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Archive for the ‘The Lord of the Hallows’ Category

The latest episodes of “The Secrets of Harry Potter” podcast are #70 “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ Part One” and #71 “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Movie Review.”

You may want to refer to this blog post about the symbolism of the Four Houses of Hogwarts when listening to Episode #70: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/harry-potter-and-the-bestiary-of-christ-part-one/.  This podcast is a discussion of the symbolism of the lion, eagle, griffin, badger, serpent, and basilisk. This one is definitely one of my favorite episodes that we have recorded this year. 🙂

The movie review (Episode #71) has a spoiler-free overview followed by a spoiler-filled discussion of our  likes, dislikes, and in-depth analysis of their favorite scenes, actors and actresses, and  Alexandre Desplat’s music. It is a really long and very detailed episode.

Listen to “The Secrets of Harry Potter” podcast here: http://harrypotter.sqpn.com/

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This is the final blog post of “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ.” If you have not done so already, please read parts 1-4 of this series.  (Note: This final installment is an updated version of a blog post that I originally made in the summer of 2010.)

Weasley is Our King!

The Unicorn Is Found.

          In The Hunt of the Unicorn as an Allegory of the Passion, the tapestry entitled “The Unicorn is Found,” depicts the unicorn dipping its horn into a stream to purify it. The unicorn, a Christ figure, is surrounded by other animals, some of which are Christ symbols as well, such as the lion and the stag. But standing near the stream closest to the unicorn’s horn is a small, slender creature which may represent a genet, an ermine, or a weasel. The much-maligned weasel is a favorite animal of author J. K. Rowling.

The Weasel, Enemy of Serpents

“Ron was the only one of three major characters whose surname never changed; he has been ‘Weasley’ from start to finish. In Britain and Ireland the weasel has a bad reputation as an unfortunate, even malevolent, animal. However, since childhood I have had a great fondness for the family mustelidae; not so much malignant as maligned, in my opinion.”–J. K. Rowling in “Some Random Facts About the Weasley Family” at http://www.jkrowling.com/

Generally speaking, calling someone a “weasel” is usually an insult. Indeed, there are numerous examples of Draco Malfoy calling Harry’s best friend Ron Weasley such insulting names as “the weasel” or “the weasel king.” In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Slytherins mock Ron Weasley with badges that proclaim “Weasley is Our King!” sarcastically and sing a song by the same title which has lyrics that insult Ron’s Quidditch-playing skills and make fun of his family’s poverty.

     The Bestiary of Christ reveals a totally different perception of weasels. “Although the weasel is the smallest of carnivores, it can win combats with much bigger animals than itself,” thus “the weasel is the perfect symbol of a Christian who, no matter how weak in himself, can still triumph over Satan, the most terrifying monster of hell.” (Bestiary 147) This passage calls to memory the scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which Ron must confront his deepest fears and insecurities when he is tempted by the locket of Slytherin Horcrux, which contained a fragment of the Dark Lord’s soul. Voldemort spoke to Ron in this scene as a deceiver and a tempter, just as the Father of Lies, Satan, deceives and tempts the Christain to sin. But like the Christian who is weak in himself and yet with God’s help can triumph over Satan, Ron, with Harry’s encouragement, rejected Voldemort’s lies and used the Sword of Godric Gryffindor to destroy the locket Horcrux.

Ron Destroys the Locket Horcrux.

          The Bestiary of Christ also describes the weasel as the “symbol of the perfect disciple;” Ron is Harry’s devoted follower, sidekick, and best friend. The weasel is also described as a “symbol of paternal affection,” reminding the reader of Molly and Arthur’s great love for their children.

Weasels are said to be the enemies of rats (Peter Pettigrew) and snakes (Slytherin bullies, Death Eaters, and Lord Voldemort himself). The Bestiary also describes the weasel as “the most implacable vanquisher of that terrifying reptile, the basilisk…” (Bestiary 148-149).

      According to this legend, the weasel must sacrifice its own life to slay the basilisk. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ginny Weasley almost loses her life in the basilisk’s lair. She is saved only when Harry slays the basilisk with the Sword of Gryffindor and uses one of the creature’s fangs to destroy the diary Horcrux, thus freeing Ginny from Tom Riddle’s enchantment.
 
          Another bit of weasel lore known to J. K. Rowling is that “Weasels are careful to feed on rue before fighting with snakes…” (Bestiary 150)  In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the poison that Draco Malfoy intended for Dumbledore was mistakenly consumed by Ron Weasley (an example of a weasel being poisoned by a serpent). During Ron’s recovery in the hospital wing, Madame Pomfrey gave Ron essence of rue as an antidote to the poison.
 

Weasels who have been poisoned by serpents must ingest rue in order to recover.

          The Bestiary also mentions a type of weasel called the ermine, whose brown coat turns white in the winter. The ermine, due to its white color, symbolizes purity, especially feminine virtue. The ermine’s white coat disappears into the snow in the winter months and re-appears in the spring when its fur turns brown again. For this reason the ermine was a symbol of death and resurrection.  Please make note the presence of the letters e-r-m-i-n-e in Hermione’s name. What do you think of when Ron mumbles her name in his sleep as “Er-my-nee”?  Er-mi-ne?

          Otters are also part of the weasel family, so it’s no surprise that the Weasleys live near the village of Ottery-St.Catchpole, and that Hermione, the eventual wife of Ronald Weasley, has an otter patronus. In Christian art, the otter is sometimes used as a symbol of Christ’s righteousness. (Apostolos-Cappadonna 263).
 

Hermione's Otter Patronus by milkydreamsxxx on Tumblr.

          In The Unicorn Tapestries the weasel appears alongside its peers: it is as courageous as the lion, as pure as the unicorn, as nurturing as the deer, and like its fellows, it is the sworn enemy of the serpent. Ron and his family have been well named indeed.  
 

If you would like to read more, you can obtain a copy of The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter from my publisher’s website at www.outskritspress.com/thelordofthehallows.

Comments on this post are welcome!

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This is the fourth part of a series of blog posts entitled “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ.” You may want to read parts 1-3 before reading this one.  

All the ancient peoples knew about the phoenix. The Israelites did, and the bird appears in the Bible at least once or twice.”–Mike Aquilina in Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols.

In my own nest I shall grow old; I shall multiply years like the phoenix.”–Job 29:18, translation favored by ancient rabbis.

Coin depicting a phoenix from Antioch, Syria, 4th century A. D.

 

Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ Part Four: Phoenix Rising

          In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis described the guardian of the Tree of Life  as a majestic bird which was “larger than an eagle, its breast saffron, its head crested with scarlet, and its tail purple.” (MN 92) The reader can only wonder what sort of creature this majestic bird could be, for Lewis does not immediately tell us what type of bird serves as the guardian of the Apples of Immortality.

It is not until the final Narnia adventure that Lewis reveals that this creature is, in fact, a phoenix. (LB 764) As with the griffin, Lewis did not include the phoenix in his novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but film director Andrew Adamson’s version of the story includes the magnificent bird among the good creatures that fight for Narnia in Aslan’s army.

          The mythology of classical antiquity described the phoenix as a majestic bird which flew to foreign lands to gather fragrant herbs and spices to heap upon an altar, set fire to them, and then burn itself to ashes, only to rise from the pyre after three days time. The early Fathers of the Church logically saw this myth as a typological symbol of the death of Christ, who rose from the tomb on the third day.

          The phoenix was adapted by the early Christians as a symbol of the Resurrection as early as the first century A.D. Drawings of the creature appear amongst the Christian murals and “graffiti” that identify the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs beneath the city of Rome. St.Clement of Rome, who was pope at the end of the first century, wrote of the legend of the phoenix in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He used the story of how the bird died and rose again as a new phoenix to explain the Resurrection of the Christian faithful which will occur at the end of time:

“Let us consider the strange sign which takes place in eastern lands, that is, in the regions near Arabia. There is a bird called the phoenix. It is the only one of its kind, and it lives for five hundred years. When the time for its dissolution in death approaches, it makes for itself a sepulcher of frankincense and myrrh and the other aromatics, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. From its decaying flesh a worm is born, which is nourished by the juices of the dead bird until it grows wings. Then, when it is strong, it takes up that sepulcher in which are the bones of the bird of former times, and carries them far from the land of Arabia to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt; and there, in the daytime, in the sight of all, it flies to the altar of the sun where it places them; and then it starts back to its former home. The priests then inspect the records of the times and find that it has come at the completion of the five hundredth year. Do we, then, consider it a great and wonderful thing that the Creator of the universe will bring about the resurrection of those who have served Him in holiness and in the confidence of good faith, when He demonstrates the greatness of His promise even through a bird?”—from the First Letter to the Corinthians by St. Clement of Rome, 80 A. D. (Jurgens 8-9)

 

Phoenix depicted in a detail of a floor mosaic from Daphne, Syria, late 5th century.

 

 The Medieval bestiaries compared the phoenix, with the power to lay down his life and take it up again, to Jesus Christ. Like the lion, griffin, unicorn, and stag, the phoenix is a Christ symbol.

Pagans saw the phoenix as a symbol of the immortality of the human soul. In Mesopotamian and Egyptian art, this was symbolized by a winged solar disk, a depiction of the sun with wings.

It is possible that this image had some influence on the Old Testament prophet Malachi who wrote: “…the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings.” (Malachi 4:2, KJV) The Sun of Righteousness or Sun of Justice referred to by Malachi was later thought by the early Christians to be the Son of Righteousness or the Son of Justice who rises, that is, Jesus Christ the Resurrected Son. The image of the sun with wings was a symbol of the immortality of the soul, a symbol of resurrection which was also portrayed by the phoenix. We have seen the symbol of the winged solar disk portrayed as a physical object in Harry Potter’s world: it is the Golden Snitch.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the chapter entitled “The Will of Albus Dumbledore,” the professor leaves Harry the first snitch he ever caught in a Quidditch match. The snitch is marked with the words, “I open at the close.” When Harry goes to face his death at the climax of the novel, he opens the Golden Snitch to find the Deathly Hallow known as the Resurrection Stone hidden inside of it. Thus, Rowling has presented the readers with one resurrection symbol (the stone) hidden inside of another (the winged solar disk).

"I Open at the Close" fan art by Gold Seven.

Harry is most fond of his holly and phoenix feather wand, which he chose over the all-powerful Elder Wand at the end of book seven. It contains one tail feather from Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes, as its power source. The wand is made of holly, and like its phoenix-feather core, the wood is symbolic also. Holly is said to be one of the plants used to make the Crown of Thorns. Another legend claims that it was used as the wood of the Cross of Calvary. Holly was thought to provide protection from lightning and to ward off evil spirits. Its evergreen leaves symbolize eternal life. Christian legends claim that holly berries were originally white but they were stained red by the Blood of Christ after he was crowned with thorns. Holly was also associated with Christmas because of a tale describing how the holly tree grew leaves out of season in order to hide Jesus, Mary, and Joseph from King Herod’s soldiers. For this reason, it is miraculously evergreen. In the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum, in the unicorn tapestry entitled “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle,” a holly tree grows behind the creature’s head, reminding the viewer that the unicorn is a symbol of Christ.

In fact, holly appears in all but the first and last of the Cloisters’ unicorn tapestries and in all six of the unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum’s collection. The holly and phoenix feather wand was an important clue about Harry’s destiny that has been present from the first book onward.

The symbolism of the phoenix has been important throughout the series. Harry met Fawkes, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, in the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Fawkes saved Harry’s life by crying healing tears to heal a mortal wound Harry received from the deadly basilisk. The tears of a phoenix are the only known cure for the basilisk’s poisonous venom.

Fawkes’s song gave Harry renewed strength and courage in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when the young hero had to face Voldemort in the flesh during the wizard’s duel in the churchyard. Dumbledore’s patronus is a phoenix, and the name of the Anti-Voldemort league that Dumbledore established is called “The Order of the Phoenix.” All of the good adult wizards that Harry admires—Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Tonks, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley—are members of the new Order of the Phoenix. Harry’s deceased parents, James and Lily, along with Ron’s deceased uncles, Gideon and Fabian Prewett, and Neville’s parents, Frank and Alice Longbottom, were all members of the original Order of the Phoenix during the First Voldemort War.

We even witness Fawkes the Phoenix saving Dumbledore’s life when Voldemort tries to use Avada Kedavra, the Death Curse, to defeat him: “Fawkes swooped down in front of Dumbledore, opened his beak wide, and swallowed the jet of green light whole.” (OP 815) Only the phoenix, like Christ, could take the curse of death upon himself and rise again in glory, unharmed. From the earliest days of Christianity, the phoenix was a symbol of the believer’s hope of Resurrection at the end of the world. Its ascension into the heavens, like that of the eagle, symbolized the soul’s desire for union with God.

At the funeral which concludes the sixth book, Harry saw smoke rising from the white flames around Dumbledore’s body, and “Harry thought, for one heart-stopping moment, that he saw a phoenix fly joyfully into the blue.” (HBP 645)

“If resurrection is proved by means of an irrational bird…  why do they foolishly dismiss our claims, when we profess that He who has the power to create everything out of nothing, also has the power to restore the human body, and raise it up again after its decay?”–Apostolic Constitutions, Syria, mid-fourth century.

Please subscribe to this blog so that you don’t miss the next installment of “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ,” which is entitled “Weasley Is Our King.” If you would like to order a copy of  my book, The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, it can be obtained from www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows.

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This post is the third part of a series which began here in part one, a discussion of the lion, eagle, griffin, serpent, basilisk, and badger: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/harry-potter-and-the-bestiary-of-christ-part-one/ and continued here, with a discussion of the unicorn: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/harry-potter-and-the-bestiary-of-christ-part-two/. Now on to the third installment…

The Hunting of the White Stag

          A Christ symbol that is closely related to the unicorn is the stag, whose earliest representation in Christian art can be found in the Roman catacombs and in baptismal font designs and basilica altar mosaics of subsequent periods.  It appeared as a Christ symbol in bestiaries, stories of the lives of the saints, and in medieval romances, such as the Queste del Saint Graal, where the stag served as a guide toward the object of the quest, the Holy Grail.

P. M. Matarasso's translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail (Queste del Saint Graal)

           The stag appeared as a symbol of Christ in the story of St. Eustace. This saint, like C. S. Lewis’s fictional character Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, experienced a miraculous conversion.

Narnia' s Eustace Scrubb, like St. Eustace, experienced a life-changing conversion.

 The pagan Eustace was a Roman general who enjoyed hunting. On one hunting expedition, Eustace tracked a stag through the woods and prepared to kill the magnificent creature. Just as Eustace was ready to slay the majestic stag, a miraculous vision appeared to the hunter: a vision of Christ crucified appeared between the stag’s antlers. The hunter was converted to Christianity on the spot.  A similar tale of a hunter who converted due to a miraculous vision is in the story of St. Hubert. While out hunting on Good Friday the future saint encountered a stag with a crucifix between its antlers. A voice spoke to him from where the stag was. It asked why Hubert was pursuing him, and Hubert realized he had been searching for Christ for many years, and had finally found him. Hubert was converted at that moment. St. Hubert’s desire to find Christ was a thirst for God that manifests symbolically as a stag. This symbol of the soul’s thirst for God is derived from Psalm 42:1 (NRSV), “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”

          Because of the stag’s longing for streams of water described in the Book of Psalms, it became associated with the soul’s desire for purification through Baptism.

                   Just as the deer devours the snake,

                   Then rushes off his thirst to slake,

                   Lets spring the venom wash away,

                   So all is well, can Christian say,

                   For he is saved, sin’s trace is lost,

                   When in baptismal font he’s washed. (Biedermann 93)

This explains why the relief-work on many old baptismal fonts often includes representations of deer. Mosaics in some European churches, such as the mosaic above the altar in Rome’s Basilica of Saint Clement, sometimes depict a doe or stag drinking the water of life from the running stream described in Psalm 42. 

Stags drinking from the waters of life-detail from the mosaic above the altar of the Basilica of St. Clement in Rome. I visited this beautiful church when I toured Italy in 2008.

Early Christian texts such as Physiologus describe the deer as spitting water into every crevice in which poisonous snakes hide, then trampling on them, just as Christ strikes at the Devil with the heavenly water of Baptism. (Biedermann 92) The stag was thus seen as the symbol of the triumphant Christ. When a stag’s antlers break, they regenerate, and for this reason the stag became a symbol of the Resurrection as well.

Other ancient lore associated the stag with the discovery of dittany, a miraculous herb that cures all wounds. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione carries a bottle of the essence of dittany to cure the wounds of her injured companions during their quest to destroy the Horcruxes. This miraculous liquid is mentioned first in Chapter 14 when Hermione heals the bleeding Ron Weasley, who has splinched himself while apparating. Hermione also uses dittany to heal Harry when he has been bitten by the snake Nagini in Chapter 17. In Cavallo’s The Unicorn Tapestries, the author quotes from Margaret L. Freeman’s book of the same title in the appendix, where it says, “Stags can shake off any arrows which they have received if they partake of the herb called dittany.” (Cavallo 119) J. K. Rowling must have had some knowledge of this ancient lore of dittany because she made great use of it in Deathly Hallows.

Hermione used dittany on Ron's splinch wound to save his life in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

In the Medieval religious story, The Quest for the Holy Grail, the Knights Galahad, Percival, and Bors were riding through the forest when they encountered a white hart escorted by four lions. The three knights followed the white hart, and it lead them to a chapel where the Mass was being sung. Inside the little church the four lions transformed into the four living creatures that symbolize the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and the stag transformed into a man enthroned, Jesus Christ. The priest explained the symbolism of the miracle that the knights had witnessed. It is only after they have had the vision of the transformation of the white stag that they are able to find the Holy Grail. (Matarasso 243-245)

The knights Perceval, Bors, and Galahad were led to the Grail Hallows by a white stag. Galahad, a character who is himself a Christ-figure, is clad in the Eucharistic colors of red and white, and is shown kneeling among the white lillies, which are symbolic of his purity. An angel holds the legendary Grail Hallow known as the Spear of Destiny.

 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)

          In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the author made use of the same symbolism that is found in the Grail legends. When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie followed the white stag they were able to re-enter the wardrobe to return home to England. Recall the symbolism of the stag and the running stream in the book of Psalms which signifies the soul’s thirst for union with God. The Pevensies’ s quest for the White Stag is symbolic of the soul’s search for Christ, a search that will eventually lead the seeker further up and further in to his or her true home. This parallels the story of the knights who follow the white stag to find Christ and the Grail.

The stag appears in Harry Potter’s world as a symbol of his father. “Prongs” was the nickname given to Harry’s father James, an animagus who could transform himself into a stag. In the third novel Rowling spoke to her readership through Dumbledore, who told Harry (and us) that the ones who love us never truly leave us, not even in death. When Harry suffered from attacks from soul-sucking Dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban, he had to learn how to conjure a patronus to protect himself. The words “Expecto Patronum!” translate as “I expect a protector!” and protection arrived in the form of a luminous, graceful four-hoofed animal, which Harry initially mistakes for a unicorn. (PA 385) It is a luminous stag, the form his father once took when he was alive, and the brilliant patronus, like a guardian angel providing protection, drove away the darkness and despair of the Dementors. Harry’s protector is a stag, which like the unicorn, is a symbol of Christ.

Harry's stag patronus. His protector is a Christ symbol.

The stag’s female counterpart is the doe. Just as the Knights of the Grail and heroes of Narnia followed the white stag, our hero must follow the silver doe in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “The Silver Doe” is one of the most beautiful chapters in the novel:

A bright silver light appeared right ahead of him, moving through the trees. Whatever the source, it was moving soundlessly. The light seemed simply to drift toward him.

He jumped to his feet, his voice frozen in his throat, and raised Hermione’s wand. He screwed up his eyes as the light became blinding, the trees in front of it pitch-black in silhouette, and still the thing came closer…

And then the source of the light stepped out from behind an oak. It was a silver doe, moon-bright and dazzling, picking her way over the ground, still silent, and leaving no hoofprints in the fine powdering of snow. She stepped toward him, her beautiful head with its wide, long-lashed eyes held high. (DH 365-366)

"The Silver Doe" fan art by Harry_Potter_Spain.

Just as King Arthur’s knights followed the White Stag to find the Holy Grail, Harry followed the Silver Doe into the dark forest. The luminous creature led Harry to a frozen pool where, beneath the ice, lies a shape like “A great silver cross.” (DH 367, emphasis mine) The Silver Doe had lead Harry to the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, which lay trapped beneath the frozen water.

The Sword of Gryffindor lay like "a great silver cross" beneath the surface of the frozen forest pool.

Harry, wearing the locket of Slytherin Horcrux, dove into the frozen pool and was nearly drowned by the evil power of the Horcrux. Ron’s dramatic return to rescue Harry and destroy the locket occurred in a chapter filled with the imagery of baptism and words of reconciliation between the two best friends.

Please subscribe to this blog so that you don’t miss the next installment of “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ,” which is entitled “Phoenix Rising.” If you would like to order a copy of  my book, The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, it can be obtained from www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows.

If you are wondering what other connections can be made between the quest for the Grail Hallows and the quest for the Deathly Hallows, you should read this blog post: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/the-deeper-meaning-of-the-quest-for-the-deathly-hallows/ You might also like https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/melissa-anelli-and-j-k-rowling-interview/. Comments are welcome! 🙂

 

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You can read part one of this series here: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/harry-potter-and-the-bestiary-of-christ-part-one/  Now on to Part Two, in which the Christian symbolism of the unicorn is explained…

The Slaying of the Unicorn

            In addition to the lion and the griffin, another symbol of Christ is the unicorn. Ancient and Medieval lore indicates that a unicorn’s horn possessed miraculous powers of healing. Anyone who drank from the horn would be protected from disease or poison. The Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann gives an account of the unicorn’s power to cleanse water that has been fouled by a serpent. The early Christian Physiologus describes as follows the power of the horn to counter the effects of poison: before the other animals come to drink, “the snake comes forward and spits its venom into the water. The animals, however, knowing that the water is poisoned, do not dare to drink. They await the unicorn. The unicorn comes, goes right to the lake and makes a cross with its horn. This removes the effect of the poison. Only after the unicorn has drunk do the other animals approach and do likewise.” (Biedermann 361)

Unicorns, which were once thought to be real animals, appeared in older translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version:

“…his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth…” (Deuteronomy 33:17, KJV)

“Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” (Job 39:9-10, KJV)

These references to unicorns in the King James Bible occurred due to an error in translation. About three centuries before Christ, a group of scholars known as The Seventy translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint. The word for a type of wild ox, re’em, was translated monokeros, which means “single horned creature.” The translators were unfamiliar with the word re’em because by that time the animal had become extinct. St. Jerome, in the late 4th century, used the Septuagint as the basis for his Latin translation of the Bible that was in use for many centuries. He translated the Greek monokeros as the Latin word unicornis. Many people understood this word to refer to the mythological unicorn, and therefore believed the animal must be real because it appeared in the Bible. Indeed, Rowling may know this story of why unicorns appeared in the King James Bible because it is apparent that she is familiar with the term re’em. She made use of this Hebrew word to refer to a rare golden ox whose blood gives the drinker immense strength. This reference can be found on page 36 of Rowling’s own Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Perhaps she discovered the term when researching the lore of unicorns.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: J. K. Rowling's own bestiary of the creatures in Harry's world.

In addition to the creature’s appearance in the Bible, the early Church fathers wrote about the unicorn as a symbol of Christ. According to St. Basil the Great (329-375 A.D.), “Christ is the power of God, therefore he is called the unicorn because the one horn symbolizes one common power with the Father.” St. Ambrose (339-397A.D.) also saw the unicorn as a symbol of Christ: “Who is the unicorn but the only begotten Son of God?”

            Because of these associations with Christ, both the lion and the unicorn appeared as Christ symbols in Medieval and Renaissance artwork. Reproductions of The Lady and the Unicorn, a set of famous tapestries from the Museum of Cluny in Paris, appear as wall hangings in the Gryffindor Common Room in all of the Warner Brothers Harry Potter films.

 A lion and a unicorn are depicted in each tapestry along with a female figure.  

Another set of famous unicorn tapestries, currently housed in the Cloisters, the Medieval exhibit of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a set entitled The Hunt of the Unicorn as an Allegory of the Passion. These tapestries, woven in 1495-1505 in the Netherlands, depict the betrayal and passion of Jesus Christ as a unicorn hunt.

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle. When the unicorn is slain, notice the holly tree depicted behind the unicorn. Harry's wand is made of holly with a phoenix feather core. In the Deathly Hallows, Harry (like the unicorn) is "killed" and brought to the castle.

 

 Although the unicorn is killed in the sixth of the seven tapestries, he appears alive and well in the seventh tapestry. Here, the unicorn is a collared beast in a small enclosure, surrounded by a field of colorful flowers. “The Unicorn in Captivity” is symbolic of the resurrected Christ.

 

A unicorn tapestry copied from this famous work of art appears in the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), and can be seen clearly behind Ginny Weasley when she takes Harry by the hand in front of the Room of Requirement. 

 

Here's a copy of The Unicorn in Captivity again. This is photo I took inside the Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in the summer of 2010.

 In the second tapestry of this series, entitled “The Unicorn is Found,” the unicorn dips his horn into a stream, and is surrounded by other animals who are also Christian symbols, among them are the lion, the weasel, and the stag. All of these animal symbols are pertinent to this discussion of Harry Potter.

            In the book, The Unicorn Tapestries, by Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo, the author explains the symbolism of the unicorn: “Early bestiaries indicate that the unicorn dips its horn into water that wild creatures need for drinking in order to purify it of the poisons that serpents have spewed into it. The allegory is clear: Christ takes on the sins of Man and so purifies him in order to bring about his redemption. The serpent is the devil; the poison he introduces into the world (the water) is sin. ” (Cavallo 57)

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry hears running water as he walks through the Forbidden Forest. He concludes that there must be a stream somewhere close by, and notices spots of unicorn blood along the path. (SS 251) He is aware that there is a creature in the forest that has been killing the unicorns. The stream and the slain unicorn both suggest the imagery of the medieval bestiaries as well as the iconography of The Hunt of the Unicorn as an Allegory of the Passion. Rowling’s description of what Harry sees that night in the forest could be a scene from the crucifixion story that the tapestries portray:

Something bright white was gleaming on the ground. They inched closer.

It was the unicorn all right, and it was dead. Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad. Its long slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was spread pearly-white on the dark leaves.

Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. (SS 255-256)

This is the hour of the Crucifixion, the hour of the Serpent’s triumph. It was Voldemort who made the slithering sound over the dead leaves; he was the Great Serpent who murdered the unicorn. Harry’s pain at encountering Voldemort in the forest is so great that he falls to his knees. (SS 256) The Dark Lord has done the unthinkable: he has been drinking the blood of the slain unicorn to sustain himself. His fear of death is such that he would slay the most worthy of creatures to sustain his unnatural life.

“…it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn,” said Firenze. “Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.” (SS 258)

This passage echoes St. Paul’s teaching on receiving Holy Communion, and those who receive it unworthily:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.   (1 Corinthians 11:27-29, KJV)

According to St. Paul, to drink the blood of Christ unworthily at Communion is to drink damnation upon oneself. This parallels Fierenze’s claim that Voldemort has done the very same thing by drinking the blood of a unicorn, thus drinking a terrible curse upon himself.

            Harry had a very strange dream in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which may provide a link between the unicorn and the next Christ symbol that we will examine.

He was walking through a forest, his Firebolt over his shoulder, following something silvery-white. It was winding its way through the trees ahead, and he could only catch glimpses of it between the leaves. Anxious to catch up with it, he sped up, but as he moved faster, so did his quarry. Harry broke into a run, and ahead he heard hooves gathering speed. Now he was running flat out, and ahead he could hear galloping. (PA 265)

Was it a unicorn that Harry followed in his mysterious dream? Or was it something else? When Harry saw his corporeal patronus for the first time, he thought that, “It was as bright as a unicorn.” (PA 385) But later, Harry will discover that the silvery-white creature that saved him from the dementors wasn’t a unicorn at all…               

Illustration of the Stag and the Unicorn. Both are Christ symbols in Christian alchemical texts.

Please subscribe to this blog so that you don’t miss the next installment of “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ,” which is entitled “The Hunting of the White Stag.” If you would like to order a copy of  my book, The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, it can be obtained from www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows.

You can read more about the symbolism in “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle” here: http://tinyurl.com/3e9agbv.

 “Two episodes of the hunt narrative are brought together in this hanging. At left, two hunters drive their lances into the neck and chest of the unicorn, as a third delivers the coup de grâce from the back. It has been suggested that the doomed unicorn is an allegory for Christ dying on the Cross; the large holly tree (often a symbol of the Passion) rising from behind his head seems to reinforce this association. In the other episode, at right, a lord and a lady receive the body of the unicorn in front of their castle. They are surrounded by their attendants, with more curious onlookers peering through windows of the turret behind them. The dead animal is slung on the back of a horse, his horn already cut off but still entangled in thorny oak branches—probably symbolizing the Crown of Thorns. The rosary in the hand of the lady and the three other women standing behind the lord encourage a deeper reading of the scene, perhaps as a symbolic Deposition by the grieving Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the Holy Women.”

 When I think of the name given to that tapestry, I am reminded of how Harry was “killed” and brought to the castle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I recently found this quotation regarding the Eucharistic symbolism of both the unicorn and the stag, as well as their alchemical significance:

“The tinctures in alchemy relate also to the substances of the Mass, the red wine, the blood, and the white wafer, the body of Christ. Administration of the Sacraments was seen as spiritualising the souls of the partakers. In alchemical terms these white and red stones or tinctures served much the same purpose, though the alchemists achieved this, not through the intermediacy of a priest but by their own inner work of transmutation. Here alchemy links directly with the Grail stories which use similar parallels between the Grail and the Sacraments. The red tincture was occasionally symbolised by a stag bearing antlers. The stag being seen as a noble masculine animal. This links in with the Unicorn as a symbol of the white or feminine tincture. In some alchemical illustrations, such as that of the late 16th century Book of Lambspring, the Stag and Unicorn meet in the forest of the soul as part of the process of inner transformation.” –from “Animal Symbolism in the Alchemical Tradition” by Adam McLean at http://www.levity.com/alchemy/animal.html.

The link between the Grail Stone of Parzival, the Philospher’s Stone of alchemy, and the Resurrection Stone in Harry Potter was explored in The Lord of the Hallows if that topic is of interest to you. But that’s a blog post for another day. 🙂

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The new Ultimate Edition DVDs of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were released yesterday. Both DVD sets include a special feature retrospective of the making of all eight films called “Creating the World of Harry Potter.” The Order of the Phoenix DVD set contains Part 5 of this special feature, “Evolution.” These screenshots of the cast and crew of Deathly Hallows Part 2 are from this special feature. (Minor spoiler warning below!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the last two it appears that Arthur and Hermione are trying to keep Ginny, Neville, and Ron from rushing forward, and perhaps doing something courageous but foolish. In the video it appears that they are being pushed back from something dreadful during the chaos of battle. It could be the scene when they think Harry has been killed.

Minor spoiler warning! These photos are from part 6 of feature, “Magical Effects.” Apparently Ron extracts the basilisk’s fang! And we get to see a bit more of Ron and Hermione holding hands, which is always a good thing. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two, I am giving away a signed copy of my book, The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter at the Goodreads website on July 15, 2011. You can enter to win a copy of the book here: http://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/7330-the-lord-of-the-hallows-christian-symbolism-and-themes-in-j-k-rowling. It would be greatly appreciated if you would help me spread the word about this. 🙂 It is difficult for a first-time author to promote a book, as I am relatively unknown outside of the Harry Potter convention fandom community.

If you would rather buy a copy today, you can purchase one at http://www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows/ or from http://www.amazon.com/Lord-Hallows-Christian-Symbolism-Rowlings/dp/1432741128/ref=sr_1_cc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1307225900&sr=1-1-catcorr. Thanks so much! Positive reviews are always welcome.

 

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http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_Harry_Potter_unofficial_guidebooks

How many of these books have you read? I have read most (but not all) of them and have met several of the authors, including John Granger, Travis Prinzi, Connie Neal, Logospilgrim, Eryn Pyne, Ed Kern, James W. Thomas, George Beahm, Steve Vander Ark, and Melissa Anelli. Oh, yeah. I wrote one of the books on the list also. 😉

Essays and Literary CritiquesEdit Essays and Literary Critiques section

These include book analysis, studies, theories, philosophy, essay compilations, and literary criticisms.

Guides, Folklore, MythologyEdit Guides, Folklore, Mythology section

Guides and facts based in the book series. Includes encyclopedic books.

Franchise and FandomEdit Franchise and Fandom section

Books based on the sucess of the actual series, franchise, and fandom.

OthersEdit Others section

Miscellaneous books that don’t fall into other categories.

Trivia and FunEdit Trivia and Fun section

J.K. RowlingEdit J.K. Rowling section

 

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