Witchcraft accusations against children
Children have been accused of witchcraft, both historically and in contemporary times, in societies that harbour beliefs about the existence of witches and black magic.
Witch finders and accusers
In sixteenth-century Europe, older children sometimes comprised a special category of witch hunters, bringing accusations of witchcraft against adults. In 1525, the traveling judge in the Navarrese witch hunt utilized two "girl witches" whom he felt would be able to identify other witches. He hung about forty of these "witches" based on the testimony of the two girls.
Child witch hunters sometimes accused their family members of being witches.
The most renowned trials caused by child accusations occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Children were viewed as having an important role in convicting witches, due to their being able to identify people impulsively. Children who made such false allegations often directed them at adults with whom they had strained relationships such as teachers or puritanical neighbors.
By the start of the seventeenth century, many children were being punished and put in prison for taking part in witchcraft. This usually occurred because of their alleged participation in Sabbats. It was a common belief that witches' children inherited witchcraft from their parents. It was often the practice to charge a whole family of witchcraft, even if only one individual was suspected. Witches who confessed often claimed that they learned witchcraft from a parent.
Pierre de Lancre and Francesco Maria Guazzo believed that it was enough proof of a witch's guilt if they had parents who were witches. They believed witch parents introduced the children to Satan, took the children to Sabbats, married children to demons, inspired the children to have sex with Satan, or had sex with Satan with the child present. Many times the child accused of witchcraft, due to being shunned, threatened community members, thereby enforcing their beliefs that the child was a witch.
There are several cases of witchcraft in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that involved children as witches. In Sweden in 1669 a large number of children were included in a witch hunt and in Würzburg as in Salem in 1692, children were the focus of witch hunts. In Augsberg, beginning in 1723 an investigation into twenty children between the ages of six and sixteen resulted in them being arrested for witchcraft. They were held for a year in solitary confinement before being transferred to a hospital. The last child was freed in 1729.
One example of a child-witch narrative in Germany is of a seven-year-old girl named Brigitta Horner. In 1639, Brigitta claimed to be a witch and that she had participated in witch's Sabbats where the Devil was present. Brigitta claimed to have been baptized in the name of the Devil instead of God. The pastor who baptized Brigitta was married to her grandmother who then taught her the arts of witchcraft.
Contemporary belief in child witchcraft
In the United Kingdom, research by Dr Leo Ruickbie showed that the problem of child witchcraft accusations was spreading from Africa to countries with African immigrant populations. In some cases this has led to ritualized abuse and even murder. This was evident in the high-profile case of Kristy Bamu in 2010.
In Nigeria, some African Pentecostal pastors have incorporated African witchcraft beliefs into their brand of Christianity resulting in a campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being mistreated, abandoned, and even murdered. The preachers make money out of the fear providing costly exorcism services of their parents and their communities.
In Angola, many orphaned children are accused of witchcraft and demonic possession by relatives in order to justify not providing for them. Various methods are employed: starvation, beating, unknown substances rubbed into their eyes or being chained or tied up.
In Congo, it is estimated that there are 25,000 homeless children living on the streets of the capital city. Of these, 60% were expelled from their homes because of allegations of witchcraft. Accusations of witchcraft is the only justifiable reason for the refusal to house a family member, no matter how distant the relation.
In Gambia, about 1,000 people accused of being witches were locked in detention centers in March 2009. They were forced to drink a dangerous hallucinogenic potion, according to Amnesty International.
In the Nigerian states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River about 15,000 children were branded as witches and most of them end up abandoned and abused on the streets. A documentary aired on Channel 4 and BBC, Saving Africa's Witch Children, shows the work of Gary Foxcroft and Stepping Stones Nigeria in addressing these abuses.
According to a disputable empiric construction, in Sierra Leone sick infants tend to have better survival-rates due to witchhunts: "the effect of the witch cleansing probably lasts for years in the sense that mothers are predisposed to tend their babies with more hopefulness and real concern. Therefore many babies who, before the arrival of the witchfinder, might have been saved if the mothers had had the heart and will to stop at nothing to tend their babies, will now survive precisely because they will receive the best attention, as the mothers now believe that the remaining children are free of witchcraft. So there is a reduction in the infant mortality rate in the years immediately following the witchcleansing movement".
While crisis is generally accepted as a factor in the DRC and Nigeria, its impact and ramifications are in discussion by African and European scholars. According to Riedel, two major Nollywood films depicting children as witches don't show any economic stress and play in a middle-class environment.
- Golden, Richard M. Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition s.v. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
- Bailey, Michael D. Historical Dictionary of Witchcraft (Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies and Movements). Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003.
- Cf. John Crewdson. By Silence Betrayed: Sexual Abuse of Children in America. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1988), 170.
- Burns, William E. Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.
- Roper, Lyndal. "Evil Imaginings and Fantasies": Child-Witches and the End of the Witch Craze. Past and Present, No. 167 (May, 2000) 107, 109.
- Rowlands, Alison. The 'Little Witch Girl' of Rothenburg. History Review, 42(Mar 2002)27.
- Ruickbie, Leo. Child Witches: From Imaginary Cannibalism to Ritual Abuse. Paranthropology, 3.3 (July 2012), pp. 13-21.
- Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt. (The Observer, 9 December 2007)
- Children accused of witchcraft tortured in 'exorcism' rituals. (2005, July 12). Daily Mail, p. 20. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from ProQuest NewsStand database. (Document ID: 866086551).
- CONGO RELATIVES ACCUSING KIDS OF WITCHCRAFT :[ALL Edition]. (2006, August 30). The Augusta Chronicle, p. A11. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from ProQuest NewsStand database. (Document ID: 1116345621).
- CNN: Abuse of child 'witches' on rise, aid group says
- STUDIA INSTITUTI ANTHROPOS, Vol. 41 = Anthony J. Gittins : Mende Religion. Steyler Verlag, Nettetal, 1987. p. 200
13. Riedel, Felix: Children in African Witch-Hunts. An Introduction for Scientists and Social Workers. http://www.whrin.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/childreninafricanwitchhuntsfinalversion-1-Felix-Riedel-2.pdf. 2012.