Harry's Sacred Egyptian Triangle
Egyptian Myths in Harry Potter, Part 3
An original editorial by S.P. Sipal
And now for what I consider the most exciting part of this three-part editorial -- that symbol on the spine of the Bloomsbury children's cover, the one that has inspired much discussion, sparked such controversy, and appeared as the key into the last round of W.O.M.B.A.T. questions. That sign, in my opinion, is a decidedly Egyptian symbol with some mixed-in alchemical and Masonic esoteric meaning. Essentially, I think it is a composite sign of JKRs own creation -- an Egyptian Triangle with the Eye of Horus and Tree of Life layered on top.
The Sacred Egyptian Triangle
If you take a cross section of a pyramid, you get a triangle. If you take a cross section of the Great Pyramid of Khafre at Giza as pictured above, you get the Egyptian Triangle.(1) Actually, you get two ABD and ACD. A right triangle with sides measuring 3-4-5 was vitally important to the ancient Egyptians as it helped them to resurvey the land each year following the Nile's annual flooding.(2) However, this triangle was also considered sacred as it represented eternal truths, which they then incorporated into the construction of their most important monuments.
Although much has been discussed on forums about a bisected circle in that cover design, truly it is the greater triangle which is bisected into two right angle triangles. I measured an enlarged version of the U.K. spine symbol, and indeed the measurements came very close to 3-4-5. I believe that bisected triangle on the Bloomsbury spine represents two Egyptian triangles forming a pyramid.
In an Egyptian Triangle, the sum of the squares of the two sides produce the third. In other words, 3² + 4² = 5². How the Egyptians interpreted this geometric fact was to equate 3 with the male principal, Osirus; 4 was the female principal, Isis; and 5 was their offspring, or Horus. Plus, 3² x 4² = 144, and 144 is a number signifying completion, perfect knowledge, or eternity.(3)
Plutarch in his treatise on Isis and Osiris written around the turn of the first century CE says:
One might conjecture that the Egyptians hold in high honour the most beautiful of the triangles, since they liken the nature of the Universe most closely to it, as Plato in the Republic seems to have made use of it in formulating his figure of marriage. This triangle has its upright of three units, its base of four, and its hypotenuse of five, whose power is equal to that of the other two sides. The upright, therefore, may be likened to the male, the base to the female, and the hypotenuse to the child of both, and so Osiris may be regarded as the origin, Isis as the recipient, and Horus as perfected result. Three is the first perfect odd number: four is a square whose side is the even number two; but five is in some ways like to its father, and in some ways like to its mother, being made up of three and two.(4)
The Egyptian triangle represented the universal nature of Father + Mother = Child, the holy trinity of creation, the divine recipe for the continuity of life, for eternal life -- a formula Voldemort would never participate in. For Harry, however, the equivalent sides of that triangle would be James + Lily = a child well loved.
The Egyptians believed that the child reconnects the mother to the father, or that as the child grows upward, from the base of the mother toward the father, it is the journey of the son as he seeks to reconnect to his source. The son-god ascending to the father-god. The numbers also represent 3 = spirit, 4 = body, and 5 = soul.(5) So Harry would be the soul, following the path of the upward journey toward unification with the divine.
This sacred triangle also represented, at least to the Greeks, a mathematical problem they tried to solve but were unable to -- squaring the circle. It was claimed that the perimeter of the square of the base of the pyramid would be equal to the circumference of a circle formed with the height of the pyramid (AD) as its radius.(6) Truly, this is where Hermiones Arithmancy lessons might very well pay off!
The squaring of the circle was taken up by alchemists as a problem related to the Philosopher's Stone -- it was the harmonizing of the spiritual (the circle) with the material (the square). Indeed, the alchemists' image of a circle in a square in a triangle (ascending upward) was a key to unlocking the Philosopher's Stone. Each of these three shapes -- the triangle, circle, and square -- also held great esoteric meaning to the Egyptians and together symbolized the sacred union of the divine with the human. What a fitting plan for a monument designed to send the deceased pharaoh into immortality!
A group that has eagerly delved into the mysteries of the Egyptian triangle is the Masons. When speaking of the triangle, they talk about Pythagoras and the 47th Problem of Euclid as two later sources that drew from, or proved, the truth of the Egyptian triangle.
The 47th problem of Euclid is so named because it was the 47th in a series of mathematical problems in his book of Mathematics. We perhaps know the problem better as the Pythagorean Theorem. In algebraic terms:
a² + b² = c² where c is the hypotenuse while a and b are the sides of the triangle.
The typical example of this is the 3, 4 and 5 sided triangle.
The 47th problem of Euclid or Pythagorean Theorem is a common symbol to designate a Past Master.(7)
In discussing the problem of Euclid, the Masons also go into great detail of the "squaring of the circle" and its significance. This geometrical knowledge is part of their Master level degree. They draw alchemical truth from the triangle as well. In alchemy, the 3-4-5 sides represent the 3 essential elements (sulfur, mercury, salt) plus the 4 elements (air, earth, water, and fire) produces the 5th element, quintessence, or the Philosopher's Stone (Harry).(8)
In a prior essay I wrote called Geomancy and Alchemy Gems in Harry Potter, published in The Plot Thickens...Harry Potter Investigated by Fans for Fans in 2004, I analyzed how in alchemy sulfur corresponds to red which is represented as Rubeus Hagrid; mercury corresponds to white which is represented by Albus (white in Latin) Dumbledore; and salt corresponds to black which is of course represented by Sirius Black.(9) These three men play a crucial, fatherly role in the shaping and transformation of the prima materia of Harry. Thus, Harry is the sum of sulfur, salt and mercury (Hagrid, Sirius, and Dumbledore) heading upward toward enlightenment, seeking quintessence.
So, this is a lot of words, but what does it all mean?
Essentially, in going back to each of the points of what the Egyptian triangle represents, and if we accept from the prior parts of this editorial that Harry is related to Horus, then we can say that Harry is:
- The loving product of James and Lily
- A seeker after truth, eternity, and quintessence
- On a journey to reunite with his source, his father
- The Philosophers Stone in development, and by the end of Deathly Hallows, in perfection
- The initiate on his way to adept
- Soul seeking the divine
- The product of life, of creation, participating fully in both with the spark of life, which is love, planted firmly in his soul
One more point -- the Ahmes Papyrus, also known as the Rhind Papyrus, written about 4,000 years ago, gives the earliest testimonial of how the Egyptians used sacred ratios in the construction of the pyramids. This papyrus claims to present a "thorough study of all things, insight into all that exists, knowledge of all obscure secrets."(10) Its author was seeking truth through mathematics.
One of the reasons the Egyptians considered this triangle sacred was because if youve got two known sides, and a right angle, you can find the third unknown. Scientists have used simple mathematics based on the Pythagorean Theorem for years to determine measurements beyond our grasp the height of mountains, even the distance to the stars. Thus the ultimate meaning to this symbol is discovering the secrets of the universe using that which is already known.
For Harry, I believe this sign, which is truly a key, will point him in the direction to discover the secrets of his power that have always lay buried deep within. Hes like that snake in the globe also on the U.K. cover a rousing power about to explode (see more on this other image in a note at the end of this editorial). Perhaps, too, Harry has still to discover a more physical secret locked somewhere hes been before that will point him toward the solution to navigating the Deathly Hallows.
The Eye of Horus
The Eye of Horus was an amulet of healing and resurrection. One of the most revered and powerful amulets in ancient Egypt, it provided protection from evil and was a symbol of royal strength and assisted in the rebirth of the deceased.
The Eye of Horus is the granddaddy of apotropaic amulets, meaning a talisman that turns back harm or evil. In fact, the eye amulet was so popular it spread throughout the region and the centuries, morphing and adapting to various cultures, but always retaining the staring single eye. It is truly very old magic.
The Eye of Horus is the eye of God watching over creation, over individuals, giving protection, ensuring life. One of the descendants of the Eye of Horus is the Eye of Providence, otherwise known as the All-Seeing Eye.(11) The Eye of Providence, usually shown as an eye, or a circle, inside a triangle, was the eye of God watching protectively. In Masonry it also became associated with a past master.(12)
I believe in this cover symbol that this aspect of the eye represents Dumbledore. Dumbledore as an ascended master is now looking down as the all-seeing eye of God on Harry, to provide some form of guidance in his final quest.
We know Dumbledore will play a strong role in this last book, even beyond the grave. JKR mentioned during a visit to the Order of the Phoenix studio what a difficult time the deceased headmaster was giving her.(13) Although some have speculated that the spine-symbol seems to be set against marble, I think its set among the clouds, a very common background for the Eye of Providence. Dumbledore, from the beyond, is still watching over Harry, providing guidance, ensuring life...to the best of his abilities.
However, there is another aspect to the Eye of Horus that harkens back to the myth of the Contendings of Horus and Seth that we discussed in part two of this editorial. During their battle, Seth tore Horus left eye out. Thoth, a powerful god of magic and wisdom, restored Horus eye, and it became a symbol of the restoration of order, of Ma'at, as well as healing and resurrection.
In this aspect, the eye set among the clouds is almost like the rainbow in the sky seen after the Great Flood -- a symbol of peace after a flood of tears, and the promise of the restoration of life. Thus this sign implies a promise from our creator goddess J.K. Rowling that Harry will restore order and peace to the wizarding world, as well as the promise of his own resurrection.
Weve seen the Eye of Horus used once before in a healing/resurrecting scene, and that was in the Chamber of Secrets with Fawkes tear. The Eye of Horus is designed to resemble a falcon, the bird most associated with Horus. Part of the eye is a stylized teardrop. Fawkes tear was an earlier version of the eye resurrecting Harry from the dead, which I believe we will see in another version before the end of DH.
(Truly, there is so much to say about the Eye of Horus in relation to Harry Potter that this analysis could go on forever. However, Ive covered what I think is most critical for analyzing this symbol. If you'd like to delve deeper into Eye of Horus imagery in the series, check out my previous editorial.
A Recipe for the Philosopher's Stone
Once you add in the Eye of Horus on top of the Egyptian Triangle, you get the three most basic, perfect geometric shapes the triangle, the circle, and the square. Yes, the square is there. Look at the base of the triangle. I believe theres a reason that triangle is drawn three-dimensionally and that is to not only hint at its pyramid structure, but to give us its square base.
These three shapes held sacred meaning to the Egyptians and alchemists, very similar to what weve already discussed with the Egyptian triangle.
- circle = harmony, wholeness, eternity, cosmos, all-in-one, infinite cycles, the sun and the moon, the soul, female
- triangle = threefold nature of god, the three essential elements (mercury, sulfur, salt), threefold nature of humanity (mind, body, spirit), energy pushing upward, fire, male
- square = the 4 cardinal points, the material world in the 4 elements, the physical world brought together(15)
The Squaring of the Circle, drawn by Michael Maier in 1618
The union of the circle, triangle, and square was a symbol for the union of the physical world with the spiritual -- the key to unlocking the Philosophers Stone, as you see depicted in the picture above.
So, by adding the Eye of Horus onto the Egyptian Triangle, JKR not only reinforces Harrys journey toward unification and enlightenment, but also provides assurance that he is being watched over by a loving force from the beyond, and that he will succeed and survive in his quest to quintessence.
The Egyptian Tree of Life
Finally, this cover spine image also incorporates the Egyptian Tree of Life. As trees die during the winter and come back to life in the spring, they were powerful symbols of resurrection -- much as the tamarisk or willow tree protected the body of Osiris until he was brought back to life by the magic of Isis. Trees grow toward the heavens and carry seeds within their fruit to continue life, thus they were also a symbol of immortality. Osiris, in a sense, became the fruit of the Tree of Life.
We discussed in the first part of this editorial how Osiris, and particularly the djed amulet associated with Osiris, represented the Tree of Life to the ancient Egyptians. With its roots in the Underworld, its trunk (or Osiris' spine) in the physical world, and its limbs ascending toward the sky, the tree and Osiris united the worlds as one and provided a ladder from one to the other. There is even a myth and an amulet associated with the two fingers which Horus used to help his father Osiris up the ladder into heaven.(16)
In the JKR's symbol, the upright vertical connecting the two Egyptian triangles, the pillar that runs from the base to the zenith of the pyramid that is the Tree of Life, Osiris' body pointing upward. Notice how in the symbol it looks as if it has a bit of an arrow toward the top. Thats the journey toward the heavens, toward unification, toward enlightenment. Its also the piercing of the veil that separates the two worlds.
A vertical axis, representing man, the body, and our upright posture. The vertical line symbolizes the path from earth to heaven and the realm of spirit, symbolizing the dual nature of man, who embodies the spiritual and the temporal.
The vertical axis equates directly to the human spine and to the tree of life, as well as to the axis mundi, the great pole around which the constellations of the zodiac revolve. These seemingly disparate ideas share a common ideam- they link the earth and heavens. Thus is the concept of the connection between earth and heaven established - and also the divinity of man, who alone is built on this axis.
The Tree of Life is the Axis Munde, the point around which the world revolves, much as Osiris provides the center pole for that Egyptian pyramid. The Egyptians scribes depicted the tree drawing water from the fountain of living waters and giving forth the elixir of life.(17) All in all, the tree was a symbol of life, of the continuity of life, and of a unifying connection between all three worlds.
Mix it all Together, A Symbol of Promise and Completion
So, in this one symbol, we have the coming together of JKR's major themes through the Harry Potter series:
- The Egyptian Triangle -- Harry's desire to reunite with his mother and father, the continuity of life, and his union with the divine
- The Alchemical symbolism -- Harry's quest toward quintessence, or the Philosopher's Stone, salvation or enlightenment
- The Eye of Horus or the all-seeing Eye of God -- Dumbledore looking down upon Harry and providing final guidance from the beyond, with the promise that Harry will succeed and survive, and the restoration of Ma'at, the unification of the wizarding world
- The Tree of Life -- Harry's journey from the Underworld to the Upperworld. His piercing of the veil that separates the two worlds, and his penetrating the mysteries beyond
JKR is truly brilliant. How she managed to put so much meaning into one simple symbol is truly incredible. That is the beauty of drawing upon myths and archetypes that have existed for thousands of years. As a writer, you are able to bring so much depth, nuance, and interwoven meaning by drawing from the very deep well which storytellers and truth seekers have together drank from for thousands of years. By taking one sip, you instantly connect to all the rest. And JKR guzzles these myths down :-).
The Practical Side How This Symbol Will be Used
All this wonderful subtext and esoteric meaning aside, I dont think that symbol would be on the cover unless it will actually play a physical role in the story as well. Maybe, just maybe, that symbol also hints at treasure. For what do many people believe lies hidden within the secret chambers of pyramids? Treasure.
Treasure, however, does not always come in the form of gems and gold, though we have ample evidence of this material wealth on the Bloomsbury children's cover. Harry will be searching for a different sort of treasure in this final book. The solution to the Horcruxes, or the gateway to the afterlife -- both to send Voldemort there and to attain his own.
"Fleur keeps going on about underground tunnels; she reckons we've got to find treasure."(18)
Knowing that Bill was a curse-breaker in Egypt, and that Fleur believed they'd have to seek out treasures in tunnels in the Triwizard Tournament, coupled with the treasures pictured on the Bloomsbury cover, it is entirely possible that this symbol serves as a treasure map of sorts, giving clues to the trio as to its location. However, I doubt very seriously that the treasure Harry will be seeking will be that pictured of gems and gold, but rather a tool or knowledge he needs in his pursuit to destroy Voldemort and bring Ma'at back to the wizarding world.
For the Egyptians, treasures of both the mortal and immortal realm were often buried within the heart of the pyramid. That triangle/pyramid symbol with the circled heart could well point to just such a location. I do not believe the trio will journey to Egypt, but rather return to an Egyptian-type temple Harry has visited once before, the Chamber of Secrets. This elaborate chamber built by Slytherin surely had more purpose than to hide his pet snake. Plus, the chamber is plural, meaning it holds more than one secret. Within its depths could lie the passage to this treasure trove, either by way of a tunnel or a portal. I'm betting a portal, either back in time, or beyond the veil.
Just as JKR's symbol was the key into the W.O.M.B.A.T.s, so I believe it will be a key into transporting Harry into the Deathly Hallows. I could see it as either being the means to make Slytherins Time-Turner work, or a Portkey to beyond the veil. But somehow, it will serve to get Harry to a place where he can confront and defeat Voldemort. A defeat that must somehow be born of love. For the ultimate treasure which Harry harbors, the power he will finally tap into that lies buried deep in his heart, is his ability to love -- an ability he has nurtured and grown through his choices and actions of the last seven years, but one which Voldemort, unfortunately, knows not.
Overall, what these symbols mean, what they represent, is the ever-present human faith in the continuity of life and our ability to ascend. As Dumbledore would say, and I think these symbols testify as well, "to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure." The Tree of Life grows upward, the Egyptian Triangle ascends to unification, and the Eye of the Divine watches over us, protecting and guiding us along the way. It is our choice as to whether to join the upward path.
With the focus on the afterlife in these symbols it could be seen as a strong hint that Harry will die by Deathly Hallows' end. I may be completely wrong, I have no inside tract, but I don't think so. I believe Harry will be alive on this side of the veil, just in a more powerfully resurrected form. One that has been purified into the Philosopher's Stone and achieved the unification with father and mother, the enlightened, mastered, adept's version of Harry. A journey complete...and yet only just begun.
Appendix: A Couple of Extra Bits
Heres a few ideas that didnt exactly fit in the scope of this editorial, but they relate and I thought they were interesting enough to include as an appendix.
The Alchemical Snake in the Alembic
This is from a post I wrote the day after the release of the covers: Take a look at the coiling snake in the globe-like thing on the Bloomsbury children's cover, and then take a look at this.
The above links to an alchemical plate in the work of Salomon Trismosin (Splendor Solis, 1535), the reputed mentor of Paracelsus. It depicts three birds in an alembic (alchemist glass still): one red, one black, and one white. The birds represent the three essential elements of alchemy: sulfur, salt, and mercury. Black, white, and red also represent the three stages of the alchemical process in creating the Philospher's Stone. (This is from my editorial on Geomancy and Alchemy Gems in Harry Potter in The Plot Thickens, published by Wizarding World Press, 2004).
Now look again at that snake in the globe on the DH cover. Snake imagery for the elements was also common with alchemy. The back end of the snake is black, the middle is white, and its head (front end) is a reddish color and it's encased in a globe-like glass analogous to an alembic. I don't think that's coincidence. To me this is a very clear alchemical image showing that Harry has reached the final stage of his quest, of his alchemical transformation. The deaths of Black (Sirius) and White (Albus) have led to the final stage of Red. (Poor Hagrid!)
That cover snake is yet another alchemical symbol of Harry's transformation.
Apedemak and the Chnoubis
Theres a very curious image that comes from ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia that I feel may in some ways relate to Harry Potter. It is the lion-headed snake, a version of the ancient Nubian god Apedemak pictured at the Lion Temple at Naga as well as a deity represented on ancient Gnostic gems out of Egypt.
Look at a couple of pictures here and here.
Apedemak, to the Nubians, was often equated with Horus.(19) Though these connections seem obscure, JKR has thrown two strong clues into the text to point us in this direction. Abraxas is mentioned twice through the course of the books. It is the name of Dracos grandfather and also the breed of horses that pull the giant carriage of Olympe Maxime. (Thanks to Galadriel Waters and E.L. Fossa over at Wizarding World Press for this Abraxas connection!).
Abraxas is the name for another deity pictured on Gnostic gems. Related to, and sometimes equated with Chnoubis, Abraxas is usually pictured as a serpent with the head of a rooster. He is also pictured driving a chariot of four horses representing the four elements (air, fire, water, earth).
So, whats the meaning behind a lion-headed serpent and what could it mean in a Harry Potter context? It seems that the lion-headed serpent was almost a yin-yang type of figure, the harmonizing of two divergent elements. Harry has been described throughout the series with frequent serpent language, like he has coiling snakes in his gut. We know that Voldemort is Harrys Shadow and that he left some of his power inside Harry when he tried to kill him. I think this Abraxas/Chnoubis link is another reinforcement of the idea of Harry harmonizing his two natures in his quest for enlightenment, for the Philosophers Stone.
In June 2007, Salazar Slytherin was the wizard of the month on jkrowling.com. I don't know if the picture is preserved somewhere else or not, but Slytherin was doing something interesting with his hands. He held them in front with the finger tips together forming a shape. To me, that shape looked either like a triangle, an upside-down spade, or even possibly the compass and square of the Masons. I feel sure JKR was giving another clue with this, but just not sure what. Would love to know what others think.
This is the third part of a three-part editorial connecting ancient Egyptian myths to the Harry Potter series. Be sure to check out part one and part two!
About the author: S.P. Sipal is a professional writer who also happens to be a Harry Potter fanatic. Her prior featured editorial on MuggleNet was One Last Memory. One of the authors published in the MuggleNet/Wizarding World Press fanbook, The Plot Thickens, her essays included "Chamber of Thoth" and "Geomancy and Alchemy Gems in Harry Potter." In July, she will be presenting two workshops, "Writing with Magic (for Muggles)" and "Seeking Egyptian Myths in Harry Potter" at the Sectus Harry Potter Conference in London during the release of Deathly Hallows! You can reach her through the comment trail, her website at www.spsipal.com, or e-mail at spsipal at yahoo dot com.
(1) Mysteries of the Egyptian Pyramids
(3) PDF: Free Masonry in Olden Times
(4) Isis and Osiris by Plutarch
(5) Geometry and Masonry
(6) Squaring the Circle in the Great Pyramid
(7) Forty-Seventh Problem
(8) Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (Los Angeles: The Philosophical Research Society, Inc., 1988), p. 68.
(9) Galadriel Waters, The Plot Thickens
Harry Potter Investigated by Fans for Fans (Chicago: Wizarding World Press, 2004)
(10) The Ahmes Papyrus
(11) Eye of Providence
(12) Encyclopedia of Freemasonry
(13) Dead Dumbledore Definitely Distressing by Lenius Snoop
(14) The symbol on the spine: Never tickle a sleeping dragon?
(15) Philosopher's Stone, The Basic Shapes
(16) Egyptian amulets
(17) The Secret Language of Symbols
(18) Egyptian Tree of Life
(19) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Scholastic, 2000), p 550.
(20) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (New York: Scholastic, 1997), p. 302.
Posted by: Sara