witches are an item of clothing neither disliked by nor unfamiliar to former societies. They formed an integral part of many cultures’ clothing and identity, hence becoming a facile marker of witchcraft. Usually, the hat was demonised when certain groups wished to victimise and ostracise another. 

Historical origins of the witch’s hat include the Juden hat or Jewish hat. This was worn by medieval Jews as an outward profession of their faith. The cone-shaped, white or yellow hat was worn voluntarily until 1215 when the Fourth Council of Lateran (a Catholic council led by the Pope) forced all adult male Jews to wear one when outside the Jewish ghettos. Once a proud marker of religious identity, the Juden hat was twisted into a tool for oppression and persecution. Antisemitism no doubt played a significant role in attributing the hat to the classically villainised witches, the agents of the devil. 

Another possible root is the hats worn by alewives. Alewives were women who brewed beer domestically to sell in the marketplace. Ale, being the only potable but affordable drink available, became a necessary part of the English diet, and, as it went sour after only three days, had to be produced regularly in large quantities. This unique driver of demand meant the brewing industry was a stable and lucrative one, and, quite pertinently, one dominated by women. Once men began forging their way into the industry, competition soared. In order to eliminate said competition, alewives were accused of selling tainted or diluted beer. This degradation of once self-sufficient women and the condemnation of their non-conformist lifestyle did not take long to transform itself into a stereotype used to pinpoint and exterminate “witches”.



The dawn of the warts is a much simpler one, dating back to clergyman Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum in 1486. According to him, warts were the teats from which a witch would feed various beings: cats, dogs, newts, demon creatures etc. 

As we know, this is undisputed nonsense. Still, the professions of a misguided holy man were venerated with much enthusiasm and hailed as heavenly wisdom. Ergo, the use of warts to determine a potential witch was popularised and has remained an iconic feature of the necromantic get-up. 


The common theme underpinning all of these concepts is ignorance. The misunderstanding of a disease or disorder, suspicion of others, or unchecked acceptance of someone’s claims provides a slippery slope into prejudice and hatred, and materialises in the modern stereotypes. Although relatively innocuous now, the history of witches is a shameful one, in which innocent women were tortured in unspeakable ways, humiliated beyond comprehension, and ultimately murdered for not upholding societal expectations.