Children, Witches, Demons, and Cultural Reality

By Stevens, Phillips, Jr. | Free Inquiry, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Children, Witches, Demons, and Cultural Reality


Stevens, Phillips, Jr., Free Inquiry


A lively and creative imagination in children has always been regarded as a sign of their good health, and throughout the world adults enrich children's imaginations with magical folktales and encouragement of beliefs in supernatural beings, both good and evil. Imagination helps both cognitive and social/moral development in the child; for adult agents of socialization, encouraging children's beliefs in powerful supernatural beings who can punish or reward has obvious uses. The content of the child's imagination is cultural, and the child learns acceptable cultural limits to its elaboration and use. Usually if the products of children's imaginations offend normative sensibilities it is evidence of some problem in the children's mental/emotional development.

But at certain times and under certain social/cultural conditions the most fantastic claims of children are not only accepted as fact, but can directly instigate radical collective social action. Results can include the establishment of miraculous places, loci of religious pilgrimages - or persecutory movements and witch-hunts that destroy reputations and even lives. In several modern child sexual-abuse trials in which defendants were defamed and some convicted solely on the bizarre and horrible testimony of children, parents and child protection advocates have rallied under the slogan, "Believe the Children." Defendants in such cases are presumed guilty, publicly labeled as monsters, often denied the right to confront their accusers, and, because of the nature of the "evidence," they may have no defense.

Witch-Children: From Salem Witch-Hunts to Modern Courtrooms by Hans Sebald (Prometheus Books, 1995) is concerned with this negative dimension of children's fantasizing, focusing specifically on instances from the past 400 years of Western history in which children made fantastic allegations about bizarre and horrible, often supernaturally inspired, acts committed by others - and in many of these cases their allegations were fervently believed. The context is the witch-hunt, medieval and modern. Hans Sebald, emeritus professor of sociology at Arizona State University, brings to the problem a background of research and writing on European witchcraft and magical beliefs, including original data from his native areas of Germany (1978), and on the social psychology of adolescence (1992).

In his Introduction Sebald states that his aim is fourfold: to (1) investigate children's roles in witch trials throughout history; (2) illustrate relevant social dynamics through description and analysis of the previously unknown early seventeenth-century case of "Witchboy," in Bamberg, Germany, site of fierce witch persecutions and the area of Sebald's own upbringing and later research; (3) apply insights from child psychology to understanding aberrations in children's behavior; and (4) indicate parallels between historic witch-hunts that focused on people believed empowered by Satan to fly, transform themselves, and indulge in all manner of unspeakable crimes against innocent people, and certain modern child sexual abuse cases, some also aptly named "witch-hunts."

Sebald is bothered by the persistent image of children as naive and innocent. To be sure, they were believed to be the favorite victims of witches; and child molestation is real and timeless. But, he says, children have as often been victimizers, and quite clever and ruthless ones at that. His chosen metaphor for social dynamics is dramaturgical, in which children learn and act out personally advantageous roles.

Over twelve chapters he does a good job of accomplishing his four aims. The book covers a lot of ground and provides valuable analysis and insight into a great number of well-documented cases. The literature on European witchcraft beliefs and witch-hunting is tremendous, but still Sebald is able to make original contributions to it. His presentation and discussion of the 1629 case of "Witchboy," based on his translation of previously unstudied German documents he discovered in the extensive witchcraft collections at Cornell University, is especially valuable; the case makes an important contribution to understanding the contemporary demonology of witchcraft. …

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