Harry Potter has much in common with Greek heroes. He has to perform tasks and go through trials to appease those more powerful than him. Like some Greek heroes, Harry and his friends disguise themselves to achieve their goals. Finally, Harry has to descend into an “underworld” in order to gain information or to fulfill his destiny.
In addition to the Titans and the Olympian gods and goddess, Greek mythology is filled with hero stories. The Greeks loved their heroes! In the Portal to the Mythic Hero is a detailed account of the story of Perseus, a very well-known and beloved Greek hero. In the section below we will study other hero stories, like Heracles and Odysseus.
Here are a few of the heroes of ancient Greece:
Theseus (THEE-see-uhs)—he was the greatest hero of the Athenians and king of Athens at one time. Theseus is best known for entering the Labyrinth on Crete and killing the Minotaur.
Heracles (hair-uh-cleez)—we know him better as Hercules, which is the Roman version of his name. He was the strongest hero, and he performed the “12 Labors of Heracles,” which included subduing Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gate of the Underworld.
Odysseus (oh-DISS-ee-uhs)—he was a great hero of the Trojan War, but he, along with the other Greek soldiers forgot to pay tribute to Poseidon after their victory in Troy. Poseidon punished them by keeping Odysseus’s ship adrift and lost for ten years. Odysseus and his men had many adventures, including a run-in with the cyclops Polyphemus and a stay on the island of the witch Circe.
Perseus (per-see-uhs)—Perseus is most well-known for killing the Medusa.
Jason—Jason and his “Argonauts” were sailors and soldiers, famous for capturing the Golden Fleece, a sacred golden fleece of a ram hanging in an oak grove and protected by a dragon (read his story below).
Atalanta—Atalanta was a young female hero of the Calydonian boar hunt. When Artemis wanted to punish the people of Calydonia for not offering the first fruit of the harvest to her, she sent a boar to attack and kill the Calydonian people. The boar did his job, killing many people, including those who hunted it. Atalanta was among the last group of hunters who chased the boar, and this time the hunters were successful. Atalanta drew first blood and was awarded the boar’s skin as a prize.
Heroes Who Use Disguises
Harry and his friends use disguises much like the heroes of mythology. Heroes in ancient mythology change form magically, usually with the aid of a god or goddess. Harry, Ron, and Hermione do not have a god or goddess to help them, but they do use the Polyjuice Potion to disguise themselves. This is their magic. Harry and Ron transform into Crabbe and Goyle to uncover the mystery of the Heir of Slytherin in The Chamber of Secrets. They use the Polyjuice Potion again in The Deathly Hallows to take the forms of three Ministry of Magic workers. They use Polyjuice Potion once more to disguise themselves when they are in Godric’s Hollow looking for Harry’s parents’ graves and for information concerning the sword of Griffindor.
In Greek mythology there are two popular heroes who either use disguises or are disguised in order to get what they want.
Achilles—Achilles was the son of Peleus, a mortal man, and Thetis (THEE-tis) a sea nymph. When the hostilities of the Trojan War broke out, Thetis, who knew that her son would be killed in battle, did not want Achilles to fight in the war. She disguised him as a young maiden and sent him to live with King Lycomedes (ly-KO-meh-deez).
Achilles was the last man remaining of the brave Greeks who did not answer the summons to go to war, so Odysseus was dispatched to find him. Odysseus disguised himself as a peddler and showed up at the court of Lycomedes with wares to sell. He had jewelry and other trinkets designed for women and armor and swords for the men. While the real women flocked to the jewelry, the disguised Achilles looked at the weaponry. Odysseus knew then that he had found Achilles and convinced him to join the Greek army.
Odysseus—as we have seen Odysseus disguised himself as a peddler to find Achilles. He also disguised himself when he finally returned home after being gone from Ithaca for twenty years.
When Odysseus returned home, the goddess Athena came to him and told him what had been happening in his land since he left. Hundreds of suitors had hounded his wife, tried to kill his son (who was now away), and destroyed his land. Athena disguised Odysseus a beggar so he could travel around his land and discover who was still loyal to him and who was not. She told him to stay with a swineherd, a man who remained loyal and good. At the same time Athena had summoned Telemachus home and told him to go straight to the swineherd when he returned home, and he did so. Athena changed Odysseus from a beggar to himself and father and son were reunited. They decided to kill the suitors who had been ravaging their land and harassing Penelope.
Odysseus, disguised as the beggar, went to his house when all the suitors were there feasting and partying. One of the suitors abused the beggar Odysseus and this upset Penelope; it was considered rude to deny a stranger hospitality. Later she asked a maid to wash Odysseus’s feet and this maid recognized a scar on his foot, but Odysseus asked her not to tell. He and Telemachus had a plan. Penelope found the bow and arrows that had belonged to Odysseus before he left for Troy and told the suitors that whichever man could shoot an arrow with that bow through twelve rings, she would take as a husband. They all tried but no one could do it. Odysseus, as the beggar, went for his turn. He shot the first arrow through the ring, but then he shot an arrow and killed one of the suitors.
Much like the British story of King Arthur and the sword in the stone or the Norse story of Sigmund and the sword in the tree, Odysseus is the only man who can wield the bow and arrows. It’s a hero thing. Only the true hero can use the special weapon.
Earlier Telemachus and Odysseus had asked the swineherd and the maid to lock all the doors so the suitors could not escape. Odysseus proceeded to kill all of the suitors, with help from Athena who protected him.
Athena changed him back into the form of Odysseus, and he and Penelope and Telemachus were reunited.
Harry Potter Connection!
Harry is disguised by Hermione in The Deathly Hallows. Right before being captured by the Snatchers, Hermione disfigures Harry’s face so he is not immediately recognizable. It is enough to make the Death Eaters question whether he is Harry Potter or not. It is right that Hermione would be the one to give Harry the disguise. She is wise and clever, like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.
One Last Note on Disguises…
In addition to the heroes who were disguised there are many instances in which the gods and goddess used disguises to hide their true identities. Hermes, the sneaky and crafty god, is regularly dressed in disguise in stories.
Heroes Who Descend into the Underworld
One of the adventures for many heroes of mythology, literature, or even modern movies is they have to descend into an “underworld.” There are two main reasons heroes descend into an underworld: 1) the underworld represents our deepest, darkest fears; 2) the underworld is a place to learn something important about what the hero needs to do.
In many stories the underworld is not an actual Underworld, but a dark place. It can be represented by caves, underground caverns, or even dark forests—wherever it is dark and forbidding. In Greek and Roman mythology the heroes usually traveled to the actual Underworld, the place where souls went when a person died. Perhaps this is a geographical issue, because Greece had no large, dark, primeval forests like they do in Europe, England, or Scandinavia. In the old Northern European and Celtic stories, the hero went into a dark forest (a forbidding forest) and there he conquered his fears and came to terms with the world that lives in the dark.
Harry Potter Connection!
Harry Potter descends into an “underworld” in every book in the series. It usually happens at the end of each book when Harry is going to meet the final villain. The “underworld” may be the Forbidden Forest, under the school, or even the cave. He goes into an “underworld” to face his fears, like going into the forest and seeing the specter of Voldemort, or to learn something vital to finishing his hero’s journey, like going into the forest to visit Aragog or going into the cave to retrieve the Horcrux. In this way Harry’s story is similar to many mythological heroes.
Greek and Roman Heroes Who Descended to the Underworld
Heracles—Heracles was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmena, but Hera (Zeus’s wife) hated Heracles. She spent his entire life causing him trouble and pain. When Heracles was a baby she sent snakes into his crib, but Heracles was so unnaturally strong for a baby that he killed the snakes with his own hands. His nanny walked into his room and found him sitting on the floor holding a snake in each hand! Heracles had great strength, but his strength ended up causing him great pain—owing to the vengeance of Hera. Despite Hera’s hatred, Heracles received the best education. However, he did not like some of his subjects and even killed his music teacher by hitting him over the head with a lyre. Heracles did not know his own strength and was filled with remorse for killing an innocent person.
Heracles eventually became a big hero to the Thebans (he was born in Thebes (theebes), because he defeated their enemy, the Minyans, in battle. Nothing, with the exception of supernatural power, could defeat Heracles or hurt him. After defeating the Minyans he married the Princess Megara. He loved her and they had several children. Unfortunately for Heracles, the goddess Hera had not forgotten him. She caused a great madness to fall over Heracles, and since he had a propensity for anger and a quick temper, it got the best of him. He killed his wife and children with his own hands. Once the madness subsided he was horrified and dismayed. He thought of killing himself, but went to the Oracle of Delphi to find out what to do instead. The Oracle (influenced by Hera!) told him he needed to purify himself and to do penance. The Oracle also told him to go to King Eurystheus (ur-IS-tee-us) and do whatever penance the King wanted him to do. Hera was influencing the Oracle (of course!) and knew that King Eurystheus would make Heracles’ penance cruel and difficult.
The tasks Eurystheus gave to Heracles are called the “12 labors of Heracles.” He had to (this is a brief summary of the labors):
- Kill the lion of Nemea. The lion had been terrorizing the countryside around Eurytheus’ country. Weapons could not kill it, so Heracles strangled it with his bare hands.
- Kill the Hydra, the nine headed serpent. Each time he cut off one head two more took its place. He enlisted the help of his nephew Iolaus who cauterized each head after Heracles cut it off.
- Capture a golden-horned stag sacred to Artemis. Since he didn’t want to harm the stag, he hunted it for a year before finally capturing it.
- Capture a great boar. He chased it to exhaustion and then trapped it in a snowbank.
- Clean the stables of Augeas (au-jee-uhs). The horse herd was massive and the stables hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. Heracles diverted a river (or two depending on the story) and let the water wash out the stables.
- Kill the Stymphalian birds. These were vicious, man-eating birds who terrorized the people of Stymphalus. Heracles shook a rattle to flush them from hiding and then shot them down one by one with a bow and arrows.
- Capture the bull that Poseidon had given to Minos. Minos allowed Heracles to do this and he carried it back to Thebes on his shoulders. He eventually set it free.
- Tame the man-eating horses of King Diomedes (deyeo-meh-dees) of Thrace. Heracles killed Diomedes first and then tamed the horses by feeding them the body of Diomedes. Gruesome!
- Acquire the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (a girdle was a metal or embroidered belt). At first Hippolyta was friendly with Heracles and said she would give him her girdle. Then Hera got involved and spread a rumor with the other Amazons that Heracles and his crew wanted to kill them. The Amazons and the men fought and Heracles killed Hippolyta and took her girdle.
- Capture and bring back the cattle of King Geryon, a monster who had three bodies joined at the waist. Heracles killed Geryon and rustled the cattle.
- Bring back the golden apples of the Hesperides (hes-pear-ee-deez). Atlas was the father of the Hesperides. Heracles offered to hold the world while Atlas got the apples. But then Atlas did not want to hold the world any longer so he left Heracles holding it. Heracles had to trick Atlas by asking him to take the world for a short time so he could get a pad to put on his shoulders. Atlas put the world back on his shoulders and Heracles took the apples and left. Apparently Atlas wasn’t too bright!
- Bring Cerberus the three headed dog up from the Underworld. Heracles descended into the Underworld and Hades gave him permission to take Cerberus, as long as Heracles did not use any weapons. Heracles subdued Cerberus using only his bare hands and carried him up to Eurystheus. Eurystheus was so frightened of Cerberus that he asked Hercules to take him back into the Underworld.
Once he finished the tasks Heracles was set free from his penance. He lived a long time and was involved in other adventures. When he died Zeus intervened and made Heracles a god. He lives on Mt. Olympus with the other Olympian gods. He even reconciled with Hera and married her daughter Hebe, the goddess of youth.
Odysseus—Odysseus was a hero on the Greek side of the Trojan War. After the Greeks won the Trojan War they sacked Troy but forgot to pay tribute to the gods and goddesses who helped them along the way. When the Greek fleets started back to Greece, Poseidon, the god of the sea, took vengeance on them. Odysseus and his crew were blown off course and then spent the next ten years wandering the seas trying to get back home. Along the way they experienced many adventures, including being held captive by the sea nymph Calypso on her island and escaping a run-in with a cyclops. At one point Odysseus found himself on the island of the sorceress Circe.
Circe told Odysseus he needed to travel to the Underworld and find the soul of the prophet Tiresias who would then tell Odysseus how to get home to Ithaca. But going to the Underworld was no easy feat! In order to get safely into the Underworld, Odysseus had to make a blood sacrifice to attract the spirits to come talk to him. They craved real blood. As soon as he spilt his own blood, the smell of blood attracted all the spirits and Odysseus had to keep them at bay with his sword.
Harry Potter Connection!
Harry and Professor Dumbledore had a jaunt into what could be considered an “underworld,” when they journeyed into the cave to find the Horcrux locket. Like Odysseus’s blood offering to the spirits, Dumbledore also had to make a blood sacrifice on the cave wall in order for it to open and them to enter. Many dead spirits converged on Odysseus and he had to fight them off. Harry and Dumbledore had to deal with the spirits of the dead, the Inferi. Unfortunately for Harry and Dumbledore these spirits were not happy to see them.
After talking to Tiresias, Odysseus also allowed other spirits to come and drink from the goblet of blood. Odysseus talked to his mother, who died of grief when he did not return home from Troy, as well as other mothers of warriors who had died at Troy. Then some of the Trojan War heroes approached Odysseus—Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax (who did not actually speak to Odysseus) and more. Eventually, it became too much for Odysseus and he left the Underworld.
When Odysseus finally got home, ten years had passed, but his wife, Penelope, had been faithfully waiting for him. His son Telemachus (tel-EHM-ah-kus) had grown into a young man. In those ten years Penelope had been hounded by suitors interested in marrying her, but she and Telemachus kept them all at bay. After he returned home, Odysseus and Telemachus killed the suitors, and he reunited with Penelope.
Orpheus—Orpheus was the son of the King of Thrace and Calliope, the Muse of music, poetry, and dance. Orpheus was the best musician in the world other than the gods themselves. He married Eurydice (yer-RIDI-chee) and loved her very much. Unfortunately for Orpheus, Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus, distraught, decided to descend into the Underworld to retrieve her. While in the Underworld, he played his lyre and the dead souls loved it. Cerberus let his guard down. Even the god of the Underworld, Hades, was moved to tears by the mournful playing of Orpheus. Orpheus asked for Eurydice back and Hades agreed with the condition that Orpheus not look back on their journey out of the Underworld. Thinking he was out, he turned back to look too soon and when he did Eurydice vanished. Orpheus was so overcome with sorrow that he wandered aimlessly through the land playing his lyre. Unfortunately for Orpheus, he was found, torn apart, and his head thrown in a river by a group of frenzied Maenads (mee-nads). The Muses gathered up all of Orpheus’s limbs and placed them in a tomb at the foot of Mt. Olympus to honor him.
Theseus—Theseus was the son of the mortal woman Aethra and Aegeus (ee-jee-uhs), King of Athens or, depending on the story, Poseidon. Theseus had great adventures, including defeating the Minotaur in King Mino’s Labyrinth thus saving the lives of many Athenian children. He also became the King of Athens and beloved by his people. One of his adventures involved descending into the Underworld. He had a widowed friend, Pirithous (py-rith-oh-uhs) and he and Theseus decided they wanted to marry daughters of the god Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, who would become famous for being the cause of the Trojan War. Pirithous chose Persephone, the wife of a god, not a good choice. She lived in the Underworld with her husband, Hades, and to try to capture her was a crazy task! Rarely were living souls allowed to leave the Underworld.
Undaunted, Theseus and Pirithous went down to the Underworld. Hades knew the two men were there and also knew of their intention to steal his wife. He was a god after all and knew what was going on in his realm! He did not kill them but invited them to sit at his table and dine with him. Unfortunately for Theseus and Pirithous, the chair in which they sat was the Chair of Forgetfulness (it was actually two chairs, one for each of them). Whoever sits in the chair forgets everything and sits there for all of eternity. In one account, the Chair of Forgetfulness binds them with serpents; in other stories, the stone of the Chair grows up and into their flesh, holding them fast.
Theseus was eventually rescued by Heracles on one of his labors, but he could not rescue Pirithous. Hades knew that it was Pirithous who planned to abduct Persephone and did not allow Heracles to rescue him. In some stories he caused an avalanche to prevent Heracles from pulling Pirithous from the chair, in others the chair held fast.
Theseus returned to the land of the living and became the greatest hero of the Athenian people.
Stories of the Underworld in Roman Mythology
Psyche (sy-kee)—Psyche was the most beautiful woman in the world, so beautiful that the goddess of love, Venus, became jealous. Out of spite, Venus told her son Cupid, the god of love, to shoot Psyche with his arrow and make her fall in love with a disgusting and despicable man. Cupid fell in love with Psyche when he saw her and did not perform his task. Although she did not fall in love with an ogre, neither did Psyche fall in love with any man. Her family went to an oracle to find out what to do, and were told that Psyche had to be left on a hill and a monster would come and claim her as his wife. They did as they were told and left Psyche to her fate and to the monster (nice family!). They placed her on the hill to await the monster, but a gentle breeze lifted her and took her to a beautiful meadow where there was a grand mansion and good food. That night her “husband” came to her, but he was invisible. He visited her every night after that. They grew to love each other and they had a lovely life, but Psyche became lonely. She was told to never try to look upon her husband or he would leave. Eventually, and through the urgings of her jealous sisters who visited her, Psyche started to believe that her invisible husband was the monster and that he would devour her.
One night, while her husband slept, she stole a glance at him. It was Cupid and he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen! In her excitement, she spilled lantern oil on him and he awoke. He fled and went back to his mother Venus. Venus was angry with Psyche for her faithlessness in Cupid and for hurting him as well. Psyche wandered the world looking for Cupid and asking for help against Venus’s wrath but no one wanted to risk offending the goddess. Finally, Psyche found Venus but Venus was angry and decided that if Psyche ever wanted to find a husband she would have to do some (of course, impossible) tasks.
- For the first task Venus gave Psyche a huge pile of small seeds and told her to sort them by morning. Psyche thought the task impossible so she did nothing. However, some small ants saw her distress and helped her sort the seeds. Venus was angry in the morning but could do nothing since Psyche accomplished the task.
- For the second task Psyche was told to gather the fleece from golden sheep who grazed near a riverbed. Psyche thought of throwing herself in the river out of despair, but the river reeds talked her out of it. They told her to wait until the sheep came to drink out of the river and then collect the fleece that had snagged on the thorny bushes. Psyche did so and took the fleece to Venus.
- For the next task Psyche had to fill a flask with water from the river Styx at a waterfall. The river Styx was the river that ran through the Underworld and the waterfall was surrounded by slimy black rocks and a steep ledge. There was no way Psyche could climb it, but an eagle took pity on her and took the flask in his beak and filled it with the water.
- Finally, Venus gave Psyche a box and told her to go to the Underworld to collect some beauty from Proserpine (Persephone in Greek). Psyche was able to get in and Proserpine helped her but warned her not to open the box. Curiosity got the better of Psyche and she opened the box. It was cursed and she fell into a deep sleep.
Cupid, finally healed of his wounds, was now looking for Psyche. He found her and woke her from her enchanted sleep. They reconciled and he took her up to live with the gods as his wife. She became an immortal.
A princess put into an enchanted sleep by a vengeful mother figure. A handsome prince/god looking for the princess and awaking her from her slumber. The two lovers living happily ever after. The story of Psyche and Cupid sounds very much like a fairy tale.
Aeneas (ay-nee-uhs)—Aeneas was the son of Venus, the goddess of love, and Anchises (an-key-seez) a mortal man. The story of Aeneas is told in the book The Aeneid written by the poet Virgil. Aeneas was one of the greatest Trojan heroes, next to Hector, and one of the few who escaped Troy after the Greeks invaded the town. Aeneas escaped with his father, son, and some other lucky Trojans after being warned and helped to escape by his mother, Venus. Aeneas had other adventures on land and on the sea which took several years, mainly because they were hassled by Juno. During the trip some of Aeneas’s men died, including his beloved father. Aeneas was told by a prophet that when he reached Italy he needed to consult the prophet Sibyl who could tell the future.
When Aeneas landed in Italy he first went to the cave of Sibyl. She told him he needed to go to the Underworld to talk to his father who would give him guidance. Sibyl agreed to go with Aeneas into the Underworld.
Aeneas came to a place where the path into the Underworld led in two directions. To the left was Tartarus where the Titans had been banished and where souls received punishment for their misdeeds. To the right were the Elysian Fields where good people and heroes rest after they die. The Elysian Fields were beautiful and happy and the souls there sang, rode horses, and played games. It was there that Aeneas found his father, Anchises. Anchises showed Aeneas all the souls who waited to become mortal again. These were the souls who would become Aeneas’s descendants and would become the future leaders of Rome. Anchises told Aeneas a few more details about what to do in the future, and then the two separated. Aeneas went back up to the earth and back to Rome.
Harry Potter and His Travels to the “Underworld”
As stated above, Harry descends into an “underworld” in each book. Sometimes he does so more than once; for example he’ll go into the Forbidden Forest and also into an underground world. Both are examples of underworlds if defined as being a place of darkness where the hero must learn something about his journey or overcome his fears.
Harry has journeys similar to Aeneas and Odysseus. Similar to Aeneas meeting his father, Odysseus meeting Tiresias and fellow soldiers, and Orpheus finding his wife, Harry meets the souls of dead friends and family members when he is in an “underworld.” Harry is aided by the souls of his dead family and friends on two occasions. When he fights Voldemort in the cemetery (one of Harry’s “underworlds”) their wands connect and the specters of fellow “warrior” Cedric, Harry’s parents, and the old Muggle come out of Voldemort’s wand to help Harry. Also, as he walks to certain death in the Forbidden Forest (another “underworld”) in The Deathly Hallows, Harry turns over the Resurrection Stone and is immediately surrounded by the spirits of his dead family and friends. They surround him, give him love and light and warmth, and aid him on his journey back to the world of the living.
When Harry is killed by Voldemort in The Deathly Hallows he goes into the “underworld” of King’s Cross station and meets with Dumbledore, a father figure to him. Dumbledore gives Harry advice on what to do when he goes back to his world, like Aeneas’s father tells him what to do when he goes back to the living world.
The Underworld in Each Book
In The Sorcerer’s Stone: the first “underworld” experience for Harry is when he is taken into the Forbidden Forest as punishment for being out after hours. Hagrid is Harry’s guide into the forest, “he led them to the very edge of the forest…he pointed down a narrow, winding earth track that disappeared into the thick black trees.” The centaur Ronan says that the forest, “hides many secrets.” When Harry and Draco must go into the forest without Hagrid they go deeper, “they walked for nearly half an hour, deeper and deeper into the forest, until the path became almost impossible to follow because the trees were so thick.” Harry encounters Voldemort for the first time in the dark forest, and even though Voldemort is a shadow of himself, he is still strong enough to make Harry’s scar hurt and to frighten Harry tremendously.
The literal underworld in The Sorcerer’s Stone is under the school. Harry, Ron, and Hermione drop into an underground place to find the Sorcerer’s Stone, “cold, damp air rushed past him as he fell down, down, down, and….” This underworld is guarded by a mythological creature—the three headed dog Fluffy (Cerberus). This underworld also has many obstacles, all of the protections for the Stone, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione are able to get by all of them.
In The Chamber of Secrets, the first “underworld” for Harry is, similar to The Sorcerer’s Stone, in the Forbidden Forest. Harry and Ron venture into the forest to talk to the spider Aragog. Aragog lives deep in the forest, “…everything outside his little sphere of light was pitch black. He had never been this deep into the forest before.” As said before, it is very symbolic for the hero to journey deeply into the forest, because it is there that he’ll find out deep, dark secrets. In Harry’s case these are not his secrets, but secrets that can help him solve the mystery of the chamber of secrets and to discover the identity of the heir of Slytherin.
The literal underworld, once again, is under Hogwarts. Harry, Ron, and Lockhart go under the school, through a pipe that leads to the chamber of secrets, “it was like rushing down an endless, slimy dark slide….he knew that he was falling deeper below the school than even the dungeons.” Again, Harry must leave his friends behind and finish the task by himself—Hermione is petrified, and Ron is stuck in the tunnel with Professor Lockhart. This time the villain is Voldemort as his Horcrux Tom Riddle.
In many of the old mythology stories, the hero must defeat a monster, like a dragon or sea monster (see the Greek story of Perseus and the Norse story of Sigurd). Harry also has to defeat a real monster—the basilisk. Once he does so, and survives, he can defeat the evil Lord.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban the “underworld” is not quite as obvious. They do not go under the school as they did in the first two books. In this book they go through the tunnel under the Whomping Willow into the Shrieking Shack. Ron is dragged by Sirius (as the black dog) and then Harry and Hermione follow, “Harry went next; he crawled forward, headfirst, and slid down an earthy slope to the bottom of a very low tunnel.” They are only underground for a short time, but the tunnel does lead to the main bad guy and more knowledge for our hero.
Harry and Hermione then run into the forest to escape Lupin when he is a werewolf. In the forest they encounter the dementors, so Harry must conjure a patronus and defeat the dementors. The dementors are formidable monsters, and Harry must perform powerful magic to save himself and Sirius from them.
Symbolism of the Patronus
Patronuses help fight dementors by emitting light—they are symbolically defeating darkness with light. In this symbolic and mythological sense darkness represents the unknown and things we fear. Light helps to expose those fears and it brings the unknown out of the dark and into what is known and understood. The patronus represents this light for Harry, “the blinding light was illuminating the grass around him…it was bright as a unicorn…Harry saw, by its brightness…” (POA, 385). The light of the patronus dispels the dark creatures.
Back to The Underworld…
In The Goblet of Fire the labyrinth and the cemetery are the two “underworld” places for Harry.
Harry’s labyrinth is part of the Tri-Wizard tournament tasks. He has to defeat monsters along the way, but it is the final meeting with Voldemort that is his real task. Their meeting is also symbolic of an underworld—they meet in a cemetery, “they were standing instead in a dark and overgrown graveyard.” A cemetery, of course, is a place of death. This is the place where Harry first sees a person die (he was a baby when his parents were killed), and it is the place where he will die if he does not defeat Voldemort.
The Order of the Phoenix returns to the formula of the first two books. First, Harry journeys into the forest with Hermione and Professor Umbridge. Harry does not know where Hermione is heading nor does he know what she has in mind. But as three humans in the forest without the protection of Hagrid, they are at risk, “they walked on for what seemed a long time, until they were once again so deep into the forest that the dense tree canopy blocked out all light.” Sounds very much like the way the forest was described in the first two books. It is dangerous and they are attacked by the centaurs. Harry and Hermione barely escape with their lives.
The literal underworld into which Harry descends is the Ministry of Magic—the kids go into the phone booth which takes them down, “blackness closed over their heads, and with a dull grinding noise they sank down into the depths of the Ministry of Magic.” Similar to the first two books, Harry is with Hermione and Ron, only this time he has members of Dumbledore’s Army with him. They are joined eventually by members of the Order of the Phoenix, and a battle rages between the forces of good and the forces of evil. However, as in the first two books, the final meeting with Voldemort happens when Harry is alone.
In The Half Blood Prince the “underworld” is the cave where Harry and Dumbledore find the locket Horcrux. Caves are symbolic of going into an unknown world—dark, closed in, dangerous places that may or may not offer an escape route, “the greenish glow and the light from the two wands were the only thing that broke the otherwise velvety blackness…” (HBP, 560). Harry certainly has no idea what is in store for him—he does not know what to expect in the cave, or of the locket, or any of the magic he encounters. This is why he must make this particular journey with Dumbledore who has much more knowledge about what will happen. It is a good thing too, because the magic of the cave is beyond Harry’s capabilities: the cave can only be opened by blood; the boat to get across the lake is hidden by magic; the locket is protected by magic; and one touch of the water will bring the Inferi after Harry.
In the old mythological stories the hero needed a guide in the underworld—Sibyl accompanied Aeneas and Tiresias accompanied Odysseus. These mentors had more knowledge than the hero and so could help him navigate the underworld. This is exactly what Dumbledore does with Harry.
The cave is one of the most demanding underworlds that Harry has encountered up to this point. Once he and Dumbledore find the locket, Dumbledore must drink the potion in which the locket is held. This has a terrible effect on Dumbledore and nearly kills him. Harry must force Dumbledore to drink the potion that is killing him and driving him mad. Harry touches the water in the lake and raises the Inferi, but he does not know how to fight them and they nearly kill him. They both escape only to find more danger awaiting them at Hogwarts. Harry does not meet Voldemort in the underworld in The Half Blood Prince, but he does deal with one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, same as in The Chamber of Secrets. The monsters Harry must fight in The Half Blood Prince are the Death Eaters, especially Professor Snape, who Harry thinks murdered Dumbledore.
In The Deathly Hallows the underworld is when Harry goes to King’s Cross station and meets with Dumbledore. Harry and Dumbledore are both dead at this point. This meeting with Dumbledore in a place of the dead is similar to ancient mythological stories. The hero meets with a wise person who tells the hero how to keep going on his journey. It is similar to Aeneas meeting with his father. Harry meets with Dumbledore who gives Harry information and advice on what to do. He tells Harry about the Deathly Hallows, and from this conversation Harry determines how he can defeat Voldemort. As opposed to the other underground places Harry went in the previous books, the “underworld” place of the dead in The Deathly Hallows is not very scary. In fact, it is clean and sterile, and completely unlike all the other underworlds through which he has traveled, “A wide-open space, bright and clean, a hall larger by far than the Great Hall, with that clear, domed glass ceiling.” (DH, 706). In this way we can see how Harry has grown. The underworld holds no more fear for him. He can now go back into the world, defeat the evil lord, and complete his journey.
Light and Dark
In the first six books, Harry descends into an underworld that is dark. Notice the wording—thick black trees, pitch black, slimy dark slide, dark and overgrown, blocked out all light, velvety blackness, blackness closed over their heads. The description of King’s Cross station is the opposite—bright mist, bright and clean, wide-open space. This place is light bright, white, and clean. It seems more like a hospital than a scary underworld. The change from dark to light is an important one for Harry. It shows that everything has been exposed. There is nothing left hiding in the darkness. He knows what to do.