Unlike many witches, I’ve got rather a soft spot for JK Rowling. I’ve fought her corner a few times when her writing style and her knowledge of the occult have come under fire. As someone who knows a bit about both writing and magic I don’t think she strays all that far off the mark with either. The books kept me entertained for many years and – here’s a rare confession from the Degu Witch for you – yes I did queue up at midnight to buy the last one….
So I thought today, what I’d like to do is pull a few fictional examples out of the Potter Universe and use them to illustrate some of the inspirations and roots for where the fiction originated from.
There are many historical, mythical and cultural (Azkaban/Alcatraz anyone?) references but the focus here is on actual magical practices.
So to start with – wands. Witches get asked all the time if they use wands (some do, some don’t). I do personally. I can’t confess to have a phoenix feather or unicorn hair in my wand but what I do have is several crystals attached to each of them. The idea of a wand is that it is used to direct energy. Although energy can be directed just as effectively with your hands (and many many Trad witches prefer this method) the idea of using a wand is that your intent picks up the characteristics of the wood and the crystals that the energy is generated through.
And interestingly enough, I do have a wand made from elder….
The whole idea of the horcrux has got to stem from the traditional idea of making a witch bottle. With a witch bottle, a witch will seal her essence inside, often protecting it with baneful herbs, glass, broken nails. I’ve done this with serenity spells by sealing my essence inside lavender and giving it a shake when I want to feel calm. It’s the idea of separating a part of yourself so it cannot be harmed, which fits in very nicely with JK’s soul splitting.
A witch learns how to become invisible. Not literally (which is a shame) but she learns how to blend into her surroundings, how to be unobtrusive and covert, how not to draw attention to herself. This is obviously where JK gets the idea of the invisibility cloak from. However, in her world, invisibility sounds a lot more interesting!
Witches work with spirits. In the real world this is often achieved through a séance, a Ouija board or simply by opening up the spirit channels. JK has a lot of fun inventing ways for her characters to speak to the other world. Probably the most charming to my mind are the portraits of the Headmasters in the Headmaster’s study at Hogwarts. And as witches may seek the advice from the other world, many of the magical characters in the Potterverse are advised by the various pictures and portraits that bridge the gap between the worlds.
Scrying is a method of divination. It can be done with a crystal ball (a la Ms Trelawney), a mirror (The Mirror of Erised) or any flat shiny surface really, even a bowl of water. JK really picks this up with the whole looking into the Mirror to see the future thing. However, unlike modern witches who use scrying more as an aid to unlock the inner wisdom of the mind than to actually physically “see” an image (though that can work as well) –the characters in the books see the visions as clearly as they would their own reflection. Which is taking the whole scrying idea and souping it up somewhat.
Incidentally, talking of divination, many people still read their tea leaves. I don’t personally, I cannot abide tea. But it is still a future foretelling method used widely today.
One area where our friends at Hogwarts seem to have it a lot easier than real witches is spell casting. All they seem to do is mutter a few random non rhyming (mostly gobbledygook) words and amazing things start to happen. Yes, there is a parallel to spell casting, words are important, they frame and express your intent. To keep the focus, many witches will rhyme their spells. But there is a world of difference between mumbling a word or two and writing a spell to lay out specific intent. I always think spell writing is much more akin to writing a formal legal contract – its important to consider all the loopholes…
Sticking with spells. Bellatrix Lestrange comments how you really need to learn to hate to work a curse. She’s right. Cursing is a tricky area of magic. Going into it tentatively or doubtfully will achieve nothing. This is why curses are real one off, probably not used very often spells. Not many of us can sustain the levels of anger and hatred needed to work a curse. Different with hexes, the lighter side of aggressive magic, much less hate needed. Vexation and irritation. (And people who use their mobiles on the bus. Slap my wrist!)
Culturally I think JK Rowling is making some interesting sociological points about racism when she refers to the non magical beings as “Muggles.” However there is also a definite cultural link to the world of real witchcraft where many an argument burns about whether witches are born a witch or learn to become a witch. Hereditary traditions can often be quite scornful of a witch who comes to the craft rather than being born into a family or tradition. Equally, many traditional witches are negative about Wiccan witches, seeing them as inferior because they only practise “fluffy magic.” As with any generalisation, it isn’t a behaviour you see in everyone, but it does exist and the backbiting between the various groups can be every bit as vicious as Lord Voldermort’s dislike of the Muggles.
For me, the best book in the series is the Half Blood Prince and I think the ending is one of the scariest chapters I have ever read in a book ostensibly intended for children. The army of the dead who rise from the waters bear an uncanny resemblance to the Voodoo (voudou) zombies of Haitian legend. Dead in soul and spirit but alive in flesh. There is something terrifying about an enemy who cannot be reasoned with and JK uses this imagery very effectively to chill the blood of her readers.
As this has turned into rather a long blog post, I’m going to throw a few more ideas at you now and then go have my dinner (which I’m rather hoping is fish and chips….)
The witch’s familiar? Voldermort’s snake, Harry’s owl, Hermionie’s cat….
Astral Projection? Harry’s death, the Dementors, the time travelling device?
Meditation and mind clearing? – The Pensieve?
Sacrifice? The blood offering in the cave in the Half Blood Prince.
Ok, I’ve made my point. In my humble opinion, JK has done more research than her critics admit. She’s got a pretty thorough knowledge of the magical world and a good understanding of myth and legend (maybe a blog post on that one day, who knows….)
And why do I get the feeling I’ve only scratched the surface here…? That there are thousands more I’ve missed. Let me know if you think up any more. x