The power of myth in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

“Sit in a room and read—and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time” Joseph Campbell

The definition of myth through the Oxford dictionary tells us that it is “A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events[1]” and “A widely held but false belief or idea”, in this essay we will be studying the power of myth in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) and J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) while considering these definitions above and the affects and changes they have had through time and within the text. I will be focusing on the trio of mythical creatures from The Tempest; Iris,  the goddess of rainbow and the messenger of Gods, Juno, the Queen of Gods and Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, as well as Harry Potter’s tale of three brothers,  Antioche, Cadmus and Ignotus Peverell and of course Death. We see how mythology is transcendent throughout time, in the 21st Century with Harry potter and the 17th Century with The Tempest. As Joseph Campbell put so elegantly; “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths” indeed these books bring alive the vividness of myths and this essay will present the colossal depth that words  and messages that we may skim over can present.

Mythology is incorporated into our lives; we cannot escape it even if we tried. Most things we see, what we have and where we are are surely bound to have mythology incorporated into it whether it is the mythologically abundant Greece or most animals, it shouldn’t come as a shock when we learn that our favourite authors have developed their stories predominantly through the help of mythology. We discover that our favourite characters are not a creation out of purely an independent idea; they may exist in myths that may be thousands of years old. Rowling herself confesses to the “unashamed” use of mythology in her epic heptalogy in an interview with Stephen Fry: “I’ve taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I’m quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we’ve been invaded by people, we’ve appropriated their gods, we’ve taken their mythical creatures, and we’ve soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world because it’s so varied”[2] . This is not to say that J.K Rowling is any less creative in the development of her characters, I personally believe that her series of Harry Potter novels are a brilliant and imaginative piece of literary history, much like The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien.  However my focus for this essay is to see the power that myth has on Harry Potter and especially focusing on the story of the three brothers in the Deathly Hallows which in itself is a shielded folklore written in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a children’s story which is in fact presented as a true tale.

The Deathly Hallows are three magical objects that combined will make its possessor the master of Death, they are told through The Tales of Beedle the Bard and is about three brothers that cheated death through magic and were granted three requests by Death himself.  However the first two brothers died as a result of their request and the third was wise and only gave his life when he was ready. This is a story influenced by The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, in which three men are told to look under a tree for a way of defeating death, however in finding gold they are conquered by greed and all kill each other. This is of course a light skim over the influence of Rowling’s Deathly Hallows tale, it is of course much deeper than this, each character and each of their devices has an extremely powerful mythological design in them. Starting with the protagonist of the Deathly Hallows and possibly the most infamous personification we hear of in our day to day lives; Death. In the Deathly Hallows we meet him after the three brothers: Antioch Peverell, Cadmus Peverell and Ignotus Peverell cheat him by crossing a river that without the use of magic would have surely killed them “And Death spoke to them. He was angry that he had been cheated out of three victims, for travellers usually drowned in the river. But Death was cunning. He pretended to congratulate the three brothers upon their magic, and said that each had earned a prize for having been clever enough to evade him”[3]. In Greek mythology, Thanatos is the demonic personification of death[4], he has been referenced to as the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (darkness) which we instantly see in Beedle the Bard’s tale of the Deathly Hallows as Death is introduced to us at “twilight” a time of day sacred to many religions because of its connotations with Death, such as in Hinduism where Vishnu ended the life of an evil demonic King Hiranyakashipa at twilight; a time where it is nor day or night[5]. Hesiod, a Greek poet writes in his Theogony about Deaths many personifications; “There the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods.”[6]

Darkness has always been alloyed with negative connotations, Death is even frequently referenced to as the King of Darkness in Beedle the Bard’s tale (and also through Harry Potter himself) as it is suggested that only those with a “pure” heart can defeat him. So, Death being cunning we see presents the men with a gift, the first brother Antioch Peverell described as “combative” requests “a wand more powerful than any in existence…a wand worthy of a wizard who has defeated death!”[7]. Of course the wand represents power, and weaponry power is a continual mythological theme in such myths such as Mjolnir the hammer of Thor, Excalibur and Death’s Scythe. However Antioche, instead of using the wand for protection and good, he gives into the allurement of fame, boastfulness and petty revenge for a man whom he had merely quarrelled with. Antioch is quickly defeated by one of Deaths Deities; Atropos who is goddess of fate and destiny and the oldest of the Three Fates, his fate is inevitable, power for the sake of fame and glory rarely ends well for its chassis.  Death is also dubbed as the twin of Hypnos (sleep) in Hesiod’s poems as well as Homer’s in his epic poem Iliad where he writes; “Then Apollo gave him [Sarpedon] into the charge of swift messengers to carry him, of Hypnos and Thanatos, who are twin brothers, and these two presently laid him down within the rich countryside of broad Lycia”[8]. And this is how the first brother’s life is ultimately taken, while in deep slumber “another wizard crept upon the oldest brother as he lay, wine sodden, upon his bed. The thief took the wand and for good measure, slit the oldest brother’s throat. And so Death took the first brother for his own”[9].

Inevitably, death is undefeatable with a single weapon, he is only delayed. However we then witness Death’s next witness, the second brother, Cadmus Peverell whom is described as arrogant. He requests for “the power to recall others from Death”[10]. He uses his resurrection stone given by Death to bring back the woman he once hoped to marry before her untimely death. Resurrection is a colossal theme in mythology as well as religion, however if it is right to call the resurrection of Ra, God of the Sun a myth then I would also like to mention Jesus and his power of resurrection in which Harry Potter replicates in chapter thirty-five, Kings Cross. Without the resurrection stone, like the Christian God  Jesus, Harry sacrifices himself in order to help others destroy Voldemort, this selfless act and also almost natural, (without the use of magic) enables him to come back alive as himself and not like Cadmus’s lover who comes back “sad and cold, separate from him as by a veil. Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered. Finally, the second brother, driven mad with hopeless longing, killed himself so as truly to join her. And so death took the second brother for his own”[11]. A pattern seems to emerge with mythology and resurrection. When a mythological character dies from a selfless and heroic act, Death seems to frequently take pity on them, giving them another chance of life and allowing it to be untouched by the curse and coldness of death such as Osiris, Adonis and Mithras who was a figure also born from a virgin and was resurrected.  However, when using a power that is outside of Deaths approval, those brought back from the dead are often destroyed and unable to live in this unsuitable land, such as zombies (a Haitian myth) and indeed Cadmus’ lover.

Finally, we meet the third brother Ignotus Peverell, the most humble and wisest of the brothers who did not trust death. He asked for something that would make Death oblivious to his whereabouts and so Death, unwillingly, handed him a piece of his own Cloak of Invisibility. Once again Rowling has used a common theme of mythology; the Invisibility Cloak can be traced back to Germanic and Welsh folklore as well as ancient Greece. In such myths as Jack the Giant Slayer, among the possessions Jack steals, there is a Cloak of Invisibility, in the Perseus Myth, Perseus has a cap of invisibility which he uses to sneak up on the sleeping and evil Medusa, and there have even been myths that King Arthur owned such a device which was his most prized possession[12]. The power of invisibility in mythology has a drastic affect upon who uses it which is replicated within Harry Potter. Of course if you are able to do almost anything without being seen by the public or even Death, then you must be able to get away with most things; while a character such as Voldemort or Antioch Peverell would have used this for ill gotten means such as murder and theft, Harry Potter and of course Ignotus Peverell use it only to protect themselves and their loved ones from undeserved punishment. Ignotus controls the only fate everyone is destined for “But though Death searched for the third brother for many years, he was never able to find him. It was only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took of the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son. And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”

While the tale of the three brothers is merely shown as folklore among witches and wizards, they are key to the final Harry Potter novel, the theme of mastering death is rippled throughout the series of novels and especially this final Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In chapter sixteen, Godrics Hollow, we see it carved in Lilly and James Potter’s gravestone which reads “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death”[13]. The Deathly Hallows are of course the only objects that will allow for the defeat of death, the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Cloak of Invisibility allow for the destruction of Death and this is of course Voldemort’s and the Deathly eaters central ambition. Harry Potter though, through our preemptive thoughts on mythology, is the only person that it is ok to conquer Death. He is a Beowulf figure, a hero who does not think of himself worthy of such praise, he is selfless, kind and like Achillies, the bravest. After all, like Achilles mother who made her son invincible by bathing him in the river Styx, Harry’s also made him invincible with her love. For J.K Rowling, this focus on myth is for her central audience which was originally children and teenagers (although adults are now just as involved). This focus on mythology having been incorporated into the real world, on earth and not elsewhere has received Rowling much criticism. We see this in Amanda Cockrell’s essay Harry Potter and the Witch Hunters: A social Context for the Attacks on Harry Potter; religious groups are finding Rowling’s mythological interjections of magic into London, Kings Cross, in our motherland highly offensive and “evil”. [14] Harry’s audience however see this differently, these mythological creatures and stories give children hope, not false hope of becoming a witch or wizard but hope of pure imagination, another world to escape the true worlds turmoil.

Before I fully begin with The Tempest, I believe it is important that we establish the reasons for Shakespeare’s concern with myths and mythology and its power in his plays, focusing on the trio of Iris, Juno and Ceres even though they have a small part in The Tempest, they give a great insight into why mythology was used and the changes they processed. Through Shakespeare’s life in the 16th century, Latin would have been a cosmopolitan language for Europe for those working in a high end job such as doctors, businessmen, lawyers and etc. It was also taught in schools, Latin being the main source for Literature and while in school Shakespeare would therefore have been schooled on such roman literature as Virgil and Ovid’s metamorphoses which of course influenced his plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the story of Thisbe and Pyramus is displayed from Ovid, as well as in The Tempest. And so the reasons for Shakespeare’s use of Latin literature and mythology in his plays would have been that of course he was influenced himself by them and since his audience were most likely those of a wealthier background, they would also know Latin and so would relate more to a play that would establish myths and stories from their schoolboy years.  Also, most importantly, another reason is the historical connection to mythology and Britain. They had once been a part of the Roman Empire and to bring that historical relation together again was to use myths, gods and goddesses in his work. There is a connection with the British and Roman Empire, which is of honour and glory, Shakespeare used this to connect the people to its previous ancient ancestors, culture and ideals within mythology.

Going back to The Tempest, Shakespeare gives us his last play, a comedy with magic, love, betrayal and forgiveness. In my particular scene I will be analysing, there is a message that love is transcendent throughout the mythological ages and of course in our lives, one of the most obvious themes in Harry Potter after all is love, it has conquered the ultimate evil in every novel and in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, love opens up the prospect of forgiveness and unity in the protagonists, Prospero’s twelve year build of vengeance for his brothers false accusations and thus banishment of Prospero and his daughter. Love is presented predominantly through Miranda, daughter of Prospero and Ferdinand, son and heir of Alonso. In Act IV scene I, Prospero is giving his blessing to the newly engaged couple Ferdinand and Miranda, this is an of occasion of love and celebration and in this part of the essay, my main focus will be the main ‘life and party’ of this scene, the performers and mythological goddesses; Iris, Juno’s messenger and the goddess of the rainbow, sky and seas, Ceres, goddess of agriculture and Juno queen of the gods. Prospero summons Ariel to perform a masque for the joyous occasion in which Ariel then summons the trio. Firstly, Iris appears and inquires for Ceres to also appear at Juno’s request to celebrate and praise “a contract of true love”[15]. This is a little surprising as in mythology, Ceres does not listen to any messenger of any other Olympian God, anyway, in appearance, Ceres then wishes the new couple natural prosperity and plenty. She is a goddess of nature, rebirth, propriety and growth; conveniently these are all notions transitioning to marriage. An interesting question is why instead of using the goddess of love, Aphrodite, at such a celebration of love did Shakespeare choose to use the myth of Ceres? Ceres is the goddess of fertility and grain, she was mentioned in Ovid’s book of Metamorphoses stating that “Ceres was the first to turn the soil with a plough, /First to give grain and kindly nourish the world,/The first to make laws. All things come from Ceres…”[16] he states that we owe much to Ceres because without her we would not have food, crops, and therefore any existence because without agriculture we could not exist. Shakespeare however attempts to explain to the audience the reason for not using Aphrodite through Iris speech to Ceres; “Be not afraid. I met her deity [Aphrodite]/ Cutting  the clouds towards Paphos, and her son/ Dove-drawn with her. Here thought they to have done/ Some wanon charm upon this man and maid,/ Whos vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid/ Till Heymen’s torch be lighted: but vain;/ Mar’s hot minion is returned again;/ Her waspish-headed son has broke his arrows,/ Swears he will shoot no more but play with sparrows/ And be a boy out right.”[17]  Here Iris suggests that both Cupid and Aphrodite have already done their duty to the relationship, they were involved in the process and are now on their way home. In using Iris to fill in Aphrodite’s reason for absence it highlights the importance of Ceres being there, she is “a contract of love to celebrate; and some donation freely to estate on the best lovers”[18] and so Ceres as the goddess of fertility is present to bless and sanctify the unity of Miranda and Ferdinand, the two lovers, giving fruitfulness and strength to their marriage where Aphrodite, being only a goddess of desire and love could not achieve.

Shakespeare demonises Cupid and Aphrodite in this scene, he turns the ancient myth of the rape of Persephone in which Zeus allows Hades to kidnap her which Ceres responds with asperity as it was done so without her persmission. Homer mentions this in his Hymn to Demeter (the Greek version of Ceres) “I begin to sing a lovely-haired Demeter, August goddess,/ and of her daughter with slender ankles whom Aidoneus ravished, and loud-thundering, far-seeing Zeus gave her away…a narcissus that Gaia, to please the Host of Many in accord with the plans of Zeus, produced. ”[19] Persephone being Ceres’s or Demeter’s daughter and Zeus’ daughter, it would be fully constitutional for him to have given his daughter to Hades however Homer suggests that he may have had a part in her abduction and even helped with the rape. However, in The Tempest, Shakespeare suggests that it was indeed Aphrodite and Cupid who took part in the rape of Persephone as Ceres mentions their acts offensively “Since they did plot/ The means that dusky Dis my daughter got,/ Her and her blind boy’s scandalled company/ I have forsworn”[20] she accuses them both for the loss of her child and if they were to appear she declares that she would not stay even at the request of Juno.

As I mentioned previously, another change in mythology was through Ceres’ compliance to Iris call o this ceremony. After Ceres discovered her daughters abduction she stopped the growth of nature and would not comply with anyone or go to Mount Olympus. In Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, the God Zeus sends Iris to beg her return however Iris tries in vain as she does not comply with her message “Where in her temple she found the deep-blue mantled goddess Demeter./ Her Iris addressed thusly with winged words. “All-father Zeus, he whos thoughts are unwithered and deathless, Demeter,/ Calls you to come to your kind and the gods who are foever./ Go, then, and et not my message from heaven remain unaccomplished!”/ Iris besought her; the heart of the earth mother was not persuaded.”[21]  However in The Tempest she happily complies with Iris and so we see the difference and change in mythology in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, especially through Ceres’ attitude and relationships with other goddesses and messengers especially the relationship with Aphrodite.

While the focus and interest lies with Ceres, we must not forget the queen of Gods, Juno, her presence in The Tempest is important, not only does it highlight the importance of the matrimony but also the affects that this couple will have upon those around them such as their fathers, Prospero and Alonso. If not for their marriage and unity Prospero and Alonso would have still have had much hate between them, even if Alonso regretted his actions in helping Antonio to unseat Prospero. In Juno’s arrival however, as the Queen of Gods and also a symbol in Roman mythology for family and marriage, Prospero is pushed to forgiveness, Juno wishes them prosperity, “Honour, riches, marriage-blessing,/ Long continuance, and increasing,/ Hourly joys still upon you?”[22].

Over time, mythology changes, and in Shakespeare’s version of Ceres’s myth, he sets to show a moral message to his audiences, and though in each passing century, the power of mythology is still at the root of many stories, they set o bring messages whether good or bad to every contemporary audience.  The message in The Tempest does predominantly lie on the changes Shakespeare applies to mythology especially that of Ceres and Aphrodite. It is strange that in the one place that the goddess of love is so truly needed, she is missing and is even disliked by the goddess of fertility. Iris states “Here thought they have done/ Some wanton charm upon this man and maid,/ Whose vows are that no bed-right shall be paid/ Till Hymen’s Torch be lighted; but in vain”[23] here she suggests that Aphrodite and Cupid has tried to get Miranda and Ferdinand to have sex before marriage but her vain attempt failed because their marriage is of true love and not merely lust. Thus Shakespeare’s message is to not give in to sexual pleasure and desire, true love comes from the heart and purity, he shows Miranda and Ferdinand as model couples for his audience to be influenced by.

[1] Oxford Dictionaries, Myth, []

[2] Stephen Fry, Living with Harry Potter, BBC Radio4, 10 December 2005

[3] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bloomsbury, 2007, pp 330-331

[4] Mythography, Exploring Greek, Roman, and Celtic Myth and Art, Thanatos, [] 23 April 2014

[5] Jossleyn Hennessy (1955). “ch. VII Education in the villages “Cow-dust time””. India democracy and education. Orient Longmans. p. 127.

[6] Hesiod, Theogony, trans. Evelyn-White, Greek epic 8th -7th century BC, pp 758

[7] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bloomsbury, 2007, p 331

[8] Homer, trans. Lattimore, Greek epic 8th century BC Iliad, p 681

[9] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bloomsbury, 2007, p 332

[10] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bloomsbury, 2007, p331

[11] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bloomsbury, 2007, p332

[12] Meic, Stephens, The New Companion to the Literature of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, p479

[13] A quote also from the Bible 1 Corinthians 15:26 “The last enemy to be abolished is Death” and J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bloomsbury, 2007, p268

[14] Cockrell, Amada, Harry Potter and the Witch Hunters: A social Context for the Attacks on Harry Potter, Journal of American Culture,2006 pp24, 30

[15] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Oxford University Press, 1987, 4.1 83

[16] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Translated by, Stanley Lombardo, introduction by W.R. Johnson, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2010, 396-398

[17] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Oxford University Press, 1987, 4.1 93-101

[18] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Oxford University Press, 1987, 4.1 84-86

[19] Homeric Hymn  to Demeter [] (01/05/14) 1-4, 8-9

[20] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Oxford University Press, 1987, 4.1 88-91

[21] The Homeric Hymn 2: to Demeter, courtesy of the Chicago Homer [] (29/04/2014) 321-325

[22] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Oxford University Press, 1987, 4.1 106-109

[23] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Oxford University Press, 1987 4.1 95-98

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s