Guest Post: Anamnesis elements in Harry Potter

A guest post sent to me by Dr. Patrick Fodor of John Woods Community College in Quincy, Illinois, whom I met at my talk there last month. It’s not for the faint of heart or for anyone not familiar with sacramental Christianity but it rewards attentive reading. Thank you, Dr. Fodor!

“Let us Be Attentive!”

Eucharistic Elements of Anaphora and Inaugurated Eschatology in the Symbolism of Harry Potter

“[T]he good in this state of existence preponderates over the bad, let mis-called philosophers tell us what they will. If our affections be tried, our affections are our consolation and comfort; and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better.” (Chapter VI, Nicholas Nickleby)

Memory may link this world to the next in a number of ways. One of the strongest of those ways is connected to the language associated with the Passover, and the language used by Jesus at the “Last Supper:” “Do this in remembrance of Me” (literally, “Do this for My anamnesis). This anamnesis is more than simply cognitive activity. It embraces not just intellect, but also emotions and will- all aspects of human nature. Anamnesis involves a one time, unrepeatable event involving healing and redemption being brought from the past or the future into the present. Detecting its presence and experiencing its transformative effects requires discernment, though, because the real essence of the experience is hidden behind the veil of appearances. There are, however, significant clues.

My question, raised not because I think that Rowling is a Christian theologian in the technical sense, but rather that Rowling expresses, sometimes unknowingly, what is at the root of human nature, which is modeled (as St. Paul says in Colossians) on the human nature of Christ. In reading Harry Potter, and especially the Deathly Hallows, I wonder: should we think of the Pensieve as a double-sided sifting agent (sieve) connected with anamnesis, as a parallel to the Eucharistic cup? Like the Eucharist, the sifting that takes place is not only of the contents (the object of the” memory” which is made contemporaneous and allowed to become active and powerful to affect the participant), but the participant himself (this is part of what is stressed in 1 Corinthians- one’s faith is tested, and the reception of Eucharist becomes a “little Judgment Day” in which, in the terms of inaugurated eschatology,* the person is judged based on his or her relationship with Christ).

The application of the wood of the wand, like the application of the wood of the tree of the cross, to the water brings this anamnesis. The stirring up of the waters is both Baptismal and Eucharistic/regenerative (think the Pool of Siloam and the Spirit Who comes down in the epiclesis- over both the Gifts and the people). One becomes thoughtful or pensive through contact with these- let us be attentive!- and “weighs” (the root meaning for pensive, after all) what is experienced (not just seen?) even while one is himself weighed by his reaction to these experiences.

The cup is the alembic in which the bread and wine are changed and become the Body and Blood of Christ. The alchemical silver is unified with the gold in the alchemical wedding, and it is precisely a marriage feast which characterizes the Eucharistic celebration (as both the entire marital liturgical structure of the Apocalypse and its climax in the marriage feast of the Lamb shows us). That there is a death at this wedding- the Lamb standing as having been slain- is part of the alchemical symbolism in spades! That the memories are silver strands which are both like a gas and a liquid integrates aspects of symbolism for the Holy Spirit over the waters, the Spirit being shown both in and over the water from Genesis one onwards and being the Ruach Yahweh, the breath/wind/spirit of the Father from this same point. The mixing of elements is, of course, symbolic, but in a specific way.

The water of baptism also becomes a baptism of fire and of blood. Not only do we find these as alchemical symbols, but they are symbols drawn from the Gospels, in which Jesus clearly connects His death and resurrection with the Baptism He experiences (e.g., Matt. 20:22-23; Luke 12:50). We can also note that the theophanic moment of the plunge into the pool in the silver doe incident holds similar baptismal and fire imagery (with the guiding fire that enters Ron). I wonder whether the Pensieve is not itself, ultimately, an conflation of the very elements found in the three hallows items.

The Christological symbols found throughout the series are also Eucharistic: the Half-Blood Prince being not only a nod to the two natures in Christ, but also to the “mingled cup” of blood and water in the Eucharist, the Goblet of Fire being closely related to Eucharistic symbolism, especially pre-reception prayers** and the context for the Isaiah 6 “Sanctus,” the Philosopher’s Stone being connected to the “elixir of life,” which is the Eucharist, the “antidote against death” and “medicine of immortality” (and for which, of course, the anti-type is Voldemort drinking the unicorn blood and so condemning himself to a half-life), the Pyx or Tabernacle as the true Chamber of Secrets,*** the Deathy Hallows or “death that brings holiness” is both connected to the anamnesis of the death of Christ, proclaimed until He comes, and the celebration which includes the hallowing petitions of the Our Father as part of the broader anaphora.

The place of the title of The Prisoner of Azkaban in such a matrix eludes me. We can note, however, that the kiss of death given by the dementors forms a very nice contrast with the kiss of peace which precedes the Eucharistic banquet. And, again, the expecto patronum corresponds nicely with both the expectation of the world to come in the Creed, which divides the Liturgy of the Eucharist from that of the catechumens, and the “Let us be attentive!” (“watch out” for what is coming!) from this same section of the liturgy. Again, this transcendence of time brings Christians not only into contact with the past, but also the future (e.g., the commemoration includes not only the death, resurrection, ascension and sitting of Christ at the right hand of the Father, but also “the second and glorious Coming” which will end this world and fully bring in the new heaven and new earth).

Everyone is weighed, sorted, evaluated by contact with the transcendent through such mysteries. Voldemort, in his quest for immortality, loses his life because he is a narcissist who profanes everything, not just the unicorns whose blood he drinks unworthily, but all human life as well. He rebels against the image of God even in himself, and rejects Harry’s last plea: that, in repentance, Voldemort might still allow Tom Riddle to be saved. In contrast, Harry, who lays down his life, is transformed by the experience, and becomes himself part of the redemptive re-union- the communion- of the four Houses. But again, this is doubly transformative. Four is the typical number for the world, but not only are those inside the whole world to be reconciled, those in the “other” world are included, too (the abandonment of the excluding principle applied to elves, giants, centaurs, and so on, is also hinted at).

This is a eucharistic message about communion indeed! Obviously it is transformation which we are to experience, too. The dimensions for this catharsis and the precise meaning of this communion are set out nowhere so clearly as in the New Testament. The big lingering question has to do with our response, and how we will be sorted. We pray our memory will be eternal.

*Inaugurated eschatology has to do with the “last things:” death, resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth, and so on being partially experienced, in some way, now.

**E.g., Ode VII, Triadicon: “I tremble at taking fire, lest I be consumed as wax and grass. O fearful Mystery! O loving-kindness of God! How is it that I, being but clay, partake of the divine Body and Blood, and am made incorruptible!” and from the Troparia of Ode IX: “May Thy Body and Thy most precious Blood, O my Saviour, be unto me as fire and light, consuming the substance of sin and burning the thorns of passions, and enlightening all of me to worship Thy Divinity.” That God’s presence is fiery throughout Scripture, and that the presence lamp is kept burning before the reserved Sacrament in various churches are further indications of this same matrix of ideas.

***As an aside, we have the negative mirror image of the horcruxes, which are a each kind of anti-pyx, contrasted with the bread which is distributed but undivided- like the flame of the western Paschal candle which is divided but undimmed- scattered but re-gathered as a single loaf, (“Concerning the broken bread: ‘We give Thee thanks, Our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus, Thy Servant. To Thee be the glory for evermore. As this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.’ “The Didache, 9: Eucharistic Prayer) the Order of the Phoenix as a reference to those who may celebrate this Mystery (both the ordained [clergy] together with the people of the resurrected Christ, from Whom have come out the Spirit, the water and the Blood.


  1. Rowling is a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, a sacramental church, and a national church like the Anglican Church. She was the only active church-goer in her family and was attentive for a number of years before college and has had her children baptised and attends now. She has indicated these facts in various interviews over the years. Thus she has a strong literary and experential tradition in sacramental theology over the bulk of life which undoubtedly contributed to the matrix of her compost heap and upon which she has drawn both consciously and otherwise. She therefore has a personal and practical experience and knowledge of placing her “affections” on things above. As Dr. Fodor’s opening quotation notes it is in our affectations that we experience life, presently and in recollection and in that which is to come. It is because our affections -which I take to be our heart, mind and will- are what bind us in this created world to it and also to the supernatural world and God, our Creator. Nicholas Nickleby is certainly heard to echo in Harry’s whole learning about choices and the choice to believe and therefore to be, really and truly be. “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” – Colossians 3:2.

    Anamnesis is the making present of the historical event in all its power and significance HERE and NOW so that the INDIVIDUAL can RESPOND and the corporate BODY and RESPOND. In the case of the Eucharistic anamnesis, because of the eternal action of God the Son present at all moments of time which we regard as past/present/future, this corporate Body includes all believers in all time and space and those in eternity.

    The pensieve’s functions are not anamnestic in that Eucharistic sense as it does not partake of eternity from its origin as the Elements do when transformed into the Real Presence of the God-Man. However, the pensieve does share many functions of recollection in common with this Eucharistic anamnesis. These include recalling into the present experience of the user the events of the past as memory recorded them. Those events are fixed. But the reaction of the user is not fixed and is incorporated into the present experience of the user and so may effect the future actions of the user and hence the world. This is a visual picture of the Eucharistic anamnesis and how it can function in the communicant. (The pensieve lacks the future-incorporation aspects of the anamnesis.)

    The parallels of Harry’s use of the pensieve with the testimony of the apostles as recorded in the New Testament are striking. Harry cannot influence the events that are reported in the memories he enters nor can he communicate with the persons directly. But Harry can draw data from the memories and interact with his prior understandings to arrive at new meaning and purpose and understanding. Harry’s present is re-made in this encounter in the changes it engenders in his understanding, will, and spiritual direction (heart); his affections are re-ordered. In this sense the pensieve can act analogously to the double-sided action of the Elements in the Eucharist though without the spiritual direct effects. It certainly models the human side of the sifting quite well, that is, how Harry assesses his judgments and adjusts them as his understanding increases and his will turns to the good and his heart embraces it. What is lacking is the spiritual DUNAMIS or power to achieve this which is given in the Eucharistic anamanesis. NOTE however that Harry’s subsequent actions are a picture of this power-at-work in the individual. The corporate involvement is missing in the pensieve experience but Dumbledore’s explication of the pensieve, the events seen, and the meaning can be taken as symbolic of the corporate aspect.

    The pensieve’s shape alludes to both the Eucharistic cup and the baptismal font, nicely coupling the imagery and allowing them to interpenetrate each other. I see no reason on an anogogical level why the comments of the relations of the wood of the wand and the wood of the cross cannot be made. I am not sure that until the vertical Hallows symbol as the Tree of Life is understood (thanks! Professor) that a typical reader would necessarily make it. But it certainly makes sense once identified – at least to this sacramental Christian. And in the same vein so do the comments regarding the alchemical images employed.

    Initial thoughts only. More later.

  2. Those are impressive initial thoughts, inked.

    I’m trying to work my head around this. Thanks to Dr. Fodor — it’s really fascinating. I love anamnesis in the Eucharist, and it’s interesting to examine it in Potter. Horcruxes as anti-pix is a great thought — I agree with that definitely! It is another example of how evil perverts good, as it cannot create itself, it distorts and corrupts good things to suit its own sinful purposes.

    Thanks for posting this, John!

  3. Thanks, Inked!

    I think there are some common elements between the pensive and the hallows objects. The resurrection stone also contains memory, but again not just as past but also as present reality which is even directed toward the future (possibility and the sense of completing the mission). The links between Harry’s experience with the stone and the Great Cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11 (which are themselves in a Eucharistic setting, where the boundaries of past, present, and future are blurred or even dismantled, at least in some anticipatory-if not full- way) are, I am thinking, an extension of the work of judgment which takes place (or is focused in) the pensive. The same collective experiences and the witnesses, including Harry as the righteous one seemingly slain, occur with the final encounter with Voldemort and the death stick, and with the frequent collective use of the cloak throughout the series.

    I’m note sure how much we want to emphasize that the eschatological dimensions of the Eucharist are limited to the “Elements” as they are changed. There is no dichotomy, of course, between the God Who is present in a special incarnational way (in at least his Flesh and Blood- I don’t know that we want to get into the question of whether His “soul and divinity” are present and in what distinct sense) and the invocation of the Holy Spirit on both bread and wine and the people, who in gathering around and in Him, and in eating and drinking Him are also made His Body (“of His flesh and of His Bones” ) as His corporate bride. One of the problems is, of course, that none of the aspects of the Eucharist is separated from the others. The Eucharistic is also always marital, also always covenantal (familial), and so on, as the structure of St. John’s diptych (Gospel and Apocalypse) show. Multivalence is part and parcel not only of the Western Classics, but also of the Scripture, and St. John’s writings in particular. One aspect of this multivalence involves the convergence of the now and not yet, while another aspect involves the convergence of heaven and earth (there is only one liturgy, into which all are joined).

    While the precise distinctions required by Christian theology are not explicitly echoed in Harry Potter, there are certain typological and symbolic connections, partial hints at something greater (which is, after all, the whole romantic idea in the strict sense of that term). The question is how well these symbols work in Harry Potter, and whether the symbolic elements are internally coherent enough to support the case for an integral Eucharistic meaning.

    There seems to me something integral here, though – something beyond my scope of mental vision- which I can’t fully articulate, but which nags at me. I have also wondered whether there isn’t , at one level, some use of chiasmus at work in the structure of the series, with the GOF at the center of it. I’m still waiting for the epiphany which puts it all together.

  4. From the HogPro archives on chiastic structure in the series:

    JohnABaptist wrote
    I’m curious John, are you suggesting that the works, volume by volume may be chiastic in nature?

    If so, then they should follow the pattern:

    A Philosopher/Sorcerer’s Stone
    B Chamber of Secrets
    C Prisoner of Azkaban
    D Goblet of Fire
    C’ Order of the Phoenix
    B’ Half-Blood Prince
    A’ Deathly Hallows incorporating in some fashion D’ (an element from Goblet of Fire to form closure)
    where some element of each letter is related in some way to a similar element in its prime counterpart.

    On at least a superficial level I think I can see these chiastic elements being present:

    C-C’ in PofA Harry gains Sirius, in OotP he loses him.
    B-B’ in CofS Harry “finds” (rescues) Ginny, in HBP he “loses” (rejects for her protection) Ginny.
    A-A’ in P/SS Harry succumbs (loses consciousness) and the mission Harry could not complete is finished by Dumbledore, in DH, Harry succumbs (loses consciousness) but it is Dumbledore’s mission that Harry subsequently completes.
    D’ element having closure in A’ The climactic duel in which the Wands take over from the Wizards and fight the duel on their terms and not necessarily those intended by the Wizards.

    Clearly in GOF, we should then see some fundamental pivot point in the second task. We should see Harry, for example, change from doing things for selfish reasons, to doing things for selfless reasons–which perhaps we do?

    Time to reach out for other voices…What say the rest of you? Are John and Merlin on to something here?

    I responded:

    For the longer version of the chiastic structure in the Harry Potter novels, Merlin at Muggle Matters is the root, trunk, and branch. A graduate student at Fordham, he writes at daunting length and depth. Here is something he wrote about Goblet of Fire and the structure of the series not long after Half-Blood Prince was published:

    As JAB points out in his quick look at chiastic structure in the book, Merlin’s 1/2006 speculation was only confirmed by Deathly Hallows.

  5. Fascinating discussion, but I have nothing to add – so I’ll just sit and learn instead.


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