Latin and Ancient Greece: Not-So-Dead Languages and Cultures in Harry Potter
By Michelle Yancich
Abstract: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is teeming with classical references – everything from Greco-Roman mythological creatures to names with Latin roots. This piece examines six specific characters with intriguingly relevant names and parallels in classical mythology, and concludes with a brief explanation of why Harry Potter can be considered a classical Epic.
Bellatrix. Alecto. Merope. An avid Harry Potter fan would react to these names immediately: “Characters in my favorite books! Two Death Eaters and You- Know-Who’s mother.” But who are Cerberus and the Erinyes? An average Potter fan may be stumped, but any devoted Latin or Greek scholar would jump right in: “The guard of the underworld and another name for the Furies.” These names, in fact, do have something in common: their connection with the Harry Potter series. The use of Greek mythology and Latin, in general, is overwhelming in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Almost all the names in the books have parallels in classical myths or Latin etymology. Furthermore, nearly every name alludes to its character’s physical traits and personality, and sometimes even foreshadows significant events.
Bellatrix Lestrange, née Black: a name that would make some people cringe in the Wizarding World almost as much as the Dark Lord’s name itself. Why? She and her husband were faithful servants of Lord Voldemort.
“The Lestranges should stand here,” said Voldemort quietly. “But they are entombed in Azkaban. They were faithful. They went to Azkaban rather than renounce me.” 1
She was born to Druella and Cygnus Black (a direct descendent of Phineas Nigellus, Hogwarts’ headmaster in the late nineteenth century) 2, thus inheriting the “pureblood” family line. She grew up in a family with racist ideals that constantly stressed the importance of Blood Status, thus explaining Bellatrix’s aversion to “mudbloods” (those witches and wizards related to muggles).
Tom Riddle’s right-hand woman, a powerful dueler, and a sadist, Bellatrix’s name says it all. On the surface, Bellatrix’s name is a simple but accurate description of her personality: it’s Latin for “warrior woman.” Black, her maiden name, is an allusion to her involvement in the “dark” side of the Wizarding World. “Lestrange,” her married name, gives way to her “strange” and unstable nature as an expert in the Cruciatus Curse (the torturing curse) and advocate for torturing muggles and mudbloods alike.
Examined more closely, however, her name is actually a great deal more significant. First, the Dark Lord often calls Bellatrix by her nickname, “Bella.” Yes, this is a shortened version of her given name, but in Latin, it actually means “beautiful.” So while she is warlike, she is also beautiful – or was. She is described thus: “She glared up at him through heavily lidded eyes, an arrogant, disdainful smile playing around her thin mouth; she retained vestiges of great good looks, but something – perhaps Azkaban – had taken most of her beauty.” 3 Bellatrix’s name creates a subtle irony through the juxtaposition of both “beauty” and “war.”
“Bellatrix” is also another word for an Amazon, a member of the tribe of fierce warrior women in Greek mythology. 4 The etymology of “Amazon” comes from “amazoi”, which in Greek means “breast-less.”5 These women were dubbed Amazons both because of their fierce, masculine skills in war, and because one myth states that all Amazons cut off one of their breasts 6 in order to use a bow and arrow more easily.
Bellatrix showed no mercy towards any opponent, whether it be the Longbottoms after the fall of Lord Voldemort in 1981 or Hermione Granger in the Malfoy Manner during the Second Wizarding War. It is evident that this dangerous, powerful woman should be equated with the ancient war-like women in classical mythology.
Alecto, or Alaetto in Greek mythology, was one of the three Erinyes, more commonly known by their Roman names: the Furies. The Furies were three “infernal deities”7 born from Uranus’ blood, spilled when Saturn (Cronus in Greek) overthrew him and became the next king of the gods. The Furies did not acknowledge the Pantheon’s power and therefore were not required to comply with the gods’ wishes and laws. 8 The Furies are described as “winged deities with snakes for hair who carry torches or whips“9 who often torture and kill people (fleeing from the Furies is impossible10).
Alecto Carrow is a servant of Lord Voldemort: a Death Eater. Death Eaters torture and kill many innocent victims, and can also be described as “infernal.” Just as the Furies had no respect for the hierarchy of the heavenly order in Greek mythology, the Death Eaters refuse to acknowledge or follow the laws set forth by the Ministry of Magic (the official magical government). Even the description of the Furies resembles that of the Death Eaters and therefore Alecto; although the Death Eaters do not actually have snakes for hair, they have a unique relationship with the snake. Most (though not all) Death Eaters are from the Slytherin house at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, whose founder could speak to serpents and whose mascot was a snake. The tattoo that Voldemort brands on all his followers, the Dark Mark, is described thus: “It was a colossal skull with a serpent protruding from its mouth like a tongue.“11 The Furies were associated with torches or whips,12 and often tortured people in the Underworld; the teacher Alecto Carrow tortured students at Hogwarts during Voldemort’s last year of power as well. Along with her brother Amycus, she practiced the Cruciatus Curse on any student who broke school rules or disobeyed the teachers. Neville Longbottom tells Harry right before the Final Battle of Hogwarts:
“They like punishment, the Carrows…Alecto, Amycus’s sister, teaches Muggle Studies…we’ve all got to listen to her explain how Muggles are like animals, stupid and dirty…I got this one,” he indicated another slash to his face, “for asking her how much Muggle blood she and her brother have got.”13
Merope Gaunt was a member of a prejudiced Pureblood family (thus her surname “Gaunt,” which means physically narrow, alludes to her narrow-minded family), the daughter of Marvolo Gaunt, and a direct descendant of Salazar Slytherin. She fell in love with the muggle Tom Riddle, but he did not return her affections. Desperate, she fed him an incapacitating love potion and they married soon after. Later, she decided to stop feeding him the potion, hoping that he had learned to truly love her over time. She was wrong, and Tom immediately abandoned his newly pregnant wife. She lost the will to live, and the night her son, Tom Marvolo Riddle, was born, she left him at an orphanage and died shortly after.
Merope in Greek mythology was a member of the seven sisters named the Pleiades, huntresses and followers of Artemis, and the daughters of Atlas. 14 Merope, as a divine being, was expected to marry another divine being- a person of the same status (just like Merope in Harry Potter was expected to marry within the Pureblood line). Instead, Merope married a mere mortal, the mythological equivalent of a muggle.
Remus Lupin was a member of a group of friends called the Marauders, which included Harry Potter’s father James, Peter Pettigrew, and Sirius Black. He was a member of the Order of the Phoenix, the resistance against Lord Voldemort, during both Wizarding Wars. He taught Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts in Harry’s third year, acting as a great mentor to the young hero. But the most unique and interesting thing about Remus Lupin is that he is a werewolf.
For even an elementary Latin scholar reading the Harry Potter series for the first time, Lupin’s affliction is obvious. First, “Lupin” comes directly from the Latin word “lupus”, meaning “wolf.” His first name also alludes to Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers involved in the founding of the city of Rome. The most popular myth states that the twins (the sons of Mars, god of war) were raised by a she-wolf (called a “lupa” in Latin). Both “Remus” and “Lupin” have direct correlations to wolves in Latin and mythology, making it evident that Lupin is indeed a werewolf.
Lucius Malfoy was a prominent figure in the Wizarding World during Harry Potter’s school days; not only was he rich and powerful, but he was also an elite member of Lord Voldemort’s forces, the Death Eaters. His son, Draco, was Harry’s nemesis while in school, and his Pureblood family was proud of their lineage.
“Lucius” comes from the Latin word “lux”, “lucis” meaning light. Why would a figure so Dark have a name that means “light?” It may be a physical description: Mr. Malfoy is said to have extremely light blonde hair, as does his son. More importantly, the name is actually a biblical reference – “Lucius” comes from the same root as “Lucifer,” the name of the angel that eventually became Satan in the New Testament. A name directly related to the Devil implies a truly evil person. Like Bellatrix, the juxtaposition of light and dark in his name is ironic, given his truly evil personality. “Malfoy” also has the root “malus,” which literally means “bad” or “evil” in Latin, reinforcing his nefarious name and nature.
Draco Malfoy was, again, the son of Lucius and the arrogant Pureblood enemy of Harry Potter at Hogwarts. He shares his father’s surname, and all the negative connotations of “Malfoy” apply to him as well. “Draco” also references his undesirable characteristics. The name shares a root with the word “Draconian,” which has come to mean “harsh,” receiving its meaning from the name of an Ancient Greek lawmaker, Draco: “Details of his legislation are not now known, but the laws were notoriously harsh (hence the adjective “Draconian”) with nearly all offenses punishable by death.“15 “Draco” also means dragon in Latin, which could imply Draco Malfoy’s fierce and dangerous nature (after all, he did succeed in smuggling Death Eaters into Hogwarts during Harry’s sixth year).
Another minor note about Draco Malfoy is that he owns an Eagle Owl. We know this from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: “Malfoy’s eagle owl was always bringing him packages of sweets from home.“16 The eagle was Ancient Rome’s insignia, which represented its vast military conquests. Perhaps this represents Draco’s association with the Wizarding War itself, or with his power-holding and power-hungry family (a parallel to powerful Rome in the ancient world).
Conclusion: Fluffy / Harry Potter as an Epic
Many creatures in the Harry Potter series have mythological parallels, including Fluffy as the three-headed mythological dog Cerberus. Cerberus was the “dog of the infernals and has three heads.”17 Cerberus has the same characteristics as Fluffy, “a monstrous dog, a dog that filled the whole space between the ceiling and floor. It had three heads.“18 While Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld, Fluffy guards a trapdoor that leads to where the Sorcerer’s Stone is hidden.
The scene in which Harry descends into the chamber below the trap door, past Fluffy, supports the argument that Harry Potter is an Epic. What is an Epic? The most famous classical epic heroes include Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey and Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid. Both of these classical figures display prime characteristics of epic heroes: accomplished at war and displaying many virtuous qualities, these men must endure a long, hazardous journey to return home from war, which includes entering the Underworld and safely returning to the land of the living.
The Harry Potter series is a strong candidate for being considered an epic tale. In the very first book, Harry has all the qualities of an epic hero: he has strong morals, displays appealing qualities (bravery, loyalty, etc.); he goes on a perilous journey through the chambers beneath the trapdoor; and with his friends’ help, he returns from beneath the trap door. “Beneath the trapdoor” is a symbol for the Underworld, and thus this part of the journey can be interpreted as Harry’s Katabasis (the period in an epic in which the hero goes down to the Underworld and returns, alive and more knowledgeable). Beneath the trap door, Harry meets and battles Lord Voldemort (in the form of Quirrell) for the first time. To enter the final chamber, Harry must pass through a door of fire:
They stepped over the threshold, and immediately a fire sprang up behind them in the doorway. It wasn’t ordinary fire either; it was purple. In the same instant, black flames shot up in the doorway leading onward. They were trapped.19
The fiery setting, Cerberus-like guard, and death that seems to await Harry at the end of the journey all further the idea that beneath the trapdoor is a hellish place, ruled by a Satanic figure who takes pleasure in the death of others (Voldemort). Here, Protagonist and Antagonist meet for the first time, and Harry prevails. He escapes, saves his friends, and finally returns to the (relatively) safe halls of the Hogwarts castle: his home.
1. [Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 705.] ^
2. [Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 113.]^
3. [Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 544.]^
7. [Impelluso, Myths, 456]^
11. [Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 144.]^
12. [Impelluso, Myths, 456]^
13. [Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 573-574.]^
15. [Howaston, M.C., Ed The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, s.v. “Draco.”]^
16. [Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 144-145.]^
17. [Impelluso, Myths, 470.]^
18. [Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 160.]^
19. [Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 284-285.]^