The Harry Potter series has woven an overt web across the world, creating a new generation of readers who have soaked up each successive tome with a surprising enthusiasm never before seen in the realm of popular fiction. At the core of the books’ appeal is our innate desire to immerse ourselves in a new and wonderful world so near and accessible to our own. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone opened a magnificently detailed world to readers akin to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Unlike Middle-Earth, however, the wizarding world of Harry Potter exists concurrently with our own, lurking in inconspicuous corners. As a result, parts of it leak into the Muggle world; likewise, aspects of the Muggle world influence the wizarding world. J.K. Rowling herself has said that the Muggle and wizarding wars of the mid-20th century fed each other;1 it stands to reason that other events in the wizarding and Muggle worlds would influence or mirror events in the other. Likewise, many of the creatures encountered in the Harry Potter series have similar if not exact counterparts in the Muggle world (think of vampires, creatures loosely based on such brutal Muggles as Elizabeth Bathory2 and Vlad III the Impaler, 3 as well as Kneazles, magical counterparts to one of the most anthropomorphized Muggle animals, the cat). Still, magic as a practical concept – transfiguration, charms, etc. – is only prevalent in the modern wizarding world; that is, of course, with one exception: divination.
Divination is the only magical practice found to be widespread throughout both the wizarding and Muggle worlds; is this the result of a mistake on the part of the wizards? After all, they have managed to convince the Muggle world that all other forms of magical concepts and creatures are only the stuff of legend. Why, then, has divination been permitted a niche in the Muggle world?
One major clue pointing to a reason for this discrepancy is the apparent disdain for divination harbored by many wizards; it would appear that divination has earned as much of a reputation for blatant falsehood in the wizarding world as it has in the Muggle world. The more pedantic Harry Potter characters (Hermione, Professor McGonagall, et al.) have low opinions of the subject. Hermione comments that divination “seems very woolly. A lot of guesswork, if you ask me.” 4 The students, with some notable exceptions, agree that Professor Trelawney is nothing more than an old fraud; Harry and Ron never manage to “See” anything and are forced to fabricate false visions throughout the course. Professor McGonagall nurtures a strong dislike for Trelawney and her subject (until, of course, the infamous Umbridge episode). Professor Dumbledore admits he considered abolishing the department while receiving applicants for the post of divination teacher.
What aspects of divination would cause even Albus Dumbledore to consider the subject unworthy to be taught at Hogwarts? As Professor McGonagall says, it is “one of the most imprecise branches of magic.” 5 Precious few Seers are even mentioned in the Harry Potter series; Professor Trelawney is the only major human subscriber to divination that we meet in person, and as such must be accepted as a realistic example of a wizarding diviner. Unfortunately for her, Professor Trelawney gives an impression of thinly masked ineptitude. With the exception of her two true prophecies, the vast majority of Professor Trelawney’s inauspicious and often banal prognoses seem to be more based on her own arbitrary inferences than her so-called “Inner Eye.” 6 As a result, most of these predictions can be debunked in the same manner as Hermione debunks Lavender’s belief that Trelawney foresaw the death of her pet rabbit Binky.7 Trelawney also informs Harry that he has the “shortest life line she had ever seen.” 8 However, contrary to common belief, the length of the life line does not correspond to length of life, according to modern palmistry. 9 She even reneges on her adamant prediction of Harry’s imminent death, after Harry’s interview in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix antagonizes Umbridge. 10 This appears to be an abnormal reward – annulling her ever-unchanging prediction rather than, say, giving Harry a box of sugar mice or awarding extra points to Gryffindor. It would also appear that her so-called “Gift” for “Seeing” was unappreciated by wizards elsewhere, to the point that while applying for work she seeks lodging at the Hog’s Head, any excuses to the contrary, due to an apparent lack of galleons. Later, with the event of Trelawney’s dismissal from her teaching post, Dumbledore finds a new professor in the centaur Firenze. Judging by Trelawney’s character as a human Seer, it is likely Dumbledore realized he was more likely to find a credible divination teacher among the centaurs than among his fellow wizards. Even the centaurs themselves, practitioners of a “truer” divination, dismiss Trelawney’s subject as mere fortune-telling. With Seers such as Trelawney upholding the art of divination, even a mountain troll could discern why human divination is treated with such derision and even contempt by many witches and wizards.
The centaurs’ branch of divination is only slightly more appealing to the general wizarding world than Trelawney’s style of fortune-telling. However true their readings of the heavens may be, the centaurs’ divination is impractical to anyone but themselves, requiring periods of study too lengthy for the average human. They do not deal with the mundane and trivial (such as Trelawney’s prediction of Neville breaking her teacup); 11 rather, they are concerned with vast, ultra-important matters that affect all of the wizarding (and sometimes also the Muggle) world. Due to the seeming unpopularity of divination among human wizards and the inapplicability of the centaurs’ divination, a logical conclusion would be that divination was deemed a “false branch” of magic and was relegated ever lower and lower until it was eventually accepted as Muggle-worthy among wizards.
Whether divination was demoted to the Muggle world via a careless disclosure from apathetic wizards or from revulsion toward what was viewed as a “pseudomagic,” there would have been many obstacles for wizards trying to send divination “the way of the dragon” into Muggle myth rather than Muggle practice. Divination has enjoyed immense popularity and continual development in Muggle past and is still found in the occult practices of the Muggle present. The inordinate amount of manpower needed to confiscate fortune-telling materials and modify memories of billions of Muggles would surely be less attractive to wizard officials than leaving the problem alone, so long as it is harmless to Muggles. Before the Statute of Secrecy came into effect, it is possible that certain wizards, whether out of compassion for their non-magical brethren or just wanting a bit of humorous entertainment, bestowed tools and instructions for divination among the Muggles.
The fact that divination is practiced by so few in the wizarding world gives evidence for a radically different hypothesis: divination was originally a Muggle phenomenon. A few wizards must have later experimented with enchantments and found that with a few modifications and enhancements, Muggle divination could be turned into a useful portent capable of aptly predicting the future. Plenty of evidence supports this thesis: firstly, the small number of wizarding diviners suggests that divination is not an innate magical quality given to all wizards; nor does it seem to be, as Trelawney claims, a genetic quality that can skip generations. Also, the abilities of magical Seers are greatly staggered; for instance, take Sibyll Trelawney and her distant ancestor Cassandra. Centaur divination is also impractical for the average wizard, requiring years of learning to read the heavens. On the other hand, any Muggle who wishes to study art of forecasting may practice divination with equal success to his or her fellow Muggle diviners. This, perhaps, is evidence that divination is not a true wizarding magic and is instead an original Muggle entity.
Additionally, nearly every Muggle culture from Shang China (when the first Chinese writing appeared on oracle bones, a form of cleromancy, or casting lots to foresee12) to Ancient Egypt (when an early form of crystallomancy using a pool of ink was used to predict the future13) has born witness to some form of divination; it seems that divination would have appeared in the Muggle world whether or not wizards planted the original seeds of fortune-telling in it.
Furthermore, whereas other aspects of the Harry Potter world are completely fictitious and have no place in traditional Muggle lore (can you say “Horklump”?),14 every form of divination Trelawney uses can be found in the Muggle world as well. In his first year of divination, Harry’s course include tasseography, or tea-leaf reading, which first developed millennia ago in East Asia, then later and independently in Africa and Europe, as well as in the Middle East, using coffee grounds. Other areas in Trelawney’s first-time course are pyromancy (fire omens), an ancient Muggle practice, chiromancy (palmistry), for which Muggle gypsies are famed, and crystallomancy – like its name sounds, divination via a crystal ball. However, the crystal ball is a rather recent Muggle creation; crystallomancy was originally used in instances like the aforementioned Egyptian ink. A fifth form mentioned by the manager of Flourish and Blotts involving bird entrails15 is a type of aruspicy that was one of the largest fads of ancient Greece and Rome.16 In Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts he studies astrology,17 which is perhaps the most popular class of Muggle divination due to the number of horoscope subscribers. In his third year of divination Harry encounters oneiromancy, or dream interpretation,18 which is also an ancient practice for foresight; later, dreams were championed by Sigmund Freud and co. not as a means to predict the future but as a vessel for the subconscious mind. This concept is evidenced in the series by Harry’s dreams, which serve as a gateway into Lord Voldemort’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. However, this alone does not make Harry a Seer: as it often occurs in Muggle reality, these dreams are not necessarily a result of his psychic abilities. In this case, Harry bears a mental connection to Lord Voldemort that causes these unconscious visions. Finally, In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Professor Trelawney is overheard reading tarot cards,19 which were originally a playing card game created in northern Italy in the early 1400s.20
Whether or not divination is a Muggle or wizarding phenomenon is quite debatable. Each form of divination taught by Professor Trelawney is also practiced in the Muggle world; certain types have been so thoroughly developed by Muggles that the evidence may even suggest divination has its roots in a Muggle origin. Because she is a foil character to the more capable Hogwarts teachers, Trelawney is a memorable and often amusing personality. Even with her seemingly phony style, it cannot be denied that she has indeed made true prophecies, one of which set the entire Potter saga in motion and thus secured her role as a pivotal Harry Potter character.
Though often considered fraudulent in both the real and wizarding worlds, divination has had the power to entrance practitioners by playing on their hopes and fears for centuries. By introducing into the Harry Potter books a subject that is so familiar to readers, J.K. Rowling only amplifies the degree to which these novels have become endeared to readers worldwide.
1. Annelli, TLC/MN Interview JKR: Part Three, paragraphs 24-5.
2. Wikipedia, s.v. “Elizabeth Bathory.”
3. Ibid., s.v. “Vlad III the Impaler.”
4. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 111.
5. Ibid., 109.
6. Ibid., 103.
7. Ibid., 148-49.
8. Ibid., 235.
9. Wikipedia, s.v. “Chiromancy.”
10. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 582-83.
11. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 104.
12. Wikipedia, s.v. “Cleromancy.”
13. Ibid., s.v. “Crystal Gazing.”
14. The Harry Potter Lexicon, s.v. “The Bestiary: Horklump.”
15. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 53.
16. Divinity Dice, “Divination List”; Liberal Arts and Crafts, “Augury.”
17. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, Ch. 13.
18. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 237.
19. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 543.
20. Wikipedia, s.v. “Tarot.”Bibliography
Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz. “The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part Three,” The Leaky Cauldron, 16 July 2005. /features/interviews/jkr3.
Divinity Dice: Polyhedral Dice Divination. “Divination List.” http://www.divinitydice.com/dictionary.htm.
The Harry Potter Lexicon, s.v. “The Bestiary: Horklump.” Member of the Floo Network. http://www.hp-lexicon.org/bestiary/bestiary_h.html. (Accessed August 5, 2006.)
Liberal Arts and Crafts. “Augury.” http://www.liberalartsandcrafts.net/contentcatalog/religion/terminology/hebrew/augury.shtml.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page. (Accessed August 29, 2006.)