Blasphemous Symbolism? A Taliban Reading of Philosopher’s Stone

I received this question in the HogPro mail today:

John, I have a question and couldn’t find where to send it to you, so please forgive this nonsequitur “comment”! My son’s literature teacher (another home school mom) has told her students that the philosopher’s stone is a corruption of the Eucharist, a counterfeit of the Body and Blood of Christ. Would you care to comment on that? I think implicit in her lecture was that any writing about the philosopher’s stone is somehow inherently blasphemous. I’d sure appreciate your thoughts on this! Dare I thank you in advance of them?!

My response:

Dear Name Changed,

Thanks for your note. It’s an interesting question.

Two hurried points and a piece of advice.

(1) The elixir that comes from the Philosopher’s Stone is indeed a literary conceit for the Blood of Christ (because it bestows immortality and gold, i.e., eternal life and spiritual riches). As a symbol used appropriately in a poem or story — as something valuable, to be venerated and protected, etc. — it’s no more blasphemous than the many other symbols of Christ in English literature, from unicorns and pelicans to lions and Billy Budd sacrificial heroes. You’ll find it in Anglican hymnals. The only way the symbolism in itself is inherently blasphemous is if you are an iconoclast, that is, someone who believes God cannot be represented in any way (this belief is a heresy among Christians and a way of life for Muslims and other monotheists of ‘the Book’).

(2) The use of eucharistic symbolism in the first Harry Potter novel is anything but inappropriate or demeaning. Firenze explains to Harry why Voldemort would want to drink Unicorn’s blood (and what has happened to him by doing so), another symbol of the Blood of Christ, by all but reading St. Paul’s description from First Corinthians of the damned who drink the Blood of Christ unworthily. We know Voldemort’s ultimate fate from that scene alone. The incredible barriers set up within Hogwarts in that book to protect the Stone from those who would misuse it, Harry’s Holy Grail-like test of worthiness before the Mirror of Erised, Quirrell’s skin burning because of the sacrificial love of Harry’s mother in his skin (and the Symbol of Christ in his pocket!) — these aren’t blasphemous uses of a sacred object. It’s powerful use of sacramental imagery in an engaging story.

The Piece of Advice: Ask your literate friend to step through a Taliban scanner. I think she’s been infected by Unblinking-Eye-of-the-Righteous disease. If she doesn’t agree to chill out and read books, poems, and plays without a polemical agenda or through a hyper-sensitive culture war lens, I’d find a new Literature teacher.

But we have come full circle, no? Five years ago, I would have been delighted by this comment. At least the teacher saw and acknowledged the Christian symbolism in a supposedly god-denying story. Now she sees the symbolism, but, it still being a bad book, she is obliged to shout “Blasphemy!” (Can you say, “Reason chasing conviction”?)

There’s no pleasing some people. As I wrote once, I’m glad there are watchdogs in the world to protect people and their homes from evil doers. When the dog in the house next door barks all night at the patio furniture during a wind storm or when it bites the mail man it sees welcomed every day by its masters, I’m not so glad. Make of that analogy what you will.

John, grateful for your note


  1. Travis Prinzi says

    The only way the symbolism in itself is inherently blasphemous is if you are an iconoclast, that is, someone who believes God cannot be represented in any way (this belief is a heresy among Christians and a way of life for Muslims and other monotheists of ‘the Book’).

    I wonder…does the lit teacher think that all symbolism is wrong (i.e., an iconoclast), or does she think that the philosopher’s stone can be used as an actual religious alternative to the body and blood of Christ and is therefore dangerous as potentially leading to idolatry (a “slippery slope” argument)?

  2. Maybe it is the slippery slope version, Travis! The Literature teacher’s possible model takes just that perspective.

    A good friend wrote me this morning to say that this interpretation of Philosopher’s Stone as inherently blasphemous is derived from or echoes an interpretation of the Unicorn’s blood that was published in ENVOY magazine, a journal for Catholic apologists: Harry Potter: An Agent for Conversion.

    I encourage you to read the whole thing (it’s one of the more lucid anti-Potter statements I’ve come across) but here is the reference that makes the point:

    Rowling then presents a perversion of Catholic theology when a unicorn is killed just before the climax of the first book. “The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price,” writes Rowling on page 258. Drinking blood will keep us alive?

    When I first read this, I wondered if we were about to see a Catholic metaphor that might redeem the entire book. The next phrase kept my hope alive, “You have slain something pure and senseless to save yourself. . . .” Yes, I thought, we are about to see a Eucharistic analogy, but then my eyes traveled to the next line on the page: “You will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.”

    I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach. It isn’t the crime of killing the pure and defenseless unicorn that curses, but the act of drinking its blood. What a horrendous twisting of the biblical promise that drinking the blood of Jesus, who is the purest of the pure, will bring us eternal life. The antithetical notion that a pure creature’s blood will bring us “a half-life, a cursed life” is a slap in the face of Catholics.

    In her note about this article, my friend wrote:

    “I think I can trace the lineage of that comment about the Philosopher’s Stone being blasphemous back to an article in ENVOY (a Catholic apologetics magazine) when the great HP controversy had just started. The author of the article claimed that the incident of Voldemort drinking the unicorn’s blood was a blasphemy against the Holy Eucharist. She was reading the scene as if reception of Communion would curse the communicant! She also thought that the Hand of Glory briefly glimpsed at Borgin & Burke’s was an attempt to blaspheme the Glory of God. The “authority” of the author, one Toni Collins, rested on having attemped a spell found in a book sold at the grocery checkout line and had a frightening reaction to it. Such was the quality of conservative Catholic HP criticism.”

    As pointed out, Toni Collins missed the point of the Unicorn scene entirely. I suspect the Literature teacher, either on the model of Ms. Collins’ writing or following a parallel path of mistaken thinking, extended this category of “inherent blasphemy” to the Philosopher’s Stone.

    Should I mention the Dragon’s Heartstring wand-core magic is also a eucharistic symbol, albeit not as obvious?

  3. revgeorge says

    To say that Voldemort’s misuse of the unicorn’s blood is exactly the same as the reception of the Lord’s Supper is to really miss the point entirely. It’s like saying the Satanic Mass, done in mockery of the Christian Mass, is exactly the same as the Christian Mass!

    There’s also a disconnect in the view that it’s not killing the unicorn that gets you cursed but only drinking its blood. But there’s no disconnect between killing the unicorn & drinking its blood; they go together. You don’t drink a unicorn’s blood unless you’ve killed it. You don’t kill the unicorn unless you’re intending to drink its blood.

    Motive is also not taken into account. To say that Voldemort, who is selfishly trying to attain immortality for himself, is the same as faithful Christians who receive Christ’s body & blood for the forgiveness of their sins & thereby receive Christ’s blessings of salvation & eternal life as a free gift is to really again miss the point.

    It’s this one to one equivalence of things that gets people into trouble. How this literature teacher falls into a literalist reading of a mixed genre work is beyond me.

  4. Thank you for posting the link to Toni Collins’ article; when HP was first becoming a phenomenon, that was the article that scared me off HP for so long. Although raised a Catholic, I became involved in the occult for several years before my reversion to Christianity, so I had a real fear of regressing. I also had very little knowledge of Christianity, and learned a lot about my Faith from Envoy Magazine. In the years since, I’ve learned a lot more, and from sources other than Envoy (I’m not knocking the magazine as a whole, but I don’t understand how some of the misinterpretations in this article made it to print).

    Two years ago, I decided to re-read the first book, and read the rest of the books. This was after HBP was published, so I was able to read them all in order. Your site helped me tremendously in seeing a lot of the Christian symbolism that Rowling incorporated into the story. Thank you! It’s really helped in my discussions with others about the pros and cons of reading the books. Although I would really like to learn more about this: Should I mention the Dragon’s Heartstring wand-core magic is also a eucharistic symbol, because you’re right: it’s not so obvious! 🙂

    Actually, I would like to ask you more about dragons in general, since I’m only familiar with them as symbols of the devil. I was in a discussion with a friend where this came up, and he said it wasn’t always the case, although he didn’t give any more information that that, and no examples.

  5. From deep in the Hog Pro vaults: The Dragon’s Blood post.

  6. SortOfSerious says

    Having thoroughl enjoyed the entire Potter series, I am always confounded by such takes as the literature teacher’s. Rowling wrote a terrific adventure series steeped in her (and our) own Christian mythological upbringing–because she had no choice. A reader/writer of Western European descent can no more escape references to Christian mythology than he/she could stop breathing. Such mythology permeates our lives, whether one believes in it or not: it’s part of our literary heritage.

    However–and I feel very strongly about this–Rowling NEVER intended her books as religious primers or catechisms for any of the thousands of Christian or Catholic sects. Just because she uses unicorns or dragon heartstrings does not unequivocally mean that she is invoking some scene or tenet from the Christian mythos–of course, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t, either. Dragons, unicorns, phoenixes, etc., are ALSO part of the Western European literary fantasy realm; dragons and unicorns can also be found in many of the Eastern religions.

    I think it’s wonderful that Rowling thought enough of her work and her audience’s intelligence to take the time to spin a tale with so much richness and complexity. By her own admission, tolerance for others (and, by extension, other belief systems) is a major theme in her work. Her popularity world-wide is a testament to her success, and to her ability to posit the Golden Rule–which is really at the core of all the world’s great religions and philosophies–in such a way that peoples of all faiths–or non-faiths–“get it.”

    All this detailed nitpicking seems to me to reflect more on the reader’s state of mind than Rowling’s. She was under no obligation to make her story have any religious meaning whatsoever. That it can have such meaning is just one of the many richnesses that her books afford.

    Sort of Serious Sue

  7. Perelandra says

    Dragons are not always and everywhere evil in Christian iconography/legend. Dragons can be presented simply as dangerous animals, obedient to God as all other creatures are. ( In the OT it’s “Praise the Lord, ye dragons and ye deeps” with the Vulgate using “dracones” while modern vernaculars say “waterspouts.”) There are legends about the Christchild blessing friendly dragons en route to Egypt and St. Simon Stylites curing dragons. In the Dark Ages, the dragon seems to have been used as a symbol for wild, perilous, chaotic–but fertile–Nature. Dragons had to be tamed or banished (not always killed) for humanity to flourish. Dragons appear on Romanesque baptismal fonts and bishops’ chairs, not to mention heraldry. (Surely no one thinks Wales or Ghent are satanic places for having dragons on their arms?) In the Middle Ages, many European cities had dragon-shaped floats in parades for Rogation Days, Church festivals connected with agriculture. (Jacques LeGoff has written about dragons and fertility.) Friendly, comic, or neutral dragons in literature are not parties to nefarious anti-Christian plots!

  8. Sayf Bowlin says

    The editor of ENVOY is getting a degree at my seminary. I’m going to try and get him to read this thread and provide some constructive feedback. I know he doesn’t like the series, but I also think he’s open to talking.

    (for the record, I think ENVOY is generally a great Catholic magazine despite their position on the sensation-that-must-not-be-named)

  9. I think revgeorge nailed it. Christ’s sacrifice was the gift of his life so that we could share in eternal life. The unicorn’s sacrifice was not given, its life was stolen by Voldemort. Irrespective of any other sins Voldemort may have been guilty of, this sin alone would have made him unworthy.

    In chapter 6 of John’s Gospel where Christ tells the crowd that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to receive eternal life, had the crowd turned on Him, killed Him, and greedily devoured His flesh to save themselves rather than turning away and abandoning Him as they did because this teaching was too difficult, they would have committed the same sin Voldemort had committed. It seems strange that a Catholic apologist would not see this distinction and so it becomes difficult to think that this is not a case of “reason chasing conviction” as John stated in the original post.

  10. Arabella Figg says

    Just a pedestrian point here. Context is key. One can’t pull out individual sentences to claim/justify/condemn a point of view. One must view the sentence within the context of the whole, which reveals the point being made. Revving up the old “who, what, when, where, why, so what?” machine is always a good idea and hones good critical thinking.

    Got to fly, Mrs. Fleasely is acting out her critical thinking on Luscious Badboy…

  11. Thanks Arabella for the reminder. As a result I went back and read the whole article. I think one of the key points Toni Collins makes is the one of “sensitivity” to occult elements, which in turn may be why she sees the Christian elements as distortions. Is it possible that our past experiences drive our reactions through some sort of psychological or spiritual imprint? Or as she says, a fingerprint on her soul. Personally, I have no experience with the occult and I find myself more sensitive to the Christian elements in the Potter books in the manner that John speaks of them in “Looking for God in Harry Potter.” If anything, I find that these books and many others that have been discussed here tend to make me seek a closer relationship with God than to ever abandon that relationship. Perhaps this sensitivity of our soul’s experience is a type of “safety valve” or God’s way of drawing us toward Himself. In the case people who have had scary experiences, it sets off alarm bells to drive them away from past temptations. In the case of others, it simply draws them toward any inherent beauty or goodness inherent in the subject matter. I have had a couple of priests tell me the same thing about how they read controversial books. They embrace the good parts and toss away the bad.

    Other than that, Ms. Collins makes many of the same arguments I’ve previously heard, like poor role models, driven to the occult through curiosity inspired by the Potter books, one kind of magic, and an explosion in the numbers of people becoming witches. However there are a couple things specifically that bother me about the article. One of them, the comparison to LOTR and Narnia is common to many other articles.

    She says:
    “It’s important to note that the witchcraft about which Rowling writes stands in stark contrast to fantasy magic as it’s portrayed in Tolkien and Lewis. The good characters in Middle Earth and Narnia don’t cast spells on people, don’t call up spirits and commune with them like beloved neighbors, don’t perform rituals, and don’t mix potions. The good characters at Hogwarts do.”

    Besides the fact that it is untrue that the good characters in Potter invoke spirits, it also seems to me that good characters in Rings are constantly invoking the powers of a sword, or some ancestor, or otherwise engaging in some seemingly idolatrous act. I could never see how these are always dismissed by anti-Potters. I’m not sure why an occultist’s soul would not also be sensitive to these acts. Or if they can be explained away for Rings, why not for Potter?

  12. Check out this set of links at Hog’s Head tavern. Amazing story and excellent discussion between Harry Lovers and Non-Readers. Again, check it out!

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