Names and their underlying mythology in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter-Novels

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Concepts of Mythology
2.1 The Combat of Good and Evil
2.2 The Hero
2.2.1 The Mythical Child

3. Names
3.1 Names in Literature
3.2 Names in Harry Potter
3.2.1 Mythology behind Major Characters’ Names
3.2.2 Mythology behind Minor Characters’ Names

4. Conclusion

5. Sources
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Scientific Literature
5.3 Web Sources

1. Introduction

The Harry Potter series display such a complex set of plots with so many references to history, legend and literature, with so many playfully arranged puns according to the names of characters, creatures, items or places that one cannot easily decide where to begin with an examination that may befit the extent of a seminar paper. The finally chosen scope of this paper refers to my general interest in mythology and legend as well as to Rowling’s admiring aptitude to equip her characters from an extraordinary variety of backgrounds. Names are the most obvious means of depicting literary characters and their intended personalities. Yet, considering the multiplicity of those characters in the ever further developed seven novels, further specification appears to be necessary to meet the demands of this paper. Therefore, its focus is limited to character names and in that to several selected characters only, whose names demonstrate mythological background most efficiently. To that effect, I am not exclusively following a selective principle regarding the characters’ significance in the books. Surely enough, there are several major characters bearing names grounded on mythology, yet Rowling placed so many according hints and links on minor characters and on figures not even acting in the story(ies) themselves that it would seem a squandering of her labour to concentrate on particular ‘significant’ characters only.

2. Concepts of Mythology

To define the term myth is still a difficult task. Its origin is rooting in Greek, meaning word, speech, narration or tale. Broadly, a myth is a story of religious-philosophical content, usually a legend explicating the origin of a culture’s basic elements and requisites allegorically. From earliest times, humans satisfied their need to realize and explain their world by creating myths about all kinds of phenomena. They were seeking comfort and instruction by the idea of supernatural beings ruling and controlling the wonders of human existence. Mythology is peopled by heroes and deities, whose names live on in place-names, people’s names and in history. Besides myths explaining the genesis of worldly entities, there are some widespread mythological motifs regarding human nature and behaviour.[1]

Considering the diversity and richness of legends all over the world, it seems plain fact that mythology is being frequently reapplied in literature. J.K. Rowling assimilated mythological motives and elements in various ways. Her novels feature certain basic structures of mythology.

2.1 The Combat of Good and Evil

One of the most general ideas in mythology, particularly in Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition, is the eternal combat between such abstract concepts as the Good versus the Evil.[2] The combat motive is very common in phantastic children’s literature and in literary history in general. A central element of all J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels is the description of the fight against the evil wizard Voldemort. The antagonism between Harry and Lord Voldemort has been created by fate; Harry belongs to the ‘good’ wizards because Voldemort murdered his parents. He, however, takes a choice in being sorted into Gryffindor house and not, as the Sorting Hat foremost proposes, into Slytherin, which is notorious for breeding dark wizards. Before his arrival at Hogwarts, his significance remains opaque, some wizards even consider him to be a more powerful ‘black’ magician than Voldemort himself. Yet, Harry takes his side with Dumbledore and the ‘good’ without indecision. Being brought up by abusive relatives, he is totally unable to support the idea of joining those, who were involved in the murder of his parents and so many a fair people.

2.2 The Hero

All through literature -- and not just children's -- the hero has been removed from the family setting. In Greek myths you have the extreme with Romulus and Remus. It serves the important function of enabling the hero to act without the fear of destroying his family and disappointing people who love him, or -- which is very important -- having to expect frailties in his parents. I think that it serves an important function for readers, particularly child readers, to be able to explore adult cruelty, whether or not they are experiencing it themselves.

(Rowling: 19.03.1999)[3]

Heroes are peculiar actors in mythology. They usually differ from other, or one may say, ordinary people. Their singularity may for instance be grounded on special skills or powers, or it may elsewise be the result of particular circumstances. Harry’s character is shaped by his personal experiences. Yet, his loyalty towards Dumbledore and his determination to defeat Lord Voldemort does not equally imply that he possesses a faultless personality. In this respect, Harry rather resembles the Greek demigod Heracles, whose violent temper provides for many disadvantages on his way.[4]

2.2.1 The Mythical Child

A particular form of mythological hero is the child. Since they visually proof fertility and reproduction, children are generally held connected with significance. A child possesses a symbolical power, which contrasts strongly with its actual frailty and dependency. Myths from all over the world illustrate this special power of the child, and literature emulates them. Mythical or divine children, according to their heroic role, display features that differentiate them from ‘usual’ children. They are either orphans, of divine origin or even created from unanimated materials. Commonly, they are targets of assassination but escape this fate because of their power or their destiny, which means that they receive help from other mythological characters. Several ancient rites/cults were concentrated on mythical children.[5]

One can find respective allusions in Rowling’s work. Harry Potter grows up orphaned and neglected. He escapes his abusive sibship because of his supernatural powers, that is to say his being a wizard. At Hogwarts he would have been treated like any other child, would he not bear the fame of being ‘the boy who lived’, visibly recognizable by his forehead scar. Carrying an outward sign is a common mythological feature of a hero as well. For example, Odysseus is identified only by his dog and his old nurse, who recognizes him after all this long years by a certain scar.[6] Harry is the only person who survived a killing curse. He owes this circumstance to his mother who was sacrificing herself to give her child powerful magic protection. Finally, he becomes subject of a personal ‘cult’ when opponents of Voldemort celebrate Harry’s labours in an exaggerated manner.

Rowling’s novels exhibit distinctive traits of mythology, a fact, which is highlighted by numerous characters’ names.

3. Names

Names are the key to people’s identity. An old-established Latin proverb says ‘Bonum nomen bonum omen’. Thus, the origin of many names roots in the attempt to assure the most suitable circumstances in life, as for example names like Felix or Victor demonstrate vividly. Names also serve the function of distinction; therefore, the custom arose to bestow explanatory epithets and cognomen in addition to the given names. Mostly, these were expressions of character traits or personal appearance but they could also hint to places, professions or accidental circumstances, which were connected with the respective individuals. After time, many of these descriptive names became surnames; in England, this custom has been particularly prevailing.[7]

The naming of fictional characters is subjected to similar practices. In order to serve determining, expressive and/or distinctive functions, the characters’ names must display relative features of their intended role or significance.

3.1 Names in Literature

It is a domain of literary texts to play with names, may they be ‘real’ names or imaginary. Already in the 19th century, onomastic scientists, literary scientists, as well as literary critics were taking interest in the investigation of literary names, or charactonyms. A charactonym is a name of a fictional character that suggests a distinctive trait of that character. In the field of literary onomastics, scholars study the functions of names inside literary texts. In doing so, the investigation is not only focused on single charactonyms and their interpretation, but also on the entire names’ stock of a text and the relationships between all these names on the whole. Yet, names in literature do not only serve certain functions, they likewise codetermine the literariness of a text. The ‘onymic landscape’ of a text is of likewise significance for the field of literary studies. Thereby, the relation between author (intention) and text as well as between text and recipient must be implicated. Naming and, in contrast, anonymisation are considered as artistic devices, whereas the motivation for these may coincide. Therefore, charactonyms can be polyfunctional. Yet, not every recipient may realise the function(s) of every charactonym because they may refer to a particular language or specific knowledge.[8]

The chief object of this paper is the analysis of the epitomising function of several selected character names with reference to mythology and mystery.

3.2 Names in Harry Potter

Being asked in an interview several years ago, how she decided on the names of her characters, places etc., the author stated:

I collect unusual names. I have notebooks full of them. Some of the names I made up, like Quidditch, Malfoy. Other names mean something -- Dumbledore, which means "bumblebee" in Old English...seemed to suit the headmaster, because one of his passions is music and I imagined him walking around humming to himself. And so far I have got names from saints, place-names, war memorials, gravestones. I just collect them -- I am so interested in names.

(Rowling: 19.03.1999)[9]

That at least some of the names that Rowling used for the characters in Harry Potter ‘mean something’ can be easily understood by giving them a closer look. The name of Hogwarts’ headmaster is one of the best examples of a representative charactonym and it refers almost entirely to mythology.

3.2.1 Mythology behind Major Characters’ Names

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

This rather long name is a whole string of expressive names. ‘Albus’ is the Latin word for ‘white’. The name befits the external description of the headmaster having very long white hair and beard. Analytically speaking, the name is of interest in several ways. Firstly, it is symbolically aligned to ‘innocence’ and ‘purity’, which contributes to the mythological dichotomy of Good versus Evil or Light against Darkness. White and Black are abstractions of those ethical qualities, in this context, the name Albus refers to his character’s belonging to the ‘good’. Furthermore, ‘white’ is also associated with old age and its attributed wisdom. This interpretation suits the character of Albus Dumbledore just as well, since he is portrayed as a very old man of more than a hundred years, who has gathered incredible knowledge and skills, from which his companions benefit considerably. Beyond that, from the same Latin ‘albus’, ‘Albion’ emerged as an ancient and poetical name for Britain. The headmaster of Hogwarts represents the old, much sung about Britain in the same way; Albion is connected with legends of wisdom, witchcraft and wizardry, with just and powerful leaders and with heroic battles against malevolent enemies. In this mytho-historical context, the middle name Percival (which was the name of his father) is worth noticing, since it refers to one of the Arthurian knights who succeeded in the quest for the Holy Grail.[10] However, Arthurian legend is also associated with this powerful wizard in another way. Although Dumbledore does not bear the name of Merlin, he is awarded, amongst other distinctions, with the Order of Merlin, First Class, and has the position of the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot. These decorations are presented together with his full name on important occasions and are therefore connected with his identity as a supreme wizard. His titles also link the headmaster to the famous myth of King Arthur and the sorcerer Merlin from Welsh legend. In common variations of the legend that ‘originates’ in the epics of Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain)[11] and was later on enhanced by Robert de Boron, Merlin is a mightful prophet and wizard who was accomplishing the birth and powerful reign of King Arthur, to whom he served as a crucial mentor and counsellor.[12] De Boron’s Merlin could also shapeshift and had a joking personality, which reminds strongly on Dumbledore’s capabilities and particularities. Rowling’s Wizengamot refers to the old English ‘parliament’ Witenagemot or Witan, which was the convocation of wise men. Summoned by the king, witans would advise on the administration and organization of the kingdom, which is exactly the role Merlin played in the Arthurian myths and Albus Dumbledore acts towards Harry Potter, being his mentor and counsellor in his fight against Voldemort. The second middle name Wulfric is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘wolf power’ or ‘wolf ruler’, which also refers to ancient Britain. The name’s implied power and capability for leadership supports the character’s afore-mentioned role in the story. Whether there is an intended allusion to Brian, cannot thoroughly be decided, although several readers assume it to be a reference to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, meant to mock the pretentiousness of all his other names[13], something that could be said as well about the author’s above-quoted decision concerning the charactonym Dumbledore, which is an old Devon word for ‘bumblebee’. The same irony is displayed in the character’s habit of flabbergasting students and teachers with humorous nonsense-speeches and jokes or in his partiality for sweets. Altogether, Rowling equipped the headmaster with aplenty insinuating names from a broad mytho-historical background, which emphasize the character’s qualities and link to his significance inside the story.


[1] Daly 2004; Dowden 1992; Jung & Kerényi 1951

[2] Dowden 1992; Forsyth 1987

[3] <> (02.12.2007)

[4] Dowden 1992; Schwab 1960

[5] Jung & Kerényi 1951

[6] Grimal 1986: 355f

[7] Arthur 1857

[8] Koß 2002: 167-171

[9] <> (02.12.2007)

[10] Goodrich 1986: 200ff

[11] see Goodrich 1986: 41-47

[12] Colbert 2004: 5f; Goodrich 1986; Kluge 2006: 9-14,162-182

[13] <> (02.12.2007)

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Names and their underlying mythology in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter-Novels
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
Harry Potter and The End
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Names, Rowling, Harry, Potter-Novels, Harry, Potter
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Anne-Christin Hirsch (Author), 2008, Names and their underlying mythology in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter-Novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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