Spinner’s End: The Mysteries of Ancient Egypt
by Lady Lupin
From the very beginning of the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling has set up a connection to Egypt, and that connection has been occasionally reinforced in subtle ways throughout the books. We first hear of Egyptian wizards and magic from Ron, who tells us about his older brother, Bill, and his work as a curse breaker for Gringott’s Bank, in Egypt.
We revisit the wizard world connection to Egypt again through the Weasleys, when they travel to see Bill after Arthur wins the Ministry drawing. We see a photograph of the family together in front of the Great Pyramid, and we hear a bit more about Egyptian magic. Ron’s letter to Harry tells us that Bill gave them a guided tour of all of the tombs, and that Harry “wouldn’t believe the curses those old Egyptian wizards put on them” (9, PoA). He says that Ginny wasn’t even allowed near the last one, and that they were full of skeletons of Muggles who had suffered terrible consequences for their curiosity and/or greed. Fred and George casually mention trying to shut Percy up in a pyramid. From this, we can assume that the ancient Egyptian wizards were quite fierce and very powerful, and there is a great deal of strong magic, including dark curses, around the pyramids and tombs. There are minor references to Egypt elsewhere in the series, including Hussan Mostafa, the Veela-loving referee at the Quidditch World Cup, and the Sphinx in the third task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament in GoF.
Bill, our Egypt connection, comes more to the forefront of the story in HBP. He is attacked by Greyback, and we learn that he’ll be getting married in Book Seven. We have speculated that Bill’s contribution will have to do with the Horcruxes, since they are protected by curses and his specialty is curse breaking. I believe this is correct. I also think it is possible to take our deductions a bit further. Two recent observations have convinced me that something of great importance will be revealed through Egypt and its particular brand of ancient magic.
Grammar and Horcruxes
In contemplating the Horcruxes, I followed my usual track of investigation. When JKR makes up names, I want to know why. ‘Horcrux’ is a very odd word. It’s not the sort of word that would just ‘pop’ into the mind of most people. I’ll grant you, JKR is not “most people.” Still, I am curious about her invention of this word to describe this particular vessel. For a Horcrux is just that: a vessel. Into this vessel, a wizard who wishes to escape the human fact of mortality can place a bit of his or her soul. The soul bit is torn from the whole by the act of murder. After committing a murder, a wizard can and, evidently, usually does live with a torn soul. Whether the soul can actually mend by virtue of repentance, forgiveness or time is impossible for us to say. It is, however, inarguably torn. The wizard who wishes to make use of that tear in his soul can invoke an evil, highly secret and probably very difficult spell to place the torn bit of soul into the vessel of his choice. This ensures some level of survival, even if the body is killed. Most wizards do not know how to do this, and there is no material on it in the vast Hogwarts Library. Tom Riddle did not know how to make a Horcrux as a student, and even though Professor Slughorn gave him some information about Horcruxes in general, he said he did not know how to make one and seemed terrified by the prospect. Young Tom Riddle must have gone elsewhere to learn the magic that afforded him his slice of immortality. Personally, I believe he may have learned from Grindelwald, whom I suspect had his own Horcrux, but we’ll have to wait to see if that is true.
Given the definition of a Horcrux as explained to us in HBP, why did JKR create this unusual word to describe it? ‘Crux’ is relatively easy. Crux means “cross” in Latin, and is used to denote the juncture at the center of a cross, where the two bars meet. Thus we say “the crux of the matter” to describe the heart or center of an argument or problem – the “crucial” point. The constellation of the Southern Cross is also called Crux. Probably of no consequence, but the most interesting thing about the Southern Cross is that it lies in immediate proximity to a much greater constellation: Centaurus. Might Firenze and Co. finally have a larger part to play?
‘Hor’ is more difficult to define. I can find no match for it among the Greek and Latin roots or French etymology that JKR typically favors. Perhaps a researchable Latin root would have made our deductions too easy? Instead, I find that most references to ‘Hor’ have to do with Ancient Egypt. Is the secret to destroying the Horcruxes to be found in the Pyramids of Giza? In the Valley of the Kings, or the Sphinx? Does Bill know something that he does not yet realize will be important? Might it be that Bill’s specific knowledge of Egyptian magic, and not only of curse breaking, will be the necessary piece that completes Harry’s puzzle?
Hor was an early Egyptian king, who is principally known to us through the discovery of his tomb. He is supposed to have had a very short rule of seven months, and was buried in an unimportant, previously built tomb, as he died so soon after coming to power. His only notoriety today comes from the fact that his tomb happened to be discovered. Otherwise, we would not know of him. A poignant reminder of our mortality: one can be King of a great society, yet one is still mortal.
In contrast, the great Egyptian God Horus has very positive and powerful connotations. It does not seem immediately clear why JKR would use the name to denote a piece of evil magic. But when we remember that the magic is evil because it is an effort to control that which only God should control, the connection becomes clearer. Horus’ name seems to be derived from an older word that means “the distant one” – that is, one who is great and far beyond our human elements: a God. He is the son of the Gods Isis and Osiris, conceived when Isis reconstructed the dead and scattered body of her husband and breathed life back into it in order to conceive a son by him. Horus is a brave and protective God, who ultimately defeats his uncle Seth in battle, in revenge for Seth’s murder of Horus’ father, Osiris.
The potential parallels between Horus and the HP themes are striking. The idea of scattered bits of body juxtaposes scattered bits of soul. The idea of life being breathed back into the dead is awesome and inspiring when perpetrated by God. For a mortal being to attempt it is a sacrilege against the Gods, and the ultimate example of humankind overstepping its place in the universe.
Horus is usually portrayed as a man with the head of a hawk or falcon or, sometimes, in the entire form of a hawk. One of the most important symbols of Egyptology is called the Eye of Horus. On my own visit to Egypt I saw the symbol everywhere, and the Egyptian people informed me that it had been considered a protective influence – the Eye of God.
The fact that we’ve heard so much about Harry’s eyes, Lily’s eyes and Lily’s protection strikes me as possibly related to the stories of the protective Eye of Horus. Harry is also, in part, avenging his father (though I sincerely hope that Voldemort is not Harry’s uncle!), though his battle with Voldemort goes well beyond filial revenge.
In sum, principal usages of the word Hor have been Egyptian. They all seem to relate in some way to divinity, death and the afterlife. The word ‘Horcrux’ may be construed to mean the “heart of death,” or it may indicate the point where a human being plays “God” — trying to control his own mortality: the cross between Man and God. To have preeminence over death is the “crux” of being a God. The Egyptian connections make me think of Bill, and I believe his anticipated talent for curse breaking may well have to do, not with curses in general, but specifically with his knowledge of Egypt.
Perhaps Bill will have to take Harry to the Great Pyramid itself to help him unravel the Horcrux mystery.
The Rising of the Dog Star
A look at Egyptian cosmology makes the question of a trip to Egypt even more compelling, especially for Sirius fans. The Dog Star, Sirius, was known to the Egyptians as the most important star in the sky. It was particularly associated with Isis and Osiris, the parents of Horus. It is part of the constellation Canis Major (Large or Great Dog), to the lower left of Orion. It was first seen right around the Summer Solstice in the early morning sky, and its rising each year heralded the flooding of the Nile: a positive, life-giving event in ancient Egypt. Temples were oriented towards Sirius and the Egyptian calendar was based on the annual conjunction of the Sun and Sirius. The Great Pyramid itself is oriented to Sirius and Orion, all of which brings us back to Bill. Can Bill help make a necessary connection between Harry and Sirius? And will the inspiration for the connection come as Harry and his friends look at the photo taken several years ago of the Weasleys at Cheops, the Great Pyramid?
It takes about seventy days or so for Sirius to make its progress through the summer skies, which is where we get the phrase “the dog days of summer.” Then, in late August or September, the star disappears. Ancient Egyptians believed it to be crossing the mysterious reaches of the underworld – out of sight and out of communication with life of Earth. Because it reappeared every year during the Nile River’s flood season, when the waters fertilized the surrounding lands, Sirius the Dog Star was revered as a bringer of life: a symbol of rebirth, regeneration and hope.
I am reminded of one of those partial prophecies we heard in the Department of Mysteries: “at the Solstice will come a new…” Sirius reappears in the Egyptian summer skies, every year, around the Summer Solstice. Will Harry reencounter some form of his beloved godfather next year? Remember, Sirius’ mirror has yet to come into play. I wonder if the Veil, the Solstice and the Mirror may all be connected. I am not suggesting that Sirius will somehow come back to life. Instead, I see that his death was necessary because he will have to be dead in order to give Harry the particular help he will need.
It has been said that if Harry’s scar encases a Horcrux, Harry will have to die in order to defeat Voldemort. But what if Sirius, who died at the Veil, can find a way to return to it in a new form at the Solstice? Might his two-way mirror afford Harry the opportunity to go both directions through the Veil? To pass through to the underworld and still find his way back? JKR has told us that Sirius had to die, and we would find out why in Book Seven. I do believe that Sirius needed to die in order to allow Dumbledore to become Harry’s primary influence. However, it does seem, from JKR’s words, that there is more to it than that.
In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the journey of a soul after it leaves the body takes it directly to Sirius. Sirius represents the destination of the dead – those beyond the Veil. If Harry does take a trip through the Veil, it makes sense that Sirius would be the first one there to greet him. If Harry and Voldemort both go through the Veil, I would enjoy watching Sirius take on Voldemort to give Harry the chance to return.
If Sirius Black does represent rebirth, perhaps it will be this influence that will provide Harry the miracle that he needs to rid himself of an unwanted Horcrux and still survive to enjoy the life he so richly deserves.
Horus lost an eye in his battle with his Uncle Seth. Sacrifices do have to be made. What will Harry’s sacrifice be? Harry has already lost many people whom he loves, and we know from his creator that he will lose more. Is this enough, or will Harry sustain some injury, or be required to give up an eye, a limb, a power, or some part of his magic in order to defeat his parents’ killer?
Though the exact significance is hard to pin down, the related themes of Egypt, divinity, Bill, constellations and Sirius make me wonder: is JKR leading us to a dramatic conclusion in Egypt? At the Veil? Involving Sirius? The Mirror? Requiring Bill’s assistance? Thankfully, I cannot put it all together. I do believe that my deep desire to be surprised prevents me from seeing some of these things as clearly as I might. However JKR ties up all of the disparate parts of Harry’s journey, and whether my deductions are spot on or beyond ridiculous, the suspense and detective work is great fun – though it will never match the delight I anticipate as I settle into my comfy chair to read Book Seven.