Harry Potter Portal to Symbolism
Portal to Animal Symbolism
In other sections, we’ve seen symbolism with the different mythologies and how the gods and goddesses were associated with certain symbols. A symbol is something that represents something other than itself. For example, snakes may be symbolic of rebirth, because they shed their skin. The Harry Potter books are rich with symbolism of all kinds—animals, numbers, colors, and the wood used for wands all have symbolic meanings. J.K. Rowling may not always have meant to give a certain animal symbolic or mythological meanings, but we can find them there anyway.
On this page, we’ll look at the how the animals from the Harry Potter books are symbolic. We’ll also explore how these animals are used in the different mythologies we’ve studied.
In other sections, we’ll examine the symbolism of colors, numbers, and trees.
Are you a dog person or a cat person? We often ask people this question, because it is an indication of the person’s personality. We attribute certain qualities to a “cat person” that are different from those of a “dog person.” This goes back to ancient times when people would give symbolic meaning to certain animals because a god or goddess was associated with that animal. If an animal was associated with a goddess (like the hare) then that animal became symbolic of more feminine qualities. Obviously masculine animals (like the stag) became associated with more manly qualities. The kinds of gods and goddesses mattered too—was it a sky god or an earth god? A sky god had a different kind of animal as a symbol than an earth god or sea god. The symbolism might also be something as simple as where the animal lives or how it moves. Does it fly high in the sky like the eagle or burrow in the ground like a weasel? That will determine the symbolism surrounding that animal.
The Harry Potter books are teeming with animals, from animals the students can bring to Hogwarts, to animagi, to the form a wizard’s patronus takes. Many of the animals seen in the books are often mentioned or important in Greek, Norse, Celtic, or Egyptian mythology. Some are closely associated with a certain god or goddess. Furthermore, animals were associated with witches during the middle ages; they were often believed to be either the witches familiars, the witches themselves, or the devil.
The Animals (in alphabetical order)
In Harry Potter the badger is the animal associated with Hufflepuff house.
- The badger usually represents determination, aggressiveness, independence, and tenacity. According to the Sorting Hat, Hufflepuffs are “unafraid of toil.”
In Harry Potter, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Aunt Marge breeds and raises bulldogs. She brings one, Ripper, to the Dursley’s house when she visits, and it does not like Harry. Of course, the feeling is mutual! When Uncle Vernon was angry at Harry for the mishap with Dobby and the pudding he came “bearing down on Harry like a great bulldog, all his teeth bared” (COS, 21).
- Bulldogs were originally bred for fighting. Their method of fighting was to latch onto the other animals’ snout and not let go until the opposing animal smothered to death. This characteristic seems particularly apt because Aunt Marge does not leave Harry alone; she harangues him until he can’t stand it anymore, and she “wanted Harry under her eye at all times” (POA, 25). Bulldogs have thick shoulders, a thick head, and drooping skin around the face—like Vernon and Marge!
In Harry Potter there are many cats!
- Hermione’s pet animal is a cat, Crookshanks. Crookshanks helps lead Hermione and Harry into the Shrieking Shack through the hole in the Whomping Willow in The Prisoner of Azkaban. Crookshanks knows that Scabbers is not really a rat.
- Professor McGonagall is an animagus who turns into a tabby cat. The first time we meet her in The Sorcerer’s Stone she is in her cat form.
- Professor Umbridge’s patronus is a cat. She also has creepy pictures of cats all over her office.
- Figg, the Squib who lives near Harry on Privet Drive, has many cats and also breeds them.
- Argus Filch uses his cat, Mrs. Norris, to spy on the students at Hogwarts. She often roams the castle by herself but somehow manages to communicate to Filch when the students are doing something wrong.
Cats have a rich symbolism throughout history. First, cats were often believed to be the “familiars” of witches. The cat familiar could communicate with her owner. The cat could go out at night and take care of the witch’s business while the witch stayed safely at home. There was also a belief that a witch could actually turn into the cat in order to go out into the world at night and cause trouble, like cursing a person or their animals. We still have the superstition that when a black cat crosses your path, it means bad luck.
In Norse mythology the goddess Freya rode a chariot pulled by two cats. Freya, the goddess of love and beauty, was very well loved by the Norse people.
In Egyptian mythology we find probably the most familiar and famous cat in any mythology—the Egyptian goddess, Bast (or Bastet). Bast was a popular goddess and very well loved, and her followers eventually spread into Greece and Rome. Bast has the head of a cat on the body of a woman. She was originally a sun goddess and the daughter of Ra, the sun god. She eventually became the goddess of fertility and healing and a protector of women and children. In Ancient Egypt cats were so well loved that killing a cat was punishable by death. Some cats lived in the temples, cared for by priests. Many families had cats as pets and mourned them when they died. People often mummified their cats to bury them! One reason the Egyptians loved their cats so much was because cats protected and kept rodents out of the food supply, and Egypt was an important exporter of grains in the ancient world. Cats also killed snakes, which could be a problem in ancient Egypt.
In Harry Potter the doe is the patronus of Lily Potter and Professor Snape. We do not see Lily’s patronus, but Snape sends his doe to Harry to help him find Griffindor’s sword in The Deathly Hallows, and we find out later that Snape’s patronus is a doe as a tribute to Lily.
- The doe represents femininity, peace, and gentleness. In ancient times and in the middle-ages, people also followed deer to find food like herbs and plants, because they knew if the deer could eat something, then it would be okay for humans too.
The Celts associated deer with the spirit realm. There are stories where people followed deer into a forest and found themselves in a magical realm. The deer was the guide into the spirit world, whether or not the person wanted to go there.
Harry Potter Connection! When Harry follows the doe patronus and finds Griffindor’s sword it is a very “otherworldly” moment for him, “it was a silver-white doe, moon-bright and dazzling, picking her way over the ground, still silent, and leaving no hoofprints in the fine powdering of snow…Harry stared at the creature, filled with wonder…he felt that he had been waiting for her to come…” (DH, 366). He follows the doe, retrieves the sword, and reunites with Ron. This doe is full of magic.
In Harry Potter there are several dogs.
- Sirius Black is an animagus who transforms into a big black dog. Being a dog helps Sirius to survive in Azkaban. Sirius said the dementors, “could tell that my feelings were less—less human, less complex when I was a dog…” (OOTP, 466).
- Hagrid keeps Fang, the large boarhound.
- Ron’s patronus is a dog—a Jack Russel Terrier. Jack Russell terriers are cheerful, merry, devoted, amusing, and loving. They are spirited, obedient, and fearless. Sounds like a good description of Ron. Except for the obedient part!
Dogs are usually symbolic of loyalty and fidelity, protection and guardianship. Dogs are useful companions and have been for centuries—they help with hunting, they eat scraps from tables, and they provide protection. Most of the dogs in mythology are guard dogs.
In Greek mythology Cerberus—the three headed dog in Greek mythology who guarded the gates of the underworld.
Cyon Chryseus—“Golden Dog” sent by Rhea, to guard her child Zeus and his nurse, the she-goat Almathea, while Zeus was hidden from his father, Chronus.
There are also a couple of women associated with dogs, which is unusual because dogs are most often associated with men:
Hecuba—Hecuba, the queen of Troy, suffered an awful fate when the city fell to the Greeks after the Trojan War. Her husband and children were killed and she was taken captive by the Greek Odysseus. The gods took pity on her and turned her into a dog so she could escape.
Harry Potter Connection! Sirius Black escaped the dementors in Azkaban by turning into a dog and slipping out from under them.
Hecate—she was the Greek goddess of the night and of crossroads. She is often portrayed as a three headed goddess, with three of these animal faces: a dog, horse, lion, boar, or serpent. The animal she is most associated with is the dog. She is sometimes portrayed as a dog or dog-shaped, and her presence is indicated by the barking of dogs.
In Norse mythology the most famous dog is Garm, the guardian of the realm of the dead, Helheim. If, in your life, you’d given bread to the poor you could then give Garm a cake and he’d let you pass into Helheim. He will howl at the start of Ragnarok. He is very similar to Cerberus.
In Harry Potter the eagle is the animal associated with Ravenclaw house.
- The eagle is usually associated with the sky (for obvious reasons), the sun, rising above the mundane, and majesty. The eagle has been used for centuries as the totem animal of power and royalty. The eagle also has fantastic eyesight and so often symbolizes far seeing or wisdom, which makes it a good symbol for Ravenclaw house since they are known for their “wit and learning.” It is also a good symbol since Ravenclaw house is in a tower, high above the Hogwarts castle.
- It is a bird of prey and is used as a representation of power and dominance. It was the emblem of the Roman senate, the Holy Roman Empire, and many powerful families throughout history.
In Greek mythology the eagle is one of the symbols of Zeus, the king of the gods, the sky god, and the bearer of the lightning bolt. It is only fitting that the sky god have an eagle as his animal.
There is a very famous story of Zeus and Prometheus that involves an eagle.
In Norse mythology there was an eagle who perched on the top of the World Tree Yggdrasil. A squirrel carried messages and taunts back and forth between the eagle and the Nidhogg serpent down in the underworld.
In Egyptian mythology the eagle is symbolic of the sun god Ra.
In Harry Potter Mad-Eye Moody turns Draco Malfoy into a ferret when he was about to curse Harry behind his back.
- Ferrets are clever and inquisitive. Like weasels they can burrow down in holes and “ferret out” smaller rodents. They do a “war dance” where they hop up and down sideways, thrash and arch their backs, turn their heads from side to side, and hiss.
Harry Potter Connection! The ferret’s “war dance” sounds like the bouncing up and down Malfoy did when Moody transformed him!
In Harry Potter: Neville Longbottom owns a toad, Trevor, who always gets away from him.
- Professor Umbridge looks like a toad. In fact the first time Harry sees her “he thought she looked just like a large, pale toad” (OOTP, 146). Interestingly, about Professor Umbridge, she is also what we would call a “toady,” a person who hopes to gain favor from someone higher up by using flattery. In modern cultural references, the “toady” is often the small, skinny boy who hangs around with the big bully. Professor Umbridge is a toady in that she flatters the Ministry in order to gain advancement. She uses this power to bully others.
Historical Tidbit! The term “toady” came from a 17th century practice—a charlatan trying to con people would hire a boy to pretend to eat a toad (which were thought to secrete poison), and then the charlatan would “cure” the boy. The boy was called a “toad-eater;” later shortened to “today.”
Frogs and toads have been a part of mythology and folklore for ages. In some societies, people thought of frogs and toads as symbols of growth and fertility. Parts of frogs and toads were used for making potions and medicines. Some toads will secrete a poison that causes paralysis and even death when hounded by a predator. That secretion was used for poison, but some parts of the frog and toad were beneficial and made good medicine.
In Egyptian mythology the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility and childbirth, Heket, is depicted with the body of a woman and the head of a frog. When women gave birth they often held on to an amulet shaped like a frog to bring about a safe and healthy birth. Midwives, women who deliver babies, were considered the servants of Heket.
In Harry Potter Aberforth Dumbledore’s patronus is a goat. Harry, Ron, and Hermione find this out in The Deathly Hallows when they go to Hogsmeade and break the curfew. Aberforth’s patronus chases away the dementors. When they go into the Hog’s Head, it smells like goat.
In Potions class, Snape tells the students that “A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.” Harry uses a bezoar to save Ron after he drank the poisoned mead meant for Professor Dumbledore.
- Goats can represent and symbolize many things. In addition to dogs, they were the first domesticated animals and therefore represent steadiness and loyalty. They also symbolize abundance because goats have provided food, milk, and clothing for people for thousands of years.
In Greek mythology a she-goat, Amalthea, nursed the infant Zeus when his mother hid him from his father Chronos.
In Norse mythology a she-goat Heidrun provides the mead for the warriors in Valhalla. How a goat provides mead, a drink made from fermented honey, is a mystery! Thor rides in a chariot pulled by two goats, Tanngrisnir (Teeth-barer) and Tanngnjóstr (Teeth grinder). He can eat them, and as long as none of their bones are broken, they regenerate the next day.
In Harry Potter the hare is Luna Lovegood’s patronus
- Hares are a symbol of fertility, because hares (and rabbits) have so many babies.
- Because of their fertility they are used in many culture’s spring festivals. They are associated with the feminine and the moon—a fitting patronus for a girl named “Luna.”
In Greek mythology the hare is associated with Artemis (the goddess of the forest and the hunt), because they are forest animals.
In Norse mythology the hare is associated with the goddesses Freya, the goddess of love, lust, and beauty. In some depictions, Freya is attended by hares with lanterns.
In Celtic mythology the hare is associated with Eostre, the goddess of rebirth. The hare is her sacred animal, and she can shape-shift into a hare. According to the Romans, when they encountered the Celts they discovered a taboo against eating hares or rabbits, most likely due to the fact that so many goddesses (not just Eostre) could change themselves into hares. You don’t want to eat your goddess!
In Harry Potter the Hog’s Head is the tavern owned by Aberforth Dumbledore.
- Ernie Macmillan’s patronus is a boar.
- There are winged boars on top of pillars at the gates of Hogwarts.
Boars symbolize courage and ferocity in battle. A boar will not give up even when cornered. They can also symbolize fertility.
Historical Tidbit! The symbolism of a hog’s head goes back to when people served a whole hog’s head at the Christmas feast.
In Greek mythology there is a famous tale about a boar hunt called the Calydonian Hunt. The Calydonian boar was a boar sent by Artemis to punish the people of Calydon for not sacrificing the first fruit of the harvest to her. The boar destroyed cattle and crops and killed the men who hunted it. A young woman, Atalanta, was among a select group of hunters sent to kill it. She shot the first arrow to bring it down. Atalanta was one of the few female heroes of ancient mythology.
The Greek hero Heracles had to capture the Erymanthian Boar in one of his 12 labors. He chased it to exhaustion and then trapped it in a snowbank.
In Norse mythology a boar was fed to the slain warriors who lived in Odin’s hall Vallhalla. The boar was killed and eaten every day and by the evening he was whole again. Actually everything regenerated in Valhalla—the men would fight each other all day and their wounds would magically disappear so they’d be ready to fight the next day.
The god Frey has a chariot pulled by two golden boars. The boars’ bristles shine like the sun and light up dark places.
Frey’s sister Freya rides a boar when she is not using her cat driven chariot.
In Celtic mythology the boar is associated with a forest goddess, Arduinna, from Gaul. She is depicted riding a wild boar.
In Harry Potter the otter is Hermione’s patronus.
- Otters represent playfulness and joy.
In Norse mythology the killing of an otter started the heroic journey of Sigurd. The otter was not a real otter but a shape-shifter in the form of an otter who was killed by the god Loki.
In Harry Potter owls play a large role:
- They are the messengers of the wizarding world. They carry the mail, deliver the newspaper, and deliver messages. Hogwarts has an entire room of owls for use as the school mail and delivery service.
- The Weasley family owns the owl Hermes. He’s a pathetic little owl who often delivers the mail and messages and then nearly drops dead when he’s done. He’s named after Hermes, the messenger god of the Greeks.
- Harry, of course, owns Hedwig. Hedwig is the first magical gift that Harry is given when Hagrid buys her for Harry’s eleventh birthday gift. She is actually the first decent gift Harry has ever been given. Hedwig not only delivers Harry’s mail and messages; she is his friend. When he stays with the Dursley’s during the summer, Hedwig is his only friend, and she even shares his punishments with him when the Dursley’s mistreat him. In The Chamber of Secrets, after Dobby drops the pudding on Mr. Dursley’s business companion’s wife, Hedwig is locked up and deprived of food just like Harry. At the beginning of The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry makes Hedwig leave when Aunt Marge comes to visit, so she won’t get Harry into trouble. Hedwig is upset, but she goes to stay with the Weasleys. There are other times in the books when Hedwig gets upset with Harry, and her dismissals are particularly hurtful to Harry. When Hedwig dies in The Deathly Hallows it is a symbolic moment—she represented Harry’s years at Hogwarts and as his first magical gift, his innocence. Harry’s innocence dies along with Hedwig.
For many cultures, the owl signified bad luck or a bad omen, especially if you saw one during the day. Seeing an owl during the day was an omen of death. Because they are nocturnal and hunt at night, owls are symbolic of darkness, secrecy, and death.
In medieval times, people believed that owls traveled with witches and could also be witches in disguise.
The owl symbolized wisdom to the ancient Greeks. The owl can revolve its head almost completely around to get a full view of the world, and this allows the owl to see more completely. It has very large eyes that can see in the dark. The ability to “see well’ is a distinction of a wise person. We still have the symbol of the “wise old owl” in our modern culture. The most intellectual character in Winnie the Pooh is Owl!
In Greek mythology Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the patron of Athens, is often depicted with an owl. The owl either perches on her shoulder or on her head. Her Roman counterpart, Minerva, has an owl too.
The screech owl is sacred to Hades, the god of the Underworld.
In Celtic mythology we see a negative attitude towards owls with the story of Blodeuwedd.
In Harry Potter there were white peacocks at Malfoy manor. Death Eaters noticed them when walking up to the manor at the beginning of The Deathly Hallows. Voldemort was stationed inside.
- Peacocks are symbolic of beauty and wisdom—beauty because of their beautiful colors, and wisdom because of the “eyes” in their tails.
- The peacock is symbolic of fidelity, because it stays single if it loses its mate.
- Peacocks are also symbolic of pride and arrogance. With their tails fanned out and their heads up, peacocks look like they are strutting around. When we want to talk about someone being arrogant, we say he struts around “like a peacock.” Lucius Malfoy is certainly prideful and arrogant.
- A white peacock is a little different. White is the color of purity and innocence in Western culture, and white peacocks are a symbol of immortality. White peacocks complement the theme of death and resurrection in The Deathly Hallows.
In Greek mythology the peacock was sacred to Hera, Zeus’s wife.
In Harry Potter Ron owns a rat, Scabbers. Of course, we find out that Scabbers is not really a rat but Peter Pettigrew in his animagus form. Peter Pettigrew was the secret keeper for the Potters and informed Lord Voldemort about where they were living.
- Rats, in our culture, are often associated with filth and disease because they are found in sewers and garbage and, well, they carried plague! Rats are symbolic of being sneaky. A person is called a “rat”, when he is deceitful or betrays another. You “rat” someone out by telling on him. A good animagus form for Wormtail. He was definitely a rat.
In Harry Potter there are snakes and snake imagery all over the place!
- In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry discovers he can understand the snake at the zoo and then frees it.
- The entire book of The Chamber of Secrets is devoted to snakes. Harry discovers that he speaks Parseltongue. During the Dueling Club Professor Snape tells Malfoy to conjure a snake to attack Harry, but Harry talks to it and the snake becomes passive. The ability to speak Parseltongue, Harry discovers, is to be aligned with Slytherin and Voldemort. The basilisk is a giant snake, and there are snake symbols and Parseltongue passwords used to get into the Chamber.
- In The Goblet of Fire, when Voldemort is resurrected, he looks very much like a snake, “whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes and a nose that was flat as a snake’s with slits for nostrils…” (GOF, 643). At the beginning of the book, Voldemort’s snake Nagini kills the old Muggle Frank.
Harry Potter Connection! Once Tom Riddle becomes Lord Voldemort he becomes more and more snake-like. His face, of course, looks like a snake. He also talks like a snake with the ends of his words ending in a hiss, “Harry imagined he could hear the snake hissing slightly…or was it Voldemort’s sibilant sigh lingering on the air” (DH, 653). Even Voldemort’s movements are snake-like, “the swishing of his cloak was like the slithering of a snake” (DH, 654).
- Nagini attacks Arthur Weasley when he is guarding the Department of Mysteries.
- Dumbledore owns an instrument that produces green smoke that turns into a snake, “a serpent’s head grew out of the end of it, opening its mouth wide” (OOTP, 470). Dumbledore seems to gather information from it and then it collapses and turns into two snakes “coiling and undulating in the dark air” (OOTP, 470).
- When Harry and Hermione travel to Godric’s Hollow to talk to Bathilda Bagshot they find her, but she acts strangely until Harry sees “the old body collapsing and the great snake pouring from the place where her neck had been” (DH, 340). Nagini had somehow inhabited Bathilda’s body and waited for Harry to arrive. Then she was to keep Harry at the house until Voldemort arrived. Unfortunately for Voldemort, Harry gets away again.
- Nagini becomes an important part of The Deathly Hallows, because Harry discovers that she is one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes. Voldemort protects Nagini in a magical bubble. Nagini kills Snape, and then Neville Longbottom kills Nagini by cutting off her head.
The serpent is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. The symbolism of snakes is often as varied as the cultures of the world. In some cultures, snakes are a symbol of evil and deception, while in others the snake is a symbol of earthly wisdom. In many cultures, though, the snake (or serpent) is a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.
One of the reasons the snake is a symbol of evil and deception is due to its forked tongue. The forked tongue points in two different directions and this is seen as a symbol of deceitfulness in speech. We often see snakes as being sneaky and crafty and telling humans lies in order to lead them into trouble, like the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. The snake tricks Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and brings about their Fall.
One important meaning of the snake is rebirth and regeneration. The snake represents this because they shed their skins on a regular basis. In essence a snake sheds its old life and starts anew every time it sheds its skin. Perhaps this is what happened to Voldemort—he shed his old skin every time he created a Horcrux and lost a piece of his soul. His new “skin” looked like a snake.
There are snakes, serpents, or some kind of snake monster in Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythologies. There are also snakes and serpents in other mythologies as well, one with particular relevance to Harry Potter.
In Hindu and Buddhist mythology there are serpent beings and semi-divine deities called…Nagas. Naga actually means “serpent” in Sanskrit. Nagas are strong, handsome, and can either assume human or serpent form. They live in an underground realm called NagaLoka and are guardians of treasure. In Buddhism, the naga are represented as door guardians. Nagas most resemble the cobra, but they are depicted in other ways as well:
- As a snake with one or up to seven heads.
- As a human with a snake canopy over its head (like a cobra).
- As half human with the lower half coiled like a snake.
Harry Potter Connection! In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, Nagini were female naga’s.
In Greek mythology the most famous snake monster would be Medusa, the only mortal sister of the three Gorgons. Because of this mortality Medusa could be killed by the hero Perseus. The Gorgons were depicted as horrifying women with living, writhing, venomous snakes for hair. One look from a Gorgon would turn a mortal to stone.
Harry Potter Connection! The basilisk could turn a person to stone with one look. Hermione figured it out and used a mirror to avoid a direct gaze. In the story of Perseus he used his shield to protect himself from the Medusa’s stare.
- The Greek god Hermes carries a “caduceus,” a wand with two serpents intertwined on it and topped with wings. This caduceus is now often used as the symbol for medicine.
- Another serpent from Greek mythology was Python, the daughter of Gaia and the guardian of Delphi, which at that time was supposed to be the center of the earth. The god Apollo eventually killed Python and put his own oracle at the temple of Delphi. There are various stories as to why Apollo killed Python: in one she was asked by Hera to harass Apollo’s mother Leto, and so Apollo killed her in revenge; in another she was a monster who terrorized innocent people, and so Apollo killed her to keep the world safe.
- The Greek hero Heracles had to kill the Hydra, a nine headed serpent. Every time he cut off one head two more would take its place. He eventually figured out to cauterize the place where the head was cut off so no more would grow. His nephew, Iolaus, did the cauterizing.
In Norse mythology there are two major serpents—Jormungand and the Nidhogg.
- Jormungand—this is the serpent child of the trickster god Loki and a giantess mother. Odin threw Jormungand into the sea where he grew so big that he encircled the world and grasped his own tail. The symbol of the snake with its tail in its mouth is a common one in the world of symbolism. Jormungand is also called the Midgard Serpent (Midgard is the human world). At Ragnarok (the end of the world) Jormungand will rise up out of the water and his breath will poison the sea and sky.
- Nidhogg—the Nidhogg is the dragon/serpent that inhabits the underworld (Niflheim) by the base of the World Tree Yggdrasil. Nidhogg feeds on the bodies of the dead and also gnaws on the World Tree. He taunts the eagle perched at the top of Yggdrasil. The Nidhogg will free himself at Ragnarok and will fly out of the earth with the dead as his soldiers. He will feast on the dead and will survive Ragnarok and live in the new world.
- Loki’s Punishment. A lesser serpent story in Norse mythology involves the trickster god Loki. Loki had arranged for the god Balder, the most beloved of the gods, to be killed. His death caused much distress and so the other gods were angry with Loki. He fled and hid, but eventually they found him. Loki’s punishment was to be tied to a rock below a serpent who dripped poison into Loki’s eyes. Loki’s wife stands by him, though, and catches the serpent’s venom in a bowl. Loki will be freed at Ragnarok.
- In the story of the hero Sigurd, Sigurd was betrayed by his brothers-in-law. One of the brothers-in-law, Gunnar, was later killed—thrown into a pit full of snakes. He had the ability to charm them by playing the harp, but one was not charmed and stung him in the heart, killing him.
In Celtic mythology the snake was a representation of rebirth and the cycle of nature. Some Celtic amulets show a snake eating its own tail, similar to Jormungand. This is symbolic of the snakes’ cyclical nature of shedding its own skin and regenerating. The god Cernunnos is depicted holding a snake in each hand.
In Egyptian mythology the serpent often appeared as an elemental deity—one who was present at the beginning of time.
The Egyptian god Apophis was a negatively depicted serpent god. He embodies the forces of evil and chaos, and he tries to ambush the sun god, Ra. Every night Ra has to fight off Apophis and defeat him. Apophis cannot be destroyed, though, because he is necessary to balance the forces of good and evil. If he is destroyed, the world will be plunged into chaos.
The god Nehebkau, who guards the entrance to the underworld, is depicted as a serpent with human arms and legs. He is said to help the sun god Ra in his travels through the underworld. Nehebkau also protects the pharaoh in the afterlife.
Another common, and ancient, snake symbol is the Ouroboros. The word ouroboros is Greek for “tail-eater,” and it is a snake or dragon wrapped in a circle with his tail in his mouth. The Ouroboros is symbolic of the cycle of life and death, rebirth, renewal, and eternity. This symbol has been seen all over the world.
In Harry Potter spiders are almost as plentiful and important as the snake.
- In The Chamber of Secrets, Hagrid tells the kids to “follow the spiders,” because that will lead them to information about the Heir of Slytherin. When Harry and Ron do follow the spiders, they are led deep into the Forbidden Forest to the giant spider Aragog and his spider “family.” Ron is terrified of spiders.
- Professor Snape’s home away from Hogwarts is on a street called “Spinners End,” and that seems very fitting. Snape is a very complicated character who seems to weave a web of deceit and lies about him. Harry and his friends do not know where Snape’s loyalties lie, but Dumbledore trusts him completely. The entire series, up until almost the very last chapter, is a mystery about Severus Snape.
- When Harry and Professor Dumbledore leave Horace Slughorn’s house, after convincing him to teach at Hogwarts, Harry thinks of Slughorn like a spider, “Harry had a sudden and vivid mental image of a great swollen spider, spinning a web around it, twitching a thread here and there to bring its large and juicy flies a little closer” (HBP, 75). Slughorn likes to collect famous people, like a spider collects flies.
A spider is often a symbol of cunning and resourcefulness. Spiders can also be symbolic of the trickster, because tricksters weave their trickery and stories and lies so efficiently and well. The spider’s web could also be seen as the ultimate trick—it is difficult to see, so creatures just walk (or fly) right into it. Spiders are sometimes seen in creation stories, because they weave their own homes.
In Greek mythology the most famous story is of Arachne (ah-RACK-nee). It is where we get our scientific name for spider—arachnid.
Arachne was a young girl exceptionally gifted at weaving. She made the mistake of boasting about her ability as a weaver…always a bad idea in the old stories! Minerva (the goddess of wisdom, but also of crafts) took offense at this and challenged Arachne to a contest in which they both created a tapestry. Arachne perhaps forgot that her ability as a weaver came from Minerva and so accepted the challenge. At the end of the contest Minerva was upset to find that Arachne’s tapestry was every bit as good as hers. Minerva assaulted Arachne, hitting her and slashing her face. Arachne, disgraced and humiliated, then hanged herself. Minerva (either taking pity on Arachne or to spite her) cut the thread that she was hanging by, and turned her into a spider.
Spiders are also associated with the Greek Fates and the Norse Norns. They are the women who “spin” the fate of all beings.
In Harry Potter the stag is Harry’s patronus. The stag is also the form James Potter took as an animagus.
- The stag is symbolic of masculine power, fertility, and nobility. The antlers symbolized the King of the Forest, because they were similar to the branches of trees and a king’s crown. The stag was also a symbol of rebirth and regeneration due to its ability to shed its antlers and grow new ones.
In Greek mythology the stag is sacred to Artemis, the goddess of the forest and hunting. One of the Labors of Heracles was to capture Artemis’s sacred stags with golden horns. Heracles did not want to kill it, so he chased the stag for a year before capturing it.
In Norse mythology there are four stags that eat at the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
Oakthorn is the name of the stag that lives in Odin’s hall of Valhalla. He eats the leaves of the tree Yggdrasil, and his horns drip a stream of water into one of the three wells (Hvergelmir) in Niflheim, the land of the dead. Hvergelmir is the source of all the rivers of the world.
In Celtic mythology the white stag is an indicator that the Otherworld is close by. In some legends seeing or crossing paths with a white stag symbolized you were about to go on a quest.
The god Cernnunos is depicted with antlers very much like a stag’s.
King Arthur and the White Stag
In one of the many stories about King Arthur by the French author Cretien de Troyes, King Arthur hunts a white stag. He and his knights were at his court feasting and having a good time, when he decided he wanted to hunt a white stag. According to this story there is an ancient custom associated with killing a white stag—the person who kills the white stag must kiss the fairest maiden of the court, come what may. At this time, kissing a maiden who was not your wife could cause trouble, even if you were the king. Not to mention that each of the high born women and their husbands and fathers would think that she was the fairest maiden in the court. But Arthur wanted to go on the hunt no matter what.
The next morning King Arthur and his court left to hunt the white stag. Arthur and his men went on a vigorous hunt, and King Arthur killed the white stag. Of course he did, he was the King! They returned to the castle to celebrate and feast, but he had to determine which maiden was the most beautiful so he could bestow her with a kiss. Arthur worried that fighting would break out when he chose the maiden to kiss. Queen Guinevere asked him to wait until one of his knights, Erec returned.
While Arthur and his men were at the hunt, Queen Guinevere and the knight Erec had an adventure that involved a fair maiden. Guinevere and Erec met this maiden, her knight, and a dwarf in her service. Erec was provoked by the knight and so followed the “damsel” and her two men. He followed them to a village and lodged with a poor man and his beautiful daughter. Erec found out that the knight who provoked him would be at a tournament the next day. Erec showed up, challenged the knight, and won the battle. The poor innkeeper gave Erec his daughter for a wife, which had been agreed on ahead of time. She was by far the most beautiful maiden around. They then returned to King Arthur’s court. Everyone proclaimed that she was the most beautiful maiden, and King Arthur was able to bestow upon her the kiss of the white stag.
In Harry Potter the weasel is Arthur Weasley’s patronus.
- Weasels are small mammals that will attack animals larger than themselves if necessary and so the symbolism of a weasel is often that of a cunning and fierce warrior. The negative side is the weasel represents trickery and sneakiness. This is most likely due to the fact that weasels are small, thin animals who can fit into small holes.
In Roman mythology there is one small story about a weasel that involves the hero Hercules. Hercules was the son of the god Jupiter and a mortal woman Alcmena. The goddess Juno, in one of her jealous rages, persuaded the goddess of childbirth, Lucina to sit outside of Alcmena’s room while she was in labor. Lucina sat outside with her legs crossed and her hands tied and her garments bunched up in order to prevent Alcmena from giving birth right away. Hercules was one of two twins, and Juno wanted Hercules to be born last, because the first baby to be born would be the son of Alcmena’s mortal husband and so ruler of his kingdom.
Almena’s maid, Galanthis, tricked the goddess of childbirth by rushing out of the room to say that Hercules had been born. The goddess jumped up and by moving she broke the spell. Alcmena was then able to give birth, for real, to Hercules. The goddess Lucina punished Galanthis by flinging her to the floor and turning her into a weasel.
Harry Potter Connection! Galanthis, the maid turned into a weasel, had red hair, just like all of the Weasleys!
Harry Potter Magical Creatures
You might notice that I did not include magical creatures in this section, but only real animals. If you are interested in information about magical creatures please refer to Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling. You can also find good information in The Sorcerer’s Companion by Allan Zola Kronzek and Elizabeth Kronzek.