Harry Potter on a Sunday Morning

Public anthropology is something any of us can do and its a practice we can engage in at any scale. I’ve written before about how anthropology helped me speak in front of city council to save the bookmobile and I’ve advocated for a public anthropology that is “fast, cheap, and out of control” — meaning it can be local, easy, and not professionally oriented.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to do something new that was very rewarding for me. I gave a sermon! I’ve included the text of it here. It’s a long read (I had 20 minutes to fill), but if turning cultural relativism into a religion is your cup of tea you might enjoy it. What a treat it was for me to deliver it.

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If you’re nostalgic about church but are too anti-authoritarian to put your kids in Sunday school, if you’re interested in your spiritual well-being but can’t stand rules, if you don’t mind a little New Age hugging then check out your local UU. You’ll meet a lot of misfits, hippies, New Englanders, and people who for whatever reason had to walk away from other religions. As my friend Ayla, who grew up in the UU, describes it, “It’s a little bit of Christianity, a little bit of rock and roll.”

Chances are you’ll find other anthropologists, scientists, and professors too. For example my minister has a PhD in physics from Princeton. When I shared with him this story about how some Christian fundamentalists reject Set Theory he said, “Well then, they must object to Godel’s incompleteness theorem as well.” UU’s are a bunch of smartypants.

This sermon was part of a month long series on the theme of Harry Potter…

Harry Potter and Magical Thinking

I must admit I was a little baffled at first when I was invited to give a sermon on the theme of Harry Potter. Why me? Had I lost some kind of bet? I am a cultural anthropologist by training and if there’s one thing we anthropologists are good at it is not feeling uncomfortable in places where we don’t belong and muddling our way through things we have no business doing. “Just figure it out along the way,” is the anthropologist’s maxim.

Imagine that the inhabitants of Hogwarts are like some far-flung tribe and after an exhausting journey from Newport News to this hidden and out of the way place; after having successfully navigated a humiliating and Kafka-esque gauntlet through the Ministry of Magic’s bureaucracy of customs and inspections you, the anthropologist, have arrived in khakis and pith helmet to study this community you know nothing about. You are lonely, far from your friends and family, your bed is hard and the food here tastes funny. You’re a stranger to everyone and can’t seem to make it through a single day without embarrassing yourself by transgressing some to you as yet unknown code of conduct.

Your mission is to learn what you can about this community, about its culture. A slippery topic that. Every human community has a culture and if you made a list of what that entailed exactly, well, you’d have a very long list. But whatever angle you use to get ahold of it, anthropologists are in agreement that culture is by definition something you learn by virtue of your membership in a group. For example, everybody needs to eat. That’s a biological fact. But what you eat, that’s culture. Proteins, carbs, and vitamins are inherent qualities of food. But who is cooking and cleaning, and who is being served, that’s culture.

So out of sheer boredom and loneliness you go out to be with your tribe and make some observations. You observe that everyone at Hogwarts is engaged in this activity called “magic.” You start to look for a pattern and notice that magic always has practical application. There’s a point to it, you’re trying to achieve some end. The function of Alohomora is to unlock doors, the function of Oculus Reparo is to mend eyeglasses. Now you’re ready to make a generalization, magical spells serve a purpose. The magician is trying to achieve something by means of magic. In this way magic replicates what in our culture we call “technology” it is a tool that allows you to do something in the world.

Being that you are at a school for the training of witches and wizards you are able to observe apprentice magicians being trained by masters. It becomes clear that magic is systematic and rule bound, the masters know how to do it properly and must teach technique to their young charges. There is a right way to cast a spell and a wrong way. The first time Harry Potter travels by flue powder he goes with the Weasley family to Diagon Alley he mispronounces the name of his destination (Diagon Illy) and winds up in the wrong place by mistake. When Gilderoy Lockhart attempts to mend Harry Potter’s broken arm he only succeeds in removing the bones from his arm altogether. So, spells can fail.

If there is a right and wrong way to do magic, there must be certain rules a proper spell should follow. Being ignorant of magic you ask, “Where do these rules of magic come from?” Judging from the behavior of the inhabitants of Hogwarts, magic is an inherent property of the universe. Like gravity, magic is an invisible force that is omnipresent and real although intangible. Through concentrated study one can learn the rules of magic in order to command its power, it reveals to the student something about the nature of the universe. In this way the study of magic has much in common with the study of what we call “science,” if one only follows some basic assumptions magic provides an orderly and logical way to understand and explore the universe. Magic, being rule bound, produces outcomes that are, to a wizard at least, predictable and repeatable.

You notice that in order for the witches and wizards of Hogwarts to do magic properly they must be in possession of certain required artifacts. All the students and professors have their various books, some of them have animal familiars too: a cat, an owl, a toad, a rat. To cast a spell a wizard must have a wand. To concoct a potion a witch must have a caldron. When Ronald Weasley’s wand breaks and he pathetically tries to tape the bits back together he can no longer cast a proper spell. So while it may be that magic is invisible, it is still definitely bound up in important ways with tangible objects. Things.

So far we’ve got magic requiring certain mental operations – knowledges and beliefs that you must learn, casting a spell requires certain behaviors that you must practice – principally speech, and to do magic you need to be in possession of magical artifacts like wands, brooms, and caldrons.

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Of course, there are also important differences between magic and science in terms of how they explain cause and effect. In today’s children’s focus we saw how sensible Frog gave his moody friend Toad practical advice on how to grow a garden. You give it water and sun and leave it alone. But the way Toad acts is more in keeping with magic. Starting from the base assumption that his seeds are scared Toad proceeds in a logical manner to make them feel safe with stories, poems, and songs. In the end Toad’s garden grows, although he and Frog might have different explanations for what caused the flowers to grow. We might call Toad’s conclusion that it was in fact, very hard work a correct misinterpretation.

Everyone goes through life making certain assumptions about the world and magic is no exception. And though magical thinking may seem exotic at first, as it turns out, it is not so unfamiliar. Sir James George Frazer lays out some good advice for us in his book “The Golden Bough.” Generally speaking there are two sorts of magic: the sympathetic and the contagious, although there is so much overlap it is nearly pointless to keep them separate as discreet categories.

The sympathetic principle states that like produces like and it allows for action at a distance. So, for example, while Harry Potter fights the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets and things are going quite badly for him Fawkes the Phoenix flies in and drops the Sorting Hat into their melee. Harry draws from the Hat the sword of Godrick Gryffindor. He is only able to do this because of the great similarity, or sympathy, between his bravery and the bravery of Godrick Gryffindor.

Harry also shares many uncanny similarities with Lord Voldemort, his ambition makes the Sorting Hat pause and consider placing him in Syltherin House, his parselmouth allows him to talk to snakes, his rage leads him to seek revenge against Sirius Black before he learns his innocence. When Harry first departs for Hogwarts at age eleven, the proprietor of Ollivander’s Wand Shop selects for him the same magic wand that Lord Voldemort possesses. Harry Potter’s lightening bolt scar throbs painfully on his forehead when Voldemort is near.

This is action at a distance. Harry shares this sympathetic relationship with Voldemort, one which binds them together even when they are apart, because something of his essence transferred to Harry when The Dark Lord first attacked him as an infant. Contagious magic explains why this should happen. The contagious principle allows for transference and transformation, a wave of a wand and one thing changes into another. In killing Voldemort as an infant, Harry Potter takes on some of his qualities by virtue of having made contact with him.

Another example of contagious magic is the Polyjuice Potion brewed up by Hermione Granger. In order to dupe class bully Draco Malfoy into revealing who has opened up the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and Ron transform themselves into Draco’s henchmen, Crab and Goyle. The Polyjuice Potion allows one to temporarily take on the physical appearance of another and the final ingredient the boys need to collect is a bit of their hair. By virtue of having been in contact with Crab and Goyle the victim’s hair transfers their essence to the potion, the potion then transfers that to the boys who drink it and transforms them into Draco’s cronies. One thing passes to another like a contagion. Contagious magic.

What magical thinking allows is for one to recognize connections where there are no obvious connections, to create likeness where the likeness is not necessarily real. In poetic contexts we would call such reasoning metaphorical. Why exactly humans have evolved the ability to think in terms of metaphor is an interesting question to ponder. Maybe it goes back to the way we learn language and culture as children, that gift of mimicry is physical – learning to copy the sounds coming out of adult’s mouths is how we all learned to speak – but also intellectual – that is we learned to copy their thoughts and values as well. In anthropology we call the human disposition towards interaction with the world by copying it “mimesis” and it is what allows us the gift of creating representations in art, in poetry, in play.

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin muses, “Children’s play is everywhere permeated by mimetic modes of behavior, and its realm is by no means limited to what one person can imitate in another. The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher but also a windmill and a train. Of what use to him is this schooling of his mimetic faculty?”

There is a close relationship between the human propensity towards magical thinking and the fact that we all possess a language. What language is and where it came from is rather mysterious. And being that, like magic or gravity it too is intangible, we are in need of a way to get a hold of this immateriality. We need to focus on speech because through speech language becomes observable. I cannot know what other people are thinking, but I can observe people engaged in conversation and get a pretty good idea.

As we noted earlier every magical spell includes words that must be spoken and, moreover, they must be spoken correctly. If I were to wave a wand and say the words of a spell before you right now that would not necessarily “cause” anything to happen. But then again, maybe I’m just not doing it right. After all, there is a type of speech act the linguists call performatives where this actually does happen.

Along with magical spells the performatives include bets, promises, oaths, and curses – they are speech acts that are neither true nor false but instead do things by virtue of being spoken. The classic example of this is wedding vows, which now that we look at them from this new perspective seem a lot like something from Hogwarts. Here’s how it went at my wedding. My fiancée and I had been living together for some time yet on the day of the wedding we were forbidden to see each other, that would be “bad luck” so she did not sleep in my bed the night before. Then at the wedding I got dressed up in these strange clothes that I would never wear in ordinary life. I was standing in front of this ritual official whose job it is to mediate between the living and the supernatural, he was also wearing strange clothes. I spoke some ritualized words and gave her a ring made of yellow metal, she did the same to me.

Abracadabra! We were married. What happened? All we did was speak a few words! In Hogwarts using words to transform on thing into another requires a passing grade in Professor McGonagall’s Transfiguration class. Through the speaking of words we were transformed. Performativity allows you to do the greatest magic trick of all, create something out of nothing – watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat – or make something real disappear. Now you see it, now you don’t. Just a boyfriend and girlfriend, nothing up my sleeves, and then presto-changeo, a married couple. Performatives make the man-made seem natural. Of course saying “I do” and exchanging metal circles with rocks in them is how you get married. Isn’t that how everyone does it?

Perhaps nowhere is the power of productive speech on clearer display than in giving a person, place, or thing its name. Like a spell our ability to name creates something out nothing and in many folkloric traditions knowledge of a person or thing’s True Name allows power over them. Of course the seminal instance of this in the European cannon is Rumplestiltskin. And it continues to be common element in fantasy fiction from “The Hobbit” to Ursula LeGuin’s “Earthsea” series.

Names play a prominent role in the Harry Potter series as well. In the first book, Harry is suffering under the petty tyranny of the Dursley family, he is nothing, a nobody. With the revelation that he is a wizard Harry is stunned to find that there exists an alternate reality where everyone already knows his name. He’s not a nobody, he’s famous. He is The Boy Who Lived. Likewise, Lord Voldemort wields power over wizarding kind as You Know Who and He Who Shall Not Be Named. They do not speak his name, of course, because names summon. Who has not heard a person cry out to God in a moment of pain, shock, or irritation? Saying the name of God draws him nearer to you. Speak of the Devil and he shall appear. Harry does speak the name of Lord Voldemort because he is not afraid of him, his disdain for his enemy is manifested in his refusal to acknowledge his power.

III.

Does the strange world of the Hogwarts tribe now seem more familiar? The fantastic feats of magic that permeate the fictional world of Harry Potter have much in common with the way real people think and act, even if, most of the time, we don’t notice we’ve been doing it since childhood. And we’re left to ponder, what’s the difference between magic and religion anyway? Not much it turns out. JK Rowling anticipated this too. In an attempt to head off accusations that her novels were pagan propaganda Christmas was made to figure prominently in the early books. The Fundamentalists skewered her anyway.

From anthropological standpoint casting transfiguration spells is no different than turning bread into the body of Christ, but then the power of magic to heal is no less than that of the Eucharist. Both magic and religion give the user a sense of confidence in moments when the world seems beyond control. And who wouldn’t want a little extra control when it seems utterly random that one job applicant is picked over another or that one person can be healed of cancer while another dies? Who wouldn’t want the hurricane winds to spare that tree branch that hangs precipitously over the roof or for their team to score one more goal? Magic helps us feel better about living in a world where chance and risk can have costly consequences.

The difference between magic and religion is all in the rhetoric, it is part of the story Europeans told themselves about the rest of the world in the age of empire. We have religion, they magic. We have history, they have myth. We are modern, they are primitive. Magic is as perfectly utilitarian as any technology and magical thinking as logical as any science although, clearly, they fare better in different domains. Why are we here? What is a good life? What is the difference between right and wrong? Science isn’t very effective at answering those sorts of questions.

It’s a funny thing belief. It would seem there’s something about us humans such that we can’t not to do it. We have to believe. There’s a great diversity, of course, in terms of what that is. In what fills that belief shaped slot in our heads. And if you’ve tuned into any of the public debates around politics and religion, two domains where belief is paramount, it would seem that there’s nothing more important than what you believe in. Sticking to your principles! Having strong convictions! But do your convictions serve a practical end? Are they a way for you to do something in the world?

To me the Unitarian Universalist church offers a refreshing, comforting, almost Zen-like alternative. It says: what you believe doesn’t matter so much as how you treat others. The UU ethic is, like magic, focused on the practical. What good are your principles and convictions if you can’t treat others with civility, if they lead to the self instead of towards feeding the world? Through our ethical mode of being we seek to transform the world, to create something out of nothing.

Two weeks ago Reverend Andrew advised us to turn our concentration away from what we believe and towards what we do. Remember that magic is active, that it is something to be performed in particular by means of carefully chosen and powerful words. I think this is the great promise of our UU fellowship and the way in which we lay claim to our own kind of magic. By being conscious and intentional in the way that we act and the way that we speak. Those beliefs are but intangible, your deeds are for everyone to see.

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

3 thoughts on “Harry Potter on a Sunday Morning

  1. A truly wonderful article, talk, sermon, statement – eye opening – yep, really wonderful!

  2. I’ll second that. A very nice sermon, indeed. Alas, my own nostalgia for church is permeated with Lutheran music and liturgy. Alternative forms of Protestantism seem so pale and wishy-washy.

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