Most of the information in the following blog post is can be found in my book, The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. There are many new tidbits to be found here as well, so even if you have read my book, there’s more new information to discover in this post. Enjoy!
Have you ever wondered about the deeper meaning of the Deathly Hallows symbol? First we must answer the question, “What are hallows?”
What is Albus Perceval Wulfric Brian Dumbledore looking at in this still from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?
The noun hallow means “a holy person or saint.” “Hallows” is a word that refers to “the shrines or relics of saints.” The verb “to hallow” means “to make holy, to sanctify, to purify” or “to honor as holy, to regard and treat with reverence or awe” as in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…” The October 31st celebration of Halloween is also known as All Hallows Eve, or the Eve of All Saints.
Then of course there is the Christian mythology of the quest for the Hallows of the Holy Grail in the Arthurian legends. Typically, the Grail Hallows are identified as:
1. the Sword of King David or, (alternately) the Sword that beheaded John Baptist
2. the Dish of the Last Supper
3. the Holy Grail Cup
4. the Spear of Longinus (also referred to as “the Spear of Destiny”)
The Four Grail Hallows of Arthurian Legend. When I first saw this representation of the Grail Hallows I thought of the triangular Deathly Hallows symbol.
The cup, dish, and the spear are part of a larger collection of objects known as the Arma Christi, or Articles of the Crucifxion of Christ. When the title of the final Harry Potter novel was released, I immediately thought of the Grail Hallows and their correspondences with the four suits of the Tarot (swords, disks, cups, and wands), then looked for parallels in Harry’s world. I expected the Sword of Gryffindor to play an important role in the final book, and it did. The dish or disk has a parallel in the Locket of Slytherin, and the cup is present as the Cup of Hufflepuff. But what of the spear? I examined the parallel with the four suits of the Tarot, and realized that a wand would be a suitable quest object in this story about wizards. I expected the Spear of Destiny would have a parallel as the Wand of Destiny in the wizarding world, and when the seventh novel was released, I discovered that this was indeed the case.
The Spear of Destiny and the Holy Grail Cup of Arthurian Legend have their origins in the Crucifixion of Christ
The legend of the Spear of Destiny developed from a passage in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is found dead on the cross: “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.” (John 19:34, NRSV) Tradition derived from the non-canonical Gospel of Nicodemus gave this Roman soldier a name: Gaius Cassius Longinus. A sculpture of the legendary saint by the brilliant Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) can be seen in Saint Peter’s Basilca in Rome. Longinus is depicted holding the Holy Lance in his right hand.
This sculpture of St. Longinus is located in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
In 326 A.D. St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, discovered relics thought to be the Arma Christi while on a pilgrimage in Jerusalem. Among the relics were the True Cross of Christ’s crucifixion, the crown of thorns, the pillar at which Christ was scourged, and the Holy Lance. A legend later associated with this Holy Lance claimed that whoever possessed it would be able to conquer the world. A group of knights found a lance believed to be the Lance of Longinus beneath St. Peter’s Cathedral in Antioch during the First Crusade. Possession of the alleged Holy Lance spurred the crusaders on to victory.
Harry Potter enthusiasts should notice that “Antioch Peverell” is the name of one of the three brothers who once possessed the Deathly Hallows. Antioch was the brother who wielded the Elder Wand, also known as the Wand of Destiny. Throughout history there have been many legends surrounding the relics that were thought to be the Lance of Longinus, the Holy Lance that came to be known as The Spear of Destiny. Likewise in the fictional wizarding world of Harry Potter there were many legends surrounding the Elder Wand. Like the would-be conquerors throughout history who thought that the army who possessed the Spear of Destiny would be invincible, in Harry’s world, the wizard who possessed the Elder Wand was thought to be unbeatable.
One candidate for the title of Holy Lance, allegedly the spear that was found by St. Helena and once belonged to Constantine the Great, was possessed by the Holy Roman Emperors. It was believed to have contained one of the nails used in the crucifixion. This lance was called the Hofburg Spear, and it was kept in Austria’s Hofburg Museum until Adolf Hitler had it removed.
The Hofburg Lance was believed to be the Spear of Destiny.
On March 12, 1938 Hitler went to the Hofburg Museum to visit the supposed Holy Lance on the very same day that Nazi Germany took control of Austria. Hitler believed this relic was truly the Spear of Destiny, and possession of it would make him invincible. On October 13, 1938 Nazi troops moved the Hofburg Spear from Vienna to Nuremberg where it was on display at St. Katherine’s Church for much of the Second World War. During the Allied Forces’ bombing of Germany the spear was moved to a secure underground bunker in Nuremberg.
It is interesting to note that in Harry’s world, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who was obsessed with the Wand of Destiny, was kept in a prison called Nurmengard.
The Hofburg Spear came into the hands of U. S. troops under the command of General Patton on April 30, 1945 at 3:00 p.m. when Nuremburg Castle was captured. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 at 3:30 p.m., just a half hour after he lost his “Spear of Destiny.” The lance was returned to the Hofburg Museum in January 1946, where it has remained until this day.
Note that Hitler’s defeat takes place in 1945, the same year that Dumbledore defeated the dark wizard Grindelwald and became the new owner of the Wand of Destiny. When asked if it was a coincidence that Grindelwald was defeated in 1945, Rowling said, “No. It amuses me to make allusions to things that were happening in the Muggle world…” (Anelli, 16 July 2005)
Hitler’s obsession with the Spear of Destiny may have been the result of his passion for the operas of German composer Richard Wagner. Wagner’s opera Parsifal, composed in 1882 was one of Hitler’s favorites. The story of the opera is about Parsifal (known as Percival in the English versions of the tale), who is one of the knights who is questing for the Grail Hallows. The opera’s plot is partially derived from Parzival, a German Medieval romance written in 1202-1210 by the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the opera, the Spear of Destiny is glorified.
Wolfram’s Parzival differs from Wagner’s opera in many ways, most notably in the portrayal of the Grail itself. Wagner’s Holy Grail is the traditional cup that one would expect, but in Wolfram’s version of the tale, the Holy Grail is a stone. Why Wolfram chose to portray the Grail as a stone rather than as a cup was a mystery that perplexed scholars for many centuries. A recent piece of scholarship may have solved that mystery.
In the book Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival, author G. Ronald Murphy, a Jesuit priest, explains that the grail stone in Wolfram’s romance was probably an altar stone, symbolic of the stone that was rolled across the entrance of Jesus’s tomb before the resurrection. Father Murphy thought that Wolfram may have been inspired to imagine the Holy Grail as a stone because of his encounter with a portable altar of the type used on the crusades. This small altar was a container for holy relics (hallows), as well as holding the consecrated bread of the Eucharist inside it beneath the removable altar stone.
This is a type of portable altar used during the Crusades.
Father Murphy translated the Latin inscription on one such an altar as follows: “The altar of Christ’s cross is one with this table, and this is therefore the proper place for the sacrifice of the victim who secures life.” He later wrote, “This is the wood and the stone that guarantee the passage of Good Friday to Easter Sunday, death to life. The portable altar, and perhaps this very portable altar, is Wolfram’s special stone of Resurrection, the phoenix stone in Wolfram’s language…” (Murphy 185)
Indeed, this is how Wolfram describes the stone. In A. T. Hatto’s English translation of Parzival, the passage describing the powers of the Grail Stone, or Stone of Resurrection, reads as follows: “By virtue of this Stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, in which he is reborn—Thus does the Phoenix moult his feathers! Which done, it shines dazzling bright and lovely as before.” (Parzival 239) According to Wolfram, the phoenix’s power of Resurrection is from the power of the Grail Stone. In Harry Potter, Dumbledore hides the Deathly Hallow known as the Resurrection Stone within the Golden Snitch, a physical representation of the winged solar disk, a phoenix symbol. One symbol of resurrection is hidden inside of another.
"I Open at the Close" fanart by Gold Seven
Wolfram von Eschenbach was known to have an interest in alchemy. In alchemical language the Holy Grail, or phoenix stone, was in fact the Philosopher’s Stone. The Medieval tales of the quest for the Holy Grail, like the alchemist’s path to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, is symbolic of the pursuit of spiritual perfection. That J. K. Rowling is aware of the connection between Wolfram’s Grail Stone and the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone is suggested in a footnote on page 99 of Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Here, Rowling prompts her readers to make the connection between the Philosopher’s Stone and the Resurrection Stone from “The Tale of the Three Brothers:” “Many critics believe that Beedle was inspired by the Philosopher’s Stone, which makes the immortality-inducing Elixir of Life, when creating this stone that can raise the dead.” (TBB 99) I had developed my theory of Parzival’s Grail Stone as the inspiration for the Resurrection Stone Deathly Hallow in 2007, before The Tales of Beedle the Bard was published. When reading Rowling’s footnote from page 99 in December of 2008, I was delighted. I see this footnote as evidence that my theory of the hallows is a plausible one. Two of the three Deathly Hallows of Rowling’s fiction—the Wand of Destiny and the Resurrection Stone—seem to have been inspired by the Grail Hallows of Arthurian legend. The legendary knight Parzival, or Perceval, was the hero of many Medieval romances, one of which was La Folie Perceval. Perceval in this version of the tale was thought to have been influenced by the character of Payne Peveril in Fulke le Fitz Waryn (1260 A.D.). A Welsh poem called Peveril also featured a character similar to Perceval. Perhaps the name “Peverell” (the surname of the three brothers who possessed the Deathly Hallows) may have been derived from Peveril. Antioch Peverell was the master of the Elder Wand, and Cadmus Peverell held the Resurrection Stone. But what of the third Deathly Hallow, the Invisibility Cloak of Harry’s ancestor Ignotus Peverell? For the answer, perhaps we must turn to the ancient mythology of the British Isles.
Hermione discovers the tomb of Harry's ancestor Ignotus Peverell in Godric's Hollow.
The legend of the “Thirteen Treasures of Britain” also known as the “Thirteen Hallows of Britain” describes an impressive collection of magical objects that would not seem out of place in Harry’s world. The twelfth treasure, for instance, is a magical chessboard with “living” chess pieces, not unlike the Wizard’s Chess game that Ron Weasley is so fond of playing.
"I'll be a knight," said Ron.
The thirteenth hallow in this collection is known as “The Mantle of Arthur” with the power to make the wearer invisible. This is very much like the Invisibility Cloak that was given to Harry by Dumbledore during his first Christmas at Hogwarts, the cloak that is the third of the Deathly Hallows.
Harry received the Invisibility Cloak for Christmas during his first year at Hogwarts.
Rather than four Grail Hallows or thirteen Hallows of Britain, Rowling creates a trinity of Deathly Hallows, represented by a vertical line and circle contained within a triangle.
The Deathly Hallows symbol as it appears in the film.
This is the symbol that was mistaken for the “Peverell coat of arms” by Marvolo Gaunt. (HBP 207) The vertical line represents the Elder Wand, or Wand of Destiny, which is all-powerful. The circle represents the stone with the power of resurrection, and finally, the triangle represents the cloak with the power to make the wearer invisible. Thus, the three Deathly Hallows are that which is all-powerful, the power of resurrection, and the presence that is invisible. In Christianity, this could symbolize the Holy Trinity: the all-powerful Father, the resurrected Son, and invisible presence of the Holy Spirit.
The equilateral triangle symbolizes the Holy Trinity of Christianity.
The circle in Christian symbolism represents eternity because it has no beginning and no end. (Luna Lovegood explains this on page 587 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.) A bright ring, the circular halo, is used to represent sanctity in Christian art.
The circular halo represents sanctity. The circle represents eternity in Christian art.
The Celtic symbol of the Holy Trinity combines the triangle and circle in one symbol to represent the Triune God.
This symbol which explains the Holy Trinity is quite similar to the Deathly Hallows symbol.
In addition to the Trinitarian symbolism of the Deathly Hallows, in the Harry Potter series there are a trio of protagonists on a quest, not unlike the trio of knights who find the Grail in the Medieval Christian romance The Quest of the Holy Grail. Galahad, Perceval, and Bors are the three knights who find the Grail.
Galahad, Perceval, and Bors find the Chapel of the Holy Grail.
Galahad, the story's Christ figure, is surrounded by lilies, which symbolize his purity.
Notice that the third angel is holding the Spear of Destiny and the Dish.
Perceval and Bors complete the Trio of knights who achieve the quest for the Grail Hallows.
Galahad is identified as a symbol of Christ in the narrative of The Quest of the Holy Grail. He is compared to the “lily of purity” and the “true rose, the flower of strength and healing with the tint of fire.” The nature of his quest is a spiritual one which ends in his death after finding the Holy Grail. The angels carry him up to heaven along with the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny. Harry Potter is the character in Rowling’s saga that is most like Galahad. His quest is a spiritual one which involves self-sacrifice: he experiences a kind of death and resurrection that saves the wizarding world. Just as the Grail and Lance are taken up to Heaven, never to be seen again, Harry deliberately loses the Resurrection Stone in the forest and also renounces the power of the Elder Wand. The story ends with Harry declaring his intention to return the “Wand of Destiny” to Dumbledore’s tomb where it cannot be used again.
Galahad’s companion Perceval triumphs over temptations of the flesh in his many adventures, which include being tempted by the Great Serpent, Satan, in the form of a beautiful temptress.
Perceval is tempted by Satan in the form of a beautiful woman. He is saved from the temptation to sin when he beholds the "red cross that was inlaid in the hilt" of his sword.
Perceval’s sword, like the Sword of Gryffindor, takes the shape of the Cross, the symbol of Satan’s ultimate defeat.
Ron drew the Sword of Gryffindor, which appeared as a "great silver cross" in the forest pool, to destroy the Locket of Slytherin Horcrux, thus destroying a fragment of the wicked soul of that Great Serpent, Voldemort.
Perceval also rescued a lion’s cub from certain death when he struck the head of the serpent that was trying to devour it. Perceval was then befriended by the King of Beasts. The lion, of course, is a symbol of Christ.
Perceval decapitates the serpent. This has an obvious parallel in Harry Potter: Neville vs. Nagini.
Bors, unlike Perceval, faced intellectual temptations on the quest. He had to make difficult decisions concerning moral dilemas, as when he had to decide whether to rescue his beloved brother Sir Lionel or an innocent maiden who was being abducted by an evil knight. He made the correct decision to rescue the the defenseless girl rather than saving his warrior brother. Bors is most like Hermione, the thinker of the heroic Trio. Together the three knights Galahad, Perceval, and Bors, and the three young wizards Harry, Ron, and Hermione represent the spirit, body, and mind, the “soul triptych” that John Granger first identified in his excellent book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter.
In The Quest for the Holy Grail there is another important parallel with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Galahad, Percival, and Bors were wandering through a forest when they saw a “white hart with its four attendant lions.” The three knights followed the white stag, which led them to a chapel where the Mass was being sung by a holy hermit. Inside the little church the four lions transformed into the four living creatures that symbolize the four evangelists–the man (St. Matthew), the eagle (St. John), the lion (St. Mark), and the bull (St. Luke). The white stag transformed into a man enthroned as Christ the King. The hermit explained the symbolism of the miracle that the knights had witnessed:
For to you has Our Lord revealed His secrets and His hidden mysteries, in part indeed today; for in changing the Hart into a heavenly being, in no way mortal, He showed the transmutation that He underwent upon the Cross: cloaked there in the mortal garment of this human flesh, dying, he conquered death, and recovered for us eternal life. This is most aptly figured by the Hart. For just as the Hart rejuvinates itself by shedding part of its hide and coat, so did Our Lord return from death to life when he cast off his mortal hide, which was human flesh He took in the Blessed Virgin’s womb.—The Quest of the Holy Grail (244)
It is only after they have had the vision of the transformation of the white stag that the three knights are able to find the Holy Grail. In The Grail: Quest for the Eternal, John Matthews explains the symbolism of the white stag with relationship to the Holy Grail quest:
To reach the temple of the Grail, the knights who set out from Camelot must undergo many tests and experience terrible ordeals. But often, when the way seems darkest, the enigmatic white stag or hermit figure appears, to lead them forward through the mazes of forest and hill. In medieval iconography the stag was identified with Christ and the soul’s thirst for God, which accounts for its appearance in this context. (Matthews 88)
The appearance of the White Stag in the Quest for the Holy Grail has a direct parallel in the appearance of the mysterious Silver Doe in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have had no success in destroying the Horcruxes until the Silver Doe appears to lead Harry to the forest pool when the Sword of Gryffindor lay hidden beneath the ice.
Intrigued by this blog post? You can read more in The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter by Denise Roper. It is available at www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows.
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