Review – Harry Potter: a history of magic

4 mins read
The phoenix is just one of many magical creatures that have been a subject of interest through the ages. This 13th-century bestiary depicts one of these mythical birds rising from the ashes. (Image: British Library)

What link is there between archaeology and a best-selling series of children’s books? To find out, Lucia Marchini tours the British Library’s major new exhibition.

In the 20 years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the wizarding world created by J K Rowling has become something of a phenomenon. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Platform 9., and quidditch have all become familiar to readers of the books and viewers of the film franchise, young and old alike. Many of the series’ key elements, such as broomsticks, wands, and cauldrons, have long been known to humanity, though. So how does Harry Potter fit in with the history – and archaeology – of magic?

For thousands of years, people have had a keen interest in magic, whether that concerns fantastical creatures, healing charms, or the ability to fly. Bringing together a wealth of documents and artefacts, the British Library’s new exhibition, Harry Potter: a history of magic, sets out to show the substance behind the stories and reveal some of the research that went into the books. The material, largely displayed in immersive settings akin to the relevant Hogwarts classrooms, explores how past peoples across the globe have tried to understand and engage in different aspects of the magical world.

Written in the Stars
The oldest objects in the British Library are pieces of bone used for divination in ancient China. (Image: British Library Board)

Many cultures, for instance, have had a desire to determine the future. Divination is one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts, with tea leaves and crystal balls, and in the British Library’s homage to the divination tower we find the oldest items in their collection: not, as one might expect, papyri or manuscripts, but pieces of bone from China’s Shang dynasty (1600-1050 BC). These are oracle bones (also known as dragon bones), engraved with questions about natural disasters, agriculture, and warfare. Diviners would apply heat with metal sticks which would crack the bone, and they would then interpret the resulting patterns to get their answer. One of the featured oracle bones records a lunar eclipse that we know took place on 27 December 1192 BC; it was believed that the darkness was caused by an ancestral spirit that needed to be pacified.

Astronomy forms another core part of the Hogwarts curriculum, and interests of a celestial nature can also be seen across civilisations, from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts depicting constellations to pages in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook outlining his theories on the moon. The Dunhuang Star Atlas, an 8th-century AD paper scroll showing more than 1,300 stars, is the earliest complete map of the night sky that we know of. Eclipses carried a different interpretation at this time, though, as it was believed that the movements of the stars reflected events at the imperial court, with a lunar eclipse perhaps signalling a forthcoming coup.

Other guides to the stars, astrolabes, most likely have their roots in ancient Greece, but they were in service for centuries to come – as an ornate 13th-century brass and silver example found in Syria eloquently demonstrates. Astrolabes were used to pinpoint stars, planets, and latitudes, and in the Islamic world they took on additional function, as they can be used to find the qibla (the direction of prayer, facing the Kaaba in Mecca).

Double, double, toil and trouble
In the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, cauldrons were used to prepare large quantities of food or drink for ceremonial feasting. Over time, they became closely associated with witches. (Image: Trustees of the British Museum)

Another strand that the exhibition follows is how depictions of witches, wizards, and other magical beings have developed over time. Witches are often portrayed with broomsticks and their familiars – animal companions, most commonly a cat. ‘The beast is dangerous to soul and body’ and has a ‘cunning character’, as the 16th-century naturalist Conrad Gessner puts it in his Historiae animalium.

The cauldron is another frequently seen attribute, used for brewing up a variety of potions. The earliest illustrated text on witchcraft, Ulrich Molitor’s On Witches and Fortune Tellers (1489), has in its pages the first printed image of witches surrounding just such a vessel. The use of these objects for other purposes stretches back much further than this, though. There are a number of large cauldrons in the archaeological record, such as a finely crafted example found in the Thames at Battersea in 1861, which the British Museum has loaned for the exhibition. The cauldron’s watery context could indicate that it was deposited as an offering to the gods in c.800-600 BC, while its size hints at its use in communal feasting ceremonies. Later in the exhibition, this prehistoric example is contrasted with a 20th-century cauldron that reportedly exploded when modern witches were brewing a potion to summon a spirit.

One of the most desired products in the magical world is the philosopher’s stone, the alchemical substance that lent its name to the first Harry Potter book, and which was thought to be able to transform base metals into gold and produce the elixir of life. Many sought to create this magical marvel, and one beautiful 16th-century scroll, nearly 6m in length, gives a somewhat cryptic description of how to do so. While the stone remains the stuff of legend, Nicolas Flamel, who is credited as one of its successful discoverers in Harry Potter, is very much a real figure. He lived in Paris in 1340-1418 and made his fortune in property. His tombstone, which records his generous donations to churches and hospitals in the city, has survived despite reputedly being used as a grocer’s chopping board. It was not until after his death, though, that Flamel’s legendary reputation as an alchemist began, perhaps prompted in part by his epitaph’s lasting declaration of wealth and altruism.

The tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, who was rumoured to have discovered the philosopher’s stone. (Image: Paris, Musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge)
Further information

Harry Potter: a history of magic runs until 28 February at the British Library, London. Tickets cost £16 for adults (concessions are available). Visit for more information. There are also displays exploring local connections to magic and folklore at 20 public libraries across the UK. See projects/harry-potter-a-history-of-magic-public-library-displays for a list of locations taking part.

This review appeared in CA 335.

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