In honor of 20 years of Harry Potter, arguably my favorite books since I could read chapter books, I have scrolled through the British Museum’s extensive collections database to find magical gems.
What better object to begin with than a magic wand! This is an amuletic wand from the Middle Kingdom, Egypt, 2050 – 1800 BCE. Like Ron’s wand, it was broken and repaired.
Much of ancient magic consisted of written spells and prayers to gods. This is an Old Babylonian clay tablet from 1900-1700 BCE with a spell calling on Asalluhi, god of magic, to protect against ghosts and demons.
This is a “curse tablet” from 2nd – 3rd century Roman Britain. Instead of casting an Unforgivable, Roman Britons would inscribe their complaints on lead sheets and pray to gods (in this case Mercury) to bring misfortune down on those that wronged them.
This bowl from 6th – 7th century Iraq has 13 lines of “pseudoscript” on the inside, designed to make illiterate clients think they have valid incantations. These would provide protection from demons and the like.
Magic from around the world
This is a “ghanwah-gboreh,” a “medicine” charm made of cloth from Sierra Leone, 1908. It would mostly be used in protective white magic, changing its purpose based on which color string was used. This is a very different from Wingardium Leviosa.
This magic pouch from Mare Island in Melanesia is called “waceng.” A “wacen” belongs to individual clans and holds magic stones. This one reminds me of the moleskin pouch Hagrid gave Harry to hold the things important to him.
This witch doctor’s blanket from Paraguay was made by “Toothle” or “Toothli” and collected in 1922, along with many other clothes and protective objects. I wish there was more about the maker, how the blanket was used, who used it. Museum collections are filled with objects still waiting to be fully researched.
This one is cheating a little bit – in the world of Harry Potter, flying carpets are used in the Middle East as family vehicles. This is a gorgeous painting from an album depicting Persian costumes from about 1842.
Magic takes many forms across the world, that wouldn’t be recognizable to the witches and wizards trained in Hogwarts.
A History of British Magic
Harry Potter is greatly inspired by the different expressions of magic through British history. This ring from the 13th century holds a Latin inscription – in nomine Domini – a phrase that appeared frequently in books of Christianity influenced magic. This might have been used for exorcisms.
These are magical wax discs used by Queen Elizabeth the First’s personal magician, Dr. John Dee. In the picture is also his obsidian shew stone, or magic mirror. He and his colleague, Edward Kelley, used these mirrors and tools to communicate with Angels. These are on display in a case about magic in the Enlightenment gallery.
This 16th – 18th century numerical square/ magical disc reminds me of Hermione’s Arithmancy classes. The front are symbols of Jupiter, while the other side has a 4×4 “square of Jupiter” in Hebrew letters and the number 136. This number magic takes the sum of the numerical value of the letters, just like the Hogwarts classes.
Famous witches and wizards
This print shows the great wizard, Merlin, holding a wand and globe being approached by royalty. He is a mythical figure in our Arthurian stories, but in JK Rowling’s world, Merlin is a historical figure (and a Slytherin).
This Mercury Hebrew astrological amulet was made in the 21st century, but is based on a Renaissance talisman described by Cornelius Agrippa in 1531. He was an alchemist, like Nicholas Flamel, and wrote an influential book on the occult. Agrippa is also one of the chocolate frog cards Ron still hasn’t got.
This print shows Shakespeare’s witches from “Macbeth” stirring a cauldron. Their potion in the play is filled with all sorts of odd ingredients that sound familiar to Snape’s potions classroom, such as “Eye of newt and toe of frog.”
Art and Fantastic Beasts
Basilisks are throughout European folklore. Hatched from chicken eggs brooded by a toad, basilisks turn people to stone with a single look, cannot bear the sound of a rooster’s cry and cannot look at their own reflection. (So there wouldn’t be any water in the Chamber of Secrets, hint, hint).
Dumbledore’s iconic familiar is Fawkes the phoenix. This beautiful 18th century drawing is of a simurgh, a Persian phoenix, from India. There are tales of the sun bird across the globe, and always they are a symbol of hope and rebirth. RIP Dumbledore.
Most of us are a little bit like Hagrid – obsessed with dragons. They have inspired countless works of art and decoration. This beautiful inro, or 5 tier case made of black and red carved lacquer, is exactly how I imagine the Chinese Fireball Krum fights in the Triwizard Tournament.
These bags of magic powder from Mexico City are paired with saint images for ritual use. Many places in the world still have bustling magical markets that would rival Diagon Alley. In some places, this magic is linked closely to the worship of personal saints.
This badge exemplifies the feminist heroine of the 1980s – a reimagining of a witch as a strong and free woman. This came from a growing idea that the women persecuted for witchcraft were feared for their individuality and independence. This badge reminds me of the impassioned and idealistic Hermione Granger organizing S.P.E.W. and forcing badges onto her friends.
Art has a powerful magic all of its own.I was particularly excited to find this drawing by Osi Audu, from Nigeria. This multimedia monoprint is inspired by the artist’s Yoruba culture, and the tradition of making shrines to worship the inner head. “My aim has been to create a piece in which the shapes and the elemental charge of the objects and materials used would lend it their secret magic, or consciousness, which would be felt as the piece is seen.”
I encourage you to go to the British Museum Collection Online and use the Advance Search function to explore further. They have all sorts of categories to investigate, and you may think of different search terms than I did, discover other hidden magical gems.