July 05, 2016

Harry Potter Comes to Massachusetts: Folklore and Fiction in J.K. Rowling's New Story

In order to promote this fall's upcoming Harry Potter film, last week author J.K. Rowling released a new story set in the Harry Potter universe. The story is set in Massachusetts and incorporates some aspects of local New England folklore.

The story, "Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," describes how the first school of magic is founded in North America by a plucky orphan girl fleeing from her malevolent aunt. The orphan disguises herself as a boy, hitches a ride across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, and founds the titular school on Mount Graylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. Along the way she finds true love, rescues two other orphans, and encounters assorted magical creatures. Does she defeat her evil aunt? You'll need to read the story to find out.

As Harry Potter fans know, the British wizarding school in the Rowling's books is called Hogwarts, and the students at Hogwarts are assigned to live in one of four houses (dormitories) based on their personalities and talents. Ilvermorny, the American school, is arranged the same way. The four houses are named after creatures from American folklore.

Here are the four Ilvermorny houses, with their totemic creatures. Read on to find out how (and if) they relate to authentic New England folklore

Students who are healers are drawn to this house, which is named after a type of magical little person from local Native American lore. The Native Americans of New England acknowledge a wide variety of magical little people. The term Pukwudgie was first used to describe them in 1934 by author Elizabeth Reynard in her book The Narrow Land. A Cape Cod Wampanoag chieftain named Clarence Wixon had used the term when he told stories about the Little People to Reynard, and the name has stuck.

People still claim to see Pukwudgies to this day, and they have been discussed in a variety of books and TV shows. J.K. Rowling portrays them as deadly, grumpy, but oddly lovable. I think most writers and paranormal investigators would agree on the first two traits but not the third. It seems highly unlikely they would become employees of a human school as they do by the end of Rowling's story.

Horned Serpent:
Scholars are attracted to this house. Horned serpents do appear in Native American folklore, and have been depicted in petroglyphs from this area. Here is a description by anthropologist Kathleen Blagdon:

Among the manitou (spirits) known ... was the giant horned or antlered, under(water) world serpent, a being familiar to other Algonquian-speaking people as well. Images of this fearsome underwater dweller sometimes decorated amulets, bowls, and other objects. Its powers were suggested by a curious story told to Josselyn of a sea-serpent or snake that lay 'quoiled up like a cable upon a rock at Cape-Ann; a boat passing by with English aboard, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying if he were not kill'd outright, the would all be in danger of their lives.' (Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650. Blagdon is quoting English writer John Josselyn.)

Does this seem like the type of creature that would help orphans lost in the woods? Maybe, but maybe not.

In Rowling's story adventurous students are drawn to this house. The thunderbird is indeed also a creature from local Native American folklore. I'm going to quote Blagdon once again:

The analog of the underwater serpent or panther in the upper or sky world was the thunderbird, a sacred and beautiful bird in many Algonquian cosmologies. Often the enemy of the underwater panther or serpent... This powerful being is commonly depicted graphically, often as a figure with a profiled and prominent beak, or as a human figure with wings. Amulets in the same form were worn...  (Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650)

Image from this site.
Paranormal investigators claim that large cryptic avians, possibly thunderbirds, can still be seen in Massachusetts's Hockomock Swamp. Again, is this the type of being that aids wandering orphans? I'm not sure, but it seems the most likely to be helpful.

The final house at Ilvermonry is called Wampus, and is named after a legendary panther-like cat. Unfortunately, the wampus is not really part of New England folklore. Stories about the wampus are usually found in the southern parts of the United States. In some stories the wampus is similar to a werewolf and can be repelled by the Bible, while in others it is an anomalous six-legged panther-like creature. It has four legs for running and two for fighting. I was surprised to learn that may high school football teams in the South are named the Wampus Cats!

The Conway, Arkansas Wampus Cat. Go team!
In Rowling's story students who are warriors are likely to live in Wampus. I suppose that makes sense.

And Even More Creatures...

Rowling incorporates some other creatures into her story beyond the four associated with the school's houses. For example, she mentions hodags, snallygasters, and jackalopes. Sadly, none of these are from New England folklore either.

The hodag is found in Wisconsin folklore and originated as a hoax from 1893. The hodag is also the mascot of the high school in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

Staged photo of a hodag.

The snallygaster is encountered in Maryland folklore, and its name may derive from the German words "Schneller Geist," which mean "fast ghost." The snallygaster is described as reptilian and winged. As far as a I can tell no high school claims the snallygaster as its mascot. I guess "Go Snallygasters!" doesn't make a good cheer.

Finally, the jackalope. Again, not from New England. It appears that the jackalope was first created by a talented Wyoming taxidermist in the 1930s, and jackalopes can still be purchased from outdoor retailer Cabela's.

One more creature appears in Rowling's story: the hidebehind, which she describes as a "nocturnal, forest-dwelling spectre that preys on humanoid creatures. As the name suggests, it can contort itself to hide behind almost any object, concealing itself perfectly from hunters and victims alike." The hidebehind is one of the villains in the story.

A drawing of a hidebehind from Wikipedia.

Happily for those of us who live here, the hidebehind is not from New England. Although many of the Little People from local Native American lore are shy and so thin they can hide behind trees, the hidebehind is found in the folklore from other parts of the United States. According to legend it likes to prey on lonely hunters and lumberjacks, so I'm glad this is one thing I don't need to worry about when I go walking in the woods.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for sharing this! I did read the JKR story and wondered. The only place I've found the "jackalope" before this was in a story by Charles De Lint(who is Canadian, but does a lot of fantastical fiction set in the U.S.)

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! I've always meant to read Charles De Lint but have never gotten around to it. Maybe I should bump him further up the reading list? The only place I have encountered jackalopes are in gift shops and antique stores!

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