Druids and Harry Potter
Merlin, the Druids, and Albus Dumbledore
Another way in which Celtic culture and mythology is incorporated into the Harry Potter books is through the character of Merlin. Merlin himself is mentioned in The Sorcerer’s Stone—as a wizard trading card.
Merlin is a character from the Celtic mythology of Wales and most of us have heard of him. Merlin was probably based on a real person, a sorcerer of some kind, possibly a Druid. Or his story may be a combination of different real people. The reality, or historical basis, of Merlin is not as important as his legend. The character of the wizard Merlin has been popular since the middle ages, and he is still popular now. Merlin has been the basis for many of the wizards we see in literature and movies, from Gandalf (in The Lord of the Rings) to Obi-Wan Kenobi (in Star Wars) to Albus Dumbledore.
Merlin and his literary descendants, in the form of wizards like Dumbledore, were based on the Celtic Druids.
The Druids were the “priests” of the Celtic people, although they were never called that, and they were more than what we would call “priests”; they were doctors, judges, magicians, astrologers, and teachers. The word Druid means, “wise man of the oak” or “knowledge of the oak”, and they were associated with the oak tree. The Druids performed rituals and had meetings in oak groves and carried staffs made from oak.
The training and schooling for a Druid could last as long as 20 years! This schooling could be individual, but there is also evidence that there were Druid schools—organized groups of students taught by elder Druids. The Druids were powerful and important men in their communities; they were advisers to, and influenced, kings and chieftains. The king was the physical ruler of the tribe while the Druid was the spiritual leader of the tribe.
The Druids performed many functions within the tribe. They:
- Held all the information and knowledge that had been handed down over the generations. They were the keepers of the tribe’s laws and rules, and therefore were seen as eternal figures, much more so than the temporary rule of a king.
- Protected the tribe from the Otherworld by maintaining the spiritual rituals.
- Advised the tribe on when to plant and harvest, because Druids were learned in the ways of nature.
- Mediated between conflicting tribes, and would tell leaders when it was a good time to go to battle.
- Were astrologers and understood the meanings and influence of the stars and planets.
- Were the keepers of the stories and were the main storytellers. In fact, it was against Druid law to write down their knowledge.
There were often different Druids in each of these roles:
- The storytellers who knew all of the legends and history of a people.
- The ones who understood herbs and were deeply in tune with nature.
- The political Druids who gave advice to chieftains and helped rule the tribe.
One of the most important roles of the Druid (and the role in which we see Merlin and Dumbledore) was to instruct the future rulers of the tribe. They were teachers and also advisers to their young charges. In this way, when the young man became a leader of the tribe, the Druid had influence and power over him. The Druids were also able to exert power and influence over more than one tribe. The Druidic priesthood was an institution out of reach and beyond that of any other human institution. They had the power to banish people in the tribe from participating in ritual functions, as well as banning entire tribes from attending intertribal festivals.
Druids were often mentioned in the old stories, leading scholars to believe that they really were regular members of the community. In the stories, kings and queens consulted their Druids before doing anything important. Druids acted as emissaries between kings and between the kings and gods. In addition to this role of counselor and diplomat, the Druids in the stories performed magic. They could recognize when someone was in disguise and could transform themselves and others into animals for disguises of their own. Druids also had the gift of prophecy and used it to tell these kings what would happen and how to proceed.
On the down side, Druids performed human sacrifices. This was done on a purely religious level, but it was done. To be fair, many other cultures and societies also performed human sacrifices to appease the gods. In the Greek story of Andromeda, she was offered up as a sacrifice to the sea monster in order to appease the sea nymphs. In the Roman story of Psyche the young woman was offered as a sacrifice to appease the gods. The Druids would often sacrifice criminals or men taken in battle. Unfortunately, if they did not have enough criminals they’d have to use innocent people. Sometimes they sacrificed someone in order to maintain the “cosmic” balance in the universe.
Harry Potter Connection! In The Deathly Hallows, Harry is a human sacrifice. We learn that Professor Dumbledore believes that Harry will have to die in order for Voldemort to be defeated and he is willing to allow that sacrifice. This is a sacrifice like those in which the cosmic balance was at stake. Harry and Voldemort cannot both live at the same time—one must die. Dumbledore, as the wise Druid who has the stake of the entire community in mind (for the Greater Good), allows the sacrifice to happen.
In some Celtic legends, certain Druids, like Merlin, had magical powers. Powers we’ll recognize as those of the witches and wizards in the Harry Potter series: shape-shifting (transfiguration and animagus), levitation (Voldemort flying), prophecy, and seeing. They even carried wands made out of yew or ash.
In Harry Potter, Dumbledore is a Druidic character. He is a wise old man who has much more knowledge, wisdom, and magic than just about anyone else in his “tribe.” Even when he was in school himself, Dumbledore was an exceptional wizard:
“Head Boy, Prefect, Winner of the Barnabus Finkley Prize for Exceptional Spell-Casting, British
Youth Representative to the Wizengamot, Gold Medal-Winner for Ground-Breaking Contribution to the International Alchemical Conference in Cairo.”
As an adult Dumbledore racked up even more acclaim:
“Order of Merlin, First Class, and Grand Sorcerer; Founder and Secret Keeper, Supreme
Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards; Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot. Defeated the dark wizard, Grindelwald. Discovered the 12 uses of dragon’s blood. Could speak Mermish, understood Gobblegook and Parseltongue.”
There was no wizard in the community more capable or advanced in magic than Albus Dumbledore. He was also the only wizard of whom Lord Voldemort was afraid. Dumbledore teaches other young magic users. Not only does he have a school in which he teaches these young magic users, he also has a protege in Harry Potter. In the old stories, a Druid often had the responsibility of raising the young son of a tribal leader and teaching him the ways of the Druids. He taught the young man his lore. Dumbledore does the same with Harry, particularly in The Half Blood Prince when they travel through the pensieve in order to understand Voldemort’s past, and also as they travel around searching for the Horcruxes. Dumbledore is training Harry.
Dumbledore is a leader in the community and is so wise that he wields some control even over the “chieftain” (Minister of Magic). Chieftains often asked the Druids for advice on when to go to war and what to do with the harvest. Although Cornelius Fudge eventually turns against Dumbledore, we know he did so because he thought Dumbledore and Harry had too much power. Before that Fudge took council with Dumbledore.
Dumbledore is a link between different “tribes” such as when he hosts the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He is a leader of the community in every way.
Finally, like the Druid priest, he allowed a human sacrifice (Harry) in order to sustain the balance of the community.