“You…This isn’t a criticism Harry! But you do…sort of…I mean
—don’t you think you’ve got a bit of a—a—saving-people-thing?” 1
Hermione raises this question, and Harry doesn’t want to give her a real answer. Does he have a people-saving-thing? He does, and the reason is rooted deep in his character development. Many writers, consciously or unconsciously, build characters from archetypes, archetypes that spring from mythology. Greek mythology is always a good place to start, but in Harry’s case we need to go back further, to ancient Egypt.2 He is Osiris of Egypt, Dionysus of the Greeks, Tammuz of the Sumarians, Attis, Adonis, and Jesus Christ. He is reflected in certain aspects of the Hindu god Vishnu, the Celtic King Arthur and Mithras of Rome. All the above mentioned deities are on a divine mission to save mankind from eternal death, and it is this quest that identifies Harry Potter with this group.
In fiction, the character derived from the idea of Osiris is called a Messiah archetype.3 It functions as character development and as a plot device for the Hero’s journey to self-discovery, so a character may be predominantly of one archetype with the Osiris archetype as a final product of transformation. In “45 Master Characters,” Schmidt spends only seven pages in discussion of the archetype and a bare paragraph on the myth, yet from the brief description it becomes clear that the character of Harry Potter is strongly connected to this idea of a character driven by a divinely inspired quest to rid the world of evil and avenge the wrongs done to mankind. A Messianic archetype consistently cares about others as well as himself, he cares about right winning out over wrong, he cares about teaching and preaching the truth, even when no one wants to hear it or believe it. He cares immensely about his plot, his quest, and will sacrifice himself in the pursuit of it. His greatest fear is fear. He fears that he won’t be heard. He fears that others will think him mad or a liar and disregard his message at their peril. He fears he will never achieve his goal, complete his mission or fulfill his quest. He fears that others will suffer while he is forced to watch. Motivation isn’t an issue with this archetype. The pursuit of his goal drives him like a spur. His love for others inspires him to press on in the face of adversity. There is no obstacle that he won’t attempt to conquer, or die trying. You can tempt him, but no temptation is enough if his need to quest is strong enough. Others see him as black or white, and he is never a shade of gray. He is either enlightened or mad; he is either good or evil. He inspires loyalty in his friends, murderous rage in his enemies, and also jealousy in those that might be his peers or allies. This jealousy is often strong enough to be motivation for torture and even murder. A fully developed, a perfected Osiris is always ready to make the ultimate sacrifice- himself- out of love for others.
However, readers need some flaws to make the character human, and the Osiris character has plenty of them. He sees the good in everyone, so much so that he may endanger himself and his friends. He has a tendency to see his way as the only way. He’s stubborn. He is often naïve, and the harsh lessons of life hurt him more than other archetypes. He is never a good politician for he refuses to play favorites. He may push his followers so far out of their comfort zones that they may leave him.4 And this is where Schmidt stops, far shy of providing enough story to do more than discern the skeleton of a hero.
The essentials of the myth are as follows: Osiris, the good king who brought civilization and agriculture to the people, murdered by his brother Set, the body found by the wife of Osiris, his sister Isis, Set’s mutilation of the body of Osiris, thus condemning Osiris to death with no hope of life after death, Isis with the help of Anubis recovering and restoring Osiris with the myth culminating in the eventual overthrow of Set by Horus, the son of Osiris.5 The myth is a cycle in that Horus is essentially Osiris on earth, while the original Osiris is the Ruler of the Dead. In fact, every single dying-reviving god is associated with this circular pattern. It’s a story as old as time, and is the hope of life beyond the veil. As the corn dies, and is cut, sacrificed for the grain, so the grain returns to the earth, and dies, and is reborn as the seedling. It comes as no surprise that dying-reviving gods are fertility deities, agricultural gods.6 However, the idea extends to solve the mystery of death. If the very earth supports the idea that death is not only not a bad thing, but a good thing, then why should we not expect the afterlife for ourselves?
Harry is already the ultimate symbol of triumph over death. He is the only known survivor of the Avada Kadavra curse. The books have a significant focus on the fact that he was touched by death but lived and has the scars, both physically and emotionally to prove it. He has, after a fashion, a first hand knowledge of death.
Symbolically, he, like Osiris, has been murdered by a brother. I’m not going to recount the myth of Osiris and Isis in all its gory detail, but a nice retelling of the myth can be found in The Golden Bough. In the myth of Osiris, Set tricked Osiris into entering an ornate sarcophagus, specifically designed to fit only Osiris. Set then sealed the coffin with molten lead and floated it out to sea where it was lost. Isis, the sister and wife of Osiris, recovered it but before the embalming could be performed Set discovered the coffin, mutilated the body and scattered the pieces, thus ensuring that Osiris could never be resurrected. Much of the myth is concerned with Isis searching for these pieces, helped by her sister and the shadowy Anubis. Thus, Osiris was the mutilated god, the suffering god. We find parallels in the myth of Dionysus, who was ripped to pieces,7 and the story of Jesus Christ, who was flogged, crowned with thorns, crucified and stabbed with a spear. The brother in Harry’s case may refer to Voldemort’s wand; it may also reflect Voldemort’s own form of immortality. Certainly, the contact resulted in Harry sharing some of Voldemort’s unique abilities. Supporters of the Harry-is-a-Horcrux theory would also say he harbors a portion of Voldemort’s soul as well. In Goblet of Fire, Harry shares blood with Voldemort, thereby strengthening the brother bond. In Order of the Phoenix, he is so connected with Voldemort that he shares his thoughts.
The character Harry has suffered, Dumbledore admits as much.8 His scar causes him acute physical and mental pain. He has lost his parents, he was raised in an abusive home, and he was separated from the magical world and thus enters Hogwarts handicapped from the start. He finds a father figure in Sirius, only to lose him once, and then to lose him forever. He seems to have few friends, and makes enemies quickly. While it may seem nice to have a few loyal friends while the entire house of Slytherin and the Ministry of Magic are angry with you, it’s hardly a good thing. It compromises Harry’s agenda, and closes doors that might have been open to him. The only positive is that he can feel reasonably sure that his friends are loyal, because he is a good judge of character. However, when he is desperate for someone to believe him he finds that even his best friend turns on him.
In addition, there is a theme throughout the books of self-discovery, almost as if picking up the pieces and putting them back together. Most of his discoveries are facilitated by Snape or Dumbledore and are concerned with his family history. Each instance gives him insight into his own life by causing him to mull over his feelings and reactions. Information received from Dumbledore is always positive and leaves him with a sense of pride in his father, making Harry proud of being who he is and proud of the heritage of love that he owes his life to. Whenever there is a need to pick up the biographical slack, Severus Snape is only too happy to oblige. Information from Severus Snape is destructive, not necessarily in a bad way. In particular, the Pensieve scene forever separates Harry from the false notions he has about his father, ideas instilled by Sirius Black and Hagrid. He finds that his past has made him different from his father, and that he has less in common with his father than he has in common with Severus Snape. That’s important, because Severus Snape has profound connections with the Anubis archetype, and Harry Osiris Potter will need information that only Severus Snape can provide. Harry discovers something new about himself in every book; eventually this knowledge will ready him for the purification that is symbolized in the alchemy that transformed the molten lead of Osiris sarcophagus to the gold of immortality.9 The final step to restore Osiris was performed by Anubis,10 who many call “the most enigmatic of the gods of Egypt, a god who was neither who he seemed nor what he should have been”, a “diplomat of a dark and sardonic nature”, the “patron of magic”, “protector”, “guide”, and incidentally, “keeper of poisons.” 11 He was responsible for mummifying Osiris, and as the original god of the dead he would have escorted Osiris into the otherworld, protected him and also passed judgment on the heart/soul, the ba of Osiris.
Osiris passed the tests with flying colors, he was found to be pure of heart and soul, and now incorruptible in body. He could not return to earth however, but became the lord of the Dead, a post that Anubis relinquished to Osiris. We also see the need for purity of heart to attain life after death, as the funerary texts from Egypt indicate that the life we lead is directly related to the life we inherit. The coming of Osiris into the Egyptian pantheon brought a moral code for the everyday Egyptian to follow if he was to become Osiris in death. Harry is already linked, as Osiris, with death, life and what happens beyond the veil. The Osiris must remain pure of heart and soul if he is to pass the final test, and yes, that means no unforgivable curses.12 If Harry is to conquer Voldemort, if he is to be the judge, jury and executioner, his soul/heart must remain pure.13
There are quite a few symbols that further demonstrate Harry’s Osiris connections. The first is an odd bird known as the Benu.14 The Benu was more than a symbol of Osiris. It was Osiris. It was a personification of his soul. A heron like bird that nested in a sacred tree, died in flames and was reborn from the ashes of its dead father; it was the symbol of immortality, and precursor to the phoenix. Harry has connections with this bird, although he associates it with Dumbledore. The phoenix is a sun symbol, and one that is connected to the sky gods. Indeed, the sun is a metaphor for life after death, as both the Egyptians and Mayans believed that the sun descended into the underworld at night, where it was protected throughout its journey from west at sunset to east at sunrise. The West was traditionally associated with the beautiful place of the glorious afterlife, while we find the direction of North associated with death.
A second symbol of Osiris was the tamarisk tree, which encased the sarcophagus and hid it from Isis.15 The tree sacred to Osiris is an ephemeral one, a tree that can thrive in a salt laden environment, with needle like leaves. This seems to be consistent in trees associated with immortality, like the pine (sacred to Dionysus), the yew and the holly. Even the scientific name, Ilex aquilifolia, means needle-leafed.16 This is an adaptation that enables it to survive harsh conditions where the wind desiccates and no rain falls. Some species of holly, like tamarisk, are well suited to saline conditions. The idea of saline puts one in mind of tears, and the amazing ability Harry seems to have of not only surviving, but thriving in spite of a past that is flooded with pain, death and tears.17
Harry also has the stag as a patron animal, an image that is common to many dying-reviving gods. As a symbol of resurrection, the stag dates even further back than the phoenix. It is a common symbol of the harvest, and is connected to Sumerian myths and the story of Tammuz. Originally, the stag belonged to Enki, the father of Tammuz.18 While Tammuz did not directly become the great stag like his father, he shared the symbol. Those interested in Celtic myth know the white stag to be a symbol of the otherworld. The white stag is also a symbol associated with Jesus Christ, although it was sometimes confused with a unicorn.19 It is worth mentioning that a symbol of Osiris was the Apis Bull, another horned animal that was chosen to represent Osiris on earth, in death, and in the afterlife, and in the rebirth. These animals were carefully selected; the candidate had to have special qualities, namely marks that would identify it as Osiris. The Apis bull is an intriguing link between Harry and Osiris, not only in archetype but also in story. The Apis bull is said to have been conceived by lightning, and bears the mark in the shape of a white diamond on the forehead. Additional marks include a vulture on the back (I can only assume this is also a color pattern in the shape of the vulture), double hairs on the tail (no doubt this gives the tail a messy, uncombed look) and a scarab mark under his tongue. The scarab was linked to the idea of resurrection, as the scarab was believed to roll the sun from east to west, and the sun always returns to greet the new day.20
The last symbol is the use of the color green, in particular as it relates to green eyes. First of all, the eyes were important symbols in Egyptian myth. The right eye represents the sun, and the left represents the moon. The eyes also stand for injury, healing, protection and triumph. In the story of Osiris, the divine son Horus, sets out to avenge his father’s death. Osiris’s son, Horus, is noted to have a hawk’s head, and wedjet eyes. He also seems to have an unusual property in those eyes: they show the future. Others can see the future in them, but Horus mistakes the images, and Set tears his left eye out.21 The ensuing battle between Horus and Set threatens to divide the gods, as the desire to avenge Osiris is coupled with the need to restore the eye to Horus. The eye is later restored to Horus by Thoth, god of wisdom, and Horus gives the eye to Osiris. It is noted to be “the green eye of wellness.” 22 Green is a color traditionally associated with resurrection and new life. Osiris is generally depicted with green skin. It was said that because Osiris possessed the green eye he could send out his soul and return in his own way to earth.
“The male messiah.”
We could stop there. Certainly we recognize Harry in this archetype, most especially in Order of the Phoenix, where he is desperate to be believed. He has always been stubborn, in both good and bad ways. He is a terrible politician in Sorcerer’s Stone where he rebuffed Malfoy, earning an enemy for life. By the end of Half-Blood Prince he has made an enemy of the Ministry of Magic. He believes too much in his dreams, he endangers his friends and bears the guilt of many deaths on his account. However, there is more to the Osiris archetype in Harry than the surface characteristics. We need to dig deeper into the mythology of dying-reviving gods and what they represent.
There is another aspect to Osiris that is reflected in the character of Harry, that of divine teacher, the giver of all good and useful knowledge to mankind. Osiris spent the majority of his time prior to Set’s deception engaged in the task of educating the people about agriculture and the ways in which life could be made better.23 Dionysus spent most of his life teaching.24 So did Jesus. Quetzalcoatl was beloved because he alone of the gods deplored the sacrifice of human life, and taught a kinder, better way to intercede with the gods.25 Vishnu also embodies this idea of teacher. And the most interesting teacher of all might have been Mithras, because he taught purely by example, and was a student himself. Both Osiris and Mithras had mentors-and both of them; Thoth and Ahura Mazda were prototypical wise, old wizard figures. Harry is also a teacher. As early as his first year he’s teaching a depressed, ashamed Neville Longbottom that he’s worth something, and he doesn’t stop there. He is the reluctant teacher in Order of the Phoenix, and in Half-Blood Prince, he extends his teaching style to include object lessons. It’s his teaching that gives his fellow students the courage to fight, whether he knows it or not.
The mystery of death and what exists beyond has captivated our imaginations for such a very long time. It is apparent that Rowling wishes to explore this territory in the Harry Potter books, and what better place to start that with the myth of Osiris? And what better character is there to lead the way than an Osiris archetype.
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2. Schmidt, Victoria Lynn. “45 Master Characters.” Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2001. P. 139–146.
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