Invocational or Incantational? A Question About Harry Potter Magic

From today’s mailbag:

Dear Mr. Granger,

I had gone to your lecture you gave at Moravian College and was fascinated by your insight into the knowledge behind the series. You had written your email address when you had signed your book for me and I have a question now. I have now been beginning to read your book on “Looking for God in Harry Potter” and I was wondering about something. In the beginning you mention how Harry potter is not invocational magic or socery and never does it call in evil spirits but rather uses incantational magic. While for the most part I can agree with you there are a couple parts in the series where the characters may have used actual sorcery.

For example in Book 2 when Tom Riddle is about to unleash the basilisk on Harry, he turns to the statue of Salazar Slytherin and says in parseltongue “Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four” (Pg 317). Here Riddle appears to be calling on the spirit of the departed hogwarts founder to open the statue and unleash the monster within.

The other time when I feel that incantational magic is in the fourth book when Wormtail is saying the incantations to bring Voldemort back to life. He says “Bone of the Father, unknowingly given, YOU will renew your son.” This is of course when he is talking about bone from Tom Marvolo Riddle Sr. used to renew him. Wormtail goes on of course to take the blood from hair and the flesh from himself, Each time ending with “YOU will revive your master” and ” YOU will ressurect your foe”. Isn’t this that he speaks of that of a evil spirit? If so that would make Harry Potter have parts of actual sorcery in it.

What are your thoughts? I’m sorry this is a long email but I had a lot to say on this topic.

Sincerely,
Chris

Dear Christopher,

Great questions! Let’s look at the two examples you give:

For example in Book 2 when Tom Riddle is about to unleash the basilisk on Harry, he turns to the statue of Salazar Slytherin and says in parseltongue “Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four” (Pg 317).

The statue is of Salazar Slytherin, no? At these words, its mouth opens and out comes the serpent. The usage does suggest invocation rather provocatively without having a demon or ghost respond. The appearance of the serpent gives the suggestion even more of a satanic edge, too. But, no, there is no appearance of a visitor from the fallen psychic realm and the magic can be assumed to have been just a gate opener like what Harry uses in the bathroom to open the chute down to the Chamber. Evocative and provocative but not invocational.

The other time when I feel that incantational (sic; I assume you meant ‘invocational’) magic is in the fourth book when Wormtail is saying the incantations (sic) to bring Voldemort back to life. He says “Bone of the Father, unknowingly given, YOU will renew your son.” This is of course when he is talking about bone from Tom Marvolo Riddle Sr. used to renew him. Wormtail goes on of course to take the blood from hair and the flesh from himself, Each time ending with “YOU will revive your master” and ” YOU will ressurect (sic) your foe”. Isn’t this that he speaks of that of a evil spirit?

The Black Mass in the Goblet finale is certainly meant to do two things, but, again, I don’t think it qualifies as invocational magic, which by definition involves calling down a fallen spirit. Pettigrew is talking to the potion elements that obviously have magical properties but just as obviously aren’t responding to him or doing his bidding after some sort of exchange or command.

But just as with your first example, this dramatic potions preparation is meant to suggest sorcery and the worst possible kind. As I explained in Looking for God in Harry Potter, the resurrection of Voldemort by potion is an intentionally blasphemous caricature of the Roman Catholic blessing of the eucharist and of a baptism. We never see a potions experiment before or after this nastiness that involves dramatic speaking parts, do we? The drama here and the Frankenstein-esque consequences make me think it is also meant to be suggestive of golden age horror films. If only they played organs in theatres still…

Ms. Rowling doesn’t use invocational magic in any of her books, but, as you point out, with her very worst characters doing the worst sort of things, she has them act in sorcery-suggestive ways. While this doesn’t do more than highlight their evil nature, it certainly makes the importance of the distinction between invocational and incantational magic that much more important.

Thank you for the great question!

Gratefully,

John

Your comments and corrections are coveted, as always!

Comments

  1. Arabella Figg says:

    John, something struck me as I read this. We’re not told much about the Dark Arts of WizWorld.

    We get a good grounding in the Unforgivable Curses, and we see some dark stuff in the Bourgin & Bourkes shop in Knockturn Alley, such as the Hand of Glory and the opal necklace that later almost killed Hannah Abbot. But we’re not told how these things came to be, were cursed or worked. We do know that the success of any charm or curse comes from the intent of the person performing them.

    The Malfoy household is filled with dark stuff. Durmstrang students learn the Dark Arts rather than merely defense against them. Voldemort and his Death Eaters pursue and use them to further his evil, vanglorious agenda.

    In my mind, it’s possible some invocational sorcery could have been involved in the Dark Arts and that’s one reason Ministry Aurors clamped down on wizards using them. Indirectly, Rowling did write a spiritual good/evil world. When DA are used, it’s always by the bad guys. The Unforgivable Curses are used only in desperation by the good guys in a dire war battle to the death.

    Rowling was wise to not dwell on nor reveal much about the Dark Arts of WizWorld. We see just enough to see how bad and repulsive they are. Instead Rowling invites and persuades the reader to want to reach for a better, spiritually healthy, life-affirming way.

    Thudders is inviting me to check out his kibble supply…

  2. It seems by this magical pluralism (invocational vs incantational magic or the spritual good/evil world that Arabella mentions) that those of us less versed in the various imagery used in traditional literature can sometimes wind up trapped without a satisfactory answer for those that argue that Potterworld depicts the use of “white magic” against “black magic” knowing full well that all magic is Biblically forbidden. As we delve deeper into the types of scenarios described by Christopher and Arabella, we tend to get mired by the details. While I don’t believe the Potter books to contain “real” spells or invocations hidden in the vernacular that can call up demons, it sometimes gets difficult to convince even otherwise “reasonable” opponents in light of the discussion points so far. I know this sounds like a step backward, but do have any tips John, for working through this?

  3. I have often wondered about the Inferi and how they were used by Voldemort whether or not that was evil sorcery.

    As for me, the Bourgin and Bourkes store scenes makes me never to want to go antiqueing ever again.

  4. JohnABaptist says:

    “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let this food to us be blessed.”

    That is an invocation, a calling upon a supernatural Being to come into our presence.

    If it is said and meant from the heart it is very good indeed.

    If it is merely incanted as quickly as can be said because Daddy insists on Grace at every meal, then it is not such a good thing after all.

    According to Webster invoke is defined as:

    1 a: to petition for help or support b: to appeal to or cite as authority
    2: to call forth by incantation : conjure

    So if one wishes to invoke, one incants.

    Whether this incantation leads to the invocation of good or evil depends on the intent and choice of the person acting in the moment. Therefore, it would be wiser to look into the heart of the actor rather than to listen to the speeches of his mouth to determine what kind of magic is being practiced.

    Using that standard, the Dark Arts and Light Arts of the Potter narrative fall into place rather quickly. Clearly Harry and Friends are on the side of Light and Voldemort and Associates are in the Dark.

    In the absence of human action and its guiding intent, there is neither good nor evil for only Sentient Beings can sin.

    Or as Arabella would say, “Kitties don’t sin…they just purr and scratch.”

  5. I’d disagree here with that last. Please read the distinction made between the spiritual and psychic realms in “Looking for God in Harry Potter.” Invocations made to the one are dangerous and forbidden, to the other, they are “prayer.” Introducing the matter of one’s heart muddies the issue.

  6. JohnABaptist says:

    My intent in introducing the concept of “heart” was based on Jesus’ saying recorded in the Book of Matthew:

    “Matthew 15:18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. 15:19 For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 15:20 These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”

    Luke records a similar saying:

    ” 45A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”

    My concern was not with the concept of spiritual vs. psychic realms, in fact I agree that they are the real point here! My objection is to the use of the labels “incantational” vs “invocational” to differentiate the two when in fact, both verbs apply equally to activities in both realms. It is this labeling which I feel “muddies the issue” especially with those new come to the debates.

    In my opinion, it is not the manner of speaking which is forbidden, it is the person or realm to whom you are addressing your remarks that matters.

    I would like for us to find and use labels that focus on the differences between the two realms which the current labeling scheme does not seem to do. I do not however have a good candidate readily to mind, I’ll have to work on it, perhaps others can too.

  7. This is not difficult or muddied. Invocational magic is calling down demonic help from the fallen osychic realm; invoking aid from the spiritual realm is prayer. Incantational magic is literally “singing along with” the Creative Word-fabric of creation, co-creating as an image of God. In the tradition of English letters, the first magic is bad, the second an imaginative support to a Christian world-view. Objections to Harry Potter based on their magic are bizarre, consequently, however well-intentioned because there is no invocational magic in the books.

    Please don’t introduce a “new labeling scheme” or confuse what is plain. Your assertion that both incantational and invocational can be used to describe activities in both realms is true — but only if they are used indiscriminately and incorrectly. Use these words with their proper meanings as derived from the Latin and this false problem disappears.

  8. While “Flesh, Blood and Bone” is clearly meant to suggest something similar to a Black Mass, I don’t think the magic can really be “invocational”. If a demonic entity were being invoked, then surely the formula would not be “you will resurrect your *foe*. A demonic entity would not be a foe to Voldemort.

  9. I dipped into Deathly Hallows again last night and noticed that there’s one place where Rowling could have put something which readers of other fantasy fiction would certainly have recognized as invocational “white magic.” She didn’t; she used something else. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione escape from the Death Eater attack at Xenophilius Lovegood’s house and Apparate back to their little tent by the skin of their teeth, Hermione runs around with her wand and says a bunch of the usual Rowling-created latinate spells of protection. This was the perfect spot to have put somethng truly invocational, and she didn’t. I’m a little chary of giving examples of the other approach, the one she didn’t use, but trust me, it’s quite consistent and apparently based on real-world occultic beliefs.

  10. Divine and demonic characters really do not exist in Harry Potter to be invoked. The divine and the demonic instead exist as metaphorical characters within the stories. So Satan (qua Satan) does not exist in the Harry Potter universe. Instead the villain of the book plays the role of current devil. In OotP, for instance, the “devil” or “adversary” is Umbridge. In CoS it was Riddlemort.

    Lord Voldemort, as we find out in DH and his name implies, is Death or, more specifically, the fear of death. He also fills the role of adversary in several books (1,2 and 7), but those roles are shared with another character and I think his name implies that he has always been the figure of Death rather than the Devil, a division probably arising from Tarot symbology, where there is a card for each.

    As for the Divine, Harry is a manifest Christ symbol in DH and has been a cryptic one for the entire series. While the Father does not appear in Harry Potter as a character, when it comes down to it this is also true of the New Testament. It implies nothing in particular in either case.

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