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The myths behind the magic of ‘Azkaban’

The latest installment of 'Harry Potter' has creatures like hippogriffs, dementors and boggarts. By Christopher Bahn.

One of the aspects we love about the “Harry Potter” series is J.K. Rowling’s sly use of mythological creatures and characters to help populate the world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Rowling’s fervent imagination supplies her stories with more than  a few magical creatures of her own devising, but even the most imaginative writers have their sources, and we thought it might be fun to trace a few of the mythic antecedents of some of the monsters and magics you’ll encounter when the movie version of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” opens June 4.

DEMENTORSWhat are they?
Ghastly, skeletal beings clad in black hooded robes who guard the Azkaban prison from which Sirius Black escapes. Their chief terror is the Kiss of Death, which sucks the life from their victims. Earlier sources?
Rowling's nasty creations, which she’s described as “the physical manifestation of depression,” are the latest in a long tradition of personifications of death as the “Hooded One,” going back at least as far as the medieval woodcuts of Hans Holbein. The 20th century's most prominent manifestations included Tolkien's witch-kings in “Lord of the Rings and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's “The Seventh Seal.”

BUCKBEAKWhat is it?
A hippogriff — a magical creature with the head, wings and forelegs of a hawk and the body of a horse. Harry and friends first meet him when Professor Hagrid brings him to their Care of Magical Creatures class.Earlier sources?
Hippogriffs originally come from Persian mythology, where they are also known as Simoorghs. They're a cross between a horse and a griffin, another fabulous creature that’s part eagle, lion and snake. Since the two animals were supposedly mortal enemies, the hippogriff came to symbolize an especially impossible situation.

SCABBERS, CROOKSHANKS, AND HEDWIG
What are they?
The pets of Ron, Hermione and Harry — a rat, cat and owl respectively.Earlier sources?
It's no accident that Rowling chose those three particular animals (along with toads) as the only pet species officially allowed at Hogwarts, because they’re found in superstition all the way back to the Middle Ages as typical examples of witches’ “familiars.” These animals, or perhaps spirits in animal form depending on what you read, were bound to a witch in order to aid them with their magic. And they weren't always animals, as evidenced by the air spirit Ariel in Shakespeare's “The Tempest,” who is the familiar of the wizard Prospero.

FAWKES
What is it?
Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore's pet phoenix, whose tail feathers form the core of Harry Potter's magic wand — and that of his mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort. Earlier sources?
In Assyrian myth, the phoenix is a brightly plumed bird with a most unique reproductive cycle. Instead of finding a Mrs. Phoenix with whom to raise a brood of chicks, the animal lives out a 500-year lifespan, then catches fire, is consumed into ashes, and is reborn as a young bird. American audiences aren't likely to catch the reference, but Fawkes gets his name from the effigy-burnings at the heart of Britain's patriotic Guy Fawkes Day, a commemoration of the failure of the original Fawkes' treasonous attempt to blow up Parliament.

HOUSE ELVES
What are they?
The servants of upper-class wizards, house elves are short, gnarled gremlin-like creatures who are subservient and obsequious to a fault. But if they’re given a gift of an item of clothing, they’re released from service. Harry befriends one named Dobby, the unhappy servant of the evil Lucius Malfoy.Earlier sources?
Nearly every culture has its own variations on the legend of the little household sprite that will clean your house in return for table scraps — in Scotland, there are brownies, in Germany kobolds, in Russia the domovoi. Often they turn very nasty if they’re mistreated, but kindness is repaid in kind. In the Grimm Brothers story “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” an old cobbler is saved from poverty when elves mysteriously help him with his business. Although the elves do disappear when given clothing, the shoemaker and his wife still have a happy ending: “Everything went well with them from that time forward, as long as they lived,” say the Grimms.

BOGGARTS
What are they?
In “Prisoner of Azkaban,” Harry's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher makes them face their fears by introducing them to the boggart, a creature that lives in dark places like wardrobes and which can assume the form of whatever frightens you the most. Earlier sources?
Rowling's taken a few liberties with the folkloric boggart, which comes from Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north of England. The original is much more like a poltergeist, and invisibly plagues homeowners by causing random destruction. If you move away to escape them, they’ll follow you to the next house — but hang a horseshoe on your door and you can bar them forever.

THE WHOMPING WILLOWWhat is it?
A bad-tempered tree that lives on the ground of the Hogwarts school, it can swing its branches like giant fists and doesn't take kindly to…well, anything. It destroys Harry's beloved Nimbus 2000 broomstick.Earlier sources?
The notion of a mobile, hostile tree has echoes in J.R.R. Tolkien's Ents and and Old Man Willow, and the evil forest of The Wizard of Oz.” But perhaps the closest analogue to its to mean, wanton destructiveness is the kite-eating tree that torments Charlie Brown in the “Peanuts” cartoons.

FLYING BROOMSTICKS
What are they?
In Rowling's world, broomsticks are everyday transport, but the fastest models are treated with the same reverence we'd give to a Porsche. Harry gets a new top-of-the-line racing model called a Firebolt from a mysterious benefactor. (You find out who in the last chapter of “Azkaban.”)Earlier sources? Since so much of the history of witchcraft is bound up in superstition, it’s hard to know for sure exactly where the idea that witches could use brooms as aerial motorcycles came from. Brooms themselves have been symbols of witchcraft for thousands of years because of their domestic connotations — in earlier times, of course, sweeping up was woman’s work, and witches were mostly female. But the flying connection seems to have started during the Inquisition, when church leaders were trying especially hard to associate paganism with Satan.

Christopher Bahn is a freelance writer in Minneapolis