There are several reasons for the success of Harry Potter. One is that it is written in the most popular story motif: the hero's journey. But the second is also important: J. K. Rowling had a sharp understanding of the underlying structure of Western mythology and folklore. This is not uncommon in Britain, where the four-fold path is more evident than it is in the rest of the English speaking countries. I am here to talk about the magic of Harry Potter, what it is, why it works, and what is real about it.
What is magic?
According to the dictionary, "magic is the use of charms and spells believed to have supernatural power over natural forces."
Once upon a time, spells and charms were stories and songs with contained the lore of a people. A magician, sorcerer, witch or wizard was a person who could, through a story or tale, effect the course of nature. They could bring luck to their people. They could send bad luck to other people. They could heal a person or curse another. In the beginning, all magical people had the ability to intercede with the natural world through a story, a song, a dance or any other magical actions that would attune their minds to the world of the spirit. Stories and songs were the way that humans knew anything about the world that they could pass on to others. Stories and songs let them bind time and understand the patterns of nature. Stories and songs let them pass on information about how to do this and how not to do that.
To this day, the art of the storyteller is the oldest art and still holds everyone in the world enthralled by its charm. You could say that magic is tied closely with the ability to tell a tale, but that is only part of magic. Another part is the ability to remember things and translate them into story. Another part of magic is the ability to use language to catch the attention of others and lead them on a journey into the magical, or taleteller's world. Stories were once incantations that stayed the same from generation to generation. Adept storytellers learned thousand of stories and repeated them exactly as they had been told for hundreds and hundreds of years. Classes of stories were told for certain events: births, deaths, marriages, initiations. Some stories were easy to remember, little rhymes like "April showers bring May flower." Some stores were involved and difficult and took weeks to tell. Other stories had to be acted out or were so strange and wonderful that only a few people could hear them, only at certain times of the year or day, or only under certain conditions such as after dark or before a fire.
Stories are more effective under magical conditions. Stories told around a fire take on a power that stories told in daylight while working do not. Stories told in a theater are often more effective than stories told on the playground. Stories work the greatest magic when the audience participates in the story, making of it a ritual. When several people get together at midnight and chant the same words and do the same actions, they spin out a journey into the magical world and all are changed. They have become magical. Their spirits have been loosened from the bonds of the everyday and they are aware of the world in a way that they were not before.
Some insist that magic must have some result, some power, however real magic is more subtle, and true magic is usually only effective on the self at first, but ultimately, can profoundly change the world. Magic requires great patience, a trait that few of us have. Magic requires discipline and practice. Magic requires understanding, a fact that even stories about magic illustrate. For without understanding, people want the immediate result without realizing that they will lose their souls for it.
Where did magic begin?
For early humans, the entire world was alive. Fire was alive. Wind was alive. Stones were alive. People lived in small groups and wandered from place to place following game, staying in a valley for a season, moving on when their food supplies were used up. They pulled up all the good roots in an area, ate all the berries, and moved on to the next valley. Often they came back to the same areas each year where there was a river where the salmon would spawn, or there was a cave that was warm in winter, or there were other groups who had things to trade.
At that time, magicians and witches and sorcerers were individuals who were different from the others. A boy who was lame might chose to be a wizard. A girl who had a birthmark might be encouraged to be a witch. For some reason a person was distinguished from the others and thought to be closer to the magical world. The magical world was the world around. A magician or shaman was thought to be able to understand more of the natural world. Maybe a girl could speak the language of birds or a boy could understand the language of the stars. Sometimes this person was very smart or very adept at understanding others. A person singled out to have an ability will often try to improve that ability. A girl who was very sensitive to the illnesses of the sick might be encouraged to learn more about sickness and healing. A boy who was very tuned to the ways of animals might spend all his time watching animals and become more and more adept at understanding them.
According to mythographers like Joseph Campbell, wizards and witches were the first magical people. A witch was someone who could channel forces and energy and call upon the natural world; a wizard was a shaman who cast spells and cursed people and knew all about drugs and medicines.
Over the millennia, more and more people flourished. Little by little their group's territories overlapped the territories of other groups. Sometimes the food in a certain area would be so depleted that fights would break out between groups. As it became harder and harder to find food, people began to get smarter. They learned to guide the herds of animals to better grazing. They learned to go back to a place over and over to get the same harvest and then to burn back the weeds and jungle from an area to encourage the plants they ate to grow there. The herds of animals began to get used to their human guides and the plants changed as humans selected for one trait over another making the crops more lush and easier to eat.
After a long time, some groups began to stay in the same area with their herds and their agriculture. And other groups learned that they could sweep in and steal the food from the group who had spent all year growing it. But not only did the farming group have to worry about raiders, they had to worry about plague and fire and other natural disasters, sometimes as simple as having enough rain during the planting and not too much rain during the harvest. Animals could get sick and a whole herd die out. The settled groups were extremely vulnerable and depended more and more on their shamans to help them with a world that grew more and more difficult to manage.
After many thousands of years, as groups became large enough and dependent upon agriculture, two other kinds of wizards emerged. One person was needed that would represent the goddess of the earth. The ritual of the agricultural world was a play of the planting and harvesting of the earth or the birth and sacrifice of the herd animals. The entire year was managed into holidays for each step of the agricultural world, planting, tending, and harvest. The main spirit to be appeased was the goddess of the earth who would bring rain and warmth and bring forth fruit. A person was chosen to represent this goddess, not as a channeler, but as a perfect image of the goddess on earth. The other person needed in these rituals was her consort, the seed and the rain to make the earth fertile and abundant. Over the years, the play became more and more elaborate and ritualized. Each year the consort would be planted and harvested, born and sacrificed. This god and goddess were the luck charms of the nation. Two more kinds of magical beings emerged. A person to be pure and fruitful, charmed with the gift of life itself, and another who would insure that the beauty and youth of life would continue.
Eventually, these magical categories became more formal, with their own set of stories, rituals and problems. Society began to mirror these four magics with separate castes for each of the groups. People in the way that they are compelled to find patterns and to make the world fit their images of it, began to see many aspects of nature as four-fold. We see this today, with four elements, four directions, four suits in the cards, four kinds of astrological elements, four humors, even four colors: blue, red, yellow, and green. Is it no wonder that Hogwarts had four houses and four kinds of witches and wizards?
Rather than argue with this four-fold map, and try to dismiss it, I chose to delve into it and create a way for people to recognize which aspects of the individual paths appeal to them.
Here is a list of the four-fold "masks of god" that appear in Joseph Campbell's book The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. I have worked with colors and stars and the elements and the suits of the Tarot to create a map. I was interested to find where my own maps and other four-fold maps like that of J. K. Rowling differed.
The important aspect of this map is the way in which it morphs into religious formality. Compassion religions like that of the Sikhs, Jains and Early Christians are clearly religions of the people and of the body, illuminating the suffering of this mortality, and the relief of sins and karma through the rituals of body cleansing, taking care of others, and a fellowship through eating and drinking rituals. The heroic religions differ in that their emphasis is more on action and social structure and the importance of everyone being on the same side under the same banner, whether born to it or joining it from outside. Conversion and group identity is very important to them as well as acts of faith, devotion, and social cohesion.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of the heroic religions often pushes aside alternatives. The urge of the Koran to "jihad" (enthusiastic prostelgzing) becomes violent conversion. The Prince of Peace becomes the Giant Tyrant. Body religions can go underground, turning a celebration of life and love into a fear of death with rituals of death and cannibalism. Each path has a dark side. Often, in stories, the dark side is one of the other paths to that of the protagonist. Therefore, Lord Voldemort and his cult of "death eaters" are opposed to Harry and his heroic friends.
The elite or mental religions like Sufism, Zen, Jews who study the Kabbalah, and Gnostics, are usually taken from the heroic and body religions to form cults of esoteric study. Although of the warrior/ruler elite, think of these religions as the "messengers of god" or the hermit on the mountain cults. They have never formed a large portion of the general populace, but have been extremely respected by their root religions or so completely vilified as to be targets of pogroms. They, like the ruling class, are usually wiped out when conquered by another people. In a situation closer to life, the Slitherins of Hogwarts would be the most vulnerable to death threats by the muggles (humans.) In the Harry Potter series, the Ravenclaws have taken over this role of the select cult within the group, although in real life, the fire magic practicers or channeling magicians, are few, rare and are the most heavily persecuted of any other practitioner. Although most of the Air Magic people are chosen out or choose themselves out by joining a select group (if they can) Fire Magic people are born to it, and often have great ambivalence about their powers which set them outside of society. They often take on a profession to make them look like one of the other groups, such as a great seer becoming a herbalist witch who still lives off in the woods, but is sought out for healing. In rare instances, the blinding ability cannot be hidden, no matter how strong the mask, such as Jeanne d'Arc who tried to be a hero, but was revealed to be a fire sorceress of great vision and burning faith.
In 2006 we designed a game that explored these magical paths and used gods and mythology
from the West to illustrate different aspects of the paths. If you tap on this image, you
will go to those pages where you can read more about your particular interests on these
paths. I have made the next pages here to also let you find out much more about these
particular paths. On the TetraMagika pages are many actual practices that will develop
talents and abilities. Feel free to explore it all. If you go to TetraMagika, you will
have to go back to the top page of this site to get back here to the Western Way.