J.K. Rowling’s imagination is fired by the past and this trail by Dr Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, looks at historical objects in the Ashmolean Museum that illuminate some of the real-world sources of Rowling's ideas. Through looking at classical, Renaissance and Victorian objects, Dr Groves explores some of the ways in which Harry Potter works its magic on the stories and stuff of the past.
Listen to Dr Beatrice Groves in conversation with Dr Vicky McGuinness, discussing some of the fascinating details about literary allusion in the Harry Potter world. Dr Groves blogs at Bathilda's Notebook on Mugglenet, where you can find out more about the real history behind Hogwarts’ creation.
Harry Potter Tour at the Ashmolean
Dr Groves led a Harry Potter Tour at the Ashmolean on Friday 28 June 2019. Click below to view the trail guide (PDF) or read on for the full, unabridged tour.
Start in Gallery 16 ‘The Greek World’
Find a case called ‘Jewellery and Gems.’ Can you find a Griffin in this case?
Many of the animals and names in Harry Potter are Rowling’s creative re-imaginings of creatures, myths or ideas that have a long history in human storytelling. This Griffin is a dress pin from 300 BC. What is made out of?
Rowling used to be a French teacher. The French for of is ‘de (d’)’ and the French for gold is ‘or’. If you say ‘Griffin of gold’ in French what word do you get?
Now go next door to Gallery 20 ‘Aegean World’
Look in the ‘World of Myths cabinet’ about the Minotaur and find coins with labyrinths on them.
This case tells the famous myth of an inventor called Daedalus who built a labyrinth on Knossos and at its centre was a fantastical beast: a Minotaur (half-bull, half-man). The ancient Labyrinth coins in this case were made on Knossos. Can you find the Minotaur in the centre of the Labyrinth? There are also some very old seals in this cabinet which might symbolise the Minotaur. Do you think these look like Minotaurs?
Harry enters a labyrinth in the Triwizard tournament. The Minotaur is a man-eating half-beast, half-man. Can you think of any beasts Harry meets in his labyrinth that are likewise created out of more than one creature?
In Greek myth the hero, Theseus, finds his way of the Labyrinth because Ariadne gives him a ball of thread so he can find his way back. Can you think of anyone in Harry Potter whose name sounds like Ariadne? Can you think of any way in which she helps the hero find his way?
Now go next door to Gallery 14 ‘The Cast Gallery’ and find a centaur
Centaurs – like the Minotaur – are half-human, half-beast. For the Greeks they embodied an untamed barbarism that contrasted with Greek civilization. This is why the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs is depicted on so many important temples. Which Greek temple has this Centaur been cast from?
In Greek myth centaurs are suspicious of humans; all except the wise and gifted centaur Chiron who became a tutor to many important heroes (such as Achilles and Jason). Which centaur in Harry Potter is modelled on Chiron?
(Look round the cast gallery for a boar. Do you recognise this boar from the Harry Potter films?)
Now go back to Gallery 21 ‘Greek and Roman Sculpture’ and find two Sphinxes
Sphinxes are the third part-human creature we have found: they have a human head on the haunches of a lion (and may have wings too). They are also dangerous man-eaters (do you remember who Fudge had to inform that they were importing a Sphinx into the country?)
Sphinxes are famous for asking riddles. What is the answer to the riddle that the Sphinx asks Harry in the Triwizard tournament? The riddle that the Sphinx asks Oedipus is perhaps the most famous riddle there is. See if you can find someone who knows what it was!
This is a less famous riddle asked by the Sphinx: ‘There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other, and then she gives birth to first. How can this be?’ [Answer at the bottom of the page.]
Sphinxes ask riddles because they are threshold guardians. Their ‘liminal’ status (between two places) is part of why they are imagined as half-human, half-animal. In Egyptian mythology Sphinxes are male, and in Greek mythology Sphinxes are female. Do you notice anything odd about this pair of sphinxes? Can you think of why the curators might have placed them between the Greek and Egyptian galleries?
Task: Ask your friend (or get your adult to ask you) a riddle!
Then go into the Egyptian galleries (galleries 22 to 27) and find some hieroglyphs.
Hieroglyphs were the formal writing system of ancient Egypt. Their meaning was lost until the script was deciphered in the 1820s by the brilliant French linguist Champollion (using the Rosetta stone). You can read hieroglyphs from right to left or from left to right (you read from the direction the animals and humans in the script are facing). Which direction does your hieroglyph read in?
The oldest fairy tale in the world is called ‘The Tale of the Two Brothers’ and it is written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. There is an important fairy tale in Deathly Hallows - do you think Rowling was influenced by this Egyptian fairy tale when she named it? Rowling’s fairy tale, too, is written in an antique, difficult to decipher script – do you remember what it was? Why do you think she might have decided to have this story written in a ‘secret’ script?
Go downstairs to Gallery 2 ‘The Ashmolean Story’
In the ‘Nature and Science’ case in this gallery there are lots of objects that would be at home in the Wizarding World. Can you find a calendar written in runes? Which of Harry’s friends can read runes?
TASK: look up the runic alphabet on the internet and write a friend a secret letter in runes.
There is also an Apothecary’s storage pot. What did this pot contain? Can you remember anything that Harry brought at the Apothecary’s in Diagon Alley?
There is also a real crystal ball in the next-door cabinet (‘Elias Ashmole and the Scholars’). Do you think this is smaller than Trelawney’s crystal ball?
Look for a painting of the famous Elizabethan magus John Dee above this case.
Elias Ashmole (who founded the Ashmolean) was fascinated by John Dee and published the alchemical writings of his son. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone we discover that Nicholas Flamel had found the secret to making the Philosopher’s Stone. Nicholas Flamel is a real person (a 14th Century Parisian manuscript seller) although he was not really an alchemist (although people claimed he had been after his death). Astonishingly, however, Elias Ashmole was not only one of the most important publishers of alchemical writings, he also believed that he knew the secret to the Philosopher’s Stone….
(Look round the corner into Gallery 1 ‘Exploring the Past’ and see if you can find an object that may once have been used by alchemists!)
Go upstairs to Gallery 66 ‘The pre-Raphaelites’
Find picture full of flowers called Convent Thoughts and painted by Charles Allston Collins.
The idea of the ‘language of flowers’ – the idea that flowers could be used to encode secret meanings - flourished in the Victorian period. Can you find any symbolic flowers in this painting? The frame reads ‘Sicut Lilium’ (‘As the lily [among the thorns]’). The lily is a flower traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary. Why do you think Rowling calls Harry’s mother Lily?
Rowling often uses symbolic flower names for her characters. (Can you find Opium Poppies in a near-by painting?) Poppy Pomfrey, for example, who is skilled in healing magic, has a name made up of no fewer than three medicinal plants. Poppies are used for sleep remedies and pain relief; comfrey was used for mending bones (can you remember why this might be particularly suitable for Madame Pomfrey?) and Pomfret cakes are a traditional throat medicine derived from liquorice root.
Can you think of any other characters in Harry Potter named after flowers and what those names might mean?
[Answer to the Sphinx riddle: One sister is day, the other is night.]