Guest Post: On the Naming Fear & Jinxing in Harry Potter (Pratibha Rai)

Pratibha Rai is an Oxford University graduate and she has been a Harry Potter partisan since 2001. Her research today mostly concerns the sociology of collecting in early modern Europe. She enjoys finding parallels between Harry Potter and history of art. This time last year she shared with us what she discovered about that life-saving short-cut antidote, the Bezoar; today she shares her thoughts on ‘Naming Fear and Jinxing’ in the Hogwarts Saga. Enjoy!

Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on.”

When Mary Shelley penned this line in her penultimate novel ‘Lodore’ (1835), she was advocating the power of words in the context of bringing about social change. Words do not lifelessly sit on a page but are actionable and combative in “the world’s great fight”. In this martial metaphor, we can assume that words can either be a weapon or a defence – determined entirely by the speaker. This double-edged nature of words is echoed in Proverbs 18:21 from the Bible, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”. Nowhere is this more literally true than in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter universe where speaking or not speaking Voldemort’s name is a matter of life and death. In this article, I shall explore J.K Rowling’s passionate interest in the power of words in battle primarily through the active Taboo cast on Voldemort’s name; a device that highlights the role that Fear has over silence and speech.

Voldemort is referred to by his aliases “The Dark Lord”, “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” rather than his actual name for two main reasons: (i) the name provoked terrifying fear because of the atrocities which he and the Death Eaters committed, thereby inducing traumatic memories (ii) the active Taboo cast upon his name, which allowed him to capture members of Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix during the Second Wizarding War. Voldemort’s Taboo gives the books an Orwellian 1984 flavour as he can track the location of anyone who utters his name. Surprisingly, this is only divulged to the characters and to us in the last book:

“…the name’s been jinxed, Harry, that’s how they track people! Using his name breaks protective enchantments, it causes some kind of magical disturbance — it’s how they found us in Tottenham Court Road!…anyone who says it is trackable”

The event at Tottenham Court Road refers to the time when Hermione Granger broke the Taboo, putting the trio in peril as two Death Eaters followed them to their location disguised as construction workers. This is the first time that the trio learn of the Taboo curse; that Voldemort’s name has been ‘jinxed’. Etymologically, ‘jinx’ was originally spelled ‘jynx’ meaning a charm or spell and was in circulation since the 1690s. The Latin form of the word ‘iynx’ derived from the Greek word for the wryneck bird, which they called ‘iunx’. The wryneck or iunx is a peculiar bird to say the least as it can rotate its head almost 180 degrees and when their nest is disturbed, they twist their neck and hiss to display threat, giving it their English names “wry-neck” and “snake-bird”. The iunx was associated with sorcery as the bird was useful in divination and casting of spells. The Ancient Greek and Romans trace the wryneck’s mythological origins to a sorceress called Iynx (the daughter of Peitho and Pan or Echo) who had cast a spell on Zeus to enchant him to fall in love with Io and as a result, was punished by Hera who transformed Iynx into this bird.

The jinx in Harry Potter seems to be unacknowledged in Book 1 since Albus Dumbledore, who is conscious of the rampant fear of using Voldemort’s name in the Wizarding world, advises Harry to, “Call him Voldemort…Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” In a psychological perspective, Dumbledore is right – being able to name fears is part of healthily addressing it and learning to name difficult emotional experiences such as fear increases activity in the prefrontal cortex; the area of the brain that helps us arrive at decisions. However, Rowling’s genius is in showing the agonising personal relationship we have to our fears, especially the anxiety over speaking about them, making them audible, and the ambiguity about whether naming fears increases or reduces its power. Aside from wizardkind who fear uttering Voldemort’s name, even the spiders in Harry Potter such as the Acromantula Aragog – who fear the basilisk – refuse to speak out the basilisk’s name, as though by naming it, the fear crosses the threshold of thought and manifests in the real world. In this fearful silence, Rowling shows us that everyone (maybe with the exception of Dumbledore) is controlled by their fears to a degree in what they say and what they do not say.

Voldemort’s Tabooed name “breaks protective enchantments” including invisibility, making the speaker completely vulnerable in the manner that our darkest fears often do. As the axis of fear, Voldemort’s name is both eschewed out of fear but also uttered out of fear, as we see when Xenophilius Lovegood purposefully uses Voldemort’s name to lure Death Eaters to capture Harry at his house. There is no certain answer as to when the Taboo was cast but it is in full effect in the final book as Voldemort gathers more power after the fall of the ministry. We can only conjecture that Voldemort cast the taboo on his name around this time – taking full advantage of the fact that Harry, Hermione, Ron, and members of the Order were brave enough to utter it, although Ron is rightfully suspicious of using the name. This meant that whenever his name was spoken, Snatchers and Death Eaters were led to the location of its speaker. There is thus a conflict in naming fear; by uttering Voldemort’s name, a character shows their bravery but also is inescapably hounded by the fear by speaking. Saying the name leads to a literal arrest such as when Harry accidentally broke the Taboo in the final book, leading to the trio being captured by Snatchers and led to Malfoy Manor.

Not speaking Voldemort’s name is also equated with showing the Dark Lord respect so the Taboo curse adds an element of coerced deference. The taboo forces individuals to respect Voldemort by Machiavellian power alone instead of love. This reflects Riddle’s childhood, which is tragically distorted by a self-loathing for his own origins. We are told in Half-Blood Prince that Riddle disliked his common first name, Tom. Furthermore, given that the original meaning of the name meant ‘twin’, Riddle’s first name did not give him the attention and individuality he so craved in the Muggle orphanage where he was raised. The new moniker he creates for himself ‘I am Lord Voldemort’ illustrates his childhood urge to be recognised, seen, and set apart but he seeks this not through acts of love, friendship or courage but out of commanding respect through brute force. If speakers refuse to respect the taboo and thus him, they are incriminated. The profileration of names for Voldemort therefore such as “Chief Death Eater” coined by the anti-Voldemort radio programme Potterwatch, is both a means of avoiding detection and also resisting the control of speech. The Taboo is unique from the Trace spell in that, rather than being activated by magic, it is activated by a specific word; giving it a visceral relevance to the cause of freedom of speech in our Muggle world.

Fig. 2. Riddle, vengeful from youth. In Chamber of Secrets, Riddle tells Harry that he had created his new moniker as a student at Hogwarts, “I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I had become the greatest sorcerer in the world!”

Aside from Voldemort’s name which wizards fear to speak, Rowling further explores the concept of being speechless from fear in several descriptions of paralysis. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is powerless to ward away the Dementor swarm and is filled with, “a paralysing terror … so that he couldn’t move or speak”. This is fear of the darkest sorts – a psychosomatic imprisoning of the whole body, including the tongue, in fear. We can often remember Harry as the heroic wizard with the oratorical power to lead in battle but his character arc is astonishing when we consider that in Prisoner of Azkaban, he was unable to even speak out of terror. The spell to petrify or stun one’s victim ‘Stupefy’ provides the most visible example of paralysis as victims are turned rock solid. Interestingly, Rowling suggests Mandrake draught to revive those who have been petrified in Chamber of Secrets. The ‘Restorative Draught’, as it is called, is a healing potion made out of Mandrake roots to revive those who have cursed to their original state. Traditionally, Mandrake was associated with love as it was added to love potions in the 17th century and was believed to help with sterility. The goddess of Love, Aphrodite, was referred to by the name, “Mandragoritis” or “Lady of the Mandrake” which is related to the proper name for the mandrake Mandragora officinarum.

The mandrake’s use to reverse petrification then could symbolise love overcoming the paralysis of fear, giving one the strength to move and speak.

The Resotrative Draught interestingly requires Mandrake roots that have matured past adolescence. As we know, Mandrakes resemble humans both in appearance and behaviour. In Chamber of Secrets, the Mandrakes are described as moody and secretive, indicating that they were approaching adolescence. Furthermore, when Mandrakes are fully mature, they start to move into each other’s pots; the human parallel of joining together and beginning a family is resonant here. Only when they are fully mature can Mandrakes create a Restorative Draught powerful enough to cure those who have been petrified or cursed. This could be a touching reflection of Hogwarts; where the older members, particularly Dumbledore, are responsible for dispelling the fears of the young students. Dumbledore fulfils the role of a guardian who banishes fear as “the safest place on earth was wherever Albus Dumbledore happened to be” (Prisoner of Azkaban).

Though Voldemort creates devices such as the Taboo to coerce fear by leaving one magically defenceless, it instead fuels Harry’s courage as he learns to face the Dark Lord with all of his human weakness and vulnerabilities. When Harry fights Voldemort in the graveyard in the Goblet of Fire, Rowling emphasises that, “he was going to die trying to defend himself, even if no defence was possible”. This mirrors Dumbledore’s choice to face death unarmed to protect Harry, being described as a “‘fool who loves’” in Order of the Phoenix. The irony here is that while Voldemort seeks to disempower his victims by any means necessary, it is in the state of weakness and vulnerability that his victims find the hope, love, and community to conquer their fears and eventually him. When Harry is falling apart after Sirius’ death in Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore highlights the importance of this human vulnerability, “‘Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man! This pain is part of being human … the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength’”. The humanness of experiencing love and suffering is the “power the Dark Lord knows not ’” (OotP). Though Voldemort seeks to silence his victims by Taboo or death, the audience, along with Harry, gradually learn that Voldemort is not to be feared. Voldemort’s sense of importance and power are flimsy webs spun out of self-fabricated myths about his singular uniqueness amongst other wizards and thus, his need to be excluded from death. Just as much as any character in the book or any of us, Voldemort has unutterable fears; his fear of death (his boggart being his own corpse). Although Harry’s fears are equally paralysing, Harry is able to identify it and learn to manage it with the guidance of his teachers and friends.

Fig. 3 we would all be lost without Remus Lupin, Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts who helps Harry to manage his fears with magic and chocolate. Lupin is one of the few wizards brave enough to say “Voldemort”. He helps Harry even beyond death, appearing in his resurrected form to guide him in the Forbidden Forest during the last book.

In many ways, the final battle is a theatrical psychomachia of both Harry and Voldemort facing their darkest fears; the fear of death and the fear of Fear. The outcome of who will survive the battle depends on who has nobly conquered their fears. It is notable that both Voldemort and Harry use their ‘signature’ spells as they face each other in the final battle: the Killing Spell ‘Avada Kedavra’ for Voldemort and the Disarming Spell ‘Expelliarmus’ for Harry. This is a pivotal point in the narrative because despite all of Harry’s mental anguish throughout the series about his striking similarities with Voldemort, the Spells they use in the final battle proves Harry’s distinctiveness. Whereas Voldemort seeks to kill his fears, Harry takes the valiant approach of disarming them. In the final battle, Harry calls Voldemort by his true Muggle name ‘Riddle’; cutting through all the fear, lies and manipulation that Riddle had constructed for himself as ‘Voldemort’. Even faced with the moral challenge of fighting the murderer of his parents; the wizard who killed all that he ever desired, Harry chooses not to attack but to release Voldemort’s weapons. Harry breaks loose from the grip of his own fears by responding to “Avada Kedavra” with “Expelliarmus”. His is an astonishing development from a boy unable to speak or move from fear in Prisoner of Azkaban to a leader proclaiming freedom from fear, hatred, and revenge in the final battle. From Harry’s victory, we may glean the lesson that our fears are not to be squashed or killed but courageously faced and disarmed so that they are no longer a threat to us. This we cannot do alone but with friends who fight with us in the battle, be they alive or not. I especially love Rowling’s description of the moment right after Harry’s defeat of Voldemort because the silence of fear which has overshadowed much of the series is pierced asunder by its absolute antithesis: the celebratory shouts and screams of a new dawn:

One shivering second of silence, the shock of the moment suspended: and then the tumult broke around Harry as the screams… and the roars of the watchers rent the air. The fierce new sun dazzled the windows as they thundered towards him, and the first to reach him were Ron and Hermione, and it was their arms that were wrapped around him, their incomprehensible shouts that deafened him…it was over at last”

Pratibha Rai


  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you for this Pratibha!
    I found the wry-neck/Iynx/jinx link particularly fascinating.

  2. Wayne Stauffer says

    Well done!!

  3. really interesting and timely, thanks!

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