Egyptian Myths in “Harry Potter” – Part 1: Harry of the Two Ways
by S.P. Sipal
Let me tell you a story of a boy who lived. He was sometimes called the Potter and he passed from death to life by way of seven stages, or gates. Each gate presented him with an obstacle to be overcome, a guardian or keeper. Through spells provided to him, the Potter had to learn the names of each of these guardians in order to defeat them and pass further along his course.
His first adversary is a man with an inverted face and who has many shapes. At the second gate, he encounters a monster whose tail is long. His third adversary is a nasty creature who lives off sewage. Another has a false face and shifts form. At the fifth gate, he encounters a man who has lived on snakes, and at another, a creature who controls the prow-line of a boat that he needs. Finally, at the seventh gate, the Potter must overcome a monster in serpent form who cuts people down.
Along the way, the Potter must navigate along two opposing courses that lead him through the underworld of his journey – one by land and the other by water. He is assisted by two companions, one who represents the flame of the sun, and the other the wisdom of the moon. In the beginning, he is trapped between two doors of flame – one in red that leads back to safety and the other in darkness that goes forward into the unknown – where he must choose his course. He is opposed throughout the journey by a great serpent, whom he must overcome if he is to live.
Other obstacles or situations the Potter encounters along the course:
- A secret chamber associated with the god of learning and magic which houses a great serpent;
- A tree of life that connects to the Underworld and to his father;
- A spell for turning himself right-side-up when he is made to walk upside down;
- A Judgment Hall where he is put on trial;
- A Lake of Fire in the middle of the course, separating the Two Ways, with bodies of the damned floating below the surface;
- A spell for the deceased king to ascend to Paradise in the shape of a bird;
- A joyful reunion with all his deceased family.
The Potter’s reward for passing through this underworld obstacle course is to enter the home of his father, gaze upon his father’s face, and live eternally together in peace.
Wait, hold-up, you say. You know this story well. Harry is the Potter who survives a Killing Curse, escaping death, and proceeds on a journey through life broken up into seven stages – or school years. Each year Harry encounters an adversary who tries to prevent him from overcoming and putting an end to Lord Voldemort. Harry’s professors and friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as well as other adult mentors, teach him the magic and knowledge he will need along the way. In the end, in the upcoming Deathly Hallows, we fans feel certain Harry will conquer the great serpent Voldemort…we just don’t know how. Or do we?
Yes, you’re right, but the story I was telling is quite a bit older than Harry Potter. In fact, by about 4,000 years. It is the story of the hero, a common person really, who suddenly finds himself deceased and must now navigate his way through the treacherous obstacles of the Underworld to find his eternal life. This story is told through the text and pictures of The Book of Two Ways, Egypt’s oldest funerary document that contains a detailed cosmography with maps and instructions to guide the deceased on their final journey.
Egyptian Texts 101
(I know this will sound like a bit of a history lesson, but I’ll try to be more entertaining than Professor Binns.)
To fully appreciate the analogies between J.K. Rowling’s story and these ancient Egyptian ones, you need to know just a bit about how the Coffin Texts and the Book of Two Ways came to be. Much of what is known about early Egyptian beliefs and life comes to us by way of funerary literature – hieroglyphs or script and vignettes inscribed on pyramid tomb walls, inside coffins, or on papyrus placed in the caskets of the deceased.
The three early main sources:
- The Pyramid Texts, which date from the Old Kingdom (2664-2155 BCE), were written on the walls of the Pharaoh’s tomb and provided the spells the deceased king needed to join the gods among the stars and to help navigate the boat of Ra along the solar river.
- The Coffin Texts came later, dated to the Middle Kingdom (2154-1845 BCE). They opened up the afterlife to people beyond the Pharaoh. Anyone who could afford to have the right spells inscribed on their coffin could be assured of passing through the Underworld to the Field of Reeds or to Osiris’s mansion successfully.
- Then finally, the Book of the Dead, popular during the New Kingdom (1554-1075 BCE). Because this book was written on papyrus rather than a coffin, which more people could afford, it democratized the afterlife even more.
The predominant purpose that unites these texts was to aid the deceased in navigating his or her way through the Underworld, to beat death and arrive at their eternal home, whether that home be among the stars, in his father Osiris’s mansion at Rosetau, the Field of Reeds, or their own tomb with the freedom to move about by day.
The Book of Two Ways, a composition included in the Coffin Texts, found usually inscribed in ink on the floor panels of various coffins in the Middle Kingdom, “was copied on the inside bottoms of the nobles’ coffins, probably so that the deceased would have this guide at their feet when waking in the underworld.”(1) Unlike most of the Coffin Texts, The Book of Two Ways was usually depicted with detailed plans and images, or vignettes. (You can see pictures here.) It is also unique in that for the first time, the composers portray a fairly complete Egyptian cosmography, or a map of the order of the afterlife.
The Book of Two Ways and later the Book of the Dead provided necessary tools to aid the deceased in their journey: the spells and names needed to guide them past the monstrous gatekeepers who would hinder their way to the afterlife, a map of their journey through the Underworld, and the proper questions and responses needed for the judgment scene.
However, the text and images exist in various forms and versions. Indeed, all these texts, as they evolved and changed over hundreds, indeed thousands of years, and had various nuances between regions, exist in many versions. It would be impossible, within the constraints of an editorial, to cover all the spells and versions of the various funerary texts. I’ve focused my analysis on those that seem to fit the Harry Potter series the best.
Horus Potter, the Original Boy Who Lived
Spell 1 of the Coffin Texts begins by addressing the newly deceased:
Here begins the book of vindicating a man in the realm of the dead. Ho N! (2) You are the Lion, you are the Double Lion, you are Horus, Protector of his father, you are the fourth of these four gods who are powerful and strong. (3)
From the beginning, the deceased is identified as:
- Horus – son of Isis and Osiris, godly representation of the living Pharaoh, and as a hawk or falcon, the god of the sky (and we know how Harry can fly!);
- The Lion and the Double Lion – the lion was a royal and divine animal of strength and fierceness; the Double Lion also guarded the western and eastern horizons or the rising and setting suns;
- Protector of his father – who was Osiris, the deceased Pharaoh and god of the Underworld. Horus seeks to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of the evil Seth, who also tried to kill Horus as a child.
While the deceased is quite frequently portrayed as Horus in search of his father in the Coffin Texts, among other portrayals there are also a few references aligning him with Khnum, the creator god of humans, the potter. Khnum fashions humans out of Nile clay on his potter’s wheel, creating and shaping each child’s body and life spark or spirit, their kas, at conception.
The most explicit reference to the hero as the creator or the potter comes in the Coffin Texts in Spell 1131, which is considered an introductory spell to one of the versions of the Book of Two Ways.
Hail to you, my father [Osiris] and the two companions in your beautiful field… I am a creator [potter] and a wise man. I am a creator, one who raises (his) father. I created [fashioned] the Great One (male) and the Great One (female)… I have come that I may see Osiris, live beside him, and rot beside him. I resemble you. I am your image.(5)
Harry’s resemblance to James, his father, is remarked upon over and over. While I do not think JKR depicts Harry as a creator god, he is definitely learning through the course of his journey to shape his own destiny. He is to become his own master potter.
According to Egyptologist and Brown University Professor Leonard Lesko, in this version of the Book of Two Ways, the deceased’s goal is to see Osiris, gaze upon his “father’s” face, and live beside him eternally. If he can accomplish this task of arriving at Osiris’ mansion to gaze upon his face, “he will see Osiris every day, his breath will be in his nose, and he will never die.”(6) The Book provides him who calls himself the creator, the potter, with the names and spells he will need to know to pass the gatekeepers and make his journey successful.
Harry’s Journey Through the Seven Gates
Although the idea for seven gates and keepers of the Underworld originated in the Book of the Two Ways, the description of the gates that best seems to follow JKRs flow is mostly from the Book of the Dead, which presents a re-ordered version of that found in the Coffin Texts. (7)
The first gate. “He whose face is inverted, the many-shaped’ is the name of the keeper of the first gate; ‘Eavesdropper’ is the name of him who guards it; ‘The loud-voiced’ is the name of him who makes report in it. (8)
Quirrell, with Voldemort popping out of the back of his head, definitely was a man with an inverted face. It took Harry a long time in Sorcerer’s Stone to know the name of his first adversary. He kept mispronouncing it as Snape.
In fact, Snape probably qualifies as the “Eavesdropper” for this first gate with his spying on Quirrell, though Harry did quite a bit of eavesdropping on Snape – first on Filch and Snape, then on Snape and Quirrell, but always centered on Snape.
As far as the “loud-voiced” goes, well, there was a lot of shouting going on in the final underground chamber between Harry, Quirrell, and Voldemort. It would be hard to say which one was the loudest.
The second gate. ‘He whose hinder-parts are extended’ is the name of the keeper of the second gate; ‘Shifting of face’ is the name of him who guards it; ‘Burner’ is the name of him who makes report in it.(9)
In Chamber of Secrets, it is only near the end of the book as well that Harry learns this chamber’s primary guardian’s name, the basilisk. The king of serpents, the basilisk definitely has a long, extended tail – his “hinder-parts are extended.” I can’t think of a description that would describe Lockhart better than “shifting of face” in his false pretensions, and “burner” most definitely portrays Fawkes.
The third gate. ‘He who eats the corruption [or excrement] of his hinder-parts’ is the name of the keeper of the third gate; ‘Vigilant’ is the name of him who guards it; ‘He who curses’ is the name of him who makes report in it. (10)
In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry once again does not know the name of his primary adversary until near the end of the book, as he is told repeatedly and falsely that it is Sirius Black who is out to get him. But Wormtail, a man who lives as a rat and who disappeared into the sewers on the night he betrayed his best friends and Harry’s parents, most definitely could be described as a man who “eats the corruption of his hinder-parts.”
No one is more loyal than a dog. And no dog is more loyal to Harry than Sirius Black. He definitely qualifies as vigilant. As far as the curses go, well again, as with the “loud-voiced” at the first gate, there were quite a few curses flying about in the Shrieking Shack among Harry, Ron, Hermione, Sirius, Lupin, Snape, and Pettigrew.
The fourth gate. ‘He who defends from the noisy’ is the name of the keeper of the fourth gate; ‘Wakeful’ is the name of him who guards it; ‘Grim of visage who repels the aggressor’ is the name of him who makes report in it. (11)
I honestly don’t know what to make of “he who defends from the noisy.” For the keeper of this gate, I find another translation from the Book of Two Ways to add more insight in its description of one of these gatekeepers as “upside-down-face, numerous-of-forms.”(12) Another translation included for “upside-down-face” is “overthrown-face.”(13)
Barty Crouch, Jr., in essence, overthrew Mad-Eye Moody’s face and substituted his own. By shifting form through the Polyjuice potion, he becomes “numerous-of-forms.” Barty, Jr. dons a false face as he shifts from the most faithful of Voldemort’s Death Eaters into the most famed Auror Mad-Eye Moody, benevolent protector of Harry. Thus, Goblet of Fire presents us with another masked villain where once more Harry must learn the guardian’s true name.
However, back to the earlier text above – “wakeful” could also refer to Barty, Jr., who has awakened to serve his master after living for several years under the sleep-like effects of the Imperius Curse. “Grim of visage who repels the aggressor” quite strongly describes Dumbledore when he bursts through Pseudo Mad-Eye’s door and stupefies Barty.
At that moment, Harry fully understood for the first time why people said Dumbledore was the only wizard Voldemort had ever feared. The look upon Dumbledore’s face as he stared down at the unconscious form of Mad-Eye Moody was more terrible than Harry could have ever imagined. There was no benign smile upon Dumbledore’s face, no twinkle in the eyes behind the spectacles. There was cold fury in every line of the ancient face. (14)
Notice that “ancient face” reference! However, Dumbledore’s face is not the only one to convey a grim visage:
Snape followed him, looking into the Foe-Glass, where his own face was still visible, glaring into the room. (15)
Snape, aligned with Dumbledore as a protector of Harry, is a powerful image at this fourth gate.
The fifth gate. ‘He who lives on snakes’ is the name of the keeper of the fifth gate; ‘Fiery’ is the name of him who guards it; ‘Hippopotamus-faced, raging of power’ is the name of him who makes report in it. (16)
Throughout Goblet of Fire, we see Voldemort being nourished like a babe on the milk of his serpent Nagini. In Order of the Phoenix, when Harry encounters You-Know-Who at the end of the Ministry of Magic scene, he most definitely knows the names of this man who has lived off serpents – Lord Voldemort, aka Tom Riddle.
There is quite a bit of fire imagery running through the final encounter between Harry, Voldemort, and Dumbledore. Harry’s scar is described as “on fire” and “seared and burned.” The guard’s desk “burst into flame,” then later “a long thin flame flew” from the tip of Dumbledore’s wand. “There was a burst of flame in midair above Dumbledore just as Voldemort reappeared”…and there’s more fiery imagery, not least of which is the appearance of Fawkes. (17)
The “hippopotamus-faced” is a bit odd, and this may be stretching, but the male hippo was aligned with Seth in Egyptian mythology. Seth is the adversary of Horus, who we will talk more about in Part 2 of this editorial series. Seth is also frequently portrayed as a serpent. Perhaps the “hippopotamus-faced” could be viewed as Voldemort’s possession of Harry. Or, to be honest, it could just be a part that doesn’t fit.
However, Harry was truly “raging in power” throughout the Department of Mysteries and back in Dumbledore’s office.
“The one who stretches out the prow-rope,” the keeper of the outside gate. (18) If you should come against me as any kind of snake, Re will die and Apep will be hostile. Ritual is to be performed in the matter within the shambles of the Protector by him who destroyed his father. (19)
Finally (so far) in Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore, with Harry by his side, brings the prow-line (a rope tied to the front of a boat) to the shore for Harry to pass the Inferi guardians safely to the Isle of the Horcrux. The blood-letting ritual must be performed by Dumbledore as Protector as he and Harry enter the cave, and then by Harry as Protector when he and Dumbledore leave. As for the one “who destroyed his father” – a very apt description of Tom Riddle.
The reference to the snake and Apep (a snake deity) in this quote is also interesting and will be discussed later in a section on the Great Opposing Serpent.
The seventh gate. ‘He who cuts them down’ is the name of the keeper of the seventh gate; ‘Loud-voiced’ is the name of him who guards it; ‘He who defends from those who would work harm’ is the name of him who makes report in it. (20)
As most fans anticipate, and as is pictured on the Scholastic cover of Deathly Hallows, Harry, at his final gate, will come face to face with this serpent of a man who has cut so many people down. If Harry was the “loud-voiced” reporter at the first gate in Sorcerer’s Stone, perhaps he will be the “loud-voiced” guardian here at the final gate, where Voldemort meets his end. I believe Harry is most definitely “he who defends from those who would work harm.” He does have a savior complex, after all. 😉
Points on the Egyptian Marauder’s Map
The comparisons between Harry Potter and the Egyptian funerary texts don’t end with the journey through the gates. There are significant milestones, so to speak, that the deceased encounters along his journey. Some are helpers, gods, or items of magical interest. Others are obstacles of trials and tests. Many of these are reflected in Harry’s encounters. Like the deceased being given the map of the Two Ways, Harry has been presented with his very own Marauder’s Map – a gift, essentially, from his father – to guide him along his way.
Below are some of the markers in common between the two journeys.
By Water or by Land
Spell for the ways of this Rosetau which are on water and land. These ways are here in the opposite direction, each one thereof opposing its companion in the opposite direction. It is those who know them who can find their ways. (21)
From the very beginning of Harry’s entrance into the magical world, he has been faced with a choice between two ways: the ways of Voldemort, or the ways of his father. “Not Slytherin, not Slytherin,”(22) he pleads inside the Sorting Hat on his first night in Hogwarts as he makes his first choice. Forever after he is forced to reaffirm this decision through the choices he makes.
Which road between right or wrong will he take? Which side of light or dark will he choose? At the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, when Voldemort offers him a place by his side, to save his life and join him, Harry forcefully and courageously refuses. He affirms his choice and stays his course on the side of light, of right, of his father and mother.
It should be noted that Harry comes to Hogwarts both by water and by land. He travels first into the magical world via land routes through Diagon Alley and Platform 9¾, then enters Hogwarts specifically by water in boats across the lake.
For the Egyptians, the Two Ways do not necessarily represent right or wrong, good or evil. Though exactly what the paths are and what they represent is not clearly known, they may even be two sides of a connected path of a complete journey. Lesko states that in the accompanying map, the top blue line, the water line, is actually the sky “river” that the solar bark travels,(23) while the black line, the land, is really through the Underworld. Harry, a fabulous flyer who is forced underground in each book, is mastering both elements.
However, I think JKR uses the Two Ways to emphasize the role of choice in Harry’s growth and transformation. While Harry has to be familiar with both ways – he must study Defense Against the Dark Arts to know and understand what he must defeat – he also has to make a choice between what is right and what is easy.
The Gate of Darkness
Flame. Make way for me that I may pass. I treat Osiris…
The Gate of Darkness is its name. It is a spell for recognizing this his name. (24)
According to Lesko, this spell above is set apart as important in its depiction in the Book of Two Ways.
The separate compartment that contains this spell has a door at the top, usually painted red, and often labeled “flame,” while in the lower part of the compartment there are two more labels designating places, a black semicircle called “Gate of Darkness” and another area called “Gate of Flame.” It is an entrance or entrances to the ways beyond. (25)
We’ve seen a “Gate of Flame” and a “Gate of Darkness” in Harry Potter before, in fact from the very first book. They too marked an entrance to the “ways beyond,” or the Underworld below Hogwarts, and a very important choice Harry faced.
Remember the next-to-last scene in the obstacle course below Hogwarts where Harry, along with Hermione, were trapped between two flaming doors, one with purple flames that blocked their way back to safety, and the other of dark flames that guarded the uncertain way ahead? Snape’s potions are offered with a riddle for either protection, retreat, or death. With Hermione’s help, Harry again chooses wisely and proceeds with courage forward to face Quirrell/Voldemort.
Harry’s Sun and Moon
But Harry does not go it alone – a mark that distinguishes him from Voldemort, who has no true friends. Harry has two, Ron and Hermione. The Book of the Two Ways speaks of two companions, which, according to Lesko, refer to Re and Thoth, or the sun and the moon, respectively. (27) There are also frequent mentions of the Eyes of Horus – both of them. The left eye represents the moon, and the right, the sun. Thus the hero is given guidance on his journey by deities representing the sun and the moon.
Ron, with his flaming red hair and hot temper, represents the sun. Likewise, Hermione represents the female lunar force that assists our hero on his way as she reflects Thoth’s focus on wisdom, learning, and books. Many fine essays are already out there analyzing Ron as the alchemical fiery Red King or Sol, and Hermione as the White Queen or Luna, and their influence on the primary matter of Harry. While the alchemy interpretations very strongly relate to the Egyptian, as many believe the roots of alchemy are in ancient Egypt, my focus here is on the Egyptian myths rather than the alchemy counterparts.
The Great Opposing Serpent
I am the Eye of Horus, beneficial in the night, which makes fire with its beauty; I am the Lord of the horizon, and the daily flame licks me. As for him who passes on the path, his foes will be felled and Apep will be driven off. (28)
I am one who knows how to repel Apep, who will turn back, having come. (29)
I am one whom Apep detests, since I know how to spit on your wounds. (30)
Apep is the great serpent, quite often associated with Seth, who opposes Re nightly on his journey through the Underworld. Viewed as a monster or demon, Apep symbolizes chaos and darkness, fear and evil. He is the opponent of light and Ma’at, of order and truth. (31) When the deceased accompanies Re on his solar bark, one of his primary duties is to fight off the incessant attacks by Apep.
For the deceased in the Book of Two Ways, Apep is the primary opponent to be overcome if he shall achieve his reward. Our hero, who is once again identified with the Eye of Horus and the great Lion as the guardian of the horizon, is the “one whom Apep detests” since he knows the serpent’s weakness and how to defeat the great monster. Thus we can be assured that our hero, Harry, will win, that he will defeat the vile serpent Voldemort.
The Chamber of Thoth
Go, my soul, that yonder man may see you; stand opposite him in my shape and form. ‘Just is the living spirit’ say these hundreds of Atum who take possession of you… Do I forget the outer chamber of Thoth? Does he forget the wish of this man until I pass by it? He does not speak, but the falcons fly up, the antelopes travel, Neith crawls in front of him, and he being alive wherever he is. (32)
Another translation of this last part of spell 99 is even more explicit to Harry:
Do I forget the outer chamber of Thoth? Neith rears as a cobra in front of him. (33)
In Chamber of Secrets Harry proceeds miles below the lake to an underground chamber that greatly resembles an ancient temple and hides a secret snake. In 2004, I wrote an editorial called “The Chamber of Thoth” which was part of The Plot Thickens…Harry Potter Investigated by Fans for Fans, published by Wizarding World Press and edited by Galadriel Waters. In the editorial, I detailed the connections between JKR’s Chamber of Secrets and ancient Egyptian legends associated with Thoth and his secret chamber. My conclusion was that JKR’s Chamber of Secrets seemed to be an allegory for the Chamber of Thoth, or at least a temple of secrets and alchemy, and that there were more secrets left to be discovered.
Here in the Coffin Texts is another reference to Thoth’s chamber as a road-mark along our hero’s way. I find the above references to a soul standing opposite a person in the speaker’s shape and form to be highly suggestive of Tom Riddle’s released Horcrux. With the mentions of possession and a rearing snake, I believe this spell to be a direct correlation to the Chamber of Secrets. We even have Fawkes flying up as a falcon (with the falcon imagery linking him to Horus and to Harry).
Are there other secrets to be discovered in the Chamber of Secrets, or was the diary as a Horcrux the important clue JKR hinted at which was leftover after the end of CoS? I think there is still one more secret to be discovered and will discuss it further in Part 2 of this editorial.
A Whomping Tree of Life
One of the symbols for Osiris, Horus’s deceased father, was the Egyptian Tree of Life. After Osiris had been sealed into the coffin prepared for him by his murderous brother Seth, and the coffin set adrift on the Nile, it became lodged into a tamarisk tree (or in some versions, a willow). The king of Byblos had this tree cut down and erected in his palace as a pillar (along with Osiris’ body inside). The djed pillar, an amulet associated with Osiris, which symbolizes stability and fertility, probably reflects this earlier tree of Osiris and represents the Egyptian Tree of Life (as well as the spine of Osiris).
As Osiris’ casket became lodged into the tamarisk or willow tree, so too did Harry and Ron’s flying Ford Anglia become lodged in the Whomping Willow. Just like the Egyptian Tree of Life, the Whomping Willow stands as a portal, its branches reaching toward the heavens with its roots dug deep into the Underworld as it guards the entrance to the “haunted” Shrieking Shack.
It is within this chamber, concealed by the Whomping Willow, that Harry first comes face to face with the three men who were his father’s best friends on earth. Men who breathe life into Harry’s dead father and allow him to catch a glimpse of who his father was.
Osiris is the god of judgment, and although not part of the Book of Two Ways, a prominent scene in later guidebooks to the afterlife, such as the Book of the Dead, is the scene inside the House (or mansion) of Osiris in which the deceased’s heart is judged against the weight of the feather of Ma’at, of truth. If the heart is weighted by evil or misdeeds, his heart is thrown to an awaiting monster, Ammit, who gobbles the heart down, thereby killing that person for eternity.
Inside the Shrieking Shack, this end result of our journey through the Whomping Willow Tree of Life or Death, we see a very definite judgment scene – the judgment of Peter Pettigrew. Though Lupin and Sirius stand ready to condemn and kill Pettigrew, Harry steps in and prevents it. In essence, Horus faces Osiris in the Tree and assumes his father’s role by saving Wormtails life, much as his father would have done. This taking on of his father’s mantel is strengthened even more in the later scene by the lake when Harry casts the Patronus and overcomes the dementors after realizing that his savior was not his father, but himself.
An Upside Down Enchanted Mist
Spell for not walking upside down in the realm of the dead. Thus says N: I [will not] walk upside down for you; I walk on my feet and I will not walk upside down for you. I walk like Horus, my strides are like those of Atum, my tomb is like that of a spirit, I walk like one who is among the spirits, who open up the mounds of the gods. (34)
After encountering a sphinx, a decidedly Egyptian marker, Harry is made to walk upside down at one point. Remember that odd scene in the maze of Goblet of Fire? Hurrying to Fleur’s cry, Harry steps into the enchanted mist and his whole world turns upside down. He escapes through sheer bravery by moving his foot, even though he is unsure whether it will send him hurtling into the bottomless space now below him. (35)
This scene reminds me of Indiana Jones in his search for the Holy Grail. Indiana must step out onto an endlessly deep cavern if he is to save his father’s life. He is rewarded for his faith and devotion with a magically appearing stone bridge. Likewise, Harry, in his desire to help Fleur, shows sheer bravery and nobility of heart and is rewarded by the rightening of his world.
The Judgement Hall
The informal judgment scene that we discussed earlier in Prisoner of Azkaban is repeated in a different version as a travesty of justice when Harry goes before the hearing in Order of the Phoenix.
The Egyptian judgment scene is one of the more famous from the Egyptian mortuary texts, and I’m quite sure many of you will recognize it. Here’s a picture with descriptions if you’d like to take a look (two versions of the scene are included, just scroll down).
|Key Egyptian Role||Purpose||Harry Potter Actor(s)|
|The Accused, Deceased||Await judgment||Harry|
|Osiris||The judge||Fudge (though Amelia Bones seems to play a lead role as well)|
|Anubis||Guides the accused and ensures a fair trial||Dumbledore, with Mr. Weasley as an earlier guide|
|Ammit||The monster gobbler of hearts||Umbridge|
|Thoth||The scribe who records the proceedings||Percy|
|Witnesses||The gods of the tribunal||The judges of the Wizengamot|
As you can see, all major roles are covered in the Harry Potter script, though mostly in a skewed caricature of what they should be. Fortunately, due to Dumbledore’s starring role, Harry’s heart is not weighed too heavily, and he escapes with his wand and his enrollment to Hogwarts intact.
The Lake of Fire
Perhaps one of the eeriest reflections of the Book of Two Ways comes in Half-Blood Prince, in Tom Riddle’s underground cavern.
This is the lake of flame. Aatiu is its name. There is no one who falls into the flame from which he is turned back. (36)
This is the Lake of Fire, or the Lake of Flame, which separates the way of the water and the way of land of Rosetau. In later versions of the lake, it is often filled with the bodies of the damned. Their mummy wrappings removed, they are left to float just below the water’s surface. While the flames consume the damned, the blessed are regenerated by them.
Take a look at a picture of this lake. Note that the flames are provided by braziers on the side of the lake, not the lake itself.
Harry and Dumbledore must cross this lake by boat over the damned, where they are protected by fire, to the island at the center. The Inferi differ from the Egyptian damned, however, in that they’ve been damned by Voldemort, not themselves. The Egyptian Island of Fire, or Island of Flame, is also associated with the Primeval Mound which gave birth to the sun and to the bennu, the Egyptian phoenix. In some Egyptian myths, the dead travel by ferryboat to this island to reach the Underworld. (38) In a way, Harry acts as Dumbledore’s psychopomp, accompanying his Headmaster on his final journey.
The Deceased King’s Flaming Bier
Harry saw it, the reader saw it, and we’ve all been speculating on it ever since. The phoenix rose from the flames of Dumbledore’s bier.(39) It inspired many a “Dumbledore is alive” theory, until JKR mirthlessly crushed them all. (40)
I don’t think JKR ever intended that phoenix image to be taken as a clue that Dumbledore was still alive in this world, which is why she squashed it so quickly and easily, but rather as a classic metaphor for resurrection into the afterlife. A metaphor that has its ancient roots in Egyptian mythology.
In the more ancient Pyramid Texts reserved for royalty, one of the ways the deceased king would ascend to heaven was by flying up as a bird. (41) This belief was preserved for the more common person in the many spells of the later Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead that serve to transform the deceased into various types of birds, most notably a falcon,(42) associated with Horus, or as demonstrated in Spell 83 of the Book of the Dead, as a phoenix.
The Egyptians long imagined the spirit or soul of a person in the form of a bird. You see these ba bird images frequently throughout the vignettes on tombs, coffins, and papyri. The bird as a metaphor for the human soul seems natural, archetypal. The soul is set free to fly as it could not when contained in the physical body.
In Dumbledore, we saw the release of his spirit, ascending to the afterlife, attaining the eternal resurrection of the phoenix…on the other side of the veil.
A Family Beyond Erised
Assembling a man’s family for him in the realm of the dead. O Re! O Atum! O Geb! O Nut! See, N goes down (sic) into the sky, he goes down into the earth, he goes down into the waters seeking his family, seeking his father and mother, seeking his children and brethren, seeking his loved ones, seeking his friends… N has gone down rejoicing and happy-hearted, for his family has been given to him. The great ones of N’s family have gone down joyfully and their hearts are happy at meeting N… A spell a million times right. (43)
I love how this text ends – “a spell a million times right.” People are people no matter their culture, their country, their century. We all miss the ones we’ve loved and lost. And the primordial feeling lives deep in our breast that someday we will be reunited. This is good; this desire is a million times right.
As readers, we know the deepest desires of Harry’s heart from Philosopher’s Stone – being in the loving embrace of his family once more. I think he will experience this embrace in Deathly Hallows, but perhaps not with the same reaction as in Sorcerer’s Stone.
Within the very middle of this composition we find a region known as Rosetau, which is “at the boundary of the sky.” According to spell 1,080, it is here that the corpse of Osiris resides and the region is locked in complete darkness, as well as surrounded by fire. If the deceased can reach this region and gaze upon Osiris, he cannot die. (44)
Gazing upon Osiris’ face and living eternally beside the great god was the goal of one version of the Book of Two Ways. Another was accompanying Ra on the solar bark. By participating in the cyclical course of the sun, the deceased was also assured of eternal life.
Either way, for having faced, named, and overcome all the obstacles through the two ways of Rosetau, the deceased was rewarded with eternal life. Thus, the deceased truly became “The Boy Who Lived.”
I imagine we may very well see some of these above images in Deathly Hallows. Harry may well travel to a place at the “boundary of the sky” and a region “locked in complete darkness” “surrounded by fire.” And of course, with hope, gaze upon his father’s face.
Divining Deathly Hallows
So, what does all this mean? There seem to be some really nice connections between JKR’s Harry Potter series and these ancient Egyptian texts…but so what? What’s the purpose; what’s the meaning? And most important – what can the similarities tell us about what’s to come?
By following the myth of Horus and the journey through the Book of Two Ways, we just might get a hint of what’s to come in Deathly Hallows. First and foremost, I expect Deathly Hallows to be an Underworld journey for Harry. He’s dipped into the Underworld in each of the prior books and faced death, but this time he will delve deeper, stay longer, penetrate the mysteries more completely, suffer a more powerful death and resurrection experience, and in my opinion, come out alive at the end.
|Book||Underworld Location||Deathly Opponent|
|Sorcerer’s Stone||A chamber below Hogwarts||Quirrell/Voldemort|
|Chamber of Secrets||Chamber of Secrets, miles below Hogwarts||Tom Riddle and the basilisk|
|Prisoner of Azkaban||The “haunted” Shrieking Shack, attained by going beneath the Whomping Willow||Pettigrew and later the dementors|
|Goblet of Fire||Tom Riddle Sr.’s graveyard||Voldemort, the Death Eaters, and Barty, Jr.|
|Order of the Phoenix||Bottom floor of the MoM, the DoM, and Atrium||Death Eaters and Voldemort|
|Half-Blood Prince||Cave with the underground lake||Inferi|
So what kind of Underworld journey will Harry face in Deathly Hallows?
As in the Book of Two Ways, just as the deceased journeys toward Rosetau and the mansion of Osiris, so too I expect Harry to search for and find his fathers home. And no, I’m not talking about Godric’s Hollow. That home, which was probably not James’s ancestral home, was destroyed. I think we had a foreshadowing of what is yet to come in Order of the Phoenix when Harry encounters Grimmauld Place – an old family mansion with lots of secrets and quite vocal portraits. We know James Potter came from money and did not need to work. One would assume that just as the Blacks had a family mansion, as do the Malfoys and as did the Riddles, the Potters probably did too.
However, if this mansion was not the house destroyed at Godric’s Hollow, why has no one told Harry about it before now? It could be that a great secret is stored there, that it is protected by a Fidelius Charm. Or it could be that the Godric’s Hollow home was indeed the Potters’ mansion, but that a portrait of James Potter was somehow saved, either before or after the destruction. In the end, though, I believe that fairly early in Deathly Hallows, Harry will find a portrait of his father, if not of both of his parents.
Harry has not yet encountered a version of his parents that allow for a significant exchange. The photos that Hagrid gave him at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone allow for him to see his parents, see their limited movements, but exchange no dialogue. In his dream memories, he heard their voices, but again no interaction. Even though he was able to interact with the ghostly echoes which emanated from Voldemort’s wand in the Goblet of Fire graveyard scene, it was a very brief encounter totally focused on getting Harry safely out of there.
I believe JKR has been building us up toward a deeper, more true exchange between Harry and his parents. Harry finding a portrait of at least his father would fit in with the Egyptian myth of gazing upon Osiris in his mansion as well as providing Harry a more meaningful exchange. James and Lily, who defied Voldemort three times, will probably have and convey crucial information as to how to defeat Voldemort and his Horcruxes.
However, I do not believe Harry’s Underworld encounter will be limited to finding his father’s home and gazing upon his face. That, to me, is the start of this last journey. He must go more completely into the world of the dead and walk among the deceased – behind the Veil. However, to further explore Harry’s journey among the Deathly Hallows, I’ll need to convey another Horus/Seth myth – which is in Part 2 of this editorial.
The Nile of Meaning Flowing through Harry Potter
I believe JKR used the very ancient magic of the Egyptian Coffin Texts and Book of Two Ways to give her story a frame of deep, archetypal, esoteric meaning. The Egyptians believed passionately, consistently, and lovingly in life eternal. And by the times of the Coffin Texts, they believed in this heaven as a place for the common person as well as the Pharaoh. Their heaven was a place of beauty, a Field of Reeds that mirrored their own beloved fertile land of Egypt, because while Ma’at, or order, was present, life was good. Life and eternal life.
Still, struggle is a part of life. The snake Apep could never be vanquished because his role is a necessary part of the reality we experience on a daily basis. He could, however, be pushed back. Perhaps, like Dumbledore says of Voldemort, “if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.”(45) The deceased, if well prepared on his journey through the Underworld, could hold Apep off until he arrived at Rosetau, where his life and Ma’at would live forever.
And this journey started with a choice. A choice among the gates and between two ways. A choice that could lead the hero to life or to death. An archetypal journey that has filled the human consciousness for millennia. One that continues through the story of Harry Potter.
Although I firmly believe Harry will be alive at the end of Deathly Hallows, I also am confident that with this being the final leg of his journey through the Underworld, Harry will go deeper into the Underworld than he has in previous books and will experience death more completely and resurrection more powerfully. As part of his journey, I believe he will come face to face with at least his father, if not both Lily and James. He will be reunited with his family, only to be forced to make another choice. The choice between staying in the Underworld with his deceased family, or resurrecting to life.
“The Boy Who Lived” will have to choose to live again. And he will. After all, a new family has been formed (the Weasleys), love has been shared (Ginny), and life goes on. The family of his deepest desires presented in the Mirror of Erised will still be there, though without the pull they once had for an orphaned, lonely boy. A boy who has now shaped, quite like a potter, his own destiny in the world of the living.
By making the right choices; by facing and overcoming the perils of his Underworld journey; by utilizing the tools and knowledge freely given by the mentors who love him; by facing the trials and gatekeepers along his journey, naming them, and overcoming them, Harry will have restored Ma’at to his world and reached his ultimate destination – the Rosetau of his whole, living soul. He will have seen his father and know that his parents are simply on the other side of the veil, waiting until the time is right for him too to rejoin them – after a life well-lived.
Note: A Theory in Parts
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is so rich in Egyptian mythological themes and metaphors that it would take a whole book to explore them comprehensively and in-depth. This editorial, obviously, does not seek to do that. My purpose is to make a rather quick, hit-the-highlights comparison between Harry’s seven-year journey and the Egyptian deceased’s journey through the Underworld, to show striking similarities, and thus help us to look at these ancient Egyptian stories to make some predictions about what is to come in Deathly Hallows.
Do I think I’m overanalyzing and seeing points of comparison that are not there? Quite definitely. However, that does not negate the overwhelming evidence that JKR knows and uses Egyptian myths and motifs to frame and enrich her series.
Also, please note that although I am usually very careful to write with inclusive language, alternating between masculine and feminine pronouns, I’ve largely stuck with the masculine in this editorial as the references from the Egyptian texts are being linked to Harry, who is male.
There are many ways to spell some of the Egyptian names. I’ve chosen the ones that seem to me to be the most common.
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, or by email.
(1) Leonard H. Lesko, The Ancient Egyptian Book of Two Ways (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 4.
(2) “N” is used in place of the name of the deceased. The individual’s name would be inserted by the scribe or the artist preparing the text for that individual.
(3) Spell 1. R.O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (Oxford: Aris & Phillips, Oxford Books, 1973), p. 1.
(4) Lesko, BTW, p. 23.
(5) CT 1131. Lesko, BTW, p. 23-24.
(6) Spell 1087, Faulkner, CT, p. 150, Vol. 3.
(7) There are numerous gatekeepers and guardians mentioned throughout the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. But these seven are set apart, numbered, and seem to hold special significance.
(8) Spell 144. R.O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), p. 133.
(9) Spell 144, Faulkner, BD, p. 133.
(12) CT 1108, Lesko, BTW, p. 115.
(14) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Scholastic Press, 2000), p. 679.
(16) Spell 144, Faulkner, BD, p. 133.
(17) All quotes in this paragraph from J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York: Scholastic Press, 2003), p. 811-815.
(18) CT 1100, Lesko, BTW, p. 109.
(19) Spell 1100, Faulkner, CT, p. 157, Vol. 3.
(20) Spell 144, Faulkner, BD, p. 133.
(21) CT 1072, Lesko, BTW, p. 80.
(22) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic Press, 1997), p. 121.
(23) Lesko, BTW, p. 43.
(24) CT 1148, Lesko, BTW, p. 42.
(25) Lesko, BTW, p. 43.
(26) Rowling, SS, p. 285-287.
(27) Lesko, BTW, p. 23-24.
(28) Spell 1053, Faulkner, CT, p. 138, Vol. 3.
(29) Spell 1089, Faulkner, CT, p. 150, Vol. 3.
(30) Spell 1113, Faulkner, CT, p. 162, Vol. 3.
(32) Spell 99, Faulkner, CT, p. 97-98, Vol. 1.
(34) Spell 224, Faulkner, CT, p. 176, Vol. 1.
(35) Rowling, GoF, p. 624.
(36) CT 1166, Lesko, BTW, p. 59.
(39) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (New York: Scholastic Press, 2005), p. 645.
(41) Egypt Voyager: Pyramid Texts (no longer available)
(42) see Coffin Text spells 271-275, 278, 283, 286, 287 and 292.
(43) Spell 146, Faulkner, CT, p. 123-124, Vol. 1.
(45) Rowling, SS, p. 298.