Tuesday, 26 April 2011

O for Occlumency (ABC Wednesday)


Occlumency: “The magical defence of the mind against external penetration. An obscure branch of magic, but a highly useful one.”

Severus Snape to Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix, Ch 24

While Harry is spending the Christmas holidays at the house of his godfather Sirius, his most hated teacher, Snape, turns up and delivers the very unwelcome message that during the next term, the Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, wants Harry to take private Occlumency lessons from no other than Professor Snape.

‘Dumbledore wants to stop you having those dreams about Voldemort,’ said Hermione at once. ‘Well, you won’t be sorry not to have them any more, will you?’

‘Extra lessons with Snape?’ said Ron, sounding aghast. ‘I’d rather have the nightmares!’

When the lessons start, Snape explains things a bit further. The reason why Dumbledore wants Harry to learn Occlumency is that the Dark Lord (Voldemort) is “highly skilled at Legilimency”, which is “the ability  to extract feelings and memories from another person’s mind”. (A Muggle would call it mind-reading, but in the wizarding world it gets a little more physical.) Occlumency, on the other hand, “seals the mind against magical intrusion and influence”.

Since Harry has a rather emotional personality, he never gets very good at occlumency; but, to quote Dumbledore further on in the story: “in the end, it mattered not”, because he has other qualities that serve him better.

Snape, however, is sort of the embodiment of Occlumency; his character remains a mystery throughout the series, and where his true loyalty lay was one of the favourite subjects of debate while readers were waiting for the last book in the series.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

N for Nagini (ABC Wednesday)

Nagini is the name of a big snake closely associated with Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s main enemy.

Naga is the sanskrit word of a deity taking the shape of a snake. It is sometimes also used for ordinary snakes, like the cobra. A female naga is a nagi or a nagini. (Wikipedia)

Nagas are sometimes characterized as having human traits at one time, and serpent-like traits at another.

The Cobra was also used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority in ancient Egypt. The Ureaus, the rearing cobra, on the pharaoh’s crown is a symbol of an Egyptian goddess (Wadjet) who was often depticted as a cobra.

Very early in the first book in the HP series, we learn that Harry is able to communicate with snakes (he talks to one at the zoo, while he is still living with his aunt and uncle in the Muggle world and does not even know himself yet that he is a wizard).

It is not until his second year at Hogwarts that Harry himself learns that this ability is regarded with suspicion even among wizards; and that when he does it, he is in fact using a special language called parseltongue. A language which Harry never consciously learned, which most wizards neither speak nor understand, and which is associated with the Dark Arts.

There is a big snake involved in The Chamber of Secrets: a basilisk. But the basilisk is not Nagini.

Nagini is not introduced until the fourth book: The Goblet of Fire. But from then on and until very close to the end, Nagini is closely related to Lord Voldemort.

Already in the first book, we learn that Lord Volemort tried, but failed, to kill Harry when he was a little baby, just over a year old. For unknown reason, the curse he cast on Harry seemed to rebound on himself, and he was so much weakened by this that he lost his bodily shape. When we first meet Voldemort (in the first book), he is literally only a shadow of his former self. In the fourth book, after his ‘resurrection’, he gives his old followers, the Death Eaters, a summary: 

I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost… but still, I was alive. --- Only one power remained to me. I could possess the bodies of others. (GoF 33)

In The Goblet of Fire, however, Lord Voldemort regains a body of his own. We learn that a potion containing snake venom from Nagini was one essential ingredient in the mix of magic that got him started in that process. It is also a fact that when he does come back in bodily shape, it is with a very snakelike appearance.

Even though all the details are not clearly stated, a sort of first bodily rebirth trough the snake Nagini is suggested – to give him back a “rudimentary, weak body of my own, a body I would be able to inhabit while awaiting the essential ingredients for true rebirth” (GoF33).

Beneath the surface of this story, there are many layers of deep imagery; and Rowling borrows from more than one source. One thing that to me stands out beyond doubt though, is that Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort is meant to be an ‘Antichrist’ figure. Besides the basic concept of ‘the Beast’ in the Book of Revelations, Rowling also uses ‘anti’-analogies like: While Jesus according to Christian belief was both human and divine; the ‘reborn’ Lord Voldemort is half human, half snake. And while Jesus sacrificed himself for others, Tom/Voldemort without hesitation sacrifices others for himself. 

In Revelations Ch 13, a scene is described where a beast with seven heads comes out of the sea. All its heads are different. A dragon (dragons and snakes are more or less interchangable in many old stories) “gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.” (Rev 13:3)

As the HP story goes on, it becomes clear that Lord Voldemort too has “more than one head”, and therefore is no ordinary enemy. 

There also seems to be a mysterious bond between Harry and the Dark Lord, to do with the scar that Harry still has on his forehead from when Voldemort tried to kill him back in his childhood. What protects Harry though is the fact that his mother (Lily) sacrificed her own life for him. There is magic in sacrificial love which goes beyond Voldemort’s understanding; and of course, in the end that proves to be his downfall.

In connection with Nagini there are also references implied to the Ouroborus symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. (For example, in GoF33, Nagini is described as “continually circling” while Voldemort tells his story to the Death Eaters.) In religious, mythological and alchemical symbolism it represents recreation and other things perceived as cycles. Alchemy is another of the recurring themes in the HP books.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

M for Marauder’s Map (ABC Wednesday)



Click here to watch the YouTube video clip from The Prisoner of Azkaban where the Marauder’s Map of Hogwarts Castle is first introduced.

The map is presented to Harry by the Weasley twins Fred and George, who in their first year nicked it from the office of the very impopular school caretaker, Argus Filch. He in turn had confiscated it years before, from the makers of the map, the four Marauders who called themselves Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs – all of whom we get to know more about before the end of the third book.

It was a map showing every detail of the Hogwarts castle and grounds. But the truly remarkable thing was the tiny ink dots moving around it, each labelled with a name in minuscule writing. (PoA 10)

The spell to open the map is: “I solemnly swear that I’m up to no good.” And to close it: “Mischief managed.”  Which makes it go back to just a blank piece of parchment for the eyes of those who don’t know its secret.

The map is also put to use in the rest of the series. One of its really tricky qualities is that the little moving dots always show the true name of the person. Something which can be both helpful and deceitful in a world where wizards and witches sometimes use magic to take on someone else’s appearance…

The map is one of the magical objects that come to Harry as a sort of heritage from his father, although he is not aware of it at the time.

… … …

This post is linked to ABC Wednesday.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

L for Luna (ABC Wednesday)

Luna Lovegood is a character not introduced until the fifth book in the series, although presumably she has been attending Hogwarts since Harry’s second year – being in the same year as Ginny Weasley; but belonging to the House of Ravenclaw rather than to Gryffindor.

Harry (in the company of Neville and Ginny) is first introduced to Luna (sometimes nicknamed ‘Loony’ by her fellow students) on the train to Hogwarts:

The girl gave off an aura of distinct dottiness. Perhaps it was the fact that she had stuck her wand behind her left ear for safekeeping, or that she had chosen to wear a necklace of Butterbeer corks, or that she was reading a magazine upside-down. (OP10)

(It turns out after a while, though, that there was a reason why she was holding the magazine upside-down.) The magazine is The Quibbler, a publication not reputed in the Wizarding World to be the most reliable source of information. However, the editor is Luna’s father; and although he does not know it when they first meet, this will prove useful for Harry later on. Daring to be different – a quality shared by both father and daughter Lovegood – is not necessarily a bad thing. 

The name Luna is Latin for Moon. This fits perfectly with Luna Lovegood’s late appearance in the story. When she comes into it, “darkness” has already begun to take over, after Lord Voldemort again took bodily form at the end of the fourth book. Luna’s first appearance might seem a bit bleak, but before the end, she does get to shine.

Luna in Roman mythology is a moon goddess. (In Greek mythology her name is Selene.) She is often depicted riding either riding on a horse or in a chariot drawn by a pair of winged steeds. Her lunar sphere or crescent is often represented as a crown set upon her head. 

Luna also appears in a sort of trinity with two other moon goddesses: Diana, connected with the woods, wild animals and hunting, and Hecate, connected with the underworld, and with doorways and crossroads. It is said that Luna represents the full moon, Diana the crescent moon, and Hecate the darkness when we don’t see the moon at all.

Interestingly, I also found a note in one of my mythology books that Hecate is sometimes depicted with three different heads: the lion, the horse and the dog.

In The Order of the Phoenix, where we meet Luna, we are also introduced to Thestrals, a kind of invisible, winged, skeleton-resembling, horse-like creatures (used to pull the carriages that transport the students between Hogwarts and the train station). Thestrals can only be seen by those who have seen death. Harry never sees the thestrals until his fifth year – before that the carriages used to seem to him to be moving by magic. Now he can see them, because at the end of his previous school year, he saw a fellow student (Cedric) get killed by Voldemort. Ron and Hermione cannot see the thestrals, so at first don’t understand what Harry is talking about. Luna, however, sees them (her mother died when she was nine), and assures Harry that “You’re just as sane as I am.”


The lion is the symbol of the House of Gryffindor (representing fire/light). In OP19, Luna turns up to a Quidditch game showing support for Gryffindor (against Slytherin) wearing a hat shaped like a lion’s head.


As for the dog, that’s the animagus shape that Sirius (Harry’s godfather) takes – a big black dog, also associated (in one of the earlier books) with the omen of death, the Grim. In OP, Luna is one of the friends who accompany Harry on a mission to (presumably) rescue Sirius from the “underworld”: Towards the end of the book, she, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville all fly on thestrals to London, where they enter the Department of Mysteries in the Ministry of Magic headquarters, located underground. One of the most important scenes takes place in a sort of underground amphitheatre; which further connects to old Greek/Roman mythology and drama. There is also an arch (doorway) with a mysterious veil; and Harry and Luna are the only ones who can hear voices “from the other side” (although at the same time you can walk around the arch and see both sides of it).

One person in this scene falls through the veil – and is thereby taken “off stage”, so to say. See a previous post of mine: Dog Days and Sirius Black.

Luna Lovegood’s interest in mystical magical creatures might be another clue to associate her with Diana, the moon godess also associated with woods and wildlife. It is however sort of left open by the author whether some of the creatures whose existence Luna takes for granted are supposed to really exist. - My favourite, of course, is the Crumple-Horned Snorkack, which Luna and her father think they may find in Sweden. We learn a little bit more (or not) about this creature in the last book.

In the last book Luna also becomes (indirectly) associated with a crescent-shaped crown – a diadem, or tiara. (Compare the attributes of Luna the moon goddess.)

… … …

Visit ABC Wednesday
to see what L’s other people have found



Blog Widget by LinkWithin