One of the signature objects of the Harry Potter series is the Horcrux; magical items used by Lord Voldemort to hide portions of his soul to allow him to return to life if his body was destroyed.
The word Horcrux may be derived from a combination of the French words “dehors,” meaning “outside,” and “crux,” meaning “soul.” In essence, the term would translate to “outside soul.”
Alternatively, the word Horcrux may be also a combination of “hor” or “hore,” an old/middle-English word meaning “dirt, evil, impurity,” and “crux” or “crúce,” an old English word meaning “container, pitcher(ful), jar”. This translation would mean “evil container,” or “container of evil.”
Voldemort’s plan ultimately fails, as Harry, Ron, Hermione, and others, are able to destroy his Horcruxes, but did you know that the idea has actually been around for thousands of years? Not only is it an ancient concept, but the famous folklorist Sir James Frazer actually documented and analyzed a wide variety of stories about splitting and protecting portions of one’s soul from all over the world in his renowned work The Golden Bough.
As an introduction to the topic, Frazer writes “…In the opinion of primitive people, the soul may temporarily absent itself from the body without causing death. Such temporary absences of the soul are often believed to involve considerable risk, since the wandering soul is liable to a variety of mishaps at the hands of enemies, and so forth. But there is another aspect to this power of disengaging the soul from the body. If only the safety of the soul can be ensured during its absence, there is no reason why the soul should not continue absent for an indefinite time; indeed a man may, on a pure calculation of personal safety, desire that his soul should never return to his body…. Accordingly, in such circumstances, primitive man takes his soul out of his body and deposits it for security in some snug spot, intending to replace it in his body when the danger is past. Or if he should discover some place of absolute security, he may be content to leave his soul there permanently. The advantage of this is that, so long as the soul remains unharmed in the place where he has deposited it, the man himself is immortal; nothing can kill his body, since his life is not in it.”
Frazer then provides some examples of this;
“A very common form of it is this: A warlock, giant, or other fairyland being is invulnerable and immortal because he keeps his soul hidden far away in some secret place; but a fair princess, whom he holds enthralled in his enchanted castle, wiles his secret from him and reveals it to the hero, who seeks out the warlock’s soul, heart, life, or death (as it is variously called), and by destroying it, simultaneously kills the warlock… Amongst peoples of the Teutonic stock stories of the external soul are not wanting. In a tale told by the Saxons of Transylvania it is said that a young man shot at a witch again and again. The bullets went clean through her but did her no harm, and she only laughed and mocked at him. “Silly earthworm,” she cried, “shoot as much as you like. It does me no harm. For know that my life resides not in me but far, far away. In a mountain is a pond, on the pond swims a duck, in the duck is an egg, in the egg burns a light, that light is my life. If you could put out that light, my life would be at an end. But that can never, never be.” However, the young man got hold of the egg, smashed it, and put out the light, and with it the witch’s life went out also. In a German story a cannibal called Body without Soul or Soulless keeps his soul in a box, which stands on a rock in the middle of the Red Sea. A soldier gets possession of the box and goes with it to Soulless, who begs the soldier to give him back his soul. But the soldier opens the box, takes out the soul, and flings it backward over his head. At the same moment the cannibal drops dead to the ground.”
Frazer even tells of stories in which the characters devise vessels for their souls that are quite similar to those employed by Tom Riddle.
“In a Tartar poem two youths cut open the body of an old witch and tear out her bowels, but all to no purpose, she still lives. On being asked where her soul is, she answers that it is in the middle of her shoe-sole in the form of a seven-headed speckled snake. So one of the youths slices her shoe-sole with his sword, takes out the speckled snake, and cuts off its seven heads. Then the witch dies.”
This tale bears a strong resemblance to how Voldemort used his serpent Nagini as one of his Horcruxes, not only because a snake is used as a storage place for the soul, but also its method of destruction. Just as one of the youths in the story decapitated the Witch’s snake, Neville Longbottom killed Nagini by beheadings the serpent with Godric Gryffindor’s Sword.
Frazer also mentions another story that bears a striking similarity to another one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes.
“In another Tartar poem a hero called Kök Chan deposits with a maiden a golden ring, in which is half his strength. Afterwards when Kök Chan is wrestling long with a hero and cannot kill him, a woman drops into his mouth the ring which contains half his strength. Thus inspired with fresh force he slays his enemy.”
The ring in this tale is reminiscent of Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, which was worn by Tom Riddle during his youth and was used to make his second Horcrux. The tale’s ending differs from Voldemort’s story, for while the gold ring allowed Kök Chan to retain his strength, Albus Dumbledore destroyed Marvolo’s ring with Gryffindor’s sword before Voldemort could use it as a source of resurrection.
Another similarity to one of Riddle’s Horcruxes can be found in an Alaskan story Frazer recorded.
“Similarly among the Esquimaux of Alaska, when a child is sick, the medicine-man will sometimes extract its soul from its body and place it for safe-keeping in an amulet, which for further security he deposits in his own medicine-bag. It seems probable that many amulets have been similarly regarded as soul-boxes, that is, as safes in which the souls of the owners are kept for greater security.”
Unlike Tom Riddle, the “medicine-man” in this tale is not trying to attain immortality, rather he is trying to stave off death for medical reasons, but he uses an amulet to store the soul of the sick children. This is similar to Voldemort’s usage of Salazar Slytherine’s locket as his third Horcrux.
The similarities don’t end with the soul-bearing vessels themselves though, Frazer noted many stories where the soul-containing objects where located in very obscure and/or perilous places, and had to be used or destroyed in very specific ways.
In the first “Teutonic” story mentioned, the Witch cries “In a mountain is a pond, on the pond swims a duck, in the duck is an egg, in the egg burns a light, that light is my life.”
This bears a strong similarity the remote and perilous location where Voldemort hid Salazar Slytherin’s Locket. Voldemort hid the locket in a basin filled with a poisonous potion located on an island in the middle of a lake filled with Inferi, or evil walking corpses. The lake itself was inside a cave, which was located by a sea shore.
Similarly, Frazer also recorded;
“In a modern Roman version of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” the magician tells the princess, whom he holds captive in a floating rock in mid-ocean, that he will never die. The princess reports this to the prince her husband, who has come to rescue her. The prince replies, “It is impossible but that there should be some one thing or other that is fatal to him; ask him what that one fatal thing is.” So the princess asked the magician, and he told her that in the wood was a hydra with seven heads; in the middle head of the hydra was a leveret, in the head of the leveret was a bird, in the bird’s head was a precious stone.”
This is reminiscent of how Voldemort hid is first Horcrux, Tom Riddle’s Diary, in the Chamber of Secrets.
Deep below Hogwarts castle, the Horcrux would be guarded not by a seven-headed serpent, but by the fearsome Basilisk.
The tale also details exactly how the item is to be disarmed, or its power neutralized, so that it could not be used to preserve its owner’s life.
“If this stone were put under his pillow he would die. The prince procured the stone, and the princess laid it under the magician’s pillow. No sooner did the enchanter lay his head on the pillow than he gave three terrible yells, turned himself round and round three times, and died.”
This is very similar to the way Voldemort’s Horcruxes could only be destroyed with special items. Tom Riddle’s Diary and Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup were destroyed with the venom of a Basilisk’s fang.
Meanwhile, Salazar Slytherin’s Locket, Marvolo Gaunt’s Ring, and the Snake Nagini, were all destroyed with the Sword of Godric Gryffindor.
This is not to say that J.K. Rowling necessarily drew on these specific stories for inspiration, in fact she probably never heard of these obscure folk tales, but in this comparison we can see that the ideas she wrote about touched on an age-old human struggle – the craving for immortality, or to postpone death – that has been recorded throughout time and across the globe. Lord Voldemort, and indeed many villain across the spectrums of literature, go through this struggle, and indeed one of the things that makes them villains is that they don’t appreciate the beauty of life. Both the ease with which Voldemort destroys life, and his craving to artificially extend it, demonstrates that he truly doesn’t appreciate that beauty is not derived from the number of years a person, or the amount of power and wealth amassed in one’s life, but rather that beauty can only be seen in the temporary and fragile nature of life itself. While JK Rowling probably never read any of the stories collected by Frazer, we can clearly see that she crafted Voldemort and his Horcruxes as an example of what man becomes when he looses sight of life’s fragile beauty, and allows him to serve as an icon of how villains destroy the delicate beauty in life by artificially trying to extend it.
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