Matters of the Mind: Snape's Memory-Altering Tactics

By Sugarquill_22

There can be no doubt that the events at the conclusion of J.K. Rowling's latest installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, have sent the entire Potter fan community into a state of uproar. The death of Albus Dumbledore at the hands of Severus Snape in particular was a shock for all concerned and has raised many questions about the Potion Master's loyalties.

I myself have not yet decided which side I think Snape is working for. Thus far I am leaning toward the belief that he is still on the side of the Order. As I began re-reading the book, looking for clues, I stumbled on an idea that I found most intriguing. It centers on a question that I have wanted to know the answer to for quite some time: If Snape was indeed a spy working for Dumbledore in Voldemort's inner circle, how did he manage to spy for so long without Lord Voldemort discovering that he was a traitor?

Occlumency: Out of the Question

The obvious answer to this question is Occlumency. This "obscure branch of magic' as stated by Snape himself in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is extremely interesting. What do we know about Occlumency? The little that we do know comes directly from Snape himself, so it is to him that we turn:

The mind is not a book, to be opened at will and examined at leisure. Thoughts are not etched on the inside of skulls, to be perused by any invader. The mind is a complex and many-layered thing¦ It is true, however, that those who have mastered Legilimency are able, under certain conditions, to delve into the minds of their victims and interpret their findings correctly. The Dark Lord, for instance, almost always knows when somebody is lying to him. Only those skilled at Occlumency are able to shut down those feelings and memories that contradict the lie, and so utter falsehoods in his presence without detection.1

While I am no expert on the matters of the human mind, it seems to me that we are being told that an individual's mind is made of many layers of thought, feeling, and memory, which are organized in complex and interrelated patterns. From this, we can conjecture that at any given time, a particular experience or thought can trigger a recall of a series of memories and feelings that relate to that event or thought. With the use of Legilimency, a person can enter the mind of another, observe the victim's thought patterns, and through their own reasoning, deduct truth or falsehood in the victim's spoken statements. It is this brand of magic that instantly sprang to mind as I contemplated Snape's role as a double-agent. His expertise in both Occlumency and Legilimency give him an advantage that many wizards do not have.

Other useful knowledge that will help us understand this scenario are the restrictions that exist in the use of Occlumency and Legilimency, as well as the respective skill levels of those involved. We learn along with Harry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that the greater the distance between the wizard performing Legilimency and his intended victim, the less likely it is that he will be able to penetrate the victim's mind.2 Eye contact is also an important part of the penetration of a mind. With regard to Occlumency, it is most interesting to watch the attempts of two aspiring Occlumens to repel Snape from their minds in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Both Harry and Draco Malfoy have their minds encroached on by Snape with different results. Harry, ever openly true in his nature, has almost no success in resisting Snape. Malfoy, on the other hand, is always trying to hide behind a façade of bravado and superiority, whilst keeping his true feelings hidden from those he does not trust. He is much better suited to the disguising of thoughts than Harry. However, both boys are still at the most basic "blocking" level of this difficult magical concept. Snape has an important advantage over, not only them, but most human beings, which makes all the difference in Occlumency: he is almost always able to control his emotions. Harry is extremely connected to his personal feelings, but lets himself be directed by those emotions into many dangerous situations without first stopping to use his common sense. Malfoy is much better about keeping his emotions in check, until he gets angry or upset. Even if he is still able to hold on to his control enough to keep someone out of his thoughts, it is apparent that he is hiding something. A classic example can be found in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

"Who suspects me?" said Malfoy angrily. "¦don't look at me like that! I know what you're doing, I'm not stupid, but it won't work”I can stop you!"

There was a pause and then Snape said quietly, "Ah¦ Aunt Bellatrix has been teaching you [Malfoy] Occlumency, I see." 3

Snape was able to easily detect Malfoy's use of Occlumency against him because Malfoy was becoming agitated; his emotions were beginning to take over. I would like to think that in many cases, a skilled Legilimens is aware when someone is employing Occlumency against him for this exact reason. Applying this to Snape, we know from previous experience that he has his emotional weak spots. His reaction to Harry's intrusion into his memories of humiliation at the hands of James Potter and Sirius Black via the Pensieve in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is an excellent example of that. Snape let an old grudge prevent him from carrying out Dumbledore's orders to teach Harry Occlumency, something which he knew was of vital importance. Such weaknesses are the perfect place for the Dark Lord to break through Snape's mental barriers.

"Before I answer you ’ oh yes, Bellatrix, I am going to answer! You can carry my words back to the others who whisper behind my back, and carry false tales of my treachery to the Dark Lord! Before I answer you, I say, let me ask a question in turn. Do you really think that the Dark Lord has not asked me each and every one of those questions? And do you really think that, had I not been able to give satisfactory answers, I would be sitting here talking to you?" [asked Severus Snape.]

She [Bellatrix Lestrange] hesitated.

"I know he believes you, but¦"

"You think he is mistaken? Or that I have somehow hoodwinked him? Fooled the Dark Lord, the greatest wizard, the most accomplished Legilimens the world has ever seen?" [asked Snape.]4

In this passage, Snape himself admits that the Dark Lord is a more accomplished Legilimens than he is. Snape is the kind of person who acknowledges the strengths of his enemies. Underestimating the enemy is the oldest blunder in the evil villains' handbook, and he has seen what it can do, particularly in Lord Voldemort's case. Being aware of that fact makes it even more important that Snape recognize and repair the gaps in his emotional control before the Dark Lord can find and exploit them. At this point, it does not seem likely that we will see Snape forgiving James and Sirius for their treatment of him at school any time soon. Grudges that are held as long as Snape's has been are hard things to let go of. Until he can learn to not let his past affect him so strongly, Snape will need a back-up plan.

Memory Modified

"As you might have noticed' said Dumbledore¦"that memory has been tampered with."

"Tampered with?" repeated Harry¦

"Certainly' said Dumbledore. "Professor Slughorn has meddled with his own recollections."

"But why would he do that?"

"Because, I think, he is ashamed of what he remembers' said Dumbledore. "He has tried to rework the memory to show himself in a better light, obliterating those parts which he does not wish me to see. It is, as you will have noticed, very crudely done, and that is all to the good, for it shows that that true memory is still there beneath the alterations." 5

Memory modification is the deliberate changing of one's recollection of a past event. How this is accomplished is never directly stated within the book beyond the use of a single spell: "Obliviate." We know of only one other means of altering a memory, which we will get to in a moment. As of now, we do not know how to target specific memories or parts of memories for alteration. However, the above passage proves that it is indeed possible for a wizard to change the details of a specified memory. Dumbledore's comment about the crudeness of Slughorn's work strongly suggests that the believable modification of a memory can only be done by skilled wizards. He also points out that the crudeness of the modification proves the existence of the true memory in Slughorn's mind. There are several other examples of memory modification throughout the Harry Potter books. Two of the most notable cases are those of Gilderoy Lockhart and Bertha Jorkins. There are a few valuable bits of information in their stories that will help us understand the nature of memory modification as it applies to restoring a "true memory."

Gilderoy Lockhart makes his appearance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and author of a best-selling book series about his adventures battling the evil forces of the wizarding world. At the end of the novel, Harry and Ron discover that Lockhart is a fraud, and has been using his skills in memory alteration to steal the life stories of other wizards and witches to publish in his books as his own. After a nasty accident involving a broken wand and a misfired Memory Charm, Lockhart ends up in a closed ward at St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. We do not see Lockhart again until Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry and company are visiting Mr. Weasley at the hospital over Christmas. It is from Lockhart's well-meaning Healer, Miriam Strout that we learn about the common procedure for attempted memory restoration.

We very much hope that this liking for giving autographs is a sign that his memory might be coming back a little bit¦ with intensive remedial potions and charms and a bit of luck, we can produce some improvement¦ Gilderoy does seem to be getting back some sense of himself¦6

It appears that there is a way to trigger a resurgence of memories that have been lost, although we have not yet been given any information about what kinds of remedial potions and charms are used. Having said that, we can conclude that when a Memory Charm is performed, the memories are not "wiped" from the victim's mind; rather, they are buried under other currents of thought and forgotten about until something recalls them to the forefront of the mind. This becomes very important as we study our next memory modification victim, Bertha Jorkins.

Bertha Jorkins is first mentioned in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We learn from Sirius Black, who was at school with Bertha, that she was a nosy witch "with an excellent memory for gossip." 7 Barty Crouch Jr., under the influence of Veritaserum, tells us the rest of Bertha's story:

A witch in my father's office. Bertha Jorkins. She came to the house with papers for my father's [Barty Crouch Sr.] signature. He was not at home. Winky [the house elf] showed her inside and returned to the kitchen, to me. But Bertha Jorkins heard Winky talking to me. She came to investigate. She heard enough to guess who was hiding under the Invisibility Cloak. My father arrived home. She confronted him. He put a very powerful Memory Charm on her to make her forget what she'd found out. Too powerful. He said it damaged her memory permanently.8

During the summer of Harry's fourth year, Bertha was captured by Wormtail while on holiday in Albania and interrogated by Lord Voldemort, who eventually killed her. He was able to extract the information that Crouch Sr. had tried to hide, damaging her mind and body beyond repair in the process. Crouch Jr. describes Voldemort's method of extraction as torture; I think we can safely assume that a combination of Legilimency and the Cruciatus Curse were used in this case. At any rate, we now have proof that Memory Charms can indeed be broken, although it requires a great deal of power to do so.

So, to recap what we have learned: General memory modification is used to alter a recollection of an event that has taken place. Memory Charms are used specifically to make a person forget events or information that could be potentially damaging to those involved; however, the charm only buries the information underneath the victim's regular currents of thought, rather than erasing it from their mind completely. A powerful wizard can, by unscrupulous means, break the Memory Charm and bring the buried memories back to the forefront of a victim's mind, but will cause considerable damage to the mental and physical health of the victim in the process.

All of this information is most interesting. Let us apply our new knowledge to Snape for a moment: suppose that Snape has information on and a memory of a meeting at the Order of the Phoenix's Headquarters. As a spy for Dumbledore, Snape needs to provide Voldemort with a certain amount of ˜valuable' but false information in order to keep up his ruse. I believe we can safely assume that Voldemort regularly uses Legilimency on his Death Eaters when they report information to ensure that no one is lying to him. Snape, knowing this, reworks or "modifies" his memory of the meeting to fit his purposes. Thus, when Voldemort uses Legilimency to see if his report is correct, Snape has no reason to hide his thoughts through Occlumency. This has the added advantage of showing Voldemort that he has nothing to conceal from him, gaining a stronger trust from the Dark Lord and placing him in higher favor. A wizard as accomplished in mind matters as Snape would surely be able to pull off the modifying of a memory much better than Slughorn could.

There is, however, a potential pitfall to memory modification: the "true memory" is still there to be found, should Voldemort decide to go looking for it. It is too risky to leave the truth lurking about in one's mind, and Snape is not one to take unnecessary risks. At this point, neither Occlumency nor Memory Modification alone will work to help Snape hoodwink Lord Voldemort. How then, is Snape to be a successful spy? The answer will require the use of both methods, plus one more. We will get to that one in a moment.

Implanting Ideas

In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Dumbledore gives us an interesting insight into magical methods of memory concealment as he and Harry study the early years of Lord Voldemort's life. The following three passages, though lengthy, contain very important information:

"So the Ministry called on Morfin. They did not need to question him, to use Veritaserum or Legilimency. He admitted to the murder on the spot, giving details only the murderer could know. He was proud, he said, to have killed the Muggles, had been awaiting his chance all these years. He handed over his wand, which was proved at once to have been used to kill the Riddles. And he permitted himself to be led off to Azkaban without a fight." [Albus Dumbledore] (Bold added for emphasis.)9


"So Voldemort stole Morfin's wand and used it?" said Harry, sitting up straight.

"That's right' said Dumbledore. "We have no memories to show us this, but I think we can be fairly sure what happened. Voldemort Stupefied his uncle, took his wand, and proceeded across the valley to ˜the big house over the way.' There he murdered the Muggle man who had abandoned his witch mother, and, for good measure, his Muggle grandparents¦ Then he returned to the Gaunt hovel, performed the complex bit of magic that would implant a false memory in his uncle's mind, laid Morfin's wand beside its unconscious owner, pocketed the ancient ring he wore, and departed."

"And Morfin never realized he hadn't done it?"

"Never' said Dumbledore. "He gave, as I say, a full and boastful confession."

"But he had this real memory in him all the time!"

"Yes, but it took a great deal of skilled Legilimency to coax it out of him' said Dumbledore, "and why should anybody delve further into Morfin's mind when he has already confessed to the crime?" (Bold added for emphasis.)10


"Hepzibah Smith died two days after that little scene' said Dumbledore¦ "Hokey the house-elf was convicted by the Ministry of poisoning her mistress's evening cocoa by accident."

"No way!" said Harry angrily.

"I see we are of one mind' said Dumbledore. "Certainly, there are many similarities between this death and that of the Riddles. In both cases, somebody else took the blame, someone who had a clear memory of having caused the death”"

"Hokey confessed?"

"She remembered putting something in her mistress's cocoa that turned out not to be sugar, but a lethal and little-known poison' said Dumbledore. "It was concluded that she had not meant to do it, but being old and confused”"

"Voldemort modified her memory, just like he did with Morfin!"

"Yes, that is my conclusion too' said Dumbledore. (Bold added for emphasis.)11

Simply put, we learn that an accomplished wizard is capable of creating and implanting false memories within the mind. This memory will cover up any true recollections that could prove it false, and is the second way to modify a memory that was mentioned previously. It is an effective way to frame someone for murder; it also happens to be the perfect way to hide thoughts from Voldemort the Legilimens. How simple would it be for Snape to create a memory and implant it in his own mind, ready for perusal by the Dark Lord? Pretty easy, from all we know of Snape's abilities.

Of course, this is only the modification part of the solution. The second quote states again that the original and truthful memories remain in the wizard's mind, ready to be found by someone with enough determination to delve deeper into their thoughts. Voldemort is not one to skip over such things lightly, especially with a follower who has been living under Dumbledore's watchful eye for so many years. It is now time to add the third and final variable to this magical equation.

Threads of Thought

"You mean¦ that stuff's your thoughts?" Harry said, staring at the swirling white substance in the basin.

"Certainly' said Dumbledore. "Let me show you."

Dumbledore drew his wand out of the inside of his robes and placed the tip into his own silvery hair, near his temple. When he took the wand away, hair seemed to be clinging to it ’ but then Harry saw that it was in fact a glistening strand of the same strange silvery-white stuff that filled the Pensive.12

Yup, that's it. It's quite simple, really. All Snape has to do is remove the original memory or thought from his own mind, ensuring that no trace is left behind for Voldemort to follow. If there is nothing there to trip the red flag of doubt in Voldemort's mind, then there is no reason to suspect that Snape is hiding anything from him.

The removed thoughts must be stored, and the above passage gives us one place in which memories may be stored: a Pensive. In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Dumbledore also stores the memories of Voldemort's early years he shows to Harry in little crystal bottles. With Snape's role at Hogwarts as a Potions Master, it would not be the slightest bit odd if he had several small bottles containing silvery liquid-like substances with strange labels hidden amongst his potion ingredients in his private store cupboard.

This is also where the Occlumency part comes into play. If Snape were to remove every single strand of thought that related to the memory he wished to hide, then what reason would he have to return the stored thoughts to his mind if he did not remember anything about them? In order to keep a small shred of remembrance available to him, Snape must leave one thought behind in the purging of his memories. That one thought can be anything he wants, but must have a vague connection to all the rest of the removed thoughts and the connection must be one that only he would understand. It must be so vague and personal that no one observing his thoughts could make the connection without the stored thoughts. Occlumency could then conceal the single thread of thought, and it would not seem suspicious in the slightest. The thoughts that had been removed for storage would then be labeled with key words that referenced the remaining thought in Snape's mind.

For example, let us say that Snape wished to hide the true details of a memory of a meeting with Dumbledore from Lord Voldemort. First, Snape would choose which thought to leave behind in his mind for concealment, something such as a memory of gagging on a nasty-flavored Bertie Bott's Bean as a child, which is a reference to Dumbledore for anyone who knows the story. What if Snape never ate a nasty bean as a child? Simple; he creates a memory and implants it in his own mind. He also creates an altered version of the original memory of the meeting and implants it in his mind as well. That's the modification variable. Then he would remove all the other threads of thought that related to the real meeting and place them in a bottle, labeling it with the Bertie Bott's Bean reference. The bean memory would then be concealed through Occlumency, and Snape would proceed to a debriefing with Lord Voldemort. Should Voldemort discover that Occlumency was being used against him and manage to break through Snape's guard, all he would find is a memory that Snape could easily pass off as being quite embarrassing for him, thus the need for concealment. Later, when Snape returned home and looked through his collection of bottles, he would find the bean bottle. Curious as to why in the world he had a bottle about the memory he was shielding, he would open it and replace the thoughts, and thereby return the original information and all his recollections relating to it back in his mind. Complex, certainly, but well worth the effort if it keeps him from meeting an untimely and horrible death at the hands of Lord Voldemort.

There you have it, a sure-fire way to keep Lord Voldemort from discovering Snape's secret double-agent role. It will be impossible for him to figure out Snape's true loyalties. Or is it? Don't you think that Voldemort would notice if, all at once, one of his followers started swapping out his memories?

Secretive Snape

Now, please stay with me on this. I know I just said that there would be no way for Voldemort to know that Snape had reworked his own memories if he took all of the above precautions. But there may be one last way for Voldemort to notice that Snape was not being truthful with him.

Think back to the days before Snape switched sides and joined Dumbledore. He would have been working for and reporting to Lord Voldemort all the time, and Voldemort would, in turn, be using Legilimency on him. Eventually he would become used to Snape's thought patterns and the general workings of his mind. What would happen if he were to notice even a subtle change in those patterns? To be quite honest, I think there is a good chance that reworking your memories could cause slight inconsistencies in your thought patterns, no matter how careful you are. Voldemort doesn't miss little things like that. He can't afford to, especially now. This puts Snape in a dangerous situation; unless, of course, these inconsistencies have always existed in his mind.

How is this possible? I think that if Snape ever did alter his memories, he would have begun doing so long before he joined the Dark Lord's forces. Snape is, by nature, a very secretive person. He likes to keep his private life and thoughts to himself. That is why he is so very good at Occlumency; he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve like Harry, and he can control his emotions fairly well. If keeping his thoughts private required their alteration or removal, I would not put it past Snape to do it. We have already seen that removing memories from his mind is not a concept that bothers Snape; he did so numerous times while teaching Harry Occlumency. It would not surprise me at all if, as an added precaution for his Occlumency skills, he learned how to rework his memories and thoughts early on and employed this tactic often. Remember, Snape was attending school and beginning his life in the adult world during Voldemort's rise to power. We know from Hagrid's comment in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that it was difficult to know who could be trusted in those days.13 The Ministry was constantly on the hunt for Death Eaters, with fanatics like Crouch Sr. allowing even the Unforgivable Curses to be used in capturing them. I would also count having James and Sirius, two of the best wizards in the school at the time, as rivals to be an added incentive for wanting to keep anything that could be used against him hidden. James and Sirius were good enough to figure out how to become Animagi; I have no doubt that they could have figured out Occlumency and Legilimency had the occasion arisen, and maltreating Snape in any way would have been enough of a reason for them. With these ready-made reasons for disguising his thoughts, do you really think Snape would not have tried reworking his memories?

Conclusive Conjectures

By revising existing memories, removing and storing all traces of the original memory, and concealing the key to remembering the truth through Occlumency, Severus Snape has a means by which he can perform his task as a spy in the camp of Lord Voldemort for Dumbledore without being detected. False information can be delivered to the Dark Lord without betraying the true plans of Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix. It is likely that Snape has been modifying his memory in this manner since he was in school, even before becoming a Death Eater, in order to protect himself from anyone, both from school rivals and later from Ministry aurors, who might use his thoughts against him.

Of course, we must not overlook the fact that this theory works both ways. Snape could easily use these methods of magical memory concealment against Dumbledore instead of Voldemort. J.K. Rowling is the only one who can tell us where Snape's loyalties truly lie. Until the release of Book 7 we will simply have to content ourselves with analyzing her other books, a challenge that never fails to intrigue many members of the Potter fan community.

Works Cited
1. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 530-31.

2. Ibid., 531.

3. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 322.

4. Ibid., 26.

5. Ibid., 371.

6. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 510-11.

7. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 533.

8. Ibid., 685.

9. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 366.

10. Ibid., 367.

11. Ibid., 438-39.

12. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 597-98.

13. Ibid., Sorcerer's Stone, 54-5.


Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic. 2000.

”””. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic. 2005.

”””. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic. 2003.

”””. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic. 1997.

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