Mythology in general
Norse mythology elements in Harry Potter novels
Mythology in general
The word Mythology is derived from mythos, which means “myth” (probably of unknown origin) and from logy meaning “study”. 1
Myths are made up stories about gods and numerous heroes which originated in a particular culture and describe its origins, history, deities, ancestors or national heroes (very often fictional).2
Although themes of myths may differ, they usually describe basic aspects of existence; they introduce stories about the creation of Earth, mortality of human race, or the division of the year into seasons. From the ancient times people felt the need to explain all the phenomena affecting their lives and that is probably why they created myths and legends; they blamed bad weather conditions on evil forces and when something good affected their lives, they, on the other hand, worshipped those supernatural beings that helped them.
In European culture, myths of the Ancient Greeks and Romans have had an enormous influence; the main actor in the centre of the story is always divine, but the story is trivial. Sometimes it results in religious legends, not myths.3 In general, mythology is an approach that explores myths, their origins and influence. In other words, it is a tradition based on faith and culture and is passed orally from one generation to other.
Myths served purpose not only to their authors, but also to next generations of their users. They not only gave answers to philosophical questions about the human life, they also explained more intimate questions, because they gave clue to people´s behaviour and social rules, and what happens after the death. Basically, myths became something for people of those times to rely on and identify with.4
Mythical creatures are another unquestionable part of mythology, no matter where the stories come from. They were believed to be real beings and some have their origins found in literary myths. In myths and legends, numerous beasts and creatures are present very often and they can be divided into two categories. The first one consists of creatures that either still exist today or are extinct but their existence is proved. The second group covers creatures and beasts that are made up or their existence on earth is not certain. 5
Norse mythology elements in Harry Potter novels
The mythology in Rowling´s novels is undoubtedly noticeable at the first sight, at least for the more aware eyes. She makes references to many mythical creatures and even some character names or spells are created according to mythology elements.
The theme of the battle between the good and the evil is probably present in all stories created by humans, no matter if talking about fairy-tales, myths or legends. In the case of Harry Potter novels, the two elements are obvious parts of the two main characters. Harry, the protagonist, is supposed to be the good one, he is “The boy who lived” and survived the times when evil forces tried to rule the world. The only reminder of the bad times is his scar that hurts when something bad is about to happen. There is some times when he considers the possibility that Voldemort left some evil traces inside of him and his darker side is coming to the surface more as the time passes. He even thinks that part of the evil happenings around him originate from his dark side. Voldemort, on the other hand, is very aware of the struggle Harry is going through and he tries to build his success on Harry´s misfortune. “There are strange likenesses between us, Harry Potter. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike“. 6 He even goes so far that Harry himself is convinced that he is the one who has to sacrifice himself in order for the world to get rid of Voldemort and evil for good.
Although everything looks bad and reader starts to notice that evil is very close to gain its power, he/she knows that at the end, the good must be the winner. And so did Rowling; when everything looked like there was no chance for Harry to be saved, she flipped the sides of the coin and saved him and even emphasized that all the evil elements in Harry were there just to help him to get rid of the evil that Voldemort represented and establish peace and order. 7
The first novel from the series is about a Philosopher´ Stone that figured in many mythologies from all corners of the world, sometimes under different names. In Norse mythology, it appeared as “the rejuvenating apples”.8 Generally, the main point of the substance (whatever the shape and mythology) was to find the cure for human mortality, sometimes also change ordinary things into gold in order to gain fortune. In the novel, the substance appears in the form of a little stone that helped its creator, Nicholas Flamel, live longer life and take care of his family´s fortune. “Nicolas Flamel,” she whispered dramatically, “is the only known maker of the Philosopher's Stone!” […] There have been many reports of the Philosopher’s Stone over the centuries, but the only Stone currently in existence belongs to Mr Nicolas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera-lover. Mr Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight.” 9 The stone is also Voldemort´s main target, because after his attack on baby Harry and his mother sacrificing for him, he lost his human form and roams the world as a parasite on Professor Quirrell´s head. He longs for an eternal life and the stone is the only chance for him. “See what I have become?” the face said. “Mere shadow and vapour… I have form only when I can share another´s body… but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds… […] and once I have the Elixir of Life, I will be able to create a body of my own… Now… why don´t you give me that Stone in your pocket?” 10
Werewolves (and fantastic beast in general) are another example of Rowling´s interest in mythology. In her little encyclopaedia Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a book published as a part of Hogwarts Library, she mentions werewolves as creatures “believed to have originated in Northern Europe.” 11 In Norse mythology, more concretely, there is a story about a werewolf named Fenrir, a gigantic and terrible monster that took the shape of a wolf during a full moon.12 His name was mentioned in a prophecy which stated that a men-wolf creature and his family would be responsible for the destruction of mankind. The gods decided to hunt the werewolf down and lock him in a cage and bound him in chains made by dwarves. Fenrir then requested, as a sign of good faith, for one of the gods to put his hand in Fenrir´s mouth before he was completely chained. Tyr, the god of war and justice was the only one who dared to do it and his hand was bitten off. 13
In Harry Potter books, Fenrir Greyback was a werewolf known notoriously not only for his favour of Voldemort and being one of his Death Eaters, but also for attacking children. He was the one who attacked professor Remus Lupin and turned him into one of his kind. Throughout the novels, there is also a reference of the hand that was bitten off and also the lust for attacking children, especially in the last book, where Greyback takes part in the Battle of Hogwarts and cruelly hunts down and attacks students. "Fenrir Greyback is, perhaps, the most savage werewolf alive today. He regards it as his mission in life to bite and to contaminate as many people as possible; he wants to create enough werewolves to overcome the wizards. Voldemort has promised him prey in return for his services. Greyback specialises in children... Bite them young, he says, and raise them away from their parents, raise them to hate normal wizards." 14
When talking about Fenrir Greyback, it is very important to mention The Battle of Hogwarts that takes place at the end of the last book. As one of Voldemort´s Death Eaters, he appeared in the battle; just like Fenrir from mythology appeared in Ragnarok battle. Both battles are described as all-or-nothing fights that involve all races of society. In case of Hogwarts, it was not only witches and wizards but also elves, ghosts, trolls, centaurs, etc. What connects Ragnarok with Hogwarts is not only the multinational involvement, but also Fenrir. In mythology, he took part in the battle and was foretold to be killed by Vidar, as a revenge for killing Odin, the highest of all gods.15 Here the book shares similarities with mythology; Fenrir Greyback finds his death during the battle, however, it is not clear who caused it. One of the Hermione´s spells injure him as she finds him killing her classmate, but almost immediately, Sybill Trelawney, a divination professor, attacks him and causes his fatal injuries. “…and with a deafening blast from her wand, Fenrir Greyback was thrown backward from the feebly stirring body of Lavender Brown. He hit the marble banisters and struggled to return to his feet. Then, with a bright white flash and a crack, a crystal ball fell on top of his head, and he crumpled to the ground and did not move. […]And with a movement like a tennis serve, she heaved another enormous crystal sphere from her bag, waved her wand through the air, and caused the ball to speed across the hall and smash him through a window.” 16 Like his mythical doppelganger, Greyback´s actions contribute to social collapse finds his end in the battle. 17
In The Philosopher Stone students are forbidden to enter the third floor in the castle, if they do not want to die with horrible death. “And finally, I must tell you that this year, the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.” 18 Harry and his companions Ron and Hermione (by accident) end up on the forbidden floor and are struck by what they see; behind the locked door, a giant dog with three heads is guarding something that is hidden under the trap door. The first connection readers probably make is the one with the three-headed dog Cerberus from Greek mythology. Cerberus was employed to guard the portals of the Underworld called Hades. It was a child of the giant Typhon and Echidna, a monstrous creature herself, being half woman and half snake. 19
In The Philosopher Stone, Fluffy the giant dog did the same job with the trap door under which the stone was hidden. “They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog which filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. It had three heads. Three pairs of rolling mad eyes, three noses, twitching and quivering in their direction; three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs.“ 20 However, Greek mythology is not the only one having a say about giant dogs. In Norse mythology, a monstrous dog-like creature called Garm guards the entrance to Helheim, a Norse land of the death. Although it does not have three heads, it has four eyes and blood-drenched chest. Garm joins giants in the battle against gods. The hound is deadly wounded by Tyr, god of war, but it manages to bite him and at the end, Tyr also dies from the wounds which were infected by the hound.21
Dragons are another type of creatures from the list of Rowling´s fantastic beast that were inspired by mythology. In her Fantastic Beasts, Rowling describes dragons as “probably the most famous of all magical beasts having their origins in Northern parts of Europe, often having an appearance in folklore myths and legends” 22 In the Goblet of Fire they played an important role during the Triwizard Tournament. Every contestant had to slay one in order to get to the golden egg the dragon was protecting. In Norse mythology, dragons are generally described as living in rivers or possessing some kind of underground cave. They are often depicted as having thick, armoured skin and are rarely described as flying, although they are often being said to have wings. 23
Although there are numerous dragons mentioned in Norse mythology, dragon named Fafnir is worth taking a closer look. Fafnir was a son of the dwarf king, but after stealing hordes of gold and Andvari´s cursed ring, he became very greedy. He escaped into the wilderness to keep his gold only for himself and eventually, the curse from the ring changed him into a dragon. Even after losing his original dwarf-like form, he kept guarding his treasure. He also breathed poison and fire to all the ones who tried to steal his treasure. Fafnir was later killed by Sigurd, who stole Andvari´s ring and purified him from the curse. 24
Mythology, apart from all other aspects, was a source of great archetypes. Carl Gustav Jung defined the archetypes as images that were formed by the experiences of human ancestors and were inherited by the following generations. They were very often described in dreams, myths, literature and even religion.25 Archetypes became something like models for characters; in fiction they are used frequently and can be very easily identified. Perhaps the most common archetype, apart from the mythic hero, is old wise man. In the case of Harry Potter novels, this figure is represented by Professor Dumbledore. He represents the wisdom and acts as a mentor for Harry. He is the one who decides about Harry´s destiny after his parent´s death, he is the one who is willing to send him the acceptance letter even if his godparents are trying to resist and at the end, it is Dumbledore who shows Harry how to destroy Voldemort´s last pieces of soul and how to fight to save the Wizarding World. In fact, Dumbledore also served as a kind of saviour and mentor for Voldemort, too. However, it was long before he decided to cross the dark world. The fact that he is also the Headmaster of Hogwarts shows his power, wisdom and importance, too.
The importance of the old wise man in Norse mythology can be showed on the example of Odin, Ruler of the Norse gods ( also called the “All-father”). Odin was wise, cunning and often portrayed as an old man with long white hair and beard. In fact, he is also the master of magic, which makes him a good prototype for later wizards in fantasy literature, not only Dumbledore, but also Merlin in Arthurian Legends or Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.26
Odin drinks from the well of wisdom in order to learn about future and truth. A good equivalent of the well of wisdom is Dumbledore´s Pensieve which provides him with insights into past. “I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind At these times... I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure.” 27 Another connection of Dumbledore to Odin is the connection to wolves. The Norse god was very often accompanied by two wolves, Geri and Freki. Dumbledore, on the other hand, has befriended the werewolf Remus Lupin and one of his many middle names is “Wulfric”, which in Old English stands for “The one who rules with wolves” 28