Alecto Carrow: Hesiod, Dante, Eliot, Rowling

How about that author name-dropping in the post title? Top that set…

Today’s name exegesis is of one of my favorite Death Eaters, Alecto Carrow, whose performance at the Ravenclaw door just before the Battle of Hogwarts with Professor MacGonagall by itself is sufficient to put him at the head of their class. I want to focus here on the name ‘Alecto’ to suggest how Ms. Rowling wants us to understand the take-over at Hogwarts School in Deathly Hallows.

If you go to Wikipedia, you find Alecto is an old, old name and a favorite one for the best writers:

Alecto (Ancient Greek: Aληκτώ, English translation: “the implacable”) is one of the Erinyes in Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, she was the daughter of Gaea fertilized by the blood spilled from Uranus when Cronus castrated him. She is the sister of Tisiphone and Megaera. Alecto is the Erinys with the job of castigating the moral crimes (such as anger), especially if they are against other people. Her function is very similar to Nemesis, with the difference that the latter’s function is to castigate crimes against the gods. Alecto appeared in Virgil’s Aeneid, and also in Dante’s Inferno as one of the three Erinyes.

The Erinyes, more commonly “Furies,” are the subterranean embodiments of vengeance or the anger of the dead, especially against those who speak false oaths. Alecto, one of the three Furies identified by Virgil and Dante, has a name meaning “unable to be appeased” which suggests the righteous anger and power of justice, even karma. These snake-headed nasties are the folks in hell who make you pay for the crimes you thought you got away with.

The Divine Comedy appearance of the three Furies is outside the City of Dis, where Virgil and Dante have to wait for an angel to descend and open the gates closed by the demons. The Erinyes appear and threaten both poets with their getting Medusa and having her turn Dante to stone. In the Longfellow translation of Inferno, Canto 9, we read Virgil identifying the Furies to Dante:

Erinyes Dante

He, knowing well the miserable hags
Who tend the queen of endless owe, thus spake: 45
“Mark thou each dire Erynnis. To the left,
This is Megæra; on the right hand, she
Who wails, Alecto; and Tisiphone
I’ th’ midst.” This said, in silence he remain’d.
Their breast they each one clawing tore; themselves 50
Smote with their palms, and such thrill clamour raised,
That to the bard I clung, suspicion-bound.
“Hasten Medusa: so to adamant
Him shall we change;” all looking down exclaim’d:
“E’en when by Theseus’ might assail’d, we took 55
No ill revenge.” “Turn thyself round and keep
Thy countenance hid; for if the Gorgon dire
Be shown, and thou shouldst view it, thy return
Upwards would be forever lost.” This said,
Himself, my gentle master, turn’d me round; 60
Nor trusted he my hands, but with his own
He also hid me. Ye of intellect
Sound and entire, mark well the lore conceal’d
Under close texture of the mystic strain.

This last bit that I have highlighted — in which Dante invites the reader to reflect on the moral and allegorical meaning of Virgil covering Dante’s eyes lest he be turned to stone — is a point for your consideration.

T. S. Eliot features the Furies, too, in his The Family Reunion, a play whose lead is named Harry, and, post Harry Potter, they make an appearance in Percy Jackson and the Olympians as well (In The Lightning Thief, the algebra teacher has a secret…).

What does this mean for the serious reader of Harry Potter?

The weight of Alecto Carrow’s name is on the first part but the last name gives the whole its spin. “Carrow” is not an uncommon last name in the UK especially in Cornwall, but in colloquial usage it means “strolling gamester” (isn’t it helpful to have a word for those guys?) and is probably most often heard in the context of Carrow Road, the stadium where the Norwich Canaries — I kid you not — play League 1 football (think ‘Wrigley Field’ or ‘Fenway Park’, or, better, the biggest College Football Field you know — Cornhusker Stadium? ).

“Alecto” is the implacable, never-to-be-appeased agent of justice. “Carrow” is a not-quite-Championship grade soccer player in a neon green and yellow Canaries jersey. What are we supposed to make of the conjunction?

That the Carrows at Hogwarts are irrational agents of something like divine punishment is my first thought, with the spin that they are, in addition to their sadism, more than a little stupid, almost comically so, in a Gothic burlesque. The scene with MacGonagall is reminiscent of all the change-of-scene comic exchanges between two buffoons in Shakespeare plays, especially when one gets so much the better of the other. The conversation isn’t bawdy here and MacGonagall is anything but a “groundling” playing for cheap laughs. But she does reveal both the sense of the Carrows being simultaneously a judgment on Hogwarts and more than a little pathetic.

Ms. Rowling knows her Dante. Is there any chance she is asking us ala the Bard of Florence to reflect on how those we experience as oppressors may be our karmic reward for unavenged or repented wrongs?

Your comments and corrections, please! (H/T to Jeremy for the Dante connection for Alecto.)


  1. And, as she so often does, Rowling gets the one-two punch with a name that is both resonant in meaning and evocative in its sound. Can one say “Severus Snape” without hissing? I am reading the books aloud to my son these days, and though I’ve read them to myself an embarassing number of times, I have not said all these phrases or names aloud before, and I’m really noticing the artistry with which she shapes names (My son caught Diagon Alley the first time he heard it; seeing it, I didn’t get it at all at first).
    “Alecto Carrow” is beautifully cacophonic, almost creating a witch’s cackle when one says it aloud. It also sounds (and even looks) like a crow, another negative connotation. Compare that harsh name to euphonious ones like Minerva McGonagall, and the contrast is clear on yet another level.

  2. I find it interesting that we have this connection with the Furies, which brings us back to the opening quote in DH from the Libation Bearers. The next play in the Aeschylus trilogy is the “Eumenides,” which is a nice way of referring to the Furies. You got me thinking about the significance of Amycus’ name. I see that it also goes back to Greek mythology and it refers either to: (1) a pugilistic king who was the son of Poseidon; or (2) one of the group of centaurs who were invited to Theseus’ wedding, but got drunk and attacked the women. Either way, Amycus is a brute and similar to Alecto in representing a violent, primitive way of behavior. One of the more controversial scenes in DH involves Harry’ inflicting the Cruciatus curse on Amycus. I would suggest that, rather than representing a judgment on Hogwarts, Alecto’s and Amycus’s names are given in order to clue the reader in to the fact that they are people who are incapable of thinking or responding in anything other than a primitive, violent way. It would be foolhardy for Harry to treat them any differently. And this takes me back to Dante and Canto 32 in the Inferno, when Dante is in the Ninth Circle of hell and he treats Bocca Degli Abbati in a rather shockingly violent and brutal manner. As McGonagall found nothing wrong with Harry’s behavior, Virgil similarly has no criticism of Dante. The moral here? I’m not sure. But I did want to respond and to thank you for your continued blogs, which never cease to be thought-provoking and make me want to be a lit major again so that I can spend my time thinking about such things. Bet wishes to you.

  3. Arabella Figg says

    This is over my head, having studied none of these things, but I’m impressed, and continue to learn.

  4. Nice post, John, but wasn’t it Amycus who had the exchange with McGonagall? Alecto was already unconscious in the Ravenclaw common room.

  5. I don’t get Diagon Alley in Elizabeth’s remarks. I am new, and totally unsophisticated. Please enlighten me.

  6. When you say it out loud, you get “diagonally”, which is its orientation; just so when you say Knockturn Alley out loud you get, appropriately enough, “nocturnally.”

  7. carriek9, I’m intrigued by the connection you make with the Oresteia. I’ve wondered for a long time about the significance of the Aeschylus quotation in the epigraph, having read the Oresteia during one of my freshman year literature survey courses in college. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but if I remember, it’s essentially about an escalating cycle of violence within a family. Agamemnon kills his daughter as a sacrifice to the gods before leaving for the Trojan war. This, needless to say, upsets his wife (Clytaemnestra), and so she avenges her daughter by killing Agamemnon as soon as he gets home from the war. Unfortunately for Clytaemnestra, in the ancient Greek world, killing a family member is one of the vilest crimes you can commit and demands vengeance. Now, Agamemnon must be avenged, and so Orestes and his sister Electra kill their mother, Clytaemnestra, to avenge their father, Agamemnon. You can see where this is going—when does the killing end? Orestes doesn’t appear to have any other family members who are waiting to step up and avenge Clytaemnestra’s murder, and that’s where the furies step in. As Mr. Granger pointed out, the furies, (the “dark gods beneath the earth” that are mentioned in the Aeschylus epigraph of Deathly Hallows) are responsible for avenging the dead and passing a karma-like judgment on those who have committed unholy acts. So the third part of the Oresteia trilogy, the “Eumenides,” starts with Orestes being pursued by the furies and begging Athena (a.k.a. Minerva) to intercede for him. And this is where the play gets a little odd to me. There’s a sort of trial, with a jury and everything and with Athena presiding, in which Athena eventually persuades the furies to acquit Orestes of his crime and let him go free. When they agree to this, she renames them “Eumenides,” which, according to Wikipedia, means “The Kindly Ones.” Such a concession from the furies is, I believe, totally unprecedented in Greek mythology. But even if it’s not, the renaming itself is a pretty drastic switch. And if I remember my undergraduate class discussion on this one (it’s been about four years), it’s hugely significant. Not only have the furies been renamed, but their very nature has been altered. They are now gods of kindness (mercy?) rather than gods of vengeance. Not only that, but the order that they upheld has been turned on its head. The unending cycle of violence, brutality, and terror has been broken at last. In some ways, it’s a very hopeful ending.

    So I think, carriek9, that you may hit upon something very important when you note that “Alecto’s and Amycus’s names are given in order to clue the reader in to the fact that they are people who are incapable of thinking or responding in anything other than a primitive, violent way.” Maybe this is a stretch, but perhaps by naming the Carrows after these brutal figures from Greek mythology (and especially by naming Alecto after one of the furies), Rowling is emphasizing that these two are enforcers of Voldemort’s world order, one in which brutality and fear rather than goodness and mercy keep people in line. This is the order that Harry overturns at the end of the book. His final defeat of Voldemort with “Expelliarmus” rather than a killing curse could be seen as his ultimate rejection of Voldemort’s violent order, as well as the ultimate triumph of mercy over violence. I think it’s very significant, too, that Harry offers Voldemort the option of remorse rather than death (even if it’s all but hopeless that he will take this option). Not sure where Professor McGonagall fits into all this, although the fact that she is named Minerva seems like it ought to be significant.

    Wow. I feel a little pretentious writing a post that long. I’m really not an expert in this, just ruminating (and trying to remember what I learned in one of my undergraduate classes).

    Oh, and by the way, this is my first ever post, so hello, everyone! I just recently discovered this site, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to find a group of people who were having serious, intelligent discussions about Harry Potter as a work of literature! (Not to mention being charitable and civilized to each other—that seems to be rarity on the internet.) Keep up the good work, everyone! You all have fascinating insights. I hope Forks High School Professor gets back up and running again soon, too.

  8. Welcome, Rachel! Lovely post! Would you like to sit in on my lit class when we cover Oedipus 🙂 We’re also doing Yeats’s Leda and the Swan next week, with some Clytemnestra cameos. I look forward to seeing you at FHS soon!

  9. Minerva was named for the goddess Minerva (aka Diana – JKR couldn’t really use that name since it’s also her sister’s name :), in addition to evoking a very different image among the British), which is why she leads the white hats in the Battle at Hogwarts.

  10. Thanks (belatedly) for the welcome, Elizabeth! I wish I could sit in on your class 🙂 That’s one of the things I miss most about college, now that I’ve graduated.

  11. Not exactly, Amy. Minerva was the Roman name for Athene. Diana was the name for Artemis. Athene’s totem animal was the owl, and her great gift to mankind was the olive tree. Harry’s familiar is an owl, and his Quiddich mentor, assigned by McG. is OLIVER WOOD. (McGonnigal is also the name of probably the worst poet in the English language; there are fanfictions that make him Minerva’s Squib great-uncle.)

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