The Potions Master: Asphodel, Bezoars, and Monkshood

by Jenna

After reading Books 1-5 over and over again, trying to occupy my mind with something while I await HBP (something I’m sure you’re all familiar with) – I’ve come to the realization that Book 1 (SS/PS) is much more important than most Potterholics have given it credit for. For one, I’m sure most of us are now familiar with the idea that the “best game of wizard’s chess that Hogwart’s has seen these many years” may serve as foreshadowing to events in the later books. In the same way, I believe that Snape’s condescending “speech” to Harry during his first Potions class served as more than just a way to establish the “unfriendly” relationship that would follow between The Potions Master and The Boy Who Lived.

After proving Harry to be a “dunderhead” Snape tells us three things:

1) “…asphodel and wormwood make a sleeping potion so powerful it is known as the Draught of Living Death.”
2) “A bezoar is a stone that is taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.”
3) “…monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite.” (American hardback edition, pg. 138)

To begin with the first statement, asphodel, in our Muggle world, is a flower plant that comes from the family of Lilies. Now, maybe JK Rowling just enjoys gardening and these plant names just came off the top of her head, but if not, it’s interesting that she would choose a plant from the family of the Lily, the name of Harry’s mother. There are about 35-40 species of asphodel which are cultivated for their white, yellow, or pink flowers. They are also used for grazing by sheep and goats. The ancient Greeks planted it on graves and I have seen it referred to as ‘king’s spear’, which may or may not be a specific species.

After making the asphodel-Lily connection, the wormwood-Wormtail connection practically jumped into my mind. Wormwood is a strong-smelling plant. The bitter-tasting oil was formerly used in making absinthe – which is about 60-80 percent alchohol (most will be familiar with absinthe as the green alcohol they drink in Moulin Rouge). So what we have here is a flower of the Lily family being combined with the infusion of wormwood, a bitter-tasting oil, mixed together to create the “Draught of Living Death”. I’ll admit I’m not sure what this could mean, but assuming that JK Rowling doesn’t make potion recipes randomly off the top of her head, we have a Lily and Wormtail connection, a connection that brings on Living Death. If we throw in the bit about the ancient Greeks planting asphodel on graves, it leads to even more possibilities of speculation.

Next, I want to talk about the bezoar – which is taken from the stomach of a goat. Let me just say, this is the least heart-stopping revelation of this editorial. I tried my best to make some kind of Harry Potter connection, and all I could come up with was that asphodel, as I mentioned before, is used for sheep/goat grazing. Therefore, both asphodel and the bezoar can be found in the stomach of a goat, and the latter can save you from most poisons.

The last statement of Snape’s is, I think, the most concrete because it provides insight into an already established question: Will Wormtail kill Lupin? In Goblet of Fire, Voldemort gives Wormtail a silver hand, and werewolves, according to myth, can be killed by a silver bullet. I never really thought much of this, owed mostly to my stubborness at the idea that Lupin would have to die.

Monkshood is indeed a real plant – a hooded, poisonous plant which also goes by the name of aconite. In the graveyard scene Wormtail is hooded – we are told this more than once. Not only that, but I usually have an image of Wormtail hooded whenever he is referred to as sneaking through Europe or showing up at Crouch’s door with Voldemort. The plant monkshood has the word hood in it, and it is poisonous. As we can assume Wormtail to be hooded and poisonous in his own way – we have another Wormtail connection.

But what does it have to do with Lupin? The plant is also known as wolfsbane. The word “bane” means death, kill, or poison. Lupin is a werewolf. Wolf’s bane? If there’s more to Snape’s words than just random information, he could be saying that Wormtail (monkshood) IS Lupin’s death (wolfsbane).

I’m basing all of this on the idea that JK Rowling wouldn’t spend hours researching plant life just so Snape could give us a little Potions 101. Perhaps it’s more than just detail. Though I’d say it’s more for foreshadowing than actual concrete evidence for what’s coming, and though it may be nothing more than coincidence, I think it’s something that is very interesting to consider.