Essay: Female Archetypes in Harry Potter, Part I
A prominent trio of female characters in the Harry Potter books—Ginny Weasley, Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood—can be seen as the archetypes of the Maiden, Mother and Crone. But they aren’t the only characters that fit these archetypes. They are also not the only group of three characters who comprise a trio of the three female archetypes. This isn’t to suggest that this was the author’s intent; each reader can decide whether they think JK Rowling wanted us to see these archetypal trios, she did it unconsciously, or they crept into her work despite her best intentions.
According to Joseph Campbell:
Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known.... As [the hero]...progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations.... She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. [Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1979) , p. 116].
JK Rowling overtly references The Weird Sisters in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, calling the band at the Yule Ball “The Wyrd Sisters”. The original “sisters” were the witches in Shakespeare’s MacBeth. As MacBeth learns, Shakespeare’s trio is similar to the Fates from Greek mythology, who are believed to hold everyone’s destiny in their hands—or rather, in the threads that they hold in their hands. The Fates have many names: the Three Graces (because flattery was supposed to make them want to be nice), the Ancient Ones, and the “harsh Spinners” (which may or may not have something to do with the name of Spinner’s End, home of Severus Snape, who eventually kills Dumbledore). But even though the Fates are all depicted as three old women, each one can be equated with Maiden, Mother or Crone based on what they do, just as Ginny, Hermione and Luna are all teenagers who embody these archetypes in the seven-book series based on what their characters do and not something as shallow as their age and gender.
In Greek mythology, Clotho is the Fate representing the Maiden, who spins the thread at the beginning of a person’s life. Lachesis equals the Mother; she is the weaver or knitter, who weaves the tapestry of life with its complexities and intertwining relationships. Atropos is the Crone who ruthlessly cuts the thread at the end of life. Each Fate has a job and attributes that align with the Maiden, the Mother or the Crone, but they also perform these roles as a group. As the Three Graces, in various myths they give a newborn qualities that will serve throughout that person’s life—which is an attribute of the archetypal Maiden, who’s present at beginnings.
The Fates were supposed to watch over women in labor—which is an obvious attribute of the archetypal Mother. They’ve also been known, as a group, to resist attempts to circumvent the end of life. When the goddess Artemis was heartbroken over her beloved Hippolytus dying, she asked Asclepius, the god of medicine, to revive him, but when he succeeded, Hades, the god of the Underworld, and the Fates were “scandalized by this breach of privilege”, and they asked Zeus to kill Asclepius with a thunderbolt. [Robert Graves, The Greek Myths 1 (New York: Penguin Books, 1955) pp. 37.]
Hades’ reaction to Artemis bringing Hippolytus back to life is a little different than the reaction that the character of Death has in the fairy tale in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows called The Three Brothers, but in some ways, it’s not all that different; Hades was just less subtle about returning Asclepius to where he felt he belonged, with the other dead people. Either way, entities like the Fates and Hades, who preside over death or personify Death, don’t take it well when people try to get around dying in any way.
The three faces of the Moon goddess were also equated with the Maiden, Mother and Crone; the Maiden was represented by the new moon, the Mother by the full moon (which looks like a pregnant belly) and the Crone by the waning moon. The moon was also in general associated with women because of a woman’s monthly cycle.
One of the Maiden goddesses in Greek religion is Athena; another name for her is “Pallas”, which means “maiden” and another one of Athena’s names, “parthenos”, means “virgin” or “girl” (which is also what Kore means, which is yet another name for Athena). Athena is linked to spinning, just as the Fate Clotho spins the thread of each life at its beginning. “Kore” is also a name that’s used for Persephone, the goddess of spring and rebirth and the consort of Hades, the god of the dead. In Greek mythology, Persephone’s return to her mother Demeter from the Underworld each spring brings the world back to life.
The Furies are another female trio in Greek mythology. Their purpose is to avenge crimes of perjury (lying) and parricide (killing one of your own parents). However, they’re usually seen specifically avenging mothers, such as when Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra for murdering his father, Agamemnon after the Trojan war. The Furies are described as old women with snakes for hair, dogs’ heads, coal-black bodies, bats’ wings and bloodshot eyes. This description makes me wonder whether the Furies’ bat wings have any connection to Ginny being fond of the Bat Bogey Hex, which she uses for revenge.
The Furies aren’t the same as the “fair-haired and swift-winged” Harpies, who snatch up criminals for punishment by the Furies. However, harpies are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the veela at the Quidditch World Cup in Goblet of Fire. When they become infuriated, they go from irresistibly beautiful fair-haired women to harsh, sharp avenging birds who hurl balls of flame. They’re not to be trifled with. It’s also interesting that in the seventh book, Ginny has a poster for the Holyhead Harpies—a Quidditch team made up entirely of women—on the wall of her bedroom. According to JK Rowling, Ginny will play for the team after she leaves school, before becoming a sports reporter and writing about Quidditch instead of playing.
Another bird-like trio of women in Greek mythology resembling veelas are the Sirens. Homer reduced them to two, but they were originally three singing daughters of the Earth who were depicted as birds. Odysseus had his sailors plug their ears with beeswax, on instruction from the witch Kirke, so they wouldn’t hear the sirens, while he was lashed to the mast of his ship so he could appreciate their songs but not do anything stupid, like steer the ship onto the rocks. We again see this similarity to veelas in Goblet of Fire, at the World Cup. Mr. Weasley tells Harry and his sons to plug their ears with their fingers while the veelas sing, so they won’t be affected, though they are affected anyway. Because of the overwhelming bird imagery in Greek mythology associated with forces of female vengeance, it’s not surprising that when Hermione is upset with Ron because of Lavender Brown, in Half-Blood Prince, she sends a flock of canaries after him.
It’s not hard to see that Ginny Weasley is an obvious Maiden. She’s the rescued damsel-in-distress in Chamber of Secrets and Harry’s eventual love interest in the sixth book and beyond. The Youth gets the girl, and the girl must be a Maiden; characters who are archetypal Mothers or Crones don’t fill this role, at least not in the Potterverse, though a character who starts out embodying the Maiden may evolve into another archetype or eventually embody all three female archetypes.
In ancient Greek religion the Maiden aspect of the goddess was invoked for new beginnings. Harry is starting a new life in Philosopher’s Stone: he’s going to a new school, taking a journey, and embarking on his first real friendships. Ginny is the youngest female character with whom he has contact and she’s at King’s Cross when he begins that journey. Molly Weasley, who’s also present, is a Mother figure (for obvious reasons), but her presence is less symbolic than practical: she’s taking her kids to the train. JK Rowling makes a great point of Harry watching Ginny-the-Maiden chase the train as it pulls out of the station, as if she’s watching over him during the beginning of this new phase in his life.
In the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix, Ginny accompanies and guides Harry on the school train—for the first time he isn’t with Ron during his entire trip to school, which he even was in Chamber of Secrets, when he and Ron fly the Ford Anglia to school. Ginny introduces him to a new friend, Luna Lovegood. Post-Goblet of Fire, Harry is embarking on another new phase of life in a world with a revitalized Voldemort, so it’s appropriate that he’s again accompanied by the Maiden.
Ginny is repeatedly linked to hope and new life, such as when she brings an Easter egg to Harry in the fifth book. She marks herself as the harbinger of new possibilities by telling him that hanging around with Fred and George long enough makes you believe that nearly anything is possible, and she’s the one who enables Harry to speak to Sirius when he needs to. She also helps him to avoid expulsion—as he did for her in the second book—by coming up with the name “Dumbledore’s Army”; Ginny christening the group is symbolically the same as a Maiden goddess blessing its beginnings.
In Chamber of Secrets, Harry feels incredibly depressed by the thought that Ginny might be dead when they find out that she’s been taken into the Chamber. He knows that he must do whatever is necessary to rescue her if there’s any possibility at all that she might be alive. She’s like Persephone taken by Hades; she must be retrieved for the world to have life again, since the school is threatened with closing after she’s taken into the Chamber. As long as Ginny’s all right Harry’s world is fine by extension; she symbolizes all that’s cheerful and life-affirming. She’s his best comfort at all times. But this is why he has to part from her at the end of Half-Blood Prince; he needs to do everything in his power to protect her and avoid losing her permanently, so he’s willing to lose her temporarily, just as Persephone’s mother Demeter resigns herself to losing Persephone part of each year. [To be continued…]
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 3: Iron Maiden. Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.