Tag Archives: myth

Greek and Roman Myth in Harry Potter

All pantheons of ancient mythologies have similar archetypes: There’s Zeus, Odin, or Enlil, the father god. Demeter, Hathor, or Chicomecoatl, goddess of the harvest. The Hogwarts teachers as they sit along their long table reflect these archetypes, from Dumbledore to Professor Sprout. Dolores Umbridge might be Eris, Goddess of Discord. Slughorn is rather a Dionysus figure, obsessed with hedoinism and selfishness. Dour Snape, always excluded, has many correspondences to Hades as he lurks underground. At the same time, Many names and identities come directly from the Greek/Roman tradition: Argus Filch is guardian of the gates at Hogwarts, Minerva is its font of wisdom. Hermes, Percy’s owl, shares roots with Hermione Granger. At the same time, there are many less known gods and goddesses of the classical tradition:

Pomona Sprout is named for the Roman goddess of fruit and agriculture.

Aurora Sinistra (Professor of Astronomy) shares a name with the Roman goddess of the dawn.

Remus Lupin is named for the hero-twin born of a wolf who founded Rome. Remus was sacrificed before his side could win.

Hagrid replaces Silvanus Kettleburn, whose first name is shared with a Roman forest god similar to the Greek Pan.

Helga Hufflepuff, like Vesta, humbly guards the homestead.

Sybill Trewlany is a sibyl, a Greek seeress or prophetess.

Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, Dark Arts professor in book four: Alastor was an epithet, or honorific nickname, of Zeus, which described him as the avenger of familial bloodshed and other deeds against nature. This is the perfect name for an Auror, avenger of the innocents killed by Death Eaters. It was also an epithet of the Erinyes, like a living breathing curse. Alastor, in Christian demonology, had a simialr meaning, as a kind of possessing entity, echoing Moody’s “possession” in book four.

Merope Gaunt, mother of Voldemort, was sister of Phaeton and one of the seven Pleiades, star nymphs in the sky. She married King Sisyphus.  Her name is interpreted to mean “with face turned” from meros ops, referring to the fact that her star faded from the cluster of Pleiades out of shame for her husband’s crimes. Another Merope out of Greek myth includes the daughter of King Cypselus of Arcadia and wife of King Cresphontes. When her husband is murdered, she runs away with her son Aepytus and trains him in vengeance…but nearly slays him by mistake, thinking him the murderer. At last, she succeeds in punishing her enemy.

This name also belonged to the adoptive mother of Oedipus, branding every Merope as an innocent victim but the close family of some very bad men. Sisyphus tried to cheat death and live forever. Oedips defied the gods’ natural laws by killing his father and marrying his mother, and Phaeton nearly destroyed the world when he tried to fly the sun god’s chariot. All three of these men defied the laws of the gods in unholy and unnatural fashion, and all were punished.

Andromeda Tonks and her daughter Nymphadora:  Greek nymphs were beautiful, magical maidens, known for shapeshifting to become part of nature, from tree nymphs to ocean nymphs. They were generally helpers of heroes rather than heroes themselves. Andromeda was   beautiful princess rescued by the hero Perseus, who mostly furthered the hero’s story rather than her own. This suggests that her Muggle husband Ted was a true hero.

Quirinus is an early god of Rome state. In Augustan Rome, Quirinus was also an epithet of Janus, as Janus Quirinus, Janus of the spear (quiris). Janus was the “two faced god,” and Rowling’s character echoes this perfectly, with Voldemort on his back. The tarot symbol or Celtic hallow of the spear echoes the elder wand in the series. Quirinus was originally most likely a Sabine god of war.

Alecto Carrow: Evil professor of Muggle Studies in Deathly Hallows: Alecto “the implacable or unceasing anger” is one of the Erinyes, or Furies, in Greek mythology.

Amycus Carrow: Evil professor of Muggle Studies in Deathly Hallows: Amycus, the son of Poseidon and Melia, was a boxer and King of the Bebryces.  When the Argonauts landed on the coast of his dominions, he challenged the bravest of them to a boxing match. Polydeuces, who accepted the challenge, killed him. Likewise, Amycus Carrow challenges the brave Gryffindors to fights all the time.  Upon the tomb of Amycus there grew a laurel, would make people fight when they encountered it. Thus he’s like a male Eris or Fury.

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The Downside of Horcruxes

o all those readers seeking to construct their own Horcrux, a font of deadly evil allowing the creator to preserve his life unnaturally, beware!  Such meddlings in works man should not know split the soul asunder and mar the perpetrator for all time.  They also so don’t work!

The following addresses a number of flaws in the Horcrux system, as demonstrated throughout literature and folklore.

Even the evil Overlord (eviloverlord.com) notices the futility of such a system, commenting thusly:

The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.

Well, with such a brilliant observation to start us off, let’s examine some scenarios:

Sauron creates a set of rings tied to his power, whose bearers must serve him. He then forges the One Ring, placing much of his power in a single alluring object.

Upside: When he’s defeated, he isn’t permanently destroyed and returns within a few thousand years.

Downside: Anyone can use it! Boromir, Frodo, Gandalf, Galadriel, and even Sam contemplate using Sauron’s power to destroy him and forge a new empire.  Further, Sauron doesn’t notice Frodo has it, doesn’t notice the ring’s in Mordor, and doesn’t notice it’s being destroyed until it’s too late!

Davy Jones in Dead Man’s Chest removes his heart so it won’t pain him with emotion.

Upside: He’s safe from harm and emotion.

Downside: Jones turns into an unfeeling tyrant and neglects the job he’s entrusted with.  Worse yet, people dig the heart up from its predictable buried location, and the East India Company controls him and forces him to do their bidding.

Numerous ogres, giants, and basilisks in European folklore hide their hearts inside an egg inside a chicken inside a swan inside a wolf…you get the idea.  These are tale type 302, “The Ogre or Devil’s Heart in an Egg” with 260 versions around the world.

Upside: The hero can’t kill them

Downside: The hero always sneaks off and kills all the animals (which are mostly just hidden and flee rather than fight). He then can destroy the heart or trade it for the princess, or occasionally both. An intensive character study, evesdropping, or inteligence from a disgruntled slave generally reveals the location. (See Drink Down the Moon by Charles de Lint).

The Graeae of the Perseus legend pass a single eye and tooth around.

Upside: The three witches can share them and squabble over them equitably.

Downside: Perseus steals them for bargaining chips.

Medusa’s head petrifies heroes at a glance.

Upside: Instant weapon

Downside: Perseus kills her so he can take her head. Additional downside: many games and derivative works suggest showing Medusa a mirror and watching her turn herself to stone.

Dracula relies on a coffin with special earth where he can retreat each night.

Upside: He can’t be killed by conventional methods

Downside: bloodsucking, harassing young ladies in nightdresses, fear of sunlight and all the other unnatural side effects.

Many wizards place their power in a single item.

Upside: Sharing power with one’s buddies, additional strength and concentration.

Downside: The power frequently ends up in the wrong object: (See

“The Frying Pan of Doom” or Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot or The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede.)

Other Downsides: Often the villain steals this object. Thus, he can hold it for ransom, control the wizard, slurp up his magic, or do other unpleasant villanies.

Some creative wizards place themselves in an item.

(Sourcery by Terry Pratchett, The Mage Winds Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey)

Upside: Extended life past the usual expriation date.

Downside: As a “person” no longer living, the wizard can be overly controlling or insensitive with those still alive. Eventually, the wizard must recognize the need to let go. In Sourcery, the wizard’s young son refuses to take orders from his staff any longer and rejects it. Lackey’s magic sword (Need) is helpless without someone guiding her. She tends to fall asleep and be unable to commnicate if her bearer isn’t magically gifted.

Better yet, place someone else in an item

Upside: Extra power and/or advice

Downside: Slaves of lamps and mirrors are known for conforming to the letter of the order and not the spirit, or for betraying their masters as soon as possible. MOre than anything, they want freedom, and can only be strung along for a time

Sending one’s power into an animal familiar

Upside: Unique perspectives and skills (and occasionally cravings)

Downsides: Terry Pratchett’s frequent “borrowing” suggests a person who travels in an animal too long will lose all grasp of humanity, as does Mercedes Lackey’s exploration of bondbirds. Jennifer Robeson’s Cheysuli books add that if your animal companion dies, you die.

Splitting yourself into twins

Creating an unnaturally powerful offspring

(See Hart’s Hope by Orson Scott Card or The Fionavar Tapesrty by Guy Gavriel Kay)

Upside: As an heir, he can continue your legacy. Or in a pinch, he’ll make the most powerful sacrifice you’ve ever seen.

Downside: Frequently this magical child rebels against his father and helps the opposition.

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Gallery of Heroes who Tried to Cheat Death

Voldemort is determined not to die. However, he’s hardly unique. His mission is shared by characters throughout literature and myth…let’s see what happened to them all.

Gilgamesh:

Tries to stay awake long enough to become immortal, but fails through human weakness.  Is given a magical plant as a consolation prize, but he fearfully hoards it and a snake eats it.  He’s left sadder and wiser.

Sisyphus:

When he offends the gods, death’s servant, Thanatos, comes to collect him.  Sisyphus chains up death so no one can die, but this causes great suffering in the world. Eventually, Sisyphus relents. On his second attempt to cheat death, Sisyphus warns his wife not to give him a funeral or make offerings to the gods. Once in Hades, Sisyphus begs Persephone to let him return to life long enough to rectify this mistake and thus escapes.  The third time, Hades collects him in person. For Sisyphus’s arrogance, he’s forced to roll a boulder up a hill throughout eternity, only to watch it crash again to the bottom.

Eos:

This Greek Goddess of the dawn, is enamored of a mortal named Tithonus (a prince of Troy and the elder brother of Priam). She bears him away to her eastern palace, and begs the gods to grant him immortality. They assent, but she neglects to request eternal youth. Tithonus grows older and more bent through the centuries, until he becomes so crooked and small that he shrinks into a cricket, forever chirping dryly around her beautiful palace.

Achilles:

That one vulnerable spot on an invulnerable body. Never works– someone always finds it and clobbers it.

Dracula:

His coffin with special earth and supernatural powers give him unnatural strength and immortality. Still, he’s a creature of evil, doomed to feed on the living to prolong his own existence. In the famous novel, a group of heroes track and destroy him.

Voldemort:

His Horcruxes make him immortal, with all six heavily guarded pieces standing between him and death. However, his soul is so fractured he’s no longer human. Unicorn blood, likewise, preserves one through a cursed half-life that most judge undesirable.

Urshima Taro and visitors to Fairie:

When they return from their charmed, timeless lives, they find hundreds of years have passed and all their loved ones have gone. The price for this magical, timeless world is never being able to return.  Often, their ancient bodies can’t sustain them and they die. Notably, a Star Trek episode featuring suspended animation found the same result. (The Neutral Zone).

Death Wish, Requiem for Methuselah, New Frontier:

Several Star Trek episodes have addressed characters alive for centuries who only want to die, since life has nothing left to offer them.

The Holy Grail

Drinking from it can preserve people from death or allow them to live forever.  Few drawbacks, rarely pictured as evil or unnatural. The largest flaw is its inability to be found.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Creates an elixir that makes people younger, prolonging death.  Few drawbacks, rarely pictured as evil or unnatural. The largest flaw is its inability to be found.

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Hercules and Harry

All heroes travel the same journey.  Still, Hercules and Harry share a startling number of parallels, as both have their greatest foe try to kill them in the cradle, but accidentally offer them a great source of power.  The chart below is not the exact hero’s journey, but an indication of the trials each hero must endure as Hercules attempts his 12 tasks, and Harry journeys from lessons to Horcruxes to Hallows.

Hercules Potter Series Deathly Hallows Skill tested
Labor One – Nemean Lion

Hercules wears its skin for the rest of his labors..

Harry’s first major test is battling the troll. The reward (Hermione’s friendship) is something he carries forever. The first villain in Deathly Hallows is Voldemort, trying to stop him from escaping. Test:

Courage

 

Labor Two – Lernean Hydra  Hercules needs his nephew Iolus Fighting the Hornback (book 4). He swoops and dodges the reptilian creature, with outside help from his broom. Likewise, he sneaks through the Ministry to get to Umbridge. Test: Cleverness

 

Labor Three – Cerynitian Hind   He has to capture it alive Harry learns potions and transfiguration, all very delicate work.

 

The sword has a gentle doe guardian, testing his courage but not threatening him. Test: Care and Caution

 

Labor Four – Erymanthian BoarHercules’s teacher Chiron accidentally killed. Loss of Sirius and other friends. Harry must face the last tests without guidance. Dumbledore is accidentally killed while Harry is questing with him for the Horcrux. Test:

Loss of the mentor

Labor Five – Stables of Augeas An endless, impossible task Homework and classes. A wizard his age creating a patronus is deemed impossible, but Harry perseveres nonetheless. Endlessly waiting in the tent and traveling in search of Horcruxes Test: Patience
Labor Six – Stymphalian Birds Shrieking swarms This echoes the horde of keys guarding the Philosopher’s Stone. A giant deadly snake in Godric’s Hollow Test: Dexterity
Labor Seven – Cretan Bulls  Facing the vast empire of Minos, traveling far away Entering the Ministry, Knockturn Alley, the Hall of Prophecies, the graveyard, and other menacing places Camping in the countryside

 

Test: Exploring through adversity
Labor Eight – Mares of Diomedes

Hercules rescues Alcestis from death

Harry battles the basilisk to rescue Ginny, and then frees Dobby.

 

Rescuing the lady from the ministry (and getting the locket)

 

Lesson: Defending the weak
Labor Nine – Belt of Hippolyte

This mission calls for tact: the queen of the Amazons surrenders the belt freely

Harry convinces Cho to join the DA, and finally wins Cho’s then Ginny’s affection. Harry persuades Kreacher to trust him and to retrieve the locket.

 

Lesson:

Tact and relationships

 

Labor Ten – Cattle of GeryonHeated by the Sun, Hercules bends his bow at Helios himself Defiance of Fudge, Defying the Ministry Harry resists all the ministers of magic and their representatives, the highest authorities. Test:

Battling unjust authority

Labor Eleven – Apples of Hesperides  Hercules wrestles Antaeus, who gets his powers from earth, and kills him in midair He exploits Umbridge’s greed, Wormtail’s honor, Voldemort’s superiority, and more to defeat them. Harry uses the Horcruxes, Elder Wand, and his mother’s protection (which are all supposed to safeguard Voldemort) to defeat him.

 

Test: Exploiting the villain’s power to destroy him.
Labor Twelve – Hound of Hades Facing Fluffy, the three headed dog, guarding the path down to Voldemort .

 

Self sacrifice in the Forbidden Forest Test: Facing death in the deepest pit.

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The Real Deathly Hallows in Welsh Mythology

The Hallows of Britain in Welsh Myth

The Tuatha de Danaan were said to have brought four treasures to Ireland from the Otherworld.

The Earliest Hallows Powers Later Hallows Tarot Symbols Rowling’s Objects
Shining spear of Lugh Provides victory in any fight The Pole of Combat Spear or Wand Elder Wand
Sword of Nuadu Always destroys its target The Sword of Light Sword Godric’s Sword
Cauldron of Dagda Provides endless food The Cauldron of Cure Cup Hermione’s Beaded Bag
Stone of Fal Confers kingship The Stone of Destiny Pentacle Resurrection Stone

Analysis: While the master weapon descends through Rowling intact, these others have been massively changed.  What is the reason?  Though Harry is on a type of grail quest, he is not a king.  Thus he doesn’t need to feed subjects. Still, as Hermione’s bag provides endless information, clothing, healing potions, and supplies, it must be deemed equivalent. Harry needs a sword of unavoidable destruction, but to murder Voldemort’s Horcruxes, not people.  His test is to descend into death, not to sit on a throne, and so that is the power the stone grants him.  Obviously, one item is missing from this collection: the third hallow of Harry’s cloak. Perhaps it is not surprising that the humblest of these, the one he’s had and used all along, comes from a more modern list. 

 

The Hallows of Britain aka Thirteen Treasures of Britain in Arthurian Legend.

The treasures could only be used by the King or his representative in battle. Most of the thirteen simply provide food (something our trio would’ve welcomed).  Here are a few:

The Arthurian Hallows ‘The Mantle of Arthur’ ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd’ ‘The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy’ ‘Dyrnwyn, Sword of Rhydderch ‘The Coat of Padarn Red-Coat’ ‘Chessboard of Gwenddolau’
Ability Makes the wearer invisible Ensures death follows wounding. Travels at great speed to any location. Bursts into flame. Identifies those of noble birth. Plays by itself.
Rowling Invisibility cloak Godric’s Sword Apparition Fiendfyre Sorting Hat Wizard Chess

Analysis:   These items represent many others we’ve seen in the books: between the Hallows, the Horcruxes, the spare wands, the new spells, and other items (Sorting Hat, Sword of Godric Gryffindor, beaded bag, basilisk fangs) Harry has at least thirteen treasures aiding him on his sacred quest to destroy Voldemort.  Only one who is truly worthy, a symbolic king or those who he’s appointed to aid him (As he confides his task to Ron, Hermione, and Neville) can wield these items.  Dumbledore withholds knowledge of the Hallows because Harry has to prove himself worthy. Likewise, the sword can only appear to Neville and Harry as a test.  Dumbledore must realize that being appointed is not enough: only those imbued with kingship can succeed.

Further Notes:

In Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthur, the grail quest climaxes with the symbols of a broken sword, silver serving dish, the Grail, and bleeding Lance.

Meanwhile, many see the sword and lance as the Blade (or male principle) and dish and  grail as the female principle (chalice).

© Valerie Estelle Frankel July 2007

Online Resources:

The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest

http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/meditation.htm

Arthurian A-Z

The Fisher King

The 13 Hallows of Britain

The 13 Treasures of Britain

Camelot, Ltd

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