Column: Pagans Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Harry Potter

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On June 26, the wildly popular Harry Potter book series celebrated its 20th anniversary. Written by J.K. Rowling, who was a struggling single mother prior to skyrocketing to fame and fortune, the children’s fantasy series gained plenty of adult fans and has spawned a media empire. Eventually, Rowling published seven books, which led to eight high-grossing feature films with A-list actors in many of the roles. Even after the films ended, the series maintained a strong internet presence and has been given new life with the opening of two interactive Harry Potter themed “lands” at Universal Studios theme parks in Florida and California.

Hogwarts at Night, Universal Studios Hollywood [T. Titus].

Pagans, especially those who identify as Witches, are often drawn to any work of fiction that includes witches or pagans as characters. The 1973 film The Wicker Man has a strong following, despite ultimately revealing the pagans in a negative light. Both The Craft and Practical Magic are also quite popular, despite their fictional portrayal of modern Witchcraft. It seems inevitable, then, that Harry Potter, the boy wizard who straddles the magical and muggle worlds, would become quite popular in the Pagan community. Pagans of all kinds have devoured the series, sometimes incorporating it into their spiritual practice, other times simply folding the themes of the series into their spiritual and ethical lives.

The series took a little time to gain traction, especially with late teens and adults. While Trisha Ray-Saulis, a Native American practitioner and theosophist from Maine, encountered the books when she was 17 years old and noticed that “everyone else” in line “was smaller than me.” Witch and Voudisant Julian King took a few years to notice them. He was given the first installment by a roommate and was “hooked by page three.” While “nature-sensitive spiritual person” Heather Terry found them in a school book club at age 10, kitchen witch Katrina Ray-Saulis discovered Harry’s world them at “age 14 or 15,” and they fit perfectly into her teenaged self-discovery. “I was told Harry Potter was anti-Christian,” she says, “and I was already questioning my Baptist upbringing…the obsession never stopped.”

Pagans seem to have multiple levels of reasons for connecting with the Harry Potter stories. King, like Harry, “had a very difficult and abusive upbringing,” and he identified with being “on the outskirts of the crowd.” In an odd coincidence, he also mentions that he is the child of a Lily Potter and a father named James, and “due to an interesting night and a wine glass” he has a “fairly nice scar on [his] forehead.” Trisha Ray-Saulis echoes this identification with the outcast Harry Potter, bringing up her own experience of autism. “As a kid on the spectrum,” she explains, “I had a very narrow scope of interests, and fantasy books was one of them.”

“Pagan” bookshelf in Hogsmeade, Universal Studios Orlando [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

Katrina Ray-Saulis grew up intrigued by “stories that could be happening behind the walls,” such as the Narnia tales. “Anytime a parallel world could exist alongside ours,” she says, “J.K. Rowling built that parallel magical world in such a seamless way.” Terry was initially intrigued by the idea of “a world where magic was possible” and “the way it tells us of the potential we all have for greatness.” Eventually, she came to appreciate “the art of Rowling’s storytelling,” including creative character names such as Remus Lupin, whose name brings up the mythology of wolf-raised Romulus and Remus, which parallels nicely with Lupin’s identity as a werewolf. She also cites Rowling’s use of Erik Erikson’s stages of child social development as an example of the author’s strong story-weaving skills.

Given the success of the franchise, it is clear that it appealed to a wider audience that just budding Pagans and Witches. Trisha Ray-Saulis believes this is because “J.K. Rowling did everything right.” She “held readers” and “incorporated unique ideas which could be easily manufactured and marketed” as well as introducing “complex abstract concepts to developing minds.” She gives the examples of thestrals, horse-like creatures that can only be seen by people who have experienced the death of a loved one. “It was a wonderful way,” says Trisha, “to let children know that once you experience a death of someone you know, you will not only see the world differently, but you will see things about the world that those who have not experienced that cannot see.”

Terry gives the credit to “the universality” of the series. She emphasizes the theme that “you can be different and still make a positive difference in the world.” King agrees, noting that the “series appeals to the inner reject in all of us.” Katrina Ray-Saulis lays the credit for the franchise’s success with the fact that “Harry Potter gives us magic in our everyday world.” She notes Arthur Weasley’s wonder and joy with the muggle world where all other wizards seem to deride their non-magical counterparts and parallels that wonder with how many readers would feel when looking at the magical world just beyond our reach.

Harry Potter is not universally loved in the Pagan community. In social media posts and other corners of the internet, some magical practitioners have complained that the use of fiction may dilute existing magickal practice. Paganism, however, has a long history of borrowing from fiction. From Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid to the novels of Dion Fortune to Heinlen’s Stranger in a Strange Land, fictional stories have often influenced spiritual development, offering themes to help the growth and practice of the practitioner.

King points to the themes of “ethics” and “unity.” For ethics, he notes the realization that “the world doesn’t work in black and white, but what is important is to learn to balance the highest good.” Indeed, there are many characters in the series that do not fit a good/evil mode, most particularly the morally elusive but much beloved Severus Snape. As far as unity, King mentions that Potter teaches readers that, “together we create a stronger and more enterprising and unstoppable force of nature,” and that “it is important that we accept and work with and feel compassion for all creatures.”

Terry focuses on Harry’s unwillingness to change who he is to fit in with either his abusive family or his bullies at school. She adds the words of Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, who said, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.”

“That statement,” says Terry, “is true of all humans.” Similarly, Trisha emphasizes the theme of “choosing your path.” She believes this is a part of spirituality. “Do we follow a path of expectation of family pressure or because we need to look a certain way to others,” she asks, “Do we become internally fraud for external acceptance?” As a child on the autism spectrum, accepting “that I did not fit in any box and choosing to be okay with that” was an important benefit for Trisha.

Katrina Ray-Saulis “passionately subscribes” to the “idea that pop culture can be a part of any spiritual practice. She notes the characters of Molly Weasley and Minerva McGonagall, who “love children, especially children who are not their own.” In her own work as a nanny, these characters become vital role models. “In a way, these two fictional characters are a part of my spirituality,” she mentions. “I think of them the way others might think of Aphrodite or Hestia.” She suggests the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts as an aid for anyone looking to incorporate the values of Harry Potter into their spiritual practice.

Harry and friends, Universal Studios Hollywood [T. Titus].

King feels strongly about the real world need to “understand the differences between fantasy and reality,” noting that “we must live first and foremost in reality and learn our way in it.” Trisha parallels this thought by bringing up the flighty, yet eerily prescient character Luna Lovegood, whom she sees as similar to Homer’s Kassandra. She does not appear to be living in reality, and as a consequence “she is ostracized and picked on. People do not believe her. Regardless, when she speaks, she is worth listening to and commonly right on point.”

Twenty years after its creation, Harry Potter is a work of seven books that changed modern culture. Its effects are far reaching enough to go beyond its niche as children’s fantasy and appeal to different subcultures for their own reasons. These seven books have had an enormous impact. Books are built from words, and words are powerful magic. Terry reminds us of Dumbledore’s belief that “Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury or remedying it.”

“No matter what path you tread or where in your practice you are,” Terry states, “the power of your words and actions is undeniable.” For her and for millions of readers, these seven books of magic words have benefited their lives, their values, and their spiritual growth immensely.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.