Some people see the Harry Potter phenomenon as a particularly silly manifestation of popular culture. My fascination with the books led me on a long spiritual and scholarly journey, that included developing and teaching a course at the University of Edinburgh and writing my own Seekers Guide to Harry Potter in some of the same cafes where JK Rowling used to write. I didn’t try to read JK Rowling’s mind. All creative work can be approached both from what the creator put in and what the reader may take away – and you can’t pepper novels with mystical symbols without incorporating their constellations of meaning. I concluded that the Harry Potter phenomenon tells us a lot about what’s missing from our culture – magic, hope, family bonds, friendship and the willingness to sacrifice for a greater good. The novels then go some way towards revealing the ways we can fill our social, cultural and spiritual voids.
One way they do this is through alchemical symbolism, which Jung mined so richly in his psychological work. Harry is the ‘seeker’ in the wizard’s sport of quidditch. He seeks a winged golden disk, a symbol that appeared in Egypt representing the young god Horus, who defeats the evil Set, in the near East as a symbol of making the right choices in life, and in alchemy as the end of the alchemical process – the philosopher’s stone.
The first Harry Potter novel is entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which tells us all we need to know about JK Rowling’s focus in her seven novels – the same number of stages involved in making the stone. Creating the philosopher’s stone was the greatest attainment in alchemy, involving transformation and sacrifice.
Alchemy had physical, psychological and spiritual aspects, the soul development of the alchemist going hand in hand with physical operations involving colour and form changes within the alchemical vessel. JK Rowling said she never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist was another matter. Her alchemical research shows. For example, the three friends, Harry, Ron and Hermione clearly represent the three primary alchemical elements, salt, sulfur and mercury.
Harry is the salt of the earth. The alchemical salt originated in the prima materia, the ‘first matter,’ as a ‘blood-red’ substance, which then became a bright white substance called the salt of wisdom. Here we see that the alchemical salt, mercury and sulfur aren’t necessarily the same substances that go by these names in ordinary chemistry. In a sense, then, this ‘salt’ is already the philosopher’s stone, it just doesn’t know it yet, but the knowing makes all the difference. Salt is like spirit, the stone is like soul. Spirit is given, soul we create.
Affirming Harry as the hidden stone, end product of the work, his wand core is made of phoenix feather – the phoenix being another symbol for the end of the process. The red of the phoenix feather also echoes the red of sacrificial blood, essential to the alchemical process in many accounts. Salt is revealed as the stone by the transmuting actions of two other substances, sulfur and mercury. The easiest of these elements to see in Harry and his two best friends is Mercury.
Another name for Mercury is Hermes, Hermione’s namesake. Mercury’s designation on the periodic table is Hg, Hermione’s initials. Her parents are both dentists. (Think Mercury fillings.) Mercury is often pictured as androgynous or feminine.
Mercury is associated with water, and sulfur is associated with fire, which brings us to Ron, our red-haired, emotional sulfur. As Jung notes, on one level, sulfur is burning and corrosive to the matter of the stone. This quality is typified in Harry and Ron’s conflicts, though sulfur is ultimately the very same matter as the stone itself, which Ron comes to understand in the end when he transcends jealousy to understand his heroism and Harry’s by the same terms. The sulfur and the stone are one.
Magic flows from the man
Alchemy and magic aren’t incidental to the stories, but the human qualities of the magicians are depicted as more important than the magic itself. For example, while Harry, Hermione and Ron try to get to the philosopher’s stone, they use some magic, but that’s not the main thing that gets them through. At the end, there’s no special trick or even skill to Harry getting the stone. He doesn’t know the right spell. It’s his internal state – that he wants the stone but not for himself – that gets it. In principal, throughout the books, as here, the truly significant magic flows from the man, rather than the magic being a pure technique.
Evil, like good, appears in the novels in ordinary and extraordinary terms. Voldemort flees death by magically placing parts of his soul in objects. Harry’s Uncle, Aunt and cousin place their soul in material objects in normal consumer terms. The money spent on Harry’s cousin’s room of broken toys could probably save an African village. Harry’s posture of sacrifice is the antithesis of their self absorption and opens him to the greatest power, that of his true will.
On one level, the philosopher’s stone is simply the enlightened wizard or alchemist – the person who, like Harry, has transformed himself and so, can transform others. We get much more than a hint of Harry as the philosopher’s stone at the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, when the potion that transforms Harry’s six friends into likenesses of him to aid his escape turns a beautiful gold. When his friends drink ‘him,’ they become him. The stone isn’t just something special in and of itself, it’s special by virtue of its effects on others. In The Gospel of Thomas Christ says, ‘He who drinks from my mouth shall become like me; and I myself will become him.’ Harry’s message is that by sacrificing our limitations we gain a deeper connection to our community, to the wider world, to Spirit and to our best selves.
Le Beannachdan – with blessings, Geo
Geo Trevarthen, author of The Seeker’s Guide to Harry Potter