Heraldry and Medieval Animal Symbolism in "Harry Potter"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018
26 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Heraldry: General Rules
2.3 Heraldry in Harry Potter

3. Medieval Animal Symbolism in Harry Potter
3.1 The Lion
3.2 The Snake
3.3 The Eagle
3.4 The Badger

4. The Connection between the Animals and the Protagonists
4.1 Harry Potter and the Lion
4.2 Draco Malfoy and the Snake
4.3 Luna Lovegood and the Eagle
4.4 Cedric Diggory and the Badger

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Now each of these four founders formed their own house, for each did value different virtues in the ones they had to teach. By Gryffindor the bravest were prized far beyond the rest; For Ravenclaw, the cleverest would always be the best; For Hufflepuff, hard workers were most worthy of admission; And power-hungry Slytherin loved those of great ambition. (Rowling 2000: 196).

This quotation from one of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling introduces us to the four houses of the famous wizard world: Gryffindor depicting a lion on its coat of arms, Ravenclaw an eagle, Hufflepuff a badger, and Slytherin a snake. That animals play an important part in the wizard world of Harry Potter is nothing new; there are owls, wolves, and unicorns throughout the book series. There are also creatures from Roman-Greek mythology, such as Fluffy, the three-headed dog. Furthermore, one even finds human-animal creatures and animal totems called “Patronus” which demonstrate the blurred lines between humans and animals—a phenomenon that was feared in the Middle Ages but apparently not in the wizard world imagined by Rowling (Salisbury 1994: 139; Ravagli 20102: 32f.). Rowling incorporated not only Roman-Greek myths but also medieval mythology. The abundant incorporation of animals and depiction of blurred lines between humans and animals leads to the assumption of a strong connection between the wizards and their animals. Hence, there has to be a meaning associated with the animals depicted on the houses’ coats of arms and the students that belong to these houses. This assumption is supported by the depiction of the Sorting Hat, which mentions every house as having different values. Since values form part of one’s character, it leads to the theory that the houses’ animals represent different character traits in the students.

This term paper examines the connection between the animal depicted on the coat of arms and the houses’ protagonists. Some authors like Obermaier and Biewer have stated that coats of arms and their emblems have no symbolic meaning, but this is not the case for the coats of arms created by Rowling (Obermaier 2009: 178; Biewer and Henning 2007 : 151). Nothing in her books was created without careful consideration and background knowledge; even the eye colors and names of the characters, as well as the names of the houses, were chosen based on their phonetic quality and specific character traits (Fenske 2008: 150f.). Hence, even the animals on the coats of arms probably have a speficic meaning and connection to the characters’ qualities. Therefore, it must be stated that the four coats of arms in Harry Potter are not chosen arbitrarily but in accordance with heraldry and medieval animal symbolism, with the aim of representing the key characters. To verify this, the four coats of arms of Hogwarts will be compared to heraldic rules taken from heraldic manuals, such as from the work of Biewer and Henning. After that, parallels between the animals and their medieval symbolism will be examined based on medieval works, such as the Physiologus, the Bible, and the Etymologiae by Isidore Seville. Finally, the symbolism of the animals will be compared to key characters from the books.

However, this paper concentrates only on the four coats of arms of Hogwarts. Those from other wizard schools like Durmstrang and Beauxbatons will be skipped due to time and space constraints. The restriction was chosen because this term paper focuses on the animal symbolism in coats of arms while Beauxbatons does not even have an animal on its emblem. A further restriction has to be made regarding the examined characters. Only a small selection of characters can be explored, and so mainly the principal character from each house is chosen. Since this paper also investigates the heraldry applied in the coats of arms, heraldic descriptions will be included as well; however, they will be adapted to the reader’s general knowledge and not be depicted as in specialist books on heraldry that use a specialized language called “blazoning” to describe them.

2. Heraldry: General Rules

The investigation of heraldic features on the coats of arms in Harry Potter is important in order to verify that Rowling did not choose the design of the coats of arms arbitrarily; rather, their designs have a purpose. Therefore, this chapter presents the historical beginnings, the functions, and the rules of heraldry. Furthermore, it investigates if the author of Harry Potter really follows the heraldic rules by comparing the coats of arms to the statements of authors of heraldic books using not “blazoning” but easier language for description. Nevertheless, the paper will stick to certain heraldic description rules, like brevity, order rules, and specific terms, as described in the handbook Wappen - Handbuch der Heraldik by Biewer and Henning.

Before the existence of heraldry, warriors had started to paint their shields in bold colors. The aim was to create a distinction between the enemies and one’s own warriors. With the later development of war armaments—mainly the use of a helmet and full-body armor— warriors on the battlefield became even more unrecognizable. Distinguishing between one’s own troop members and enemies became harder and harder. Also in tournaments, which were a source of great entertainment in the Middle Ages, full-body armor was used which made the warriors undistinguishable (Euristorica e.V. 1989: 20). The creation of heraldry provided a solution to this problem. The warriors now not only painted their shields in bright colors like previous warriors but also developed a special type of design for their armors. This new practice, called “heraldry,” came into being in the second quarter of the 12th century. It showed itself not only in the different color use on armors but also in the use of charges, which were mainly animals, plants, and anthropological images (Biewer and Henning 2017 : 109). The design was then spread onto the helmet, horse blankets, and surcoats. This led to easier recognition of warriors during a war.

However, ensuring easier recognition even from a large distance was not the only function of heraldry. With time, heraldry became hereditary and started to function as a symbol of sovereignty for families. It gradually also developed into a sign of belonging to a social class. In the beginning, only the aristocracy used coats of arms. But from the 13th century onward, even the clergy, cities, and workmen had coats of arms. This spread in the 14th century to farmers as well (Obermaier 2009: 149-150; Biewer and Henning 201720: 161, 251). Since then, it has also become a symbol of the marital status, individualism, perpetuation, and identity of its owners.

To be the owner of an authentic coat of arms, however, one had to follow certain heraldic rules. First, it was necessary for the coat of arms to include the whole design, which consisted of the crest, crown, mantling, helmet, and escutcheon (see Figure 1). For cities and institutions though, it was acceptable to use only the escutcheon on the coat of arms (Biewer and Henning 201720: 17).

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Fig. 1: Parts of an authentic coat of arms

Further rules that are important for coats of arms, according to Biewer and Henning, are the simplification of the charges (mostly animals) and the exaggeration of their armoring—like claws, teeth, horns, and tongue—which was achieved by depicting them as bigger or in other colors. Also, the size of the charge had to be as big as possible and to stretch until the borders of the escutcheon (Biewer and Henning 2017 : 153). All these rules were established for one reason: to make the coat of arms visible from large distances. Although this necessity got lost with the disappearance of chivalry and tournaments, the rules are maintained even today. One of the most important specifications is probably related to the usage of colors. Only certain colors were allowed: red, green, blue, black, and sometimes also purple. Gold and silver were very common and were treated as equivalent to yellow and white. Neither color shades nor the charges’ natural colors were allowed (Biewer and Henning 2017 : 87). Although so many rules for colors were established, no symbolic meaning was given to them (Biewer and Henning 201720: 90, 169). They were only used to make the owner more easily visible and to distinguish different owners from each other. To make the distinction even easier, many coats of arms involved different colors, not just one. The last set of rules relates to the charge’s form and position. It was normal for the charge’s— or rather the animal’s—head to be shown in profile, either striding on four legs or walking upright on two legs (Biewer and Henning 201720: 120).

2.3 Heraldry in Harry Potter

Now that the background of heraldry is clear, the paper will examine if the above rules and functions apply to the coats of arms depicted in Harry Potter. To ensure that the comparisons are easy to follow, the four coats of arms of the Hogwarts houses have been illustrated below (see Figures 2-5).1

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Fig. 2: Gryffindor

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Fig. 3: Ravenclaw

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Fig. 4: Slytherin

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Fig. 5: Hufflepuff

To begin with, consider the rule of completeness of the coat of arms. One notices that Rowling did not follow this rule. The four coats of arms include no crest, no crown, no mantling, and no helmet. Instead, she only depicted the escutcheon. However, as stated above, cities and institutions were allowed to leave the rest of the coat of arms out. Assuming that Rowling considers the four houses to be similar to institutions which have an educational and social purpose, she seems to have followed the heraldic rules.

Some parts of the second rule described by Biewer and Henning are fulfilled by Rowling. The simplification of the animals is ensured by the rather simplified drawing style; however, they are depicted with perspective, which contradicts the rule of simplification and was, according to Biewer and Henning, frowned upon in heraldry (Biewer, Henning 2017 : 156). The armoring is depicted in every animal on Rowling’s coats of arms: The lion shows its claws and teeth, the eagle its claws, the snake its tongue, and the badger also its claws. However, heraldry demands exaggerating these, using other colors and bigger sizes. This is not the case for the coats of arms in Harry Potter. Their armoring is proportional to their body’s size and the coloring. Although they show other colors in their fur and feathers, the design is natural rather than exaggerated. Upon examining the charge, it becomes clear that the rule of having a big charge is fulfilled. The animal should extend until the borders of the escutcheon. In the coats of arms of Harry Potter, they even go beyond that and in some cases exceed the margins.

As far as the coloring rules are concerned, Rowling stuck to the demanded escutcheon colors. She used red, blue, green, and yellow/gold in the background, which is within the frame of eligible colors in heraldry. However, considering that no natural colors or shades were allowed, the author applied exactly these features onto the animals. Also, the heraldic prevalence of various colors in the background has not been stuck to. Nevertheless, Rowling was not wrong in using only one color, since this was a common practice in the early days of the medieval period (Biewer and Henning 2017 : 97). Furthermore, Rowling used colors mainly for differentiation, as it was usual in heraldry, to make the four houses easily distinguishable. The function of the coats of arms for easier recognition becomes especially visible in competitions of the wizard world’s sport “Quidditch” as well as in magic duels.

The rules pertaining to the form and position of the animal were applied to the four coats of arms in Harry Potter. Every animal’s head is shown in profile. The lion is walking upright, which was a typical position in heraldry for the king of the animals. The eagle is depicted with its wings spread wide, which was also a normal posture in heraldry for the king of the air. The snake, although it has no legs, can also be described as walking upright because of the lifted upper body, thus filling out the whole escutcheon. The badger is depicted in another common position: striding on four legs. All four animals fulfill the claims of heraldry in this respect.

3. Medieval Animal Symbolism in Harry Potter

The Middle Ages were an era when animals were investigated more than ever before. This occurred because animals were dominant in daily life for resources. However, medieval scholars studied animals in not only a biological but also a Christian-symbolical way. Christianity reinforced this analysis of animals. People used the Bible to interpret their life with animals and considered animals to be part of God’s divine plan (Morrison 2007: 28f.). Also, the so-called “bestiaries” were written to record findings about animals and to interpret them symbolically. Two of the most famous bestiaries are the Physiologus by an unknown Greek author and Etymologiae by Seville.

In this section, the incorporation of medieval animal symbolism in Harry Potter, which was first published in 1997, will be examined by comparing some of the most important medieval works, like the Physiologus and other bestiaries with the four animals on the houses’ coats of arms in Rowling’s book. The purpose of the comparison is to find parallels between medieval symbolism and Rowling’s animals, and to show that she did not choose the animals arbitrarily.

3.1 The Lion

Although the name “Gryffindor” may lead one to assume that a griffin is its animal, Gryffindor has a lion on its coat of arms. This is because the founder of this house was Godric Gryffindor. Hence, Rowling created a canting arm, which was also a common method in medieval times. The lion today is still considered as the king of the animals, as it was in the Middle Ages after replacing the bear. The lion is nowadays associated with power and strength on the one hand and danger on the other.

Also, in the medieval sources we find an ambivalent image of the king of the animals. In the allegorical interpretation of the Physiologus, the lion is depicted as a symbol of Christ because of three characteristics: First, the lion covers its tracks just as Christ covered his divinity by assuming a human form. Second, the lion sleeps with its eyes open and is watchful like Christ. And third, the lion is said to be able to rouse its cubs with a breath or roar, which is a parallel to Christ being revived by his Father (Armistead 2001: 22).


1 Since there are many variants of the four coats of arms, the most suitable ones were chosen from the official website of J.K. Rowling, https://www.pottermore.com/.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Heraldry and Medieval Animal Symbolism in "Harry Potter"
http://www.uni-jena.de/  (Anglistik)
Animals in Medieval Literature and Beyond
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Harry Potter, Mittelalter Tiere, Medieval Animals, Animal Symbolism, Bedeutung von Tieren, Heraldik, Heraldry, Wappenlehre, Wappen
Quote paper
Sarah Antonia Gallegos García (Author), 2018, Heraldry and Medieval Animal Symbolism in "Harry Potter", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/499078


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