Magic and headology

A friend loaned me a few books by Terry Pratchett over the weekend, and I have joyfully immersed myself in the Discworld. Perhaps one of the things most interesting to me is Granny Weatherwax’s approach to using – and not using – magic. Granny gets done most of what she accomplishes by use of “headology,” which might be poorly summarized as getting inside people’s heads to get them to do work towards whatever her goal is. Headology and Granny are both relentlessly pragmatic: in Witches Abroad, she spends a good bit of time explaining and demonstrating how forcing happy endings on people is a bad idea, as well as generally impossible. In Maskerade, the difference between headology and psychiatry is summarized as follows:

A psychiatrist, dealing with a man who fears he is being followed by a large and terrible monster, will endeavor to convince him that monsters don’t exist. Granny Weatherwax would simply give him a chair to stand on and a very heavy stick. (Maskerade, 325)

Contemplating this, I was struck by an article discussing how insight gained in psychiatric therapy doesn’t necessarily make people happy. A large part of of the problem is that insight doesn’t equate to action. Another part, as the article discusses, is that sometimes insight is correct: depressed people can have a quite keen grasp of reality, especially the more negative parts of it. Insight alone isn’t enough. And that’s where therapy sometimes comes up short. The therapist can’t take action to change somebody else’s life; only the person living the life can.

I was also reminded of a description in Amber K’s Heart of Tarot about how to deal with a particular kind of querent. The book teaches a kind of Tarot reading based on principles of gestalt psychology; the point is that the Tarot is a tool to help the querent gain insight, not necessarily a supernatural means of fortunetelling. Amber describes some categories of querents that may cause a professional reader trouble, including the querent who cheerfully does the entire reading herself. With the slightest prompting, she can explain the exact psychological features and issues being reflected in the cards, and possibly even analyze the situation and possible courses of action quite clearly. Amber suggests that the professional Tarot reader who encounters this kind of querent simply sit back, let the querent get on with it, and gratefully accept payment for something much easier than the usual process of engaging in reading as a psychological reflection.

And for Tarot, Amber K is right. The professional Tarot reader isn’t in a position to help the querent make those kinds of choices. In particular, since the professional reader probably doesn’t have a larger relationship with the querent, or a grasp of the context and real situation of the querent’s life, it could be extremely dangerous to make explicit suggestions or advocate for one course of action. But as Witches, when we work for or with others, we want to do more than gain insight. We want to work towards a purpose, to accomplish a goal. We want to do something.

This puts us in a situation much more akin to the therapist: therapists want to help the person get better, and so once they have established a sufficient relationship and grasp of the situation, they generally do work towards that goal, and try to help the person do their own work towards the goal. When we, as Witches, take on that role, there’s a lot of danger involved because we haven’t had the kind of professional training that psychologists and psychiatrists have had. We don’t necessarily have a mentoring system that’s supported us through difficult encounters, or a professional body willing to take away our credentials if we do something incredibly stupid and unethical. So we try to be careful, especially when we put resources out there for others to use – in publishing a ritual, say, where we don’t know anything about the real situations of people who might use it. We try to do our best.

But then again, we have an edge on therapists in a different way. We can use headology, and not just psychiatry. Sometimes it’s more important to get out of our psyches and actually do something. We have to be damned careful about it, of course, to make sure that we’re not giving a chair and a very heavy stick to someone with dementia who can’t tell her son from the monster teakettle that’s been chasing her around, but sometimes we can do magic. Sometimes, magic is what’s needed to bridge that gap between having the insight and acting on it; sometimes magic is what’s needed to change that insight, or to counterbalance it. Sometimes, it really is magic.

I get very irritated when skeptics insist that magic is nothing more than trickery or self-applied psychology. (Well, if you think you’re going to be luckier, then your self-confidence can make you do better, and you’ll interpret that as luck. But we, out here in the grown-up world, know that there’s actually no luck and no magic and no monsters involved. *superior sniff*) But I like Starhawk’s discussion of magic as deep, non-deterministic psychology. And I think that Granny Weatherwax’s headology, dancing as it does across the possibly blurry boundary between magic and mental or psychological work, is a good example of why magic is about psyches, yes, but it’s also about so much more. Reducing magic, and Wicca, to nothing more than a way of ritualizing Jungian analysis is a painful oversimplification. But ignoring the importance of the psyche in magic is equally superficial and simplistic, and possibly even less effective. I, for one, want to work with all the tools at my disposal. Headology for me!

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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