Witch-Children - Then and Now: The Myth of the Innocent Child
Sebald, Hans, Free Inquiry
Questioning children's innocence is not popular. In a world that agonizes over perennial betrayal, cruelty, war, mass slaughter, and other failures of humanity, we passionately long for exemplars of unadulterated goodness - and the child, like some sacred icon, has been traditionally placed upon an imaginary altar so that we might revere virtues lacking in ourselves. This is the benchmark of romanticism: to seek virtue and beauty in groups, places, and times that are remote and relatively unknown.
Alas, "the innocence of the little ones" is a phrase of dubious veracity, since historical events suggest otherwise. Nowhere has this optimism stumbled over more obstinate obstacles than during the great witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During those not-so-distant years vast numbers of children gave free rein to imagination. They played back the image of the witch, as it existed in the cosmology of their time, and substantially contributed to the witch-hunts. In harmony with supernatural assumptions of the Christian worldview, children denounced and brought to the stake uncounted thousands of innocent people, including neighbors, peers, and even members of their own families.
Compared to the European extent of the witch-hunts, Salem was a minor episode, limited to a panic raging merely a year (1692) and costing the lives of about two dozen victims. Immediately afterward, the Salem authorities admitted to miscarriage of justice, openly apologized, and tried as much as possible to make amends to the victimized families. The defaming children, however, were never punished for their lethal role.
In Europe, where not one country was spared the scourge of the hunt, no official retraction has ever come forth, no church has ever officially admitted that the witch-hunts had been a mistake.
In a majority of the witch panics, European as well as American, it was children who were responsible for starting the hysteria, fueling it with the wildest of allegations, and completing it with lethal accusations. Children played a pivotal role, linking the power of the inquisitor to the fates of a variety of people. It is this nexus, that demands careful examination, an examination that, for whatever reason, has been widely neglected by writers of history books.
The question arises whether this type of child behavior was merely an expression of an aberrant Zeitgeist, of an era of theological fanaticism, or whether it was an expression of a timeless condition found in the child's psyche.
Evidently the children's destructive behavior cannot be seen neatly encapsulated in an erring era, because the classical Salem syndrome is anything but past history; it is an ongoing process. Again, children reign over the nexus between prosecutor and defendant. This time the accused are not called witches but molesters, and new panics of epidemic proportions are underway.
There are, of course, significant differences between the two maniacal hunts. Most important, child molestation is an unfortunate fact of life. It's not fictional, it happens. On the other hand, witchcraft was a figment of the theological imagination. Even though there were no witches, the accusations proceeded with the air of absolute certainty.
A similar air of certainty appears to prevail in many cases of child molestation claims. Persecution-eager persons frequently seem to forget that such claims can be true or false. Perhaps a better understanding of child psychology can help in discerning truth from invention.
Modern situations in which children can wreak tragedy include court proceedings where they are stimulated to tune into a theme and harmonize with it. They often pick up cues how to harmonize with leading questions - questions that are not meant to be leading but cannot withstand the intuitive exploitation by perceptive children.
This is where the concept of "Mythomania" comes into play. It is also known by the technical term Pseudologia phantastica and refers to a person's compulsive lying and making up fantastic stories. …