'Animagi,' Dragons, and Greek Witches
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Transformations (Animagi) in Greek Mythology
In the Harry Potter world, there are witches and wizards who can transform themselves into animals: Sirius transforms into the big black dog, McGonagall turns into a tabby cat, James Potter could transform into a stag, and Peter Pettigrew transformed into the rat Scabbers.
Although there are no humans who can turn themselves into animals in Greek mythology, there are instances of the Greek gods and goddesses transforming. Here are a few:
Proteus—one of the old gods, called “the old man of the sea.” Proteus changes into several animals. In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s son Telemachus wanted to find out which of the gods he had offended and he went to ask Proteus. Telemachus found Proteus and held him down as Proteus changed into a lion, a serpent, a pig, and other forms.
Nereus—an early sea god who also changes shape and for the same reason. He did not want heroes to get information from him, so he changed shape when they came asking questions.
Athena—the goddess of wisdom and war shape-shifted in The Odyssey on several occasions: she appeared to Telemachus as Mentor to help him; she transformed herself into a girl; into the herald of King Alcinous; a young herdsman; and changed from a young man into a tall woman.
Zeus—the ruler of the Greek gods appeared to women in multiple forms: a shower of gold; a swan; a bull; an eagle; and as one woman’s husband. He turned his lover Io into a cow to protect her from Hera.
There are instances in Greek mythology where a human is transformed into an animal or some other form. Usually the god or goddess does this out of anger at the human, but sometimes they do it out of pity.
Here are a few examples:
- Circe, the witch Odysseus meets on his travels, turned the men who landed on her island into swine.
- Athena turned Arachne (ah-RAK-nee) into a spider.
- Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and forest, turned Actaeon into a stag. Actaeon was a skilled hunter and one day while out hunting he came across Artemis bathing. She was so upset that he’d seen her that she turned him into a stag.
- Pygmalion was a mortal artist who sculpted a statue of a beautiful woman. He fell deeply in love with it. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, took pity on him and turned the statue into a real woman.
- Hecuba, wife of the king of Troy when it was overrun by the Greeks, was transformed into a dog to allow her to escape.
- Alcmena was the mother of Heracles and cursed by Hera to stay in labor for too long; Hera posted goddesses who sat with their legs folded together outside of Alcmena’s room. Alcmena’s maid, Galenthias, tricked these goddesses by telling them that Heracles had been born. They unfolded their legs, the curse was broken, and Heracles could be truly born. It was bad form to trick the gods so Hera cursed Galenthias and turned her into a weasel. However, Hecate took pity on Galenthias and made the weasel her sacred animal.
Harry Potter Connection!
In The Goblet of Fire, Mad Eye Moody turns Draco Malfoy into a ferret, much to the delight of Harry and his friends!
Dragons in Greek Mythology
There are several dragons in Greek mythology. They guarded sacred springs, groves, or treasure. Some stories are of dragons terrorizing villages, eating people and livestock. The only thing that appeased the dragon or sea serpent was to sacrifice a young girl. The ancient Greeks believed that dragons inhabited the far reaches of the world—those unknown places that their sailors could not reach. As in our more modern stories, hero’s often kill these dragons.
There are maps from the middle ages that have pictures of dragons in the water at the edge of the sea with the warning, “Here Be Dragons!”
Heroes and Dragons…
The hero Perseus rescued the princess Andromeda from a sea serpent (the Greeks thought of these serpents and dragons as the same thing). The hero Heracles also rescued a princess from a sea serpent. Both girls were to be sacrificed. The kings, their fathers, believed the only way to appease the sea monster was to sacrifice their daughters to the creatures.
- Drakon Gigantios—enormous serpent thrown at the goddess Athena by a giant. She grabbed it and threw it up to the heavens where it became the constellation Draco.
- Colchian Dragon—guarded the Golden Fleece. The hero Jason stole the fleece.
- Demeter’s Dragons—two winged dragons that pulled Demeter’s chariot.
- Hesperian Dragon—the hundred-headed dragon that guarded the golden apples of Hesperides. Heracles killed it as one of his twelve labors.
- Hydra—nine-headed dragon. The Hydra was particularly fierce; when one of its heads was cut off, another would grow in its place. Heracles killed it with the help of his nephew.
- Medea’s Dragons—two flying dragons who pulled Medea’s chariot. They were born out of the blood of Titans.
- Trojan Dragons—two sea serpents sent by Athena to kill the Trojan prophet Laocoon. Laocoon warned the Trojans that the Greeks’ Wooden Horse was a trick, but they didn’t believe him. He threw a spear at the horse, so Athena, who supported the Greeks, called up the two serpents to kill Laocoon and his two sons.
- Chimera—the chimera was considered a dragon. It had three heads, the front of a lion, the end of a goat, the tail of a serpent, and it breathed fire.
In Harry Potter, with the exception of Hagrid’s dragon Norbert, Harry encounters dragons that are guarding treasure. He has to get by the Hungarian Horntail, which is guarding its eggs, during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He encounters the dragon guarding the treasure down in the depths of the Gringott’s vault. The difference between Harry and the Greek heroes is that Harry does not kill the dragons he encounters. Instead, he diverts the Hungarian Horntail away from her egg by flying on his broomstick, and he frees the Gringott’s dragon.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione also encounter dragons within the fiendfyre that engulfs the Room of Requirement when they try to find the diadem Horcrux, “now the fire was mutating, forming a gigantic pack of fiery beasts: Flaming serpents, chimaeras, and dragons rose and fell and rose again…” (DH, 632).
Famous Witches in Greek Mythology
The wizarding world of Harry Potter had many famous witches and wizards. People like Dumbledore, Morgan le Fay, Ptolemy, and Circe (sir-see) were immortalized on the Chocolate Frog trading cards. The ancient world of the Greeks had their famous witches as well. The Greeks immortalized their witches in stories. Unfortunately for some, like Medea, it was not such a good thing to be a witch.
Circe—Circe is a beautiful and powerful witch who lives on an island.
Hecate (HEK-ah-tee)—goddess of witchcraft, necromancy, ghosts, and magic. She is the daughter of two Titans, Asteria and Perses.
- Hecate was the companion of Persephone, the goddess of the Underworld and it was Hecate who aided Artemis in her search for Persephone when she went missing.
- Hecate leads the ghosts from the Underworld up into the world at night. Dogs follow her up out of the Underworld, and that is why dogs were said to bray at night.
- She is depicted as a triple goddess with the heads of animals such as a dog, lion, or horse.
- She is the goddess of crossroads—there were statues of her wherever roads crossed.
- Hecate taught Medea magic.
- When the Roman hero Aeneas went down to the Underworld to talk to his ancestors, it was Hecate who came up and allowed him in after he made the proper sacrifice.
Medea (meh-DEE-ah)—Medea was a powerful sorceress. Her story is intimately linked to the hero Jason of the famous Jason and the Argonauts story.
Medea, Jason, and the Golden Fleece
The task given to Jason was to bring the Golden Fleece back to his land. Medea’s father was King Aetes (AY-tes) of Colchis (KOLE-kis) and he possessed the Golden Fleece. When Jason arrived at Colchis, Medea fell in love with him immediately. She had been shot by an arrow from Aphrodite’s son Eros (the god of love) and had no choice but to fall madly in love with Jason. Jason informed King Aetes that he was there to take the Golden Fleece and return it to Greece where it rightfully belonged. King Aetes had no intention of giving away the Golden Fleece, because he believed that it brought him good fortune. He had also been told by an oracle that if he lost the fleece he would lose his kingdom. So, King Aetes told Jason he could have the Golden Fleece if he performed several tasks. From our studies of other heroes, we should know by now that if a hero is asked to perform tasks, they will be daunting and very dangerous!
- First Jason was told to yoke two bulls. Sounds easy enough, but these bulls had feet made of bronze and breathed fire.
- Second, he had to plow a field with these bulls and then take dragon’s teeth and sow the fields.
- Instead of crops growing armed men would sprout up! Jason had to kill them as they attacked him.
Harry Potter Connection!
The Greek heroes were not the only ones who had to perform dangerous tasks to reach a goal or capture a magical item. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry had to make it through all of the protections guarding the stone, like the giant chess set and the potion riddle. In The Goblet of Fire, he had to make it through the trials of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. In The Half Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, he had to find and destroy the Horcruxes, surely tasks every bit and daunting and dangerous as what Jason, Heracles, or Psyche had to do!
These tasks were impossible and surely designed to kill Jason. This is where Medea comes into the story. Since she was in love with Jason, and a sorceress with many tricks at her disposal, she decided to help him. She offered to help Jason if he would marry her. He agreed.
This is how Medea helped Jason:
- She gave him a magical potion that would make Jason invincible for a day. He put this all over his body and it protected him from the fire breathing bulls and from the armed men.
- She told him to throw a rock in the midst of the armed men and then they would attack each other instead of him.
Jason did as she told him and was able to finish the tasks.
Harry Potter Connection!
Harry also had help. Hermione and Ron helped him get through the Sorcerer’s Stone protections. Dumbledore, Ron, and Hermione aided him with the Horcruxes, and he had help from many people to get through the tasks of the Tri-Wizard Tournament.
Medea then discovered that her father, King Aetes had no intention of giving the Golden Fleece to Jason. In fact, he intended to kill Jason and his men. Medea warned Jason and told him to take the fleece and flee Colchis. A dragon guarded the fleece, but Medea knew how to get around it—sing to it. In some stories she sang and lulled the dragon to sleep. In other stories it was one of Jason’s men, Orpheus who played music and lulled the dragon. Either way, the dragon was put to sleep, the fleece taken, and the Argonauts escaped Colchis, Medea with them.
Monsters in mythology often fall asleep when someone plays them music. Cerberus was lulled to sleep by Orpheus on his trip into the Underworld to retrieve his wife. In another Greek story, the god Hermes lulled the 100-eyed giant Argus to sleep with his music and singing.
Medea and Jason in Greece
When Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts finally returned to Greece they found that terrible things had happened there as well. Jason’s father and mother had both died at the hand of his evil uncle Pelias, the unlawful King who sent Jason on his quest.
The evil brother who seizes a kingdom is a common thread in the Greek hero stories. We see it with the story of Perseus—an evil brother takes over the island on which Perseus and his mother live. It is the evil brother who unlawfully takes over in the story of Aeneas. Aeneas’s mother was sent off when her evil uncle seized control of her father’s kingdom. This is a common thread in fairy tales as well.
Jason again needed Medea’s magical help to get revenge on Pelias. Pelias was an old and frail man, so Medea told Pelias’s daughters that she had a potion that could return an old man to his youth. She proved it by killing an old ram, putting the pieces in a pot, and then reciting a charm. The ram popped out of the pot rejuvenated and young again. She told the girls she could do the same with Pelias. Medea tricked the girls into killing their father. However, Medea did not say the charm and Pelias remained dead. Jason was avenged.
Jason’s Betrayal of Medea
Jason and Medea then traveled to Corinth where they were happy and had two children. However, Medea’s happiness did not last. The King of Corinth asked Jason to marry his daughter, and being a good match, Jason agreed, completely rejecting Medea. But she had one last magical trick up her sleeve. Medea gave Jason’s new bride a gift of a beautiful robe on which Medea had rubbed a poison. She asked Jason’s bride to wear the robe immediately as a token that it was received. Once she put on the robe she was engulfed by fire and killed. The King of Corinth was killed as well when he tried to put out the magical fire.
Medea after Jason
There are different endings to Medea’s story. In the end, though, she wound up back in her home country of Colchis or in a place that eventually called itself Medea. There is no account of Medea’s death. Jason was eventually killed by wreckage from one of his ships falling on him.
Medea’s story is ultimately a sad one and shows that in ancient Greece there was considerable fear of women with extraordinary powers. That fear turned the women into evil sorceresses who trick and hurt the men and children around them.