The author of the beloved fantasy novel series turns 52 on July 31. She shares her birthday with her most famous character, The Boy Who Lived.
If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series since the first time your child picked it up, it’s easy to miss many of the references J.K. Rowling packed into her books. One of the joys of revisiting the series as an adult is finding all the mythological, allegorical and historical references she scattered throughout the pages.
First, there are the more obvious references. Most people are familiar with the sphinx, for example. "Minerva" was the Roman goddess of wisdom. And Fluffy looks an awful lot like Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Ancient Greek underworld.
But below are some tidbits you are more likely to have missed.
Rowling is a master of subtext: the meaning beneath the dialogue; what the speaker really means, even though he’s not saying it directly.
Consider, for example, this conversation between Severus Snape and Harry Potter during their first Potions class. Snape asked Harry a series of questions, including this clue: “Mr. Potter. Tell me, what would I get if I added powered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?” Of course, Harry, being new to the wizarding world, had no idea.
According to the Victorian language of flowers, asphodel is a type of lily meaning “my regrets follow you to the grave” and wormwood means “absence” and symbolizes bitter sorrow. If we combine the meanings of those two plants, we could interpret the truth behind Snape’s question as, “I bitterly regret Lily’s death.”
Cold-hearted as Severus Snape might have been, readers eventually discover that he’s been in love with Lilly Potter for all of his adult life. In fact, this failed love story is the catalyst of Snape’s entire character arc, and it’s the painful seed that grows the complicated relationship between Harry Potter and himself.
Rowling gives us the first clue early on. Of course, deciphering it requires a working knowledge of Victorian flower meanings.
Along that same line…
“I used to collect names of plants that sounded witchy,” Rowling told 60 Minutes, “and then I found Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, the answer to my prayer.
First published over 350 years ago during the reign of Elizabeth I, Culpeper's Herbal remains one of the most complete listings of herbs and their uses in existence. From Adder's Tongue to Yarrow, the book contains plant descriptions and old-time uses.
To give a few examples:
Absinthe has been portrayed through the years as a dangerously addictive psychoactive and hallucinogen, and it was banned in the 1900s. More recent studies have shown Absinthe’s psychoactive properties have been exaggerated, and it has enjoyed a revival since the 1990s.
That’s the folk-remedy name for the real-life herb Aconite. Folklore says this virulently poisonous herb could be added to sachets to guard against vampires and werewolves.
And yes, the dried roots do often look like people. They have long been used as magical poppets for home protection.
The main threesomes’ wands are actually connected to the Celtic Tree Calendar. The Druidic calendar assigns letters in the Celtic Ogham alphabet to correspond to a specific tree each month.
This evergreen plant is protective and reminds us of the immortality of nature. People born under Holly are natural-born leaders.
Ron’s wand is Ash, which matches his wand and March 1 Birthday
Hermione’s birthday of Sept. 19 corresponds to her vine wood wand.
Personally, I think she wanted the Yew associations of death. Yew is poisonous. Every part of the tree contains alkaloids that are fatal to humans. And Yew remains poisonous after the tree has died. Similarly, Voldemort’s Horcruxes and Death Eaters lingered on after his demise at Godric’s Hollow, poisoning minds and destroying lives.
Almost all of the spells in her wizarding world play around with Latin, and pretty much every creature and character name has some hidden significance. Here are some of the historical and mythological references in the Harry Potter books I found clever:
Expelliarmus, the spell to knock a weapon from an enemy’s hand, combines expellere, meaning “drive out” or “expel,” with arma, meaning “weapon.” Incendio, which lights a fire, comes from incendiaries, or “fire-raising.”
Likewise, the curse to kill Harry’s parents, “Avada Kedavra,” is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and the origin of abracadabra, which “let the thing be destroyed.”
And Hogwart’s motto is Draco Dormiens Numquam Titilandus—“Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon.”
Hermione’s unique name comes from a Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale, but Rowling says the etymology was her inspiration. The name is a female derivative of Hermes, best known as the messenger of the Greek Gods. Hermes was also the god of eloquence, wit and quick-thinking, traits Hermione has in spades.
Behind the Scenes
Daniel Radcliffe has been very open in the past about his struggles with alcohol. He admitted to Playboy Magazine that he drank heavily between the ages of 18 and 20. He said his life went off the rails for a while when he turned 18 and was filming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
“People with problems like that are very adept at hiding it,” he said. “I can honestly say I never drank at work on Harry Potter. But I went into work still drunk. I can point to many scenes where I’m just gone. Dead behind the eyes.
Realizing he had to change his ways, Radcliffe quite drinking a month after filming the final Potter film, and still doesn’t drink.
Despite the jokes, filming the last HP films were a struggle for the actress, who has since been cancer-free.
On a lighter note, Daniel Radcliffe broke about 80 wands during the filming of the Harry Potter movies because he used them as drumsticks.
She used her experience to create Dementors, creepy creatures that feed on human emotion. “It's so difficult to describe [depression] to someone who's never been there, because it's not sadness," Rowling told Oprah Winfrey. “I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it's that cold absence of feeling—that really hollowed-out feeling. That's what Dementors are.”
If you could ask J.K. Rowling one question, what would it be? Do you have a little-known Harry Potter fact I didn’t mention? I'd love to hear about them.
Until next week, here's an idea: go back and re-read the whole Harry Potter series. Let me know what revelations they bring you!