Myths in "Harry Potter". How Joanne K. Rowling uses real Mythology in her Novels

Term Paper 2014 20 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1. Introduction

2. What is a myth

3. Mythical structures in Harry Potter
3.1 The archetypal hero
3.2 The motive of good vs. evil

4. Mythical creatures
4.1 The Centaurs
4.2 The Unicorn
4.3 The Basilisk
4.4 The Phoenix

5. Mythical names and characters
5.1 Minerva McGonagall
5.2 Argus Filch
5.3 Professor Quirrel
5.4 Gilderoy Lockhart

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“If you’re like most Harry Potter fans, you probably know that Harry’s prized possession is his broomstick, Hermione’s favorite subject is arithmancy, and a magnificient creature called a hippogriff helped Sirius Black evade capture. But did you know that wizards were once thought to fly on pitchforks, arithmancy is an ancient form of fortune-telling, and the hippogriff was first mounted by the legendary knights of Charlemagne?” (Kronzek, Kronzek xiii)

With her Harry Potter novels, Joanne K. Rowling created a magical world including an enormous variety of fantastical characters, creatures, objects, and events. But not everyone immediately notices that a lot of those not only arose from her own imagination, but have their origins in history, mythology, and folklore.

Hardly any other literary work disposes of such a huge collection of real mythology, history, and folklore, and it is nearly impossible to examine all characters’, creatures’ and objects’ roots. That’s why this paper will focus only on one aspect, namely the mythology appearing in the novels. But also here it would lead too far to mention all myths occurring, thus only a selection will be presented in this paper.

When dealing with this topic, some questions arise, that shall be answered in this paper: Which myths, of which kind and origin appear in the stories? How does Rowling use, embed, and modify them and how does this affect the stories?

To answer these questions first it is important to define the term myth. Then some mythic structures appearing in the novels will be examined, followed by a selection of mythic creatures, and mythic characters. Here some chosen creatures and characters out of the novels, as well as their mythical equivalents will be presented and compared to each other. Finally a conclusion will summarize the most important facts and answer the leading questions.

2. What is a myth

The word myth comes from the Greek mythos and means story, or word. Myths are traditional stories, which are, mainly oral, transmitted from one person to another and from one generation to another and reflect cultural beliefs and traditions through symbolism (Schafer 127). They are “tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters” (Magoulick).

Myths are often regarded as false stories, which people used to explain the nature of the universe, because a scientific explanation was not available at that time. Myths often are handed down unchanged to new generations, although the scientific details they contain are outmoded. They are important because they include and deliver values and world views of the cultures that originated them. (Thury, Devinney 5)

Some myths deal with historical events or characters. Historical details are often modified or get a changed emphasis and the myths are therefore not true, but nevertheless they show us how people of a particular era felt and thought, or can alert us to the existence of historical events that might be unknown (Thury, Devinney 8).

Although myths are difficult to describe and definitions differ, there are some general aspects which most of them share: Myths are concerned with the origin and nature of the universe and the setting therefore often is primordial. They may be of a sacred nature and associated with religions or rituals. They can direct social actions by presenting assumptions, values, and core meanings of individuals, families and communities. They can be reflective of basic structures, which have to be reconciled, e.g. dualities like light and dark, or good and bad. The characters are often non-human, e.g. gods, supernatural beings and they mediate troubling dualities, reconcile us to our realities, and establish patterns for life. (Magoulick)

For the modern reader the appeal of myths lies in their depictions of long gone eras which create a lot of entertainment (Thury, Devinney 4). Mythological stories may appear in many different versions, with each of them having advantages for the audience and purpose for which it was created and today they exist in new or revived forms (Thury, Devinney 15). Joanne K. Rowling uses the quality of entertainment and borrows a lot from old stories, especially Greek and Roman mythology, but also from Norse-, Judeo-Christian-, and other cultural mythologies (Schafer 146). She doesn’t take the stories unchanged, but modifies them and integrates them into her own created world and nevertheless remains true to each stories’ essence. Furthermore she includes some characteristics and basic structures of myths in her stories about the young wizard.

The mixture of real mythology and folklore from all around the world, and Rowling’s own ideas, enrich the stories and provide a lot of reading pleasure. Although it is not necessary to understand and enjoy the stories, readers who know the underlying myths can enjoy the stories on another level than readers who don’t, for these myths often provide hints and foreshadowings to the real nature of characters and events, and the eventual revelation of the truth (Hixon).

3. Mythical structures in Harry Potter

As still mentioned, Joanne K. Rowling not only uses entire myths in her Harry Potter novels, but she also includes some mythical structures and characteristics in the stories.

Firstly it is to notice that the main character, Harry Potter is a supernatural being, for he is a wizard. He is a heroic character who has to mediate the troubling duality of good and bad in his ongoing fight against the evil Lord Voldemort. To what extent Harry can be seen as a heroic character and how the motive of good vs. bad is represented in the stories will be examined in the following chapters.

3.1 The archetypal hero

The psychoanalyst Otto Rank, whose teacher was Sigmund Freud, studied mythical and legendary heroes. He applied Freud’s theories of dreams and mythology to many heroes, and was of the opinion that myths and dreams are “the disguised, symbolic fulfillment of repressed, overwhelmingly Oedipal wishes lingering in the adult mythmaker or reader” (Grimes 106).

In his book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, Rank analyzes hero myths, such as that of Oedipus, Moses, and Jesus, and draws up ten basic elements which, for the most part, can be found in all hero myths (Thury, Devinney 607):

The hero is the son of royal or immortal parents. The conception is preceded by difficulties, or the mother is even a virgin. A prophecy of danger threatens the life of the child and thus it is separated from his parents, often in a basket or receptacle, and is put into water, to save or to kill it. The child is rescued by animals or underlings and then is raised by animals or lowly persons. Eventually the hero is recognized as such because of a mark or wound. In the end the hero is reconciled with his father, or exacts revenge upon his father. (Grimes 107)

A good example for this is Rome’s foundation myth of Romulus and Remus. The mother of Romulus and Remus, Rea Silvia is forced to become a Vestal Virgin and nevertheless bears twins. She tells that she had been raped and names the god of Mars as father of the children. Amulius, the brother of her father wants to keep the power and orders to drown the boys in the Tiber, but the servants abandon them in a basket into the river. The basket carries them to the bank, where they are found and suckled by a she-wolf. Then a shepherd finds them and raises the boys together with his wife. After discovering the truth of their birth they kill Amulius and Numitor becomes the legitimate ruler. (Gardner 47-52)

The pattern also can be applied to the stories of Harry Potter, and only two of the elements are not fulfilled. Thus Harry Potter’s parents are no ordinary humans but a wizard and a witch and a prophecy that he will threaten Voldemort puts him in danger. He is separated from his parents, for they are killed and is laid on the doorstep of his aunt and uncle in a bundle of blankets, which can be seen as similar to a basket. Harry is ferried to Hogwarts across a lake, a place where he is safe, so also the water comes into play. The little boy is raised by the Dursleys who are muggles and thus can be seen as lowly persons. He is rescued from the Dursleys by Hagrid, a gamekeeper, and later aided by his godfather Sirius Black, who appears in the form of a dog, which matches the point that the child is rescued by shepherds or animals. Furthermore Harry is marked by a scar on his forehead, a left over from Voldemort’s attack against him, which marks him as the survivor and hero and is known by all wizards. The points that the conception was difficult or the mother a virgin, and that the hero is reconciled with his father or exacts revenge upon him, do not appear in Rowling’s stories (Grimes 107)

The stories of Harry Potter most far reaching match Ranks pattern and their structure is similar to that of other hero myths, such as that of Romulus and Remus. Therefore Harry can be seen as an archetypal hero and his stories as a modern hero myth.

3.2 The motive of good vs. evil

The motive of good vs. evil is a typical feature of fantasy literature and can be put down to the Bible which again and again focuses the lasting threat of evil to humans (Knobloch 94). Also myths often include this opposite and so the Harry Potter novels do as well. The struggle of good vs. evil is the central topic of the stories, represented by Harry’s ongoing fight against Lord Voldemort.



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University of Bayreuth – Fakultät für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaften
mythology harry potter characters origin names etymology origin myths use modification creatures mythical equivalents sources j.k. rowling



Title: Myths in "Harry Potter". How Joanne K. Rowling uses real Mythology in her Novels