“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26 / Lily and James Potter’s gravestone
J.K Rowling’s greatest strength, perhaps aside from her use of side-plots, is her fictional world-building. The Wizarding World, from Hogwarts to Diagon Alley, has always seemed nothing short of well-constructed, fascinating, and – well, enchanting – to the point where readers/viewers want to jump right inside it. Readers get to know the magical world exceptionally well by having a character (Harry) that is just being introduced to it. We watch as Harry learns about magical education, government, sports, and, with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we will see more about the magical ecology. However, there is one major facet of life we never truly see in the Magical world: Religion.
This post will, of course, have spoilers for the entire series.
Over the past few years, George R.R. Martin has gained some acclaim for A Song of Ice and Fire, a small series of fantasy books he wrote, and its little-known television adaptation, Game of Thrones, which is lauded for having an exceptionally immersive world. Readers and viewers get to see many facets of the world, and among these, religion. Gradually, religions and religious characters have been introduced throughout the show, such as the Red Priestess Melisandre, and the Faith Militant becoming a major player in the Game this season. With each season and book, it seems like religion becomes a bigger part of the struggle for the Iron Throne. Fans get to know so much about the world’s religions, and therefore, see a full-fleshed out world.
But this is absent in Harry Potter; the Wizarding World doesn’t have any notable religions, or at least none that are mentioned. Perhaps Rowling felt that the inclusion of a magical religion might have made the series feel bloated, or perhaps reconciling magic and religion would just be an odd combination.
The fundamental question regarding religions in the Wizarding World is this: if muggles use religion to explain the unexplained, how does a world of magic, that already goes beyond the laws of the natural world, regard things that are beyond explanation? Do they have any beliefs? Is there anything that would push beyond the bounds of the wizarding world? Do they regard Harry’s miraculous survival(s)?
Hints of Faith
Here and there in Harry Potter, we see hints of larger religions.
We see characters who have fanatic devotions. Bellatrix and the Death Eaters has a seemingly religious devotion to Voldemort, Professor Trelawny believes in astrology and visions, but most prominently, in Deathly Hallows, we see Xenophilius Lovegood, who introduces readers to the Deathly Hallows. Mr. Lovegood seems vaguely fanatical about the Hallows, his necklace with the Hallows symbol is similar to someone wearing a cross around their neck. Lovegood, and his daughter, believe in the occult, things that many people in the magical world do not subscribe to; they are fascinated with things they cannot tangibly see, but still believe in.
Both Dumbledore’s funeral and the Bill/Fleur wedding are conducted by a “minister”. This shows that both marriage and death are important parts of Wizard culture that they merit a ceremony. The term “minister” is ambiguous, but has Christian connotations.
Happy Christmas, Harry!
If we think of the Magical World being a fictional subsection of our world, we have to think about how the two influence each other. If someone is brought up in a muggle household, goes to Sunday school until the age of ten, and gets a letter from Hogwarts, do they stop going to church?
Each of the novels and films puts an emphasis on scenes taking place around Christmas, and, at certain points of the novels, Hogwarts recesses for the Easter Holidays. Christmas is very much a secular holiday, the fact that Wizards celebrate it should come as no shock. But Easter?
If one starts thinking of Jesus as the first wizard in the Harry Potter Universe, it explains a great deal. Many of Jesus’ miracles have a parallel in Harry Potter; Harry’s surviving the Killing Curse as an infant and in Deathly Hallows is the most obvious, and has been noted by many to resemble Jesus returning from death. Similar to the multiplication of the fishes and loaves, we see Dumbledore conjure up food in the Great Hall (that is explained in Goblet of Fire, and is actually less than miraculous). The Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water to wine, is similar to what Professor McGonagall teaches, transfiguration*. The Wizarding World’s fascination with Harry makes more sense when you think about Harry beating death and being admired by a Christian-Wizard community.
An interesting world-building and character-building moment involves Harry seeing the grave of his parents which is adorned with a Bible quote (1 Corinthians 15:29, see above). While one could argue that this was just done to make a Wizard’s grave seem less conspicuous to a muggle, it makes sense that Harry’s parents were at least somewhat familiar with the Bible, and perhaps Christians.
As mentioned earlier, religion helps humans explain the unexplained. But if wizards have a full understanding that their world is inhabited by people who could not pass into the next life, how does that impact their faith?
Harry, in Order of the Phoenix has great difficulty coping with the death of his Godfather, Sirius, and grapples with the question of death much in the way that someone in our world would. The glaring difference being that where muggles might turn towards religion, Harry asks a ghost. In a conversation with Nearly Headless Nick, readers can begin to see the ambiguities of the Magical World.
“So, you came back, didn’t you?” said Harry urgently. “People can come back, right? As ghosts. They don’t have to disappear completely. Well?” he added impatiently, when Nick continued to say nothing.
Nearly Headless Nick hesitated, then said, “Not everyone can come back as a ghost. … Only wizards.”
“Wizards can leave an imprint of themselves upon the earth, to walk palely where their living selves once trod,” said Nick miserably. “But very few wizards choose that path.” … “I was afraid of death,” said Nick. “I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t to have … I am neither here nor there … I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead. I believe learned wizards study the matter in the Department of Mysteries.” – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Pages 860-861
The detail that the Ministry has people studying the “secrets of death” seems like a throwaway line, but could mean a great deal; basically, the Wizarding World has people studying the nature of death, which really says a great deal about the Harry Potter universe.(It’s a shame that this conversation between Harry and Nearly Headless Nick never made it into the film, but this is somewhat of a world-building and not necessarily a plot-related passage, and in adapting 870 pages into a two-hour film, something must be left out.) The implications are huge if Harry’s King Cross conversation from Hallows ever becomes public knowledge in the Wizarding World: how would these “learned wizards” regard Dumbledore’s vague “Of course this is happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” Wizards, evidently, are just as curious about death as people are. And if there are wizards studying death from a scientific standpoint, why wouldn’t there be wizards studying death from an ideological or theological standpoint?
It is, of course, necessary to note the notion that wizards might simply regard death as the end to life – and magic as a scientific force that can be studied. This would be the wizard equivalent of atheism – the notion that magic wasn’t created by a divine being, it has just always existed as a force of nature. (This creates another magic-theology question, where does the magic come from?) Perhaps there’s no clear answer. Perhaps it’s as the title character says in the film Thor: “Your ancestors call it magic, you call it science. I come from a land where they are one in the same.”
It seems clear that Witches and Wizards ask the same fundamental questions that Muggles do. We never see religions of the Wizarding World, but with so many things going on in Harry Potter, the absence isn’t noticeable. But who’s to say there won’t be religion in Harry Potter? With new content coming out through the Pottermore website, the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film series, and any potential future installments, we could learn more about the Theology of Harry Potter.
*(Notably, the biblical Transfiguration is the act of Jesus being recognized as holy, as He becomes radiant and a voice comes from above and says “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” With all the religious imagery throughout the series, and Rowling confirming the impact Christianity has had on the series, this makes it seem like an important authorial choice to have a class called “Transfiguration.”)