The real magic of Harry Potter: 15 details the wizarding world borrows from history

To mark the 20-year anniversary of the release of the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Dr Hetta Howes investigates the real history that inspired JK Rowling’s magical world…

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione on the set of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Since the publication of The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has exploded globally. Harry, Ron and Hermione are some of the best-loved characters from children’s literature, and their adventures in the Wizarding World have even reached the big screen and stage – with November 2021 being the 20th anniversary of the first film in the series being released.

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The Potterverse is one of staggering imagination, though that’s not to say it is devoid of truth. From fantastic beasts to the mysterious science of alchemy, JK Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry is filled with historical and mythological influences just waiting to be uncovered…

Spoilers ahead for both films and series

Nicolas Flamel was a real person

In the first book (and film) of the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s StoneSorcerer’s Stone in the US – Harry eats his first chocolate frog on the train to Hogwarts and discovers a ‘Famous Witch and Wizard’ card, which describes a man called Nicolas Flamel. In the books, Flamel is a friend to Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and the man responsible for creating the titular Philosopher’s Stone.

Flamel is not Rowling’s invention, however – he really existed. Born in Pontoise, France, in around 1330, he was a successful scribe and bookseller. After his death in 1418, rumours began circulating that he had learned alchemical secrets on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in north-western Spain.

Coloured engraving depicting French scrivener and manuscript seller Nicolas Flamel, who developed a posthumous reputation as an alchemist due to his reputed work on the Philosopher's Stone
Coloured engraving depicting French scrivener and manuscript seller Nicolas Flamel, who developed a posthumous reputation as an alchemist due to his reputed work on the Philosopher’s Stone. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)

Alchemy was considered to be one of the highest arts in the medieval and Renaissance periods, and many people did study it. It is a kind of medieval chemistry, concerned with the transformation of matter (for example, turning base metals into gold).

Alchemists believed that nature had secrets to reveal, which could be discovered through careful experimentation. The practice taps into humanity’s desire to seek more knowledge, and is now considered to be part of the history of science.

But despite the rumours, there is no real evidence that the real Nicolas Flamel had anything to do with alchemy.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Not only was it believed that the real Nicolas Flamel was an alchemist, it was also believed that he had discovered the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. It is ruby red stone, so the first Harry Potter story has it, that can turn metal into gold and can also produce the elixir of life, and it is something that scientists really did quest to discover in the Middle Ages and beyond.

In the 13th century, a vast number of Arabic works reached England and were translated into Latin, including treatises on alchemy, which told of an unrecognisable substance they called the Philosopher’s Stone. The search continued well into the 17th century – we now know that Isaac Newton secretly dabbled in alchemy – and although the Philosopher’s Stone was never discovered, the science did lead to other significant discoveries. Distillation, laudanum, oil paints and inks were all discovered thanks to alchemy.

Broomsticks

 Harry Potter, we discover in The Philosopher’s Stone, is a natural when it comes to flying on a broom – and that broom-flying is an essential skill in the game of Quidditch, the wizarding world’s preeminent team sport.

 The image of a witch flying on a humble broomstick has become an archetypal one, dating back to the 15th century, when it was believed that witches summoned demons that could enchant their broomsticks into flight. The records of French magistrate Claude Tholasan, who was involved in a series of witch trials spanning some 20 years in the early 1400s, are particularly illuminating. They reveal that the witches on trial claimed (under torture) that they went out at night in the company of devils and strangled children. They would then smear their broomsticks with the fat of their victims and fly to a banquet with the devil.

In the Harry Potter canon, the fact that witches and wizards fly on broomsticks is their worst kept secret, popular as magical transport because they are portable, cheap and require no explanation to muggles – non-magic folk – as to why they were in possession of a broom.

Familiars

 Early on in The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is taken to Diagon Alley – the wizarding equivalent of Oxford Street – where among other things he acquires his own owl, Hedwig. Elsewhere we see students with cats, rats and, in the case of another character called Neville Longbottom, a toad.

But these are not akin to familiars as our medieval forbears would have understood them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a familiar as “a spirit, often taking the form of an animal, which obeys and assists a witch”. Alongside their broomsticks and pointed hats, witches and wizards have been associated with familiars from at least the 16th century; the earliest recorded usage comes from one of French reformer John Calvin’s sermons in 1583.

This illustration from the Compendium Maleficarium shows witches in the form of their animal familiar showing their allegiance to the Devil
This illustration from the Compendium Maleficarium shows witches in the form of their animal familiar showing their allegiance to the Devil (Photo by Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

It was believed that these animals were actually demons who sucked blood from the witches in return for service, and it was common practice to search accused witches for teats as a sign of their guilt. In the Salem witch trials, one accuser claimed to have seen a woman sitting on the beams of the church, suckling a yellow bird, and the accused girl Dorothy/Dorcas Good confessed to having and suckling a little snake.

Whilst familiars of this kind don’t appear in the world of Harry Potter, there are plenty of animals, from Crookshanks to Mrs Norris, who share an affinity with their owners and seem to have their own innate powers and abilities.

Salem Square

Basilisk versus phoenix – a medieval legend made flesh

By the 12th century, bestiaries – a type of medieval encyclopaedia – were the ‘bestsellers’ of the medieval world. In these works, cats, pigs and rabbits rub shoulders with fantastical, mythological creatures such as the phoenix, the unicorn and the basilisk.

The manuscripts are a mix of fact and fiction that blend religious writings and folklore with hyperbolic accounts from returned travellers – at a time when far less was known about the world. As well as describing these animals, authors would use them as a form of moral instruction – warning against the hypocritical tears of a crocodile, for example, or encouraging readers to imitate the industrious bee.

  • Read more about the (tall?) tales of medieval traveller Sir John Mandeville

A number of animals found in medieval bestiaries can also be found in the Potterverse – including centaurs, giants, werewolves and the three-headed guard dog, Cerberus. In the second instalment in the series, The Chamber of Secrets, two of these fantastical creatures go head-to-head: the basilisk sealed inside Hogwarts by Salazar Slytherin and Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes.

According to medieval legend, the basilisk – also known as king of the serpents – is a cockerel with a snake’s tail. It can kill birds with the fire from its mouth, and any human who locks eyes with the creature will drop dead. The phoenix, in bestiaries, is a purplish-red bird that is sometimes described as being the size of an eagle. The bird is immortal – every 500 years, it will build a pyre for itself and set itself on fire using the sun. Nine days later, it will rise again from the dead.

Although both animals will be familiar to Harry Potter fans, Rowling’s creations are slightly different to their medieval counterparts. Her basilisk can also kill with a glance, but it is more like a giant snake than a snake-cockerel hybrid. According to medieval bestiaries, only a weasel can defeat a basilisk, but in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Fawkes helps Harry to destroy the creature by pecking out its eyes.

Illustration of a basilisk, a legendary reptile reputed to be king of serpents. It has the body of a cockerel and possesses the power to cause death with a single glance
Illustration of a basilisk, a legendary reptile reputed to be king of serpents. It has the body of a cockerel and possesses the power to cause death with a single glance (Photo by Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Bezoar stones really were regarded cure-all, but not just for poison

Bezoar stones act as an antidote for a wide range of poisons in the wizarding world. Professor Snape writes “just shove a bezoar down their throats” across a list of antidotes in his copy of Advanced Potion Making, and Harry finds this advice to hold true when he saves Ron’s life with a bezoar stone in the sixth instalment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Rowling takes her inspiration for this antidote directly from history. Bezoar stones were one of the most desirable objects for European collectors in the 16th and 17th centuries, due to their reputation as an effective medicine, believed to help treat range of illnesses from melancholia to the plague.

According to the 16th-century natural historian Nicholas Monardes, the stones were formed from the tears of goats, shed after eating poisonous snakes. Although by the 18th century they were largely disregarded, in 2007 the auction house Christie’s sold a bezoar stone for a whopping €33,600, suggesting that they still hold some power over our imaginations.

Runes

The study of ancient runes at Hogwarts introduces students to a subject that has long been associated with magic.

Evidence of runes inscribed on ordinary objects as charms to protect the wearer has been discovered all over Europe, and the ancient Goths used the word haliurunnae (Hell-runer) to refer to a sorceress.

The Germanic word rune translates as ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’, and the origins of this ancient written communication are similarly mysterious. Whilst many believe they were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman alphabets, Norse mythology tells a more compelling story, in which the god Odin sacrifices himself in return for the knowledge of the runes: he injures himself with a spear and then hangs on a ‘windy tree’ for nine days and nights without food in return for their secrets.

Divination and oracle bones

 Whilst divination teacher Sybill Trelawney claims that divination is “the most difficult of all magical arts”, her students are less impressed by the subject. Hermione calls the art of foreseeing the future “woolly”, whilst Harry and Ron make up outlandish prophecies, tinged with tragedy, to pass their exam. The fact that their fictional prophecies turn out to accurately predict the trials Harry will face in the Triwizard Tournament during the fourth instalment The Goblet of Fire may well be Rowling’s comment on how dismissive we can be of a practice that is thousands of years old.

In the 2017 Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library, the oldest items on display were Chinese oracle bones, also known as dragon bones, more than 3,000 years old. Questions about topics as various as the weather to the outcome of major battles were engraved on the bones and then heat was applied with metal sticks. The bones cracked under the heat and ‘diviners’ could then interpret the patterns for answers and predict the future.

Seers and sibyls

The aforementioned Trelawney, descended from the famous (in the wizarding world) seer Cassandra Trelawney, is the professor of divination at Hogwarts. Despite this, she only makes two true predictions that readers ever know of.

'The Sibyl of Delphi', from a fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel
‘The Sibyl of Delphi’, from a fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Yet her name is a historical nod to that latent talent, as is that of her grandmother. Cassandra was a Trojan priestess of Apollo, the Greek god of truth and prophecy, who would grant the gift of prophecy to women as a sign of his favour, but then punish them if they refused his sexual advances. For Cassandra, that punishment was that she was cursed never to be believed, even when she predicted the destruction of Troy during the Trojan War.

Sibyll is another allusion. In Greek legend and literature, sibyls were prophets, strong female seers who had great influence over their communities and rulers. They too were usually associated with Apollo.

Quirinus Quirrell, the Roman god

The denouement of The Philosopher’s Stone – in which Voldemort is revealed to be living on the back of Professor Quirinus Quirrell’s head – is perhaps predictable if you have a strong grasp of Roman deities.

His very name references the Roman god of doorways, transitions, and new beginnings: Janus Quirinus. Janus is famously depicted as having two faces, one looking into the past and one looking into the future, much like Quirrell when he reveals Voldemort’s face from under his turban. We also have Janus to thank for the month of January, the entryway into the new year.

Cedric Diggory, best friend of Achilles

 Quirrell is not the only character with a direct analogue in mythology – the same could be said of Cedric Diggory, who is killed towards the end of The Goblet of Fire.

 Rowling has revealed that the moment in which Harry retrieves Cedric’s body is inspired by a series of events in Homer’s famous epic The Iliad. In this account of the Trojan war, Patroclus – the best friend and, many believe, lover of Achilles – is killed by Hector.

Achilles retrieves Patroclus’s body from the Trojans and takes it back to his tent, where he delays the funeral for as long as possible because he is too grief stricken to let go of his friend’s body – something nodded to in the film when we see Harry clinging to Cedric’s body until he is forcibly removed.

Mandrake was considered a cure, but not for ‘petrification’

Herbology is one of the many classes taught at Hogwarts, in which students learn about the properties of both mundane and magical plants, and how to care for them and use them properly.

One of these plants, which appears in almost every book, is the mandrake. The plant has a root that looks like a human and, when it matures, its cry can be fatal to anyone that hears it.

Medieval book showing illustration of a mandrake, the root of which is said to be able to unleash a cry fatal to all who hear it
Medieval book showing illustration of a mandrake, the root of which is said to be able to unleash a cry fatal to all who hear it (Photo by Wellcome Images)

Mandrakes pop up first in classical literature and are then documented in medieval herbals, in illustrations which depict a man-shaped root. Medieval herbals are a certain type of manuscript, which collect together the medicinal, culinary, aromatic and magical properties of different plants and, like bestiaries, they are a mix of fact, fiction, and folklore.

In one herbal from the 12th century, now housed in the British Library, readers are instructed on how to collect real mandrakes, which are allegedly very useful in medicine, without damaging their hearing or losing their lives.

In the wizarding world, mandrakes are used as a restorative draught for those who have been ‘petrified’ (stunned into a comatose state by a creature such as a basilisk). In medieval herbals, however, they are recommended for pre-operative patients, to make them soporific and minimise their pain.

Want to learn more about medieval medicine? Here are some of our most popular articles…

Magic was used as medicine (in a fashion)

A number of healing practices used in the medieval period sound suspiciously like ‘magic’ to us, and were even described as such at the time.

For example, sympathetic magic, a type of ‘natural magic’, was used in the medieval period to cure various ailments. For eye problems, a doctor might prescribe the eye of a vulture, wrapped in the skin of a wolf, to be worn around the patient’s neck. Plant-based poultices, meanwhile, would be coupled with a charm, or spell, to increase the chances of success. Although some of these practices were labelled as ‘superstitious’ in the later Middle Ages, they weren’t associated with demonic magic until the dawning of the witch hunts in the 15th century.

Similarly, many of the plants that Hogwarts students learn about in their Herbology lessons are used for medicine as well as in potions and spells. Rowling’s exploration of plant-based healing, and the blurring of magic and medicine, therefore has a direct relation to medieval ‘natural magic’, which was considered at the time to be a branch of science.

Horcruxes may not be real, but people believed in magical objects

Much of the adventure and intrigue in the Potterverse revolves around magical objects. Examples include the Goblet of Fire, an innocuous looking cup which acts as an impartial judge; the Mirror of Erised, which offers the gazer a glimpse of their heart’s deepest desire; and, of course, the horcruxes in which Voldemort conceals parts of his soul.

In medieval legend, objects are equally central and often have magical or miraculous properties. One of the most famous Arthurian legends is the quest for the Holy Grail, a cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper, and which could give its owner eternal life.

In medieval Christianity, too, objects are often imbued with special powers. Relics of saints in particular were often believed to have the power to heal illness or help fertility. Many people – including the fictional pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket, who before his death had been Archbishop of Canterbury, where they would buy a vial of his watered-down ‘healing blood’ as a souvenir. The milk of the Virgin Mary and the tears and blood of Christ were also advertised and available for sale at various sites of pilgrimage.

Abracadabra, the killing curse, and a cure for malaria

Avada Kedavra, the killing curse, is supposed to inflict instant, unavoidable death – which is what makes Harry Potter so famous. ‘The Boy Who Lived’ is the only person known to have survived it.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2004, Rowling revealed that the curse is inspired “by an ancient spell in Aramaic […] which means ‘let the thing be destroyed’”. However, the Aramaic spell she refers to is one of healing and protection rather than one of destruction.

It is also one of the possible sources for the magical phrase abracadabra – although the phrase could also be derived from the Hebrew ab, ben, and ruach hakodesh (father, son, and holy spirit) or even from the magical word abraxas whose letters, in Greek numerology, add up to 365, the number of days in a year.

The first recorded use of abracadabra can be found in a 13th-century manuscript copy of Quintus Serenus’s Liber medicinalis (Book of Medicine), where it is written out five times as a charm to cure malaria. It is still used in the present day to invoke a sense of magic.


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LISTEN: Archaeologist and author Chris Gosden explores delves into the history of magical beliefs and practices from ancient times until the present day on the HistoryExtra podcast. Listen here: