Egyptian Myths in Harry Potter, Part 2: The Contendings of Harry and Voldemort
by S.P. Sipal
Let me tell you another story about a boy who lived. This one concerns a young man often called the orphan because his father was murdered by an evil lord, who then tried to kill the young orphan as well. Fortunately, the orphan’s mother was able to save his life, and so he grew to adulthood with the desire to avenge his father’s murder and reclaim his father’s position, which the evil lord had stolen from him. Numerous times he faced the evil lord, but neither was able to finish off the other. Finally, after many years of bitter conflict, which caused great trouble in the divided lands, the matter was brought before a tribunal of judges to be determined once and for all.
The evil lord and the orphan battled violently to prove themselves in escalating challenges, but the tribunal failed to come to an agreement. One great lord remained in favor of the evil lord because he thought the orphan too young and immature for the position of his father. Finally, the orphan proclaimed that he had bested the evil lord in each of the four arenas of combat. He was declared the winner by the tribunal. The orphan united the two divided lands, and the evil lord was banished for eternity.
As smart as Harry Potter fans are, I’m sure you’ve already noted my pattern from Part 1 of this three-part editorial and know by now that I’m conveying an ancient Egyptian myth that seems in some ways very similar to the Harry Potter series.
Osiris was the wise deity ruler over Egypt with his powerful and magical wife Isis by his side. Together they brought prosperity, peace, and order to Egypt. However, Seth – Osiris and Isis’ brother – seeing what they had, became jealous and decided to claim the throne for himself. He plotted to kill Osiris and then Isis’ son, Horus, as well. However, Isis was able to protect her son from Seth’s evil attack.
Horus was destined to avenge his father’s murder when he was old enough to reclaim his inheritance. Horus and Seth battled for many years until finally the combatants were called before the Ennead – a council of nine prevailing gods – to decide the matter by tribunal. The gods of the tribunal were relocated to the Island in the Middle (a link to the Underworld) where several combats were initiated involving wits and strength, including one in water (with Horus and Seth transfigured as hippos), another on land (where Seth tore out Horus’s eyes), and another with two racing boats of stone. Finally, Horus proclaimed to the Ennead that he had faced Seth in four judgment halls and had been vindicated in each one. It was time for the court to pay up.
To further add weight to Horus claim, a letter was received from Osiris in the Underworld, backing up his son’s demands and threatening to release demons upon the gods if they didn’t agree. Horus was awarded his father’s position, reclaimed his birthright, and united the lands of Upper and Lower Egypt forever after. Seth’s fate varies depending on the version and the time period:
- Returned to his position of defending Re’s solar bark
- Killed by Horus (in one version by decapitation)
- Banished to the desert
- Turned into a serpent and hid underground until a future day when he would emerge again (1)
Many of the details in the myths of Horus, Isis, Seth, and Osiris sound weird and out of place when compared to Harry Potter (for example, at one point, after Isis shows mercy to Seth, Horus lops off his mother’s head; at another, Seth makes a homosexual attack on Horus). However, when you step back from the myths and look at their overall meaning, there are many points of comparison. So many as to make it remarkable, and even likely, that JKR is deliberately weaving the Egyptian myth in as motifs.
|Egyptian Myths||Harry Potter|
|1||Osiris and Isis were the benevolent and wise deity rulers of Egypt.(2)||James and Lily were intelligent and responsible students at Hogwarts (Head Boy and Girl).|
|2||Osiris was murdered by Seth in his attempt to claim the throne of Egypt.||James was murdered by Voldemort in his attempt to maintain his power (and perhaps claim even more).|
|3||Seth then tried to murder Horus (Osiris and Isis son), in one version, by transforming himself into a snake and biting the young child.(3)||Voldemort tried to murder Harry (James and Lilys son), and we’re very familiar with Voldemort’s links to snakes.|
|4||Isis saved Horus from Seth.||Lily saved Harry from Voldemort.|
|5||Horus was hidden away on an island to protect him from Seth until he came of age.||Harry was hidden in the home of his aunt to protect him from Voldemort until he came of age.|
|6||Seth stripped Horus inheritance from him by taking the throne in his defeat of Osiris.||Voldemort essentially stripped Harrys inheritance from him by forcing the young Harry into a Muggle existence, completely unaware of the wizarding world, for 10 long years.|
|7||Horus grew up to avenge his father’s murder.||Harry has been primed to avenge his father’s (as well as many others’) murder.|
|8||Horus was represented frequently by a falcon or a hawk and considered a god of the sky.||Harry can fly brilliantly.|
|9||Because of his victory over Seth, the lord of Upper Egypt, Horus, the lord of Lower Egypt, was considered the uniter of Egypt.(4)||Harry will by series’ end, I believe, have reunited the wizarding world, both those who have always been open to “Mudbloods,” and those who oppose and fear them.|
|10||Horus was sometimes referred to as the orphan.(5)||Harry is an orphan.|
|11||Osiris represented the deceased king, while Horus was the embodiment of the living pharaoh.||James is dead, but Harry is the boy who lived.|
|12||Seth was an evil god of chaos, darkness, war, and storms.||Voldemort is a Dark Lord who spreads chaos, confusion, and heartbreak.|
|13||Seth was strongly connected to the serpent Apep, and in later myths the two were considered one.(6)||Voldemort is strongly linked with many serpents, especially the basilisk and Nagini. Plus, he speaks Parseltongue.|
|14||Seth was believed to have white skin and red hair and eyes.(7)||Voldemort has white skin and red eyes.|
|15||Isis was a powerfully magical goddess, frequently called a magician.||Lily was well known for her skills at charms and potions.|
|16||A symbol of Isis was the lotus blossom, which was a symbol of resurrection.||The lotus is in the lily family, and the lily is a symbol of resurrection.|
|17||Isis had a twin sister named Nephthys who was married to Seth.||Lily’s sister, Petunia, is also married to a man that can be considered dark and evil. JKR even said he was the character she disliked the most in the series, even above Voldemort.(8)|
|18||Nephthys was known as “Mistress of the House.”||Petunia is definitely mistress of her house, and seems to take great pride in keeping it pristine.|
|19||Isis represents the full and bright moon, Nephthys the dark moon. Nepthys is considered the darker side of her sister Isis and less well known.(9)||Lily is a red-head with a bright disposition. Petunia is petulant and darker in personality than Lily, and seems to resent being in her sister’s shadow.|
|20||Egyptian gods were frequently associated as husband/wife and brother/sister. This is also true of the older Horus the Elder myths where Isis is the sister/wife of Horus the Elder.||In a more contemporary and socially acceptable way, Harry and Ginny have a similar relationship. Harry first gets to know Ginny as his best friend’s sister and indeed his own as he’s practically adopted into the Weasley family. Thus Harry and Ginny have a hint of the husband/wife brother/sister relationship of the Egyptian gods.|
Please note that this myth is actually in the plural form. As the story of their holy trinity was one of the most beloved of ancient Egyptians, and developed and changed over thousands of years, this myth exists in multiple versions.
In my opinion, The Contendings of Horus and Seth gives us the clearest peek into the ending of Deathly Hallows and the explanation behind that scene so vividly depicted on the Scholastic cover by Mary Grand Pre. I believe we will see the tribunal of Horus and Seth come to life on the pages of this grand finale.
To me, the GrandPre cover clearly depicts Harry and Voldemort in a tribunal type of challenge. We see them both dressed similarly, as if uniformed in competition. Their gazes are locked on something that Harry is reaching for, while Voldemort actually seems afraid. And behind them are arranged a series of shadowy images, the judges, and the witnesses.
But who could possess such control over Voldemort as to force him into a tribunal competition – perhaps akin to the Triwizard tournament – against this youth Harry? Voldemort would surely just say, “heck no,” and zap them all with Avada Kedavra.
Unless…the gods calling the tribunal were the Hogwarts’ founding four. Harry and Voldemort could be drawn into another realm – either back in time or behind the veil – to face a god-like, semi-impartial tribunal to decide their fates once and for all. After all, Voldemort does have his supporters. Clearly, some people, either back in time or beyond the veil, would support Voldemort in his quest to erase all Muggle infiltration into the wizarding world by way of “Mudbloods.” Remember, too, that much of the final verdict for WWII, after which we know JKR has based some of her story, ended at the Nuremberg trials.
Thus, I believe the final determining conflict between Harry and Voldemort will take place in a trial-type of atmosphere, a primordial tribunal of challenges of strength, merit, and truth to determine for the wizarding world as a whole whether to remain divided or unite under one banner of diversity. One of the aspects I like best about a tribunal challenge for the ending of the series is that it allows Harry as hero to defeat Voldemort, while also putting Voldemort’s final end in the hands of a jury.
However, for Voldemort to accept a trial by jury, the jury will have to be god-like in nature and have total power over him so that he cannot refuse. That could only happen back in the time of the Hogwarts founding four, or beyond the veil. I believe that is exactly what will play out for the following reasons.
We’ve seen a time motif implemented early in the series, with the expectation that it will be followed up before series’ end. As I said on the forum of my prior essay, “One Last Memory”, the day after the Scholastic cover was released, Slytherin’s locket, the way Harry is wearing it, reminds me very much of Hermione’s Time-Turner.
Why would a man, Slytherin, own a locket unless it had other powers? We know from what Dumbledore has taught Harry that Voldemort seems to have selected each of his Horcruxes for their extra magical powers besides simply protecting his soul. The diary was able to lure a student into opening the Chamber of Secrets and releasing the basilisk to attack Muggle-borns. Hepzibah Smith specifically mentioned the special magical powers that Hufflepuffs cup contained.(10)
Maybe old Slytherin did some Time-Turning, maybe even into ancient Egypt. Maybe when he planted the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, he also planted a method of returning his future heir to face him for further instructions. Thus, I believe the locket’s special power is to return the wearer to face the great Slytherin himself.
Passing Through the Veil
Or perhaps the other realm will be behind the veil. Harry already knows one entrance to the world beyond; there may be other portals. Perhaps too there is a magical method of entering that world without first facing death.
This passing through the Underworld is the classic journey in many ancient myths. Theseus enters the Underworld of the labyrinth to face the Minotaur, with a ball of thread his guide in and out. (Perhaps Ginny would play the role of Ariadne). Orpheus enters the Underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice with protection from the god but loses her during their ascension when he looks back to gaze upon her face. Persephone is carried off into the Underworld by Hades, but allowed to return to the earth six months out of the year.
One of the Horcruxes could serve as a Portkey to the Underworld, but I believe the most likely place for a portal, either back in time or to the Underworld, will be found in the Chamber of Secrets. (More on this in the last part of this editorial).
Of Horcruxes Not Yet Created
If called back in time, Voldemort’s Horcruxes will not yet exist. Thus they would do him no good. Horcruxes not yet created will not save Voldemort from dying. Imagine the anguish he’d experience to know all his work had gone to naught.
Perhaps this is also true beyond the veil. With Voldemort on one side of the veil and his Horcruxes on the other, I have my doubts that they would protect him in the manner intended. It seems that they act as an anchor, pinning his soul on the living side of the veil. But if he’s already crossed beyond the veil, by some magical means, would the Horcruxes then be ineffective?
A Ghostly Court of Judges
Voldemort will not be able to Avada Kedavra anyone back in time because to do so would be to possibly destroy his future self or the world he has built. Hermione informed Harry and the reader in Prisoner of Azkaban as to how tricky time travel could be. You could forever alter the future. As inter-related as the magical world is to each other, as witnessed by the Black family tapestry, Voldemort could kill no one from 1,000 years ago without risking killing himself.
Likewise, if the scene is beyond the veil, Voldemort can do nothing to harm those who are already immortal. I think the reverse would also be true. The onlookers must watch, not interfere aside from offering advice, as did the echoes of Harrys parents from Voldemorts wand in the graveyard of Goblet of Fire. Harry and Voldemort would be completely alone, the only combatants, perhaps with Ron and Hermione as onlookers, their success completely dependant on who they are, their skills, their understanding. The feather of Ma’at, of truth, would weigh heavily against Voldemort.
The Four Halls of Combat
The Contendings of Horus and Seth played out in four halls. I believe Harry’s and Voldemort’s battle will also cover four areas of competition as well, perhaps one of each designed by the Hogwarts’ founding four, akin to the obstacle course beneath Hogwarts inPhilosopher’s Stone set up by the various professors and the three challenges of the Triwizard Tournament. The four battlefields would thus represent each one of air, water, fire, and earth, with the victor demonstrating mastery of the four elements.
|Halls of Horus and Seth||Founding Four Counterpart||Element|
|Hall of the Way of Truth||Gryffindor||Fire|
|Hall of the Horned Horus||Even though Horus is associated with Harry, who is in Gryffindor, he is also the falcon associated with the sky, which would link this hall to the air of Ravenclaw||Air|
|Hall of the Field of Rushes||Hufflepuff||Earth|
|Hall of the Field Pool||Slytherin||Water|
The Wizarding Ennead
In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, the Ennead (the group of nine judging deities) is conveyed to the Island in the Middle where the matter is to be decided. If I had to predict an Ennead in the final tribunal, these would be my guesses with their Egyptian counterpart (though I’m not sure JKR will use an Ennead):
- Salazar Slytherin – Tefnut (water, moisture)
- Godric Gryffindor – Shu (heat, dry, light) (note, Shu and Tefnut are considered twin gods and are both considered lion gods)
- Rowena Ravenclaw – Geb (earth)
- Helga Hufflepuff – Nut (sky) (Get and Nut are another set of twins, the offspring of Shu and Tefnut, separated at birth, with Shu thrusting himself between them).
- Albus Dumbledore – Atum
- Lily Potter – Isis
- James Potter – Osiris
- Sirius Black – Seth (this would be in his role as father to Anubis, the Egyptian black dog, or jackal, of death. Note that Sirius accepts guilt for also having killed James, and as he is already beyond the veil, he could definitely serve as a psychopomp, just like Anubis.)
- Amelia Bones (because I just don’t think Petunia would be in a wizarding court) – Nephthys(11)
Nephthys is the closest thing to the personification of death in the Egyptian myths. She is pictured frequently accompanying the deceased on the funeral boat to the Blessed Land. Indeed, Petunia does have a resemblance in the books to the other creatures of death in the series – the Thestrals – with her bony body and horsy face.
In her role as Nephthys, it is possible that Aunt Petunia will accompany Harry somehow on his journey to this other realm. She could give him the clue he needs to access the portal. Perhaps this is the major secret Petunia is withholding. As she overheard “that awful boy” talking about Azkaban, she might have overheard other useful things as well or Lily could have entrusted her with an important artifact or document, hoping to hide it outside the wizarding world from Voldemort.
My best guess for who would serve as the head judge of the wizarding Ennead – either Salazar Slytherin or Amelia Bones. If the scene takes place via a Time-Turner, then I think Slytherin will serve as a judge, because his presiding over a court that condemns Voldemort will have a much more profound effect on his last remaining heir. Plus, in the Egyptian tale, it was Re’s support of Seth due to his position alongside Seth in the solar bark which kept the tribunal from ending quickly. Whereas if the scene takes place behind the veil, then Amelia Bones might be a good choice as she would be fulfilling the position of Head of Magical Law Enforcement she recently left behind.
I fully acknowledge that this description of the Ennead works best with the tribunal taking place behind the veil rather than back in time. All of the wizarding Ennead listed would indeed exist beyond the veil, but only the Hogwarts founding four would be found naturally back in time. Or perhaps both ancient history and Underworld are somehow merged into one in the wizarding world – which would be a testimonial to Professor Binns as he blends history and death so well.
The Feather of Truth
As mentioned in Part 1, in Egyptian mythology, in the final judgment scene in the Hall of Osiris, the deceased’s heart is weighed against 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.
Remember the weighing of the wands which we saw in Goblet of Fire after the selection of the Triwizard champions? If such a weighing were to occur between Harry and Voldemort, prior to their tribunal, it would weigh the phoenix feather of Harrys wand against the phoenix feather of Lord Voldemort’s.
However, I would not be a bit surprised if what Harry and Voldemort are both focused on in that GrandPre scene is a feather, the feather of truth, of the weighing of the hearts, and it’s coming down (perhaps descending from a phoenix) announcing Harry’s heart as the lighter. If it’s not a feather, then I think it’s a form of the Snitch, which is the top of the caduceus and an emblem for the fully realized Philosopher’s Stone. Either one would symbolize the completion of Harry’s transformation and the destruction of Voldemort’s own soul.
What is the Opposite of a Horcrux?
One thing I think will become obvious and taken into account during the weighing of the hearts scene mentioned above will be the lives Harry has saved opposite the lives Voldemort has taken. In each book, Harry has directly or indirectly saved at least one life:
|Philosopher’s Stone||Hermione (from the troll with Ron’s help)|
|Chamber of Secrets||Ginny|
|Prisoner of Azkaban||Peter Pettigrew and Sirius (with Hermiones help)|
|Goblet of Fire||Fleur’s sister, and possibly Cedric from Krum|
|Order of the Phoenix||Dudley, Arthur Weasley|
There may be others I’ve forgotten. You’ll notice that most of the primary characters are listed here, and even one that has already journeyed beyond the veil, Sirius. They could all provide a powerful testimonial for the lightness of Harry’s heart. By his noble spirit, his continual good choices, and his willingness to risk himself to save others (his hero complex), I believe Harry has been building for himself a powerful protective amulet that will see him through this final confrontation with Voldemort.
One element I think is missing from this Egyptian myth of Horus and Seth which will be of high importance in the final book of Harry’s is the element of self-sacrifice. I discussed this quite a bit in my Snape section of “One Last Memory”. I do think Harry will sacrifice himself for others, as he has already done throughout the series in these numerous examples, and I think in this final book he would risk his life for the one most unlikely – Severus Snape.
The End of Voldemort
So, what will be Voldemort’s final fate? We cannot rely on the Egyptian myths for an ultimate hint as there are so many versions of Seth’s fate after the tribunal. I’ve always noted the numerous references throughout the Harry Potter series to decapitations and hungry beasts, and think it is entirely possible that Voldemort will lose his head to a very hungry Ammit-type of creature, probably a dragon, swooping down at the pronounced judgment.
However, I also think that as there are fates worse than death, Voldemort could be totally alive, but trapped in a time long gone. If he is forced to remain in the other realm, he’ll suffer an existence knowing essentially that he is already dead to the future, and with his Horcruxes out of his reach, doomed to his Time-Turner present. He would in a sense thus suffer a double death, fully aware of what is to occur. Or life beyond the veil would be the same as death to the Dark Lord.
Loss of an Eye
Finally, one of the defining characteristics of Horus that occurs in his battle with Seth is that Seth tears out his left eye. The Eye of Horus became one of Egypt’s best-loved amulets of healing and protection. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see something happen to Harry’s eye, probably his left. But I’ll discuss the whole eye imagery more in Part 3.
Put It All Together in a Golden Cage of Truth
The golden thread connecting Harry and Voldemort splintered; though the wands remained connected, a thousand more beams arced high over Harry and Voldemort, crisscrossing all around them, until they were enclosed in a golden, dome-shaped web, a cage of light, beyond which the Death Eaters circled like jackals, their cries strangely muffled now…(12)
Jackals in Egyptian mythology are associated with the dead, with graveyards, and with Anubis, the god of the dead. Are the Death Eaters circling to protect their master, or to devour his remains? Either way, Voldemort is afraid. He tries to break the connection. Harry hangs on more tightly. It is then that he hears the phoenix song, a song of hope, a message from Dumbledore… “Don’t break the connection.” (13)
Through this scene in Goblet of Fire, I think JKR already gave the readers a preview of what is to come in Deathly Hallows, where the Egyptian myths have led us thus far – Harry and Voldemort, connected by their wands, drawn away and into a protective cage where those surrounding them cannot interfere, leaving Harry and the Dark Lord to battle it out one on one. The phoenix song of love empowers Harry to maintain a connection that leads to the Dark Lord’s undoing.
Once before, Harry came out the winner, because his feather-wand was lighter than was his who had killed so many. If JKR is indeed using ancient Egyptian myths as a guide, we could well see Harry and Voldemort once more forced into some sort of portal to the beyond to face a divine tribunal – the result of which will either divide the wizarding world forever, or reunite the hurting world under one magically connected golden web of love.
Of Wombats and Links
JKR has recently given us a very strong clue as to how the Egyptian myths fit into her world. This from the last WOMBAT:
The world’s largest Centre for Alchemical Studies is situated in Egypt.
This was a true/false question. I definitely believe the answer is true, and I also believe the reason the question was on the test was to give readers one final clue toward the two main frames for the series and their connection to each other.
Much has been written in fan forums, editorials, and published books regarding the alchemical connections, symbols, and motifs in the series. The alchemy allegories have been evident as the first book, Philosopher’s Stone, not only used alchemy as a title but as the major plot device. Readers have been onto the alchemy for a long time and have analyzed the symbolism remarkably well.
However, the Egyptian connections are just as strongly embedded within the series, only deeper below the surface. The analogies are there, the symbols, the motifs, but they are hidden from view more so than the alchemy. To point us in the Egyptian direction, JKR has laid several obvious clues – primarily Bill as a curse breaker in Egypt with the Weasley family’s visit before the beginning of Prisoner of Azkaban. But there have been other sly references to Egypt scattered throughout:
Chamber of Secrets – Fawkes plays a prominent role. The phoenix is originally Egyptian, where it was known as the bennu or benben bird.
Prisoner of Azkaban – The mummy which Pavarti fears as part of the boggart lesson.
Goblet of Fire – The Egyptian referee at the Quidditch World Cup, the sphinx with the riddle in the middle of the maze during the last task is distinctly Egyptian.
My gut feeling as to what happened with JKR as she planned this series is that she started out with the idea of using alchemy and its seven-step progression as a frame for the series. As she delved into alchemy to learn more, she discovered the Egyptian connections relating directly to alchemy. (Or she could have been very aware of the connections from the beginning as she does have a Classics background). Either way, she began using the Egyptian motifs as a more subtle co-frame for the series since it worked so well with alchemy and gave an added dimension of meaning and esoteric truth.
Bottom line, what alchemy and these Egyptian myths both signify, and the reason I believe JKR would have used them together, is that they both trace the development of the soul toward spiritual perfection. By using myths that are thousands of years old along with the more recent alchemy, JKR presents to the reader the primordial concept that human enlightenment and understanding, coupled with the choice to resist the dark side, are concepts as old as time and yet as fresh as tomorrow morning.
This is Part 2 of a three-part editorial connecting ancient Egyptian myths to the Harry Potter series.
Please keep in mind that these ancient myths developed and changed over thousands of years, and thus have many variations. I’ve included those that I see as most relevant to the series. Also, to keep the editorial to a reasonable length, I’ve not discussed all the links that can be made. That would take a whole book!
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.
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 at www.spsipal.com, or email at spsipal at yahoo dot com.
(1) The Contendings of Horus and Seth, Horus and Seth, The Book of the Victory Over Seth, The Battles of Horus and Seth
(2) The Legend of Osiris
(3) Horus’ Childhood
(4) I have seen Seth listed as lord of Upper Egypt and as lord of Lower Egypt, and Horus listed as lord of Upper Egypt and as Lord of Upper Egypt. I listed it the way I did based on the designation by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.
(5) Erman, Adolf; Die Religion der Ägypter, de Gruyter 1934, p. 69.
(8) J.K. Rowling’s World Book Day Chat, March 4, 2004
(10) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (New York: Scholastic, 2005), p. 436.
(11) Tree of Life
(12) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Scholastic, 2000), p. 663-664.
(13) Ibid, p. 664.