Recently I’ve been reading and watching the Harry Potter series.
Actually, that’s the understatement of the year. If you’ve ever lived with an obsessive seven-year-old, you’ll know what I mean. The house is littered with wands, cuddly owls and Hogwarts scarves; I’ve had to go through the process of determining my school house (Ravenclaw, if you’re interested), my patronus (a wild boar, apparently, which my son finds excessively funny) and my wand core (not sure why that matters). And then there’s the Lego: the hours and hours of building school halls and steam trains and Quidditch pitches out of Lego…
So it’s fair to say that I know Harry Potter almost as well as I know the Aeneid. Luckily the two areas of expertise are somewhat complementary. J.K. Rowling studied Classics at university, so there are classical connections galore in the Potterverse for me to bore my son with. And since that level of expertise shouldn’t go to waste, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite classical links with you.
(I’m not the first to note the classical connections, of course. There’s an article on Pottermore about them, and an OU article by Joanna Paul, and the internet is awash with people deconstructing pseudo-Latin spells.)
The descriptive first names of the Hogwarts professors are a delight to many Latinists. There’s the strict Severus Snape, and the white-haired Albus Dumbledore; also Rubeus Hagrid and Silvanus Kettleburn, along with the rarely-mentioned teachers Aurora Sinistra (Astronomy) and Septima Vector (Arithmancy). Even the genial Professor Slughorn, who organises dinner parties for his favourites, has a classically appropriate name: Horace. Divinities get a mention too: the wise Professor McGonagall is a Minerva, and the teacher of Herbology is Pomona Sprout; while Professor Trelawney, teacher of Divination and occasional prophet, is called Sybil (and is descended from the famous seer Cassandra Trelawney, of course).
Were they given the names as babies, do you think, and grew into them? Was Snape doomed to be sour-faced and critical because he was named Severus at birth? Or were the Latin names bestowed upon them, like nicknames, when their inclinations had become apparent? [After you watch all eight films for the 35th time, these existential questions start to keep you up at night – and then you start wondering what your own Latin professor name would be…!]
The first-name joy continues with the villains. There’s Draco Malfoy, of course, with his father Lucius. Sirius Black had a brother – who became a villain but defected and died bravely – with the grand Roman heroic name of Regulus, as well as cousins called Bellatrix, Narcissa and Andromeda. There’s even an evil witch called Alecto, in a nice Potter/Aeneid connection.
Then there’s the curious case of Professor Quirinus Quirrell, the (literally) two-faced professor and villain from the first book. The internet tends to explain the name Quirinus as a reference to the two-faced god Janus, Quirinus being associated by the Romans with an aspect of Janus. But there’s also a Romulus connection, since the name Quirinus is often used in Roman literature as another name for Romulus. I’m always interested in receptions of Romulus, the morally ambiguous founding father of Rome who manages to get away with killing his own brother, so this intrigues me as the name for a disguised villain.
There’s another, rather more obvious, Romulus connection later in the series. In Book 3 we meet Professor Remus Lupin, who (as a werewolf who also goes by the pseudonym ‘Romulus’ in a radio broadcast) positively beats us over the head with his conspicuous Roman wolfishness. Remus Lupin takes over the job which was held in Book 1 by Quirinus Quirrell. Lupin, too, is a character who appears to be something he is not, in his case because being a werewolf carries a social stigma. Poor Remus doesn’t last long. [The name tends to be a bad sign: I feel a Potter/Star Trek crossover article coming on…!]
Myths and monsters
Greco-Roman creatures are introduced early in the series, when a three-headed guard dog (named Fluffy) is stationed in the school, and has to be lulled to sleep with music, Orpheus-style. There’s a huge basilisk (sorry, Pliny: it definitely isn’t twelve fingers in length) in the Chamber of Secrets, and centaurs in the forest. And the phoenix saves the day more than once.
Don’t even get me started on the social structures of the wizarding world, or I’ll end up writing a paper on bloodlines, house-elves and Roman slavery…!
The spells taught at Hogwarts aren’t entirely Latin, but there’s enough Latin in there to make me happy. If you want to summon a broom, for instance, you shout ‘Accio broom!’, accio meaning ‘I summon’ in Latin. Other spells have more complex (and dubious) etymologies attributed to them. For those who aren’t happy with the quality of the Latin, here’s a spirited defence of why the Latin of the Potterverse is not Ciceronian, tracing it back to the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy passed in 1692.
Then there are mottos. I like a good motto. The motto of Hogwarts School is Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus, which is Latin for ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’. Much more useful than my old school motto, the distinctly boring Ante deum asto (‘I stand before god’). The wizarding council also has its own Latin motto: ignorantia juris neminem excusat (‘ignorance of the law excuses no-one’).
Many years ago, when the books first came out, I was temporarily a celebrity in my little cousin’s school yard for my ability to translate Latin. I think that’s probably the last time anybody thought I was cool for being a latinist.
I should also mention, for those of a particularly geekish disposition, that Harry Potter has been translated into Latin (yes, of course I have a copy), and is great fun to read. Some of it is reproduced, in very readable chunks, on the wonderful Legonium website.
J.K. Rowling once reportedly said ‘I’m one of the very few who has ever found a practical application for their classics degree’. As someone who peddles classics degrees for a living, I feel obliged to object to this on principle: but nevertheless I thank her for the classical connections, which give me a reason to stay awake when my son puts The Order of the Phoenix on for the 36th time…
Cora Beth Knowles