Harry Potter: The Extraordinary Individuating Self

By Jacqueline Bellacosa Kello and Christopher T. Kello

Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up [...] he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous [...] that people all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices. "To Harry Potter ’ the boy who lived." 1

Human beings search for the extraordinary in their world. We focus on stories of hurricanes, not just a bit of rain; Mount Everest, not a small hill; Michael Jordan, not any old ball player. Mix common sense with a dash of evolutionary theory, and one can concoct any number of stories about why it is advantageous from the genes' point of view to attend to the extraordinary. After all, survival depends on it. The extraordinary delivers all we can aspire to as a species and can also destroy everything we have created.

Carl Jung, twentieth century psychiatrist, philosopher, and world mythology scholar, might say that in looking outward to the extraordinary, we seek the extraordinary within us. We seek models and inspiration for a better self; but more fundamentally, we strive to individuate the psyche, that is, to become who we are meant to be. The cornerstone of C.G. Jung's work is his exposition of the individuation process within each human personality. As J.K. Rowling has done, he delves into the ancient science of alchemy to elucidate his work.

In the Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling is taking her readers on a journey through the process of individuation. Her protagonist is stamped with the mark of the extraordinary from the very beginning. Harry Potter is not just a boy, he is a wizard. He is not just a wizard, he is THE Harry Potter, the wizard who survived an encounter with unspeakable evil and lived. Harry's quest for individuation is charmed from the start, and it is this charm that appeals to every reader in the midst of his or her own personal quest.

History has shown us that the great world-changing events, whether beneficent or baleful, are brought about by the extraordinary. Jung's psychology of the individual echoed this historical fact, noting that the great deeds and ideas of the world have always sprung from leading personalities and never from the masses. The community requires a leader to inspire collective action. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Adolph Hitler are examples of powerful personalities that were able to channel the energy of their respective communities. We read their biographies, attempting to ferret out what factor brought them to their position in history. The J.K. Rowling novels place us inside the mind and heart of a fictional leader in the making: the individuation process of Harry Potter.

Alchemy and Psychology : Harry Potter and C.G. Jung

The connection between C.G. Jung and Harry Potter begins and ends with alchemy, an ancient system of beliefs and practices that has changed shape across the centuries and the great cultures of history. Alchemists were members of the intelligentsia (and sometime frauds) of the Middle Ages. Known as a precursor to chemistry, the study of alchemy concerned itself with mixtures of metals and their transformation with the application of heat. The alchemists had some ideas about the principles at work, and they extended those ideas from the world of mind and spirit to the physical world and back again, creating a kind of conversation with matter. They codified their work in obscure books with strange symbols. This interchange between the physical, mental, and spiritual drove them to seek an alchemical process that was said to produce the philosopher's stone. This artifact would not only change lead into gold, but also bestow immortality. Modern science lost interest in alchemy in the eighteenth century, at which time such theories became discredited unless they stood the test of the scientific method, hence, chemistry.

Two centuries later, Jung studied the principles of alchemy and applied them to psychological theory. He did this not for the power of the stone, but for the symbols and systems of thought that alchemy provided. He theorized that all human beings share a collective unconscious that has developed over the millennia as a result of recurring patterns formed in the interchange between organism and environment. Jung put forth the recurring products of imagination as empirical evidence for the collective unconscious, universal images in religious symbols, dreams, poems, paintings, drawings, and the delusions and hallucinations of psychiatric patients, no matter what era or culture. Recurring images richly carved into the world of Harry Potter ’ the Egg (golden or not), Snake, Fish, Sun, Moon, Lion, Mandala (circle within a circle), Twins, The World Clock (time), and the Quest, to name a few - can all be found in alchemical texts.

In Symbols of Transformation, the work that marked Jung's break with Sigmund Freud, Jung introduced the process of alchemy as a framework for the psychological operations of individuation. The result of this process was the weaving of an ego identity out of the potent fabric of the unconscious/conscious interplay, the ego ’ the very identity that we hold dear. In this work Jung distinguished his theory from Freud's, in that Jung's unconscious was much more than a hideaway for unacceptable desires, thoughts and memories. Jung gave much of the credit for his thinking to alchemy:

Only after I had familiarized myself with alchemy did I realize that the unconscious is a process, and that the psyche is transformed or developed by the relationship of the ego to the contents of the unconscious. In individual cases that transformation can be read from dreams and fantasies. In collective life it has left its deposit principally in the various religious systems and their changing symbols. Through the study of these collective transformation processes and through understanding of alchemical symbolism I arrived at the central concept of my psychology: the process of individuation.2

Jung brought alchemy into psychology, just as many others have brought alchemy into the great literary works of western culture. Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and Faust are four towering works of fiction with alchemical underpinnings. However, nowhere is the alchemical process of individuation more clearly expressed than in the Harry Potter novels. Alchemy is implicated in the very title of the first book, which in Great Britain was not Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, as it was renamed in the United States, but Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Many direct references can be found throughout each and every book. For instance, during Harry's first ride on the Hogwarts Express he opens a package of chocolate frogs that contain collectable cards of famous witches and wizards. He gets the Albus Dumbledore card. It says "Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945 [...] and his work on alchemy with his partner Nicholas Flamel." 3 Dumbledore may be a fictional character, but Nicholas Flamel is a documented alchemist from the fifteenth century who, as legend has it, succeeded in creating the philosopher's stone with his wife Perenelle.

These and other references are framed in seven novels that are themselves reflective of individuation, for they are structured to mirror the seven stages of alchemy, and therefore, the individuation process. Harry is transforming from an orphan boy into a great wizard. The web of connections becomes even more complex when one delves further and finds that each novel is a microcosm of the whole; each book contains within it all seven stages, revealing the nested structure of Jung's psychological operations. Alchemists referred to the repetition that results from this nested structure as "circumambulating around the stone' an image that is physically externalized in the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The ritual involves circling the Kaaba stone seven times. Interestingly, the most requested books of the prisoners in Guantanamo are the Harry Potter novels.4

The Alchemical Process: Attaining Knowledge

We can take a cursory look at the seven stages of alchemy and individuation through Harry's experiences in the first book, Sorcerer's Stone. As we briefly run through them, note the names of the stages and their physical, (al)chemical connotations; an example of the alchemists' penchant for moving fluidly between the physical, mental, and spiritual. We have chosen The Emerald Tablet, a classic alchemical text, as the reference for these stages.

The first stage is Calcination. Here the ego is shrunken, constricted, and insignificant in contrast with the great wide world. When the reader first meets Harry, he is an unloved orphan who lives under a stairwell at 4 Privet Drive, wholly insignificant in the Muggle world. Harry has no idea who he is, locked in a place too small for him.

The second stage is Dissolution. The ego's small view of the world is shattered by the eruption of unconscious material. The old worldview is ending. Owls invade Harry's ordinary world with thousands of letters addressed to Mr. Harry Potter. Rubeus Hagrid, the hairy, gentle giant breaks the door down. Hagrid informs Harry he is a wizard and tells him of the true story of his parent's death at the hands of Lord Voldemort.

The third stage is Separation. The submerged self divides and situates itself in its environment. Harry meets his peers in the wizarding world, the characters that will symbolize Harry's psyche as the individuation process unfolds. Harry is educated and aided by his new friends and classmates, perhaps by no one more than Draco Malfoy. It is significant that Draco is the first schoolmate he meets in Madam Malkin's robe shop. Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, and Neville Longbottom join him later on the Hogwarts Express journey. Harry aligns with whom he identifies and rejects those he does not by the time he reaches Hogwarts and the Sorting Hat. More will be said about Harry's classmates later.

The fourth stage is Conjunction. The nascent self begins to find its confidence in the wider world, becoming empowered and confident. Harry learns he can fly on a broom like no other. It is noteworthy that Harry breaks his first school rule flying. Draco, who had taken Neville's Remembrall, goads Harry into taking flight. Due to this flight, Professor McGonagall chooses Harry as a Seeker for the Gryffindor team. Quidditch is yet another metaphor for the quest to find the illusive individuated self.

The Fifth stage is Fermentation. Now something or someone unexpectedly appears as an inspiration to give guidance in this new world. Dumbledore becomes Harry's personal tutor, and Harry becomes the sorcerer's apprentice.

The sixth stage is Distillation. Here the operations of the mind reach a fever pitch. The play of opposites that are the human experience in life reveal themselves. Voldemort possesses the back of Professor Quirrell's head. He is seeking the philosopher's stone and attempts to use Harry to get it. Harry is surprised to find the philosopher's stone in his pocket, the artifact that is the embodiment of wizarding wisdom.

The seventh stage is Coagulation. During this stage the self expands to incorporate the wisdom of the collective unconscious that has surfaced during this circle round in the individuation process. It is a reflective phase. After his experience in the dungeons of Hogwarts, Harry sleeps. When Harry wakes Dumbledore educates Harry. He could not have attained the stone if he had been seeking it for personal gain. Dumbledore is passing on the ancient wisdom of the alchemists; only the pure of heart can realize the stone.

The seven Harry Potter novels are one special boy's expansion in the ways of knowing both the internal and external world. In fact, each of us is special in our quest to know ourselves. In the first two books, the transformative actions take place almost entirely in dungeons hidden deep within Hogwarts, deep within the realm of the unconscious and the imagining world. The third and fourth books mark the eruption of the action onto the grounds of Hogwarts, as the conscious ego begins to differentiate and surface. In books five and six, the action spills over into the Muggle world and events there begin to take on gravity. The Muggle world was theretofore more causally distant and disconnected from the wizarding world. Harry is more mature in each book, more the man he is destined to be.

The Opposites and The Shadow

The goal of individuation is to transcend the tension of opposites, and the Potter novels, as in Alice and Dorothy's stories, are rife with opposites. Echoing the Yin and Yang of Eastern culture, opposites represent the dichotomies that live within all of us and help to define the human condition. Their prevalence and importance in life is evidenced as a developmental priority: the first opposites are recognized when an infant explores where he/she ends and the rest of the world begins. These opposites of within and without are the first of many to be discovered throughout development. Children's books reflect and facilitate this process of discovery by teaching the universal opposites like up/down, big/small, good/bad, and so on. As the individuation process goes on, children begin to align themselves along the opposites continua. This alignment is manifested as a narrow constellation of pairings that help to define the self and thereby further individuate the psyche. However, this alignment also limits the potential of the psyche, which in its fullest expression is a dynamic ego that retains its elasticity in its interchange between organism and environment.

The story of Harry Potter is an epic moral struggle of the opposites of good and evil. The defining challenge on the path of individuation is the confrontation with what Jung called the Shadow, an integral part of the self that the conscious ego will at first refuse to acknowledge. Many avoid this challenge with the consequence that the Shadow is projected out into the environment onto others. The lesson to take away from Jung's insight is that we can learn about ourselves by reflecting on that which we find most irritating and reprehensible in the world. As Jung wrote in Alchemical Studies:

Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the Shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.5

The wizarding world's Shadow is present in Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Harry is the wizarding world's best hope. It is telling that Harry and Dumbledore are among the few wizards who can say Voldemort's name without flinching. Their courage presages Harry's ability to ultimately face evil and transcend the opposites. The intimate tie between Harry, Voldemort, and Dumbledore is represented by Harry and Voldemort's wands, which both contain the feathers of Fawkes, Dumbledore's phoenix. The scar from the wound that Voldemort inflicted the night of Harry's parents' death binds them further. Harry's confrontation with the Shadow is painful.

In book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort's body is born out of a boiling cauldron that amalgamates his father's bone, the hand of the traitor, Wormtail, and the blood from Harry's living veins. When Voldemort attempts to kill Harry once again, Harry defends against the attack. Their wands connect and vibrate in a golden domed arch, evoking the tension of opposites. In this and every book that follows, Voldemort is present in a progressively more defined form within the community. At the end of the fourth book, Harry tells the master alchemist Dumbledore of his experience at Voldemort's rebirth. Dumbledore intimates a brief smile. As his guide through the unconscious, Dumbledore sees Harry's progress towards individuation, and knows that an important transformation has taken place. The young man who has been forming internally will begin to exercise his self-confident personality in the worlds of wizards and Muggles alike.

While Harry's fate is presaged by his genetics and orphaned past, the strength of character that makes him a great wizard is paved by a series of choices. Some choices are made for him, but more important to his extraordinary character are the choices he makes for himself. Harry takes control of his life once he leaves Uncle Vernon and the Dursleys on that rock in a stormy sea and enters the wizarding world with Hagrid. Harry is able to make decisions, act, and take responsibility for the unfolding of events in this new world. Harry tells the Sorting Hat he does not want to be in Slytherin House. As far as the reader knows, no other first year at Hogwarts had the wherewithal to tell the Sorting Hat what to do. Harry takes risks that often fly in the face of school rules that keep students out of danger. Harry enters the Forbidden Forest, explores the school at night, creates "off limits to underage wizards" potions with the help of Ron and Hermione, and uses his Invisibility Cloak to accomplish many of his goals. The school rules are a metaphor for the cultural norms and societal rules that govern the creation of a person.

If individuation is the creation of a self, one is led to ask, "does the time make the man or the man make the time?" Jung would answer both in concert. Jung developed a theory of archetypes that captured these patterns as they are embedded within the human psyche. One can think of archetypes as the genetic code of the psyche, where the manifestation of each archetype is triggered by an appropriate set of environmental cues. For instance, Mother and Child are two archetypes that manifest uniquely for each mother and child, just as the gene for blue eyes will manifest differently in every blue-eyed person. Harry Potter is the unfolding of the Hero archetype. Great mystics, scientists, and artists are often thought mad, eccentric at best, because they had the courage to challenge the accepted ideas of their time and are scorned for the effort. A hero like Harry risks his life for the life of the community; some would think him a fool. Certainly Voldemort would. Archetypal heroes break the rules of culture and society because they behave in ways other men and women do not. They change things.

A Word about Alchemy and Modern Science

The practice of alchemy has been supplanted in western culture by modern day science. It may appear that science, which favors experiments that give repeatable results, leaves no room for the ideas of alchemy, but there is at least one alchemical principle that remains with us in science called emergent theory.

Nearly everyone has heard the saying, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." In scientific terms, one might say that the global behavior of a system often cannot be derived from a simple (linear) combination of the activities of its components. Restated, global behavior emerges from local interactions among neighboring components. Examples of emergent behavior can be found in every scientific discipline ’ physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, economics ’ in virtually every domain that someone has cared to examine for emergent behavior. Alchemists would appreciate the Belousov-Zhabotinsky chemical reaction that can be observed for instance by dissolving malonic acid, ferroin, and bromate in a dish of sulfuric acid. After an induction period of several minutes, one will begin to see oscillations and ripples of color that pulse through the solution. These oscillations are organized, global patterns of behavior that result from a spontaneous coordination of local chemical reactions. The resulting compound could not be divined from any one element. It needed the others to create this new phenomenon. The patterned whole is greater than the sum of its chemical parts.6

While the alchemists did not have the tools and concepts of emergent theory at their disposal, they did seem to recognize and incorporate concepts of emergence into their thinking. Their ideas of emergence are most clearly seen in the combination of alchemical elements represented through earth, air, fire, and water. Not in the four individually, but in a fifth element of wholeness that emerges from the interaction of a foursome. It is named the Quintessence, and in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry is reading "Quintessence: A Quest."

Jung's Four Functions

Harry Potter: The Quintessence

Jung theorized that the self has four modes of knowing and interacting with the world: thinking, feeling/judging, sensation/physical, and intuition. He calls these psychic functions. Each individual has the potential to operate with all four modes of knowing available to them. However, this feat requires self exploration and Harry has certainly been exploring. Jung wrote that the psyche generally develops three of these functions at the expense of one psychic function, which remains submerged in the unconscious. The least developed psychic function becomes enmeshed with the Shadow, a kind of blind spot. When the ego begins to explore and confront his/her shadow, the function that was lost in the unconscious becomes available. The students, teachers, and schoolhouses at Hogwarts are structured to exemplify these psychic functions.

Below is a table that diagrams some of the symbolic relationships. Once you understand the key, the reader can enjoy placing people, places, and things in the Potter novels within categories.

Psychic Functions Elements Houses Students Teachers
Intuition Fire Gryffindor Harry McGonagall
Thinking Air Ravenclaw Hermione Flitwick
Sensate/Physical Earth Hufflepuff Ron Sprout
Judgement/Feeling Water Slytherin Neville/Draco Snape

Harry's dominant psychic function is intuition. In books one through four, he courageously followed where his intuition led. The bravery of Gryffindor House and the alchemical element of fire represent the intuitive function. When Percy is leading the first years to the Gryffindor common room, he is directed by whispering portraits pointing the way up and down stairs with many twists and turns. The human psychic function of intuition is experienced not unlike a whisper from somewhere we cannot point to with assurance.

Hermione embodies the thinking function within Gryffindor House. She is full of information gathered from her many trips to the library, often to the benefit of Harry. Her name is not an accident. Hermes Trimegistus is thought to be the first alchemist and the author of The Emerald Tablet. Ravenclaw is the house of the thinking function and the alchemical element of air. The Ravenclaw common room is located in a tower high in the castle.

Ron is the first to the banquet table, most susceptible to the Veelas, and a big fan of sports. He embodies the sensate/physical function in Harry's house of Gryffindor. Hufflepuff is the house of the sensate/physical function and the alchemical element of earth. You get to their dorms in Hogwarts via a passage near the kitchen.

The fourth psychic function, feeling/judging, is the least differentiated in Harry. Draco Malfoy, the first schoolmate Harry meets, uses this psychic function to his greatest advantage. He knows the values and rules of the wizarding community and he knows how to use them. He criticizes Harry and his friends, often provoking action that unwillingly moves Harry's process along. Draco is also the strongest member of Slytherin House, the representative house of the feeling/judging function and the alchemical element of water. Their common room is thought to be under the lake, near the dark, damp dungeons of Hogwarts. Severus Snape, the head of Slytherin, is an ambiguous and elusive character. The reader does not know what to believe about his intentions or the results of his actions. Even now with the knowledge that he apparently murdered Dumbledore, we are not convinced of his allegiance to either side.

The hapless Neville Longbottom is the judging/feeling function within Harry's own house of Gryffindor. He bravely attempted to enforce the school rules in book one when Harry, Hermione, and Ron are off to explore the dungeons lying beneath Fluffy. Hermione used the Petrificus Totallus curse and rendered him useless. However, it was Neville who gave Harry Gillyweed, the plant that enabled him to breathe under water in the Triwizard Tournament. Neville began to hone his skills in the Room of Requirement, learning how to duel with Harry.

Ron and Hermione each experience being judged negatively in a very public manner. Ron is jeered by his fellow students on the Quidditch field, Slytherins leading the way; Hermione by Rita Skeeter in the Daily Prophet twisting the truth of her emotional life allowing others to judge her negatively. Each of the characters exercises their faculties to overcome blows to their self-esteem that emanate from community, even each other. Harry's motivations have been misconstrued and his character maligned by many both in the world of Muggles and wizardry. Yet, Harry never falters. The judgment of others may be painful, but these evaluations do not change the course of his actions.

Some Predictions

The transformation in book seven will find its opposite correspondence to book one, Sorcerer's Stone, mirroring the nested spiraling structure of the process. Using a Jungian psychic sense, we predict Harry Potter will be the fulfillment of the individuation process, the Quintessence. Harry will be a mature, capable, and respected hero in the Muggle world by the end of the seventh book, Ginny Weasley, partner at his side. He will unite the four houses at Hogwarts against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. The essential psychic function of judgment will be critically used to save the community. This will involve members of the House of Slytherin, Draco Malfoy and Professor Severus Snape, once rejected and viewed as the enemy. Neville will be a hero, and I believe, either he or Draco will die. I hear the echo of Voldemort's first hiss in the cemetery, "Kill the spare!", and other spares may die. However, despite the pain of loss, the Phoenix will renew life once again somehow for there is something immortal in this tale.

One final prediction: Harry Potter will take his place in our Muggle world as one of the great fictional alchemical heroes of our culture, standing as a beacon, awakening the possibility of the extraordinary within each of us.


1. Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 17.

2. Jung, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, 209.

3. Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 102.

4. Scarborough, "Detainees under Harry Potter's Spell."

5. Jung, Alchemical Studies, 470.

6. Motoike and Adamatzky, "Three-valued logic gates," 107-114.


The Emerald Tablet, Evanescent Press, 1988.

Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Random House, 1963.

”””. Mysterium Coniunctionis. New York: Bollingen, 1963.

”””. The Portable Jung. Joseph Campbell, ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

”””. Psychology and Alchemy. New York: Bollingen, 1968.

”””. Symbols of Transformation. New York: Bollingen, 1956.

Motoike, I. and Adamatzky, A. "Three-valued logic gates in reaction-diffusion excitable media." Chaos,

Solitons & Fractals

, vol. 24 (2005), 107-114.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

”””. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, 2000.

”””. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, 2005.

”””. Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003.

”””. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

”””. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

Scarborough, Rowen. "Detainees under Harry Potter's Spell". The Washington Times, August 8, 2005.

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The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.