LONDON (dpa) – “No, there isn’t really a Hogwarts school of magic or anything like it in Britain.” Staff at the national Tourist Office have to tell that to dozens of callers every day.
Yet much of the material in Joanne K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories is not just the product of her fanciful mind. Magic wands and potions, curses and druids are all part of the country’s rich cultural heritage.
Archaeologists and historians whose treatises on magic have normally been directed at an academically minded few are suddenly finding that this is a subject which everyone wants to read about.
Britons are finding out now that their ancestors probably waved magic wands as far back as 26,000 years ago. In the Paviland caves in Wales a grave was found to contain ivory sticks, which professor Ronald Hutton believes could have been used for occult practices.
“The most likely explanation is these are magical objects, symbols of power,” said the academic.
Before Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts he has get hold of a cauldron. Cauldrons bearing a bewildering array of symbols have been part of magic equipment since Roman times.
The druids used cauldrons to mix their potions, which modern kids might also know from the drinks stirred up by the fictional Miraculix in the Asterix comic books.
“Magic” potions, many of them with hallucinatory effects, are being rediscovered.
Take the misteltoe cut down by Miraculix with his sickle. These days mistletoe is prescribed by doctors to boost the body’s immune defence systems for patients subject to a gruelling course of chemotherapy.
St. John’s Wort, which was taken in olden times to ward off evil spirits, is known to be effective against that very 20th-century ailment depression.
On the subject of mandrakes, Harry’s herbal-magic master Sprout says that they form the basis of most antidotes. Whereupon Hermione adds: “The cry is fatal to all who hear it.”
In old England it was believed that whoever pulled out a mandrake would disturb a demon at its root. Hearing his piercing cry was fatal.
Still an overdose of the purple-tubered mandrake, or mandragora, could be the reason why many a magician was convinced he could fly.
“Above a certain concentration they make you feel ‘high’ and give a feeling of being lighter than air,” said Monique Simmonds of Kew Gardens, the botanical treasure trove in West London.
Julius Caesar described the British druids as mysterious visionaries and healers who also sacrificed human beings.
Merlin, the British Potter prototype, was a druid and a “man with the wisdom of the wood”, according to historian Nicolai Tolstoy.
He is said to have lived at the end of the 6th century and according to legend he was able to predict the future, talk to the animals and recite the most amazing curses.
Curses of the calibre that crop up in the fourth Harry Potter volume were regarded in the Middle Ages as the perfect-crime method of murdering someone, since they left behind no trace.
Right up until the beginning of the 20th century, old shoes, horseshoes, effigies and bottles containing urine were walled up in buildings to act as a kind of magical lightning conductor against curses.
In many respects the druids were tricksters like magic star David Copperfield, only much less subtle.
The long beard and tall pointed hat regarded as standard equipment by any self-respecting magician were donned to impress, say historians who believe only a handful of druids had learned to read.
Modern crystal balls are another sham, they say since most predictions were made using sticks and later cards.
Another English word for a magician is “wizard” and that originally just meant a wise man.
The wizards of our times “could be economic gurus, high-technology scientists, maybe politicians, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists”, suggests anthropologist Piers Vitebsky of Cambridge University. “Anybody who claims some realm of special knowledge.”