Harry Potter, his fantastic beasts, and where to find them in myth
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Whether or not you believe that JK Rowling has let the side down with her unapologetic opinions recently, the Harry Potter series can still be appreciated in its own right. The fabric of the series is woven from various strands of Greek and Roman myths, which bring the wizarding world to life in the form of fantastical creatures, as well as Latin spells and names. These beasts do more than just add to the magic however, but also bring a symbolic significance gained through a long and rich history all of their own.
The griffin is a creature that is constantly popping up in the Harry Potter universe, even in the shape of Dumbledore's office door knocker. Half eagle, half lion, the associations of bravery and power with both of these creatures individually makes this hybrid a perfect emblem for Harry's own house, Gryffindor.
Supposedly native to Asia, various ancient civilisations were fascinated by these magical creatures; reflected by the many paintings and carvings of them found all over Europe. Their imagery was dotted all throughout the labyrinthine palace at Knossos, Crete, over 3000 years ago, acting as a talisman of power, prosperity and protection. Writing in Ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE, the 'father of history', Herodotus, describes griffins essentially as archaic leprechauns, in his Tolkien-esque illustration of the world:
' These are four-footed birds as large as a wolf, their legs and claws resembling those of a lion; their breast feathers are red, those of the rest of the body black. Although there is an abundance of gold in the mountains, it is difficult to get it because of these birds'.
Meanwhile Buckbeak, Hagrid's beloved hippogriff, is a more English spinoff of the griffin; half eagle, half horse. Ironically, there is an ancient history of bad blood between the horse and griffin. Slightly petty, this feud was sparked when a tribe of men supposedly stole the griffins gold on horseback:
'in the north of Europe there is by far the most gold. In this matter again I cannot say with assurance how the gold is produced, but it is said that one-eyed men called Arimaspoi (Arimaspians) steal it from Grypes (Griffins).'
'It was standing quite still, all six eyes staring at them, and Harry knew that the only reason they weren't already dead was that their sudden appearance had taken it by surprise, but it was quickly getting over that, there was no mistaking what those thunderous growls meant." (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)
Fluffy is the giant three headed dog who guards the entrance to the hiding place of the philosopher's stone, deep in the underbelly of Hogwarts. Named affectionately by Hagrid, he is in fact modelled after the ferocious canine guard of Hades in Greek myth, Cerberus - also huge, also three headed. His role was to prevent living mortals from crossing into the land of the dead.
Harry and co. manage to slip past Fluffy in the first book when Hermione plays the flute to lull it to sleep, while an enchanted harp is used by the previous intruder for the same purpose. Likewise, in all of Greek myth, Cerberus proves tameable only once, through music. When the still living Orpheus travels to the underworld to resurrect his dead girlfriend, he pacifies and passes Cerberus through the beauty of his lyre-playing.
And so, in a sense, Harry enters the Underworld to retrieve a stone that wards off death for the possessor.
Whether or not Fluffy is in fact supposed to be Cerberus, or we are to assume that there are many such three headed dogs, JK Rowling acknowledged her mythological inspiration on Twitter:
It seems that the Greeks and Romans liked their beasts as they did their myths: extremely random and incredibly bizarre. Pliny the Elder (the David Attenborough of Ancient Rome), gives an account of the phoenix's hectic life-cycle:
'no person has ever seen this bird eat, in Arabia... it lives five hundred and forty years, when it becomes old it builds a nest of cassia and sprigs of incense, which it fills with perfumes, and then lays its body down upon them to die; that from its bones and marrow there springs at first a sort of small worm, which in time changes into a little bird: the first thing that it does is to perform the obsequies of its predecessor, and to carry the nest entire to the city of the Sun near Panchaia, and there deposit it upon the altar of that divinity.'
Dumbledore's phoenix, Fawkes, is a far cry from his ancient counterpart. Rowling dodges the disturbing imagery that would accompany having a worm emerge from a dead bird, then itself metamorphosing into a god-worshipping baby bird, and instead has Fawkes regenerate himself in a burst of flames.
The centaurs in Harry Potter are dignified, proud and wise, and in fact, antithetical to those found in Greek myth. Alcoholic, sex crazed trouble-makers, you'll find often find them pawing at mortal women and even goddesses, usually resulting in chaos.
Their collective character in Harry Potter resembles the single mythological centaur who was unlike the rest of his kind: Chiron. Abandoned by his mother but fostered by the god Apollo, he learned the arts of prophecy and medicine, making him uniquely cultured.
Chiron also had an unusually close relationship with mortals, being most famous for acting as tutor to the great hero Achilles. Only one centaur in Harry Potter associates himself closely with humans however. Firenze is reprimanded by his herd for aiding and hinting at the future to Harry in the first book. Later, in Order of the Phoenix, he seals his outcast status by becoming a divination (prophecy) teacher at Hogwarts. Regarding this as an act of complicit servitude to wizards, his brethren attempt to murder him.
This tension between centaurs and wizards parallels the recapitulating animosity between centaurs and mortal men in myth. The most memorable of such instances is when the centaurs are invited to a wedding of the Lapith people. Drunk and lustful, one centaur attempts to abduct the Lapith bride, resulting in a brawl that descends into a blood bath between the two races.
Voldemort's pet, vast, and with petrifying eyesight, the basilisk is the creature plaguing Hogwarts from within its walls, which Harry must fend off at the end of The Chamber of Secrets.
Perhaps because of Harry Potter, the basilisk enjoys a modern reputation as king of the snakes, though its name more accurately and less menacingly translates to 'little prince,' from the Greek 'basiliskos'. So too, its ancient description does not nearly live up to the hype it receives in Harry Potter.
According to Pliny, this snake in fact has a distinctly diminutive stature, being no more than twelve fingers in length, and though he includes it in his list of beasts with deadly eyesight, its threat seems to exten
'It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence.'
Remus Lupin falls under many categories; Harry's teacher, then friend and ally, the old school friend of Harry's father James, and werewolf. He is introduced to us as a worn-down and mysterious man, just a man, though both his names in fact give away his dark side long before it is revealed at the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban.
His surname derives from the Latin lupus, meaning wolf. Remus meanwhile, was the twin brother of the founder of Ancient Rome, Romulus. The great city's birth was in fact marked by fratricide, as the latter kills Remus during a quarrel over who will in fact be said founder. Prior to this though, the brothers were supposedly abandoned at birth by a river and were then found and suckled by a she-wolf.
The introduction of the Veela fittingly coincides with the moment when Harry and Ron begin to pay attention to girls, as well as spells and defeating Voldemort. Seeing Fleur Delacour for the first time, her astonishing beauty is later explained by her Veela blood. The Veela is a woman with super-human beauty, who can transform into a bird like creature when angered, which is apparently, quite often. She appears to be a cross between a siren and a harpy from mythology.
The greeks liked their leading ladies of myth to be either extremely beautiful or monstrous, there wasn't really an in between. Interestingly, the ancient record has these two breeds of women fall under both categories depending on the writer or artist.
The reason for this in the case of the siren, is because the epic poet Homer never in fact describes her looks, only her voice - a sound
so seductive that it lures sailors to an inevitable death. She is depicted either as a pretty mermaid or strange vulture-woman depending on the artist.
Harpies meanwhile, are universally depicted as birds with the heads of women - the aesthetic of said head being the point of contention among writers and artists. The poet Hesiod claims they are pretty, winged wind spirits, while playwright Aeschylus finds them repugnant down to the smell of their breath. These women were assigned by the gods to harass mortals as punishment for crimes. For example, Zeus employs them to steal food from the never-ending banquet of the blind king Phineus, keeping him in an eternal state of hunger.
Harry encounters this mythological celebrity during the final task of the Triwizard Tournament; the maze full of obstacles leading to the victor's cup and, unbeknownst to him, a resurrected Voldemort.
The Sphinx asks Harry a riddle which he must answer correctly in order to pass her. A female of extremes, the sphinx traditionally has the body of a large lion and the head of a pretty woman, she is intellectual to the extent of speaking only in riddles, yet turns violent the moment her question is answered incorrectly. The sphinx is most well known for terrorising the ancient city of perpetual bad-luck, Thebes, until a young man, Oedipus, answers her riddle correctly and thus drives her away, prompting the Thebans to make him king out of gratitude. If you've heard the rest of Oedipus' tale however, you'll know this is only the beginning of Oedipus, and Thebes', troubles.