December 06, 2019, 12:38:16 PM

Author Topic: The mental state of witches and shamans  (Read 341 times)

Offline Yora

The mental state of witches and shamans
« on: November 12, 2019, 07:59:41 PM »
So I've been thinking again about how the traditions of people being able to talk with spirits is most probably linked to certain neurological conditions that humans have always had, but which are differently interpreted in different times and places. That people hear voices that tell them to do evil things is apparently much more common in Christian cultures, while in cultures that have old animistic traditions those voices often give helpful or encouraging advice. The cultural expectations of what supernatural beings are like has a significant impact on the hallucinations people perceive. This also extends to magic in a broader sense. People believed that magic works because they expected magic to be the working mechanism between two separate events that have no apparent connection.
I very strongly believe that this is the reason why magicians were often seen as strange, creepy, dangerous, or even evil. The neurological conditions that made many of them convinced to be seeing supernatural things would also have made ordinary social interactions difficult. Just because you believe that they have real magic powers does not mean you're comfortable interacting with them.

I had created a magic system some time back that is pretty strongly connected to spirits, and I also had the idea that sorcerers and priests are considered a bit strange by regular people because they turn their heads to things nobody else can see or hear, or walk around obstacles when there doesn't seem to be anything there. I thought that was a neat little detail.

But now I've seriously started to consider the idea that the ability to sense the supernatural and to use magic is directly connected to a neurological condition that also manifests itself in other traits that can cause social difficulties. Obviously, the issue here is that such an approach could easily turn out as shameless exploitation, and I would expect that to a lot of people this would sound intuitively offensive. It certainly is something that can be implemented very poorly, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a general discussion about it.

Probably the worst possible approach to this would be to portray a mental disability as a superpower as in The Predator. Whatever you do, don't do that.
My intention with this idea is to acknowledge and interpret the ambiguous status that witches and shamans often had and have in their societies. Obviously they provide extremely important services to their community and are often shown great reverence, but they are often simultaneously distrusted and feared. I think there is real value in having that aspect in a fantasy setting. Since its fantasy, these people have actual magic powers and are not delusional, but that wouldn't really change their personal situation in society since in either case the rest of the population believe in their magic powers as well.
What I feel is important is to not get in the situation of "I'm getting repressed because I am powerful". There really is a huge load of that in speculative fiction and it's  really bad misrepresentation of repression and ostracization. People don't get targeted because they are strong, but because they are vulnerable. I think this does kind of demand that the magic has very limited defensive potential. You don't get burned at the stake when you can make people burn where they stand. I think it's important to make it clear that it's not the magic powers that are causing problems, but the social impairments. How much difficulties characters have with their status as magicians should be correlated to their social abilities, not their magical abilities.

Now one argument that could be made is "don't put people with neurological issues that cause problems with social integration into your work for entertainment reasons". But the same could be said for characters who have problems with social integration because of their sexuality, and we've all come to an agreement a good time ago that such characters absolutely need more representation, not less.
Now with my own condition of ADD causing me personally no problems with social integration, I certainly don't see myself in any position to explain to audiences the experience of life with schizophrenia and psychosis. I would be absolutely terrible at that and spread more misconceptions than do any good. I think in such circumstances the best approach probably is to avoid basing the descriptions on any specific pathological profile. Though I can also see that some people might notice one aspect about the magicians, recognize it as a symptom of a specific condition, and then complain about the rest of the condition being completely misrepresented. But I really can't see any way to prevent it other than being outright non-inclusive, so I would file that under occupational hazards.

Obviously a big can of worms, so feel free to latch on to any of these aspects you want to say something about.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Bender

Re: The mental state of witches and shamans
« Reply #1 on: November 13, 2019, 12:23:16 AM »
Yora must be Steven Erikson incognito. It took me 5 reads to get to Crux of that post and I'm not sure I got it all.  ;)

I'm not aware of any cultural expectations for a supernatural being that can be generalized. You have gods/angels and then you have satan/demons. You have good wizards and evil soccerers. On flip side you have evil gods and good magicians. We have tales where having magic get you to special status in society and others where they are hunted. The names ans tags are irrelevant except for the traditional good vs bad.

As to neurological conditions being a enabler for magic...am not sure what you mean. Like midichlorians in blood enabling access to Force in Star Wars? Or some kind of ESP enabling you to interact with another dimension? Movies like Flatliners or even Final Destination and books like Vicious (VE Schwab) have gone down this route where a near death experience enables person to see death/demon etc. I'm not really familiar with a book that meaningfully links a real life issue like autism to magic.

As to perception to magicians, it's not really anything special. People are wary of what they don't understand. So magic users certainly fall into the category...leading to normal users finding it hard to interact with them. Fear of unknown is a plausible cause. Context is always important. Magic happens in a church, it's a miracle. It happens in a hut, then the person must be a witch or shaman.

As to seeing and hearing stuff no one else can see or hear, it probaby gets the person a free ticket to nearby asylum in current situation. Not exactly same, but Sarah Connor cones to mind. On other side, we have priests claiming to hear voice of God and people flocking to them. Again no specific generalization possible.

Rand Al'Thor hearing voices is a classic case imo. One of the first things a trained magic user who interacts with supernatural creatures is to tune them out. "Control the power" is a fundamental principle for any magic. If somebody goes around walking into objects or talking visibly to something invisible, then society would disregard them and relegate them to crazy. But when the same person labels themselves as a psychic and charges money to let a dead relative speak to you, then it's part of acceptable society.
« Last Edit: November 13, 2019, 12:32:20 AM by Bender »
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Offline xiagan

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Re: The mental state of witches and shamans
« Reply #2 on: November 13, 2019, 07:43:52 PM »
Great topic and great thoughts. Thanks for posting. :) I totally get what you mean, Yora.
I'm too tired to add something atm, though...
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline Matthew

Re: The mental state of witches and shamans
« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2019, 03:08:45 PM »
I like the idea of having magic users 'touched' but understand that it could come across as offensive to certain groups. I think I would depend on how well it was written and whether or not it comes across as a derogatory stereotype.

Have you got anything written this way yet or is it just a concept? I'd like to read a snippet of some defining moment for one of your characters before giving more feedback.

One scene that jumped out at me when reading this was the death of Agnes Nutter in Good Omens (a witch who spent her life helping her villages, saving lives, who was then burned at the stake by an outsider while the villagers just watched and let it happen.

Offline bdcharles

Re: The mental state of witches and shamans
« Reply #4 on: November 14, 2019, 04:26:19 PM »
As far as I am aware, the best approach is to seek input from genuine sufferers of this condition. There's a game called Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (or something) where the main character hears voices (they are part of the in-game mechanic in some way). In order to sensitivity-test it and make sure no-one's genuine distress was being exploited or being misrepresented they consulted with sufferers of schizophrenia.
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Offline Yora

Re: The mental state of witches and shamans
« Reply #5 on: November 14, 2019, 09:41:49 PM »
I had an idea for a magic system in which magicians have a reputation of being odd for a while. Hellblade was the inspiration to go all out and hold nothing back.

Two things that I think to be important to give the context for what I have in mind are first that no protagonists have full magic power, and second that magic always remains elusive and isn't flashy. I wouldn't consider this with fireball throwing wizards with golem bodyguards who teleport around the world.

All the terms here are technical terms for design purposes. For people in the setting talking about these things I want to develop terms that reflect their culture.
The foundation of the magic system is that all living and nonliving things have a spiritual essence. There are no clear cut separations between the spirits of different individuals and when you zoom out a bit they all blur together into one great sea of thoughts. Because of this aspect of reality, it is possible for beings to access the thoughts and memories of other beings and insert their own into the minds of others. The most basic form of magic is telepathic communication, mind reading, and mind control.
But the minds of spirits can be accessed the same way as the minds of people, and since spirits are in all things that exist, this makes it theoretically possible to see and hear everything that has ever happened in any location. Somewhere there is a spirit that has seen and heard what you want to know, and if you can find its mind you can access its memories. This is the basis of all forms of divination. But you can only access memories, which have already been processed by the point of view, beliefs, and opinions of the being who experienced the event. Since all minds think differently, interpreting someone else's memories can be very confusing and highly misleading. And it's of course much more pronounced with the memories of spirits than those of people.
Similarly, it's not just possible to bend the minds of people to your will but also the minds of spirits, and pretty much all other forms of magic consist of getting spirits to perform services for you, or to compel them to refrain from doing something you don't want them to do.

My original idea was that through philosophical training and meditation people can train themselves to perceive the spiritual essence that lies beyond the fuzzy edges of their own minds. However, this is something that can not be turned off. Once you start to sense the presence of spirits, you can't stop sensing them. You can simply not concentrate your perception on the thoughts of one specific mind, but you will always hear the murmur of the sea of thoughts. While it's not too difficult for people to tell the difference between physical and spiritual perception, you still react to spiritual distractions. People who are trained in magic will look up when a spirit approaches closely, even though they don't need eyes to study them. And when a spirit's mental voice rises about the background noise, people will often stop and listen to learn what's the commotion. And when they sense that there is a spirit in the middle of the road they will swerve even though they can just walk straight through them. The sharper a person's spiritual perception becomes, the more pronounced these behaviors will become, and to people who don't have such perception this will at the very least appear odd, though potentially even disturbing or frightening.

But now I've been thinking about an extension on this. Spiritual perception is not really a sense, but a way of thinking and interpreting what you are sensing. All minds are blurring into each other, but most people are used to maintaining their sense of an individual self  by having a brain that filters out and rejects outside influences. To gain spiritual perception and use magic, a person needs to be able to think in "fairy logic" like the spirits do. I got the idea to have people fall into three broad categories.
- The majority of people (80ish percent or so) are simply incapable of understanding fairy logic. They can be educated to memorizes certain rules that govern magic, but they will always only be able to recite the textbook and never able to understand why something works like it does. This is sufficient for a large range of sacrifices, warding and cleansing rituals though. Incapables don't know what they do, but they can perform them. At least as long as the circumstances don't change. If something changes and the rituals no longer work, they can not understand what's wrong and what needs to be done differently.
- A smaller part of the population tend towards thinking in ways similar to those of the Incapables, but their brains are capable of learning to understand fairy logic. Capables can learn magic, but most of them never get any education or training and remain very similar to the Incapables.. If they do, their minds gradually change towards thinking in fairy logic. They still retain their understanding of how Incapables think, but their own priorities and motivations change with their new perspective.
- The smallest group of people are those whose minds naturally think in fairy logic. These people have never been able to see the world and think in the ways that Incapables do. As a result, Naturals have severe difficulties integrating in mainstream society. Capable parents are at least able to understand their Natural children since their minds are capable of following similar ways of thinking. Having some Capable people in the family can also help a lot. But Incapable parents are usually at a complete loss what is wrong with their strange Natural children. In such situations, the Naturals are commonly regarded as mad, cursed, or changelings, though if they are fortunate they get taken in as apprentices of magicians.

Young children perceive the world and think in their own ways that are comparable to that of Capables. But as they get older and their minds begin to mature, the differences between Incapables and Naturals become increasingly pronounced and by the time they are adults they are mentally very different.
While thinking in fairy logic is a requirement for using magic, it's not all that there is to it. Being a Natural does not automatically give someone magic powers and it still requires practice and analytical thinking to exert any mental power over other minds. Highly intelligent Naturals have fairly good chances of being accepted for training in a temple, but for many with lower mental capacity this just isn't an option. Many are doing fairly well as temple servants where they are working for Capables and other Naturals, but the reputation of such temple servants among the population is fairly low and they are often kept somewhat separated from the Incapable servants.
Finally, since all magic is basically psychic wrestling, I got the idea that all magicians are at a high risk of neurological and mental trauma. I think brain damage caused by magic could very well be patterned after repeated concussions, and with that one I feel fairly comfortable basing any descriptions on a real condition. (Though I still have to sufficiently research it before putting it in practice.)
Framing the mental requirements of magic as "fairy logic" makes me think that my own experiences with ADD would be a useful reference resource. I had not planned to write about that, but it seems useful and applicable here.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor