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Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Potterverse Subjects - Wizards & Religion
Potterverse Subjects

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

Since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there has been a great deal of debate throughout the online fandom concerning the apparent lack of any truly convincing moral center or appropriate moral compass depicted and demonstrated over the course of the series and its characters.

This piece is not related to that.

Although I certainly agree that there is ample justification and material for such a debate, this essay, since it was originally uploaded in 2003, has never really been concerned with issues of morality. It has been strictly focused upon matters of religion as depicted (or at least suggested) over the course of the series. It still is.

And as not only the christians, but indeed the devout of any other creed, will remind you; morality is not religion.

Over the years, quite a few fanon writers have postulated that within the wizarding world, many if not most wizards have retained various pagan belief systems which predated Christianity and have continued to practice them to this day.

I’m sorry, but, no. We have been given no reason to believe that paganism holds any place in Ms. Rowling’s vision of the Potterverse. And we have even less reason to think so after DHs.

Not that this limits any fanfic author from including it in their own AU. But this article is old enough to have been written back when the fandom was more interested in unraveling the probable intentions of JK Rowling, and analyzing what she had given us to reason from.

For that matter, the fact that religion remained strictly, and consistently, unmentionable within the parameters of the story, suggests far more strongly to me that Ms Rowling considers the subject of religion to be outside the realm of satire, or the sort of criticism to which she has subjected nearly all other social constructions (government, education, the press, etc.) over the course of the series, than otherwise.

Which is not to say that I necessarily insist that there are no modern wizards currently practicing various interpretations of pagan religions within the ww. But I certainly question the assumption that these religions had been retained throughout the course of European history. Looking at the general indicators in canon, any such pagan, or rather, neo-pagan, wizards and witches are far more likely than not to be Muggle-born.

The period during which wizards served the whole of the human community as shamans and priests was a long and honorable one, and one not likely to have completely fallen out of cultural memory, even yet. Given that a small sub-class of wizards enjoyed a far higher rate of literacy from much earlier times than the generality among Muggles, it is just barely possible that there might even be some ancient texts on various forms of pre-Christian worship in the collections of various extremely old wizarding families, or such semi-public archives as the library at Hogwarts, or some as yet unidentified Ministry research center. Considering that such practices seem to have survived in Britain up through the periods of the Celts and the Picts, the chances of there being some surviving form of written record, even if only in ogham, are not completely nil. If the national folklore attributed to the Celts and Picts can be considered a reliable source, there was a much higher than typical incidence of wizards among these peoples than those of the islands’ later rulers, and the Celtic cultures were remarkably magic-tolerant until a very late date compared to that of continental Europe.

However, given the fact that wizards and Muggles were all part of one society, a more reasonable view to take is that although the indigenous priestly wizards resisted the pressures of Christianity for as long as they could, ultimately their followers capitulated to the demands of their conquerors and the efforts of the missionaries.

For that matter, the ranks of those missionaries were not altogether without wizards of their own. The fact that one of the House ghosts of Hogwarts is, himself, a Friar should be evidence enough of that. There is many a “miracle” recorded concerning the period that oversaw the establishment of Christianity as the predominant religion of Europe. And most of these miracles are compatible with the abilities of wizards.

A further clue once appeared to have been provided by Rowling herself in an interview shortly before the release of Order of the Phoenix, in which she stated that Voldemort had taken over an earlier organization from which he created his Death Eaters.

The name of that earlier pureblood isolationist (or supremacist) group, she told us, had been the Knights of Walpurgis. Although we never got any indication in canon that this statement was ever anything other than a “cool idea” that was never developed further, there is no avoiding the fact that Walburga is a recognized Christian saint. Had the wizarding world remained pagan, these gentlemen would have no doubt have styled themselves the Lords of Beltane, or some such variant.

For anyone that missed this particular shout-out, the presence of wizarding graves in the Godric’s Hollow churchyard complete with biblical inscriptions in DHs ought to stand as a salutary wake-up call as to Ms Rowling’s take upon the likely religious practices, if any, of the average wizard in Great Britain.

It also became clear, post-HBP that if Voldemort ever took over any such organization as the alleged Knights of Walpurgis he did it by suborning the children of the members to his own cause. He got the organization as a value-added extra. Taking that kind of organization over wasn’t ever really one of his goals.

• • • •

The ancient nature religions of Europe, in general were deeply concerned with the turnings of the Astronomical year, and counted their holy days by the solstices and equinoxes. Between these four points of the year were the cross-quarters divisions, falling at the midpoints between solstice and equinox, and from which various of the aboriginal people counted the change of the seasons. These cross-quarter divisions are highly significant to the neo-pagan calendars of today.

During the period that Christianity was first making headway across Europe the church was quick to co-opt these significant festivals, overlaying them with various saint’s days and incorporating them into their own rites. The four cross-quarters festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasad were recast as the Christian masses of All Hallows, Candlemas, Walpurgis, and Lammas. The most widely known of these is, of course, the overlay of All Hallows Eve upon the pagan festival of Samhain, which had marked the Celtic New Year.

Almost as widely known, however was the overlay of the Feast of Walpurgis upon the ancient festival of Beltane. That one of the most rabidly pureblooded factions of the wizarding world’s secret society allegedly chose to style itself as the Knights of Walpurgis, rather than the Lords of Beltane is a strong indication of just how thoroughly the original pagan religions had been obliterated in both the wizarding and the mundane communities.

Besides. Each and every one of those pagan religions were ALL predominantly Muggle religions. Nearly all of their worshipers were Muggles. And not every tribe’s priest was a wizard, however many wizards may have been priests. (Or even priest-kings in the most ancient times.)

I suspect that, if anything, any modern paganism, like robes, is something that has been adopted — if/where it has been adopted — during the period after the Seclusion of wizards from mundane society had been formally imposed.

In which case we are not speaking of true paganism, per se, but various attempts at neo-paganism, most of which incorporate the precautions used in domesticated magic, aka: wizardry, and which had been absent from the original practices of the source religion. Very much like practicing pagans among Muggles today, who have adapted or omitted those practices which are in violation of modern secular law.

I have no idea what percentage of wizards may have actually adopted neo-pagan religions, or what percentage might continue to practice such religions today. I suspect, however that it was vanishingly small, and probably remains so.

I also strongly suspect that by the time that wizarding Seclusion was adopted, the real flash point was the issue of Catholic vs. Protestant.

• • • •

It is certainly not impossible that an undetermined minority of today’s wizards are in fact neo-pagans. Although I very strongly doubt it. But the majority, given their long history of co-religion with their mundane neighbors are most likely to be either standard social Christians or woolly agnostics, much as are the majority of their Muggle counterparts. And any neopagan wizards would be well aware that they are a minority.

However; that is an observation which applies primarily to modern wizards. Wizarding history, like Muggle history, is bound to have a few odd pockets. And the British Isles have had a long history of waves of successive religions of which Christianity is only one. And it took some time before Christianity became the major one left standing.

There are persistent rumors that the death in a “hunting accident” on the day after Lammas in the year 1100 of King William II (William Rufus) was in fact due to his having gotten involved in a god-king cult. That William’s relations with the established Church of the day were... uneasy, to say the least, suggests that this may be no more than a vile insinuation after the fact, but it cannot be ignored.

This rumored example of active paganism, or, possibly even at that date, neo-paganism, dated a scant century or so after the estimated date of the founding of Hogwarts draws our attention to the curious omission — regarding Hogwarts Castle — of any mention whatsoever of a Chapel. A Muggle fortification of the 10th century would almost certainly have included something of the sort. Yet at no point in the series has Harry either stumbled across one, or even a mention of one either in the Castle itself, or in the neighboring village of Hogsmeade. Nor is attendance at any form of religious services required of the Hogwarts student body.

Those who have adopted the reading of (neo)paganism among wizards make the not altogether unreasonable suggestion that there might yet be a circle of standing stones on the grounds, or a grove within the boundaries of the Forbidden Forest.

A reality check of course suggests that up to the release of DHs, JK Rowling — despite building her tale upon the foundation of what is obviously at least a titularly Christian society — had deliberately excised any overt mention of any specific religion, Christianity or otherwise, as well as any of the more blatant religious trappings from her storyline. (This much she has confirmed in her interviews, if we can believe interviews. I think in this case we probably can.) In this she is probably more to be thanked than censured. The author is known to identify herself as a Christian, her story appears to laud the so-called “christian” virtues, she is certainly to be permitted to decline the invitation to debate points of theology in the course of her story.

Assuming that she had actually declined this invitation, that is. This was not absolutely certain until the story arc had been completed. The title of the impending book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, suggested that Rowling may have finally decided to break her pattern. But we could certainly continue to hope, and the indications are that we did not do so altogether in vain. Even the somewhat hopelessly woo-woo and confusing gibberish of the celestial King’s Cross chapter of the final book, and its aftermath, managed to narrowly avoid any points of organized theology.

The century and a half preceding the formal establishment of wizarding Seclusion, however, was not an era which would have contributed to the merely “social” observance of any religion. The religious manias and widespread intolerance for any trace of the supernatural which pervaded as a leit motif throughout the 16th and 17th centuries across all Europe was such as to give a great deal of plausibility to the suggestion of that hypothetical neo-pagan revival upon the establishment of Seclusion, for it had certainly been Christianity at its very worst which was on display throughout this period, and the excesses of which that had basically driven the wizarding population into headlong flight.

It should be noted, however, that being a wizard does not render one immune to religious devotion, or even fanaticism. When wizards retreated into Seclusion they took any number of religiously-based social issues with them.

And as usual, by the “wizarding world”, I am speaking primarily about the British wizarding world.

• • • •

For one thing; as I stated above; the whole Catholic vs. Protestant issue would have certainly accompanied them. And it may still contribute a part of the underpinnings of the friction between some of the factions active in wizarding society today.

That the growing intolerance for wizardry and the supernatural were predominantly offshoots of the Protestant Reformation suggests that there is a far higher than average likelihood that any European wizarding family which retreated from mundane society in the early portion of this transitional period was almost certain to be at least publicly avowed as Roman Catholic. By the end of this period, however, when Seclusion was finally demanded of all magicals, those who were ultimately forced into Seclusion were likely to have been those who had already re-aligned themselves to Anglican, Lutheran or Calvinist congregations.

Muggle-born witches and wizards who have been recruited into the wizarding world over the past three centuries in Great Britain will have further raised the representation of both C of E and various smaller, non-conformist Protestant sects within the wizarding population, as well as the establishment or continuance of a presence of other world religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and the like. None of which made up a significant portion of the wizarding population of Great Britain at the end of the 17th century.

But there is a strong probability that, even in modern day, anything up to half or more of the most staunchly pureblood-centric wizarding population may still identify itself as adhering to some variant of Catholicism. And the more firm such a family’s identification with the wizarding isolationist faction the higher this likelihood. This issue may well bear some relevance to the determined and growing resistance of this sector of the population to the Ministry’s aggressive recruitment of (mostly Anglican) Muggle-borns.

By this time, of course, it would hardly be remarkable to discover that, within the wizarding world, even in the observance of some of this world’s most dominant organized religions there has been a considerable amount of theological drift from what would be recognized as the standard observance of those religions by Muggles today. Or at least it would if the separation of the wizarding and Muggle worlds were anything like as complete as Rowling tried to imply over the first half of the series. But the probability is that this simply is not so.

When the wizarding world of Europe went into Seclusion, of course, it stands to reason that at least a few of their number might have been priests of both Catholic and Anglican ordination as well as Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and the various clergy of Islam, or any other established religion which had been adopted by the time of the Seclusion’s commencement, assuming that wizarding Seclusion was indeed established in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which is not by any means confirmed, given that those societies were not fully subjected to the pressures of a Protestant Reformation.

Had the separation been complete, these spiritual leaders would now have been largely cut off from their traditional centralized authority, forced into isolation with a “flock” of which every member was capable of producing miracles at will. Had this been the case, some degree of modification in the observance of those religions must have taken place in order to accommodate the somewhat specialized needs of these particular congregations. We have been given no indication of this having been the case. And I, for one, do not at all blame Ms Rowling for choosing not to go there. I am, if anything, grateful for her restraint.

Indeed, this much-touted “separation” between the wizarding and Muggle worlds appears to be gradually boiling down to the fact that wizards were simply no longer permitted to live openly as wizards — which is not at all the same thing. Indeed, with the release of DHs we now have been informed that a sizable percentage of the wizarding population merely clustered in the vicinity of a half-dozen semi-wizarding villages and, so far as religion goes, carried on as before.

(Rendering their incorrigible cluelessness regarding Muggles and Muggle culture as both totally implausible, and ridiculous.)

• • • •

Unfortunately, it is also likely that for as much of the wizarding population to have survived long enough to have been able to escape into whatever degree of separation had been established by the date of the formal imposition of wizarding Seclusion, required that a great many very unpleasant and unsavory shifts and subterfuges had to have been deployed by wizards during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Many of these shifts were not at all admirable. One of the least palatable is the conclusion to which I am forced that some number of wizards must have actively infiltrated the ranks of the so-called witchfinders. In this guise they would have used every influence, both natural and magical, to divert suspicion from actual magical folk, at need re-directing it to those scapegoats they determined to be the least productive, most easily dispensed with, and most undefended members of mundane society. Most typically these were older Muggle women, living alone. It is also possible that the value which is almost certainly placed upon women within the wizarding world today may have been yet another of the developments which had taken place in reaction to what was going on in Muggle society, subsequent to the establishment of wizarding Seclusion. (Rowling seriously undercut this possibility in HBP and afterwards, although she had been at some pains to establish it prior to that, in Order of the Phoenix.)

It is also probable that these witchfinders actively sought out the chance to perform the slightly more excusable service of “exorcising” House Elves, thus “freeing” them to take refuge within the wizarding world that was in the process of forming and for them to be reassigned to wizarding properties. At the time these wizards could hardly have supposed that they were worsening the Elves’ lot in the long run.

It is also not at all difficult to believe that some of these “witchfinders” may have taken the opportunity to have abused their position by using their authority to pursue personal agendas against other wizards and their families. Some long-standing wizarding family feuds may very well date from acts which were undertaken during this deplorable era.