Magic and words are inextricably intertwined, together creating the spells which inspire, ignite and transform the wizarding world. It makes sense that the names of those who inhabit this world have rich histories and layered meanings. And, in particular, those who inhabit the Black family tree: a family known as being so pure that they are part of Salazar Slytherin’s Sacred Twenty-Eight. We long to know more about the Black family’s twisted branches, but maybe we can dig a little deeper on their characters thanks to their unusual names.
One of the few of his family to escape the darkness and madness, Sirius Black lived up to his name in so many wonderful ways. In astronomy, Sirius is the brightest star in Earth’s night sky and the name comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘Seirios’ which is roughly translated to ‘glowing’ or ‘scorcher’. Not only did Harry’s godfather shine brightly with his beliefs and commitment to good, but he also had a particularly (cough) fiery temper. Anyone else remember how many fights he had while in Harry’s life?
Another name for Sirius is the, wait for it… Dog Star. How fabulously apt is that? The etymology of the word Sirius as a dog is one which is carried across numerous cultures, all seeing him as a protector and a watchman, and each of these ticks the box that made up this remarkable wizarding hero.
What’s really interesting is that Egyptians would not bury their dead in the 70-day period when our sun conjuncts with Sirius. It was believed that Sirius was the doorway to the afterlife and that in this period of darkness the doorway was closed. Let’s just pause for a moment as the significance of that sinks in. How did Sirius die? He fell through the doorway with a link to the afterlife.
Sirius has also been associated with doom, seen as a sign that bad things are to come. A fact borne out by Sirius’s arrival in Harry’s life – as he entered it, so did Voldemort’s rise to power truly begin. In the Iliad, Homer described Sirius thus:
Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.
The word Regulus has a fascinating history. In Roman terminology, Regulus is the diminutive of Rex, meaning ‘little king’ or ‘prince’. If we take a look at the Black family history, this describes the way that Regulus was treated for most of his life. He believed in the superiority of the Black bloodline and ultimately joined Voldemort as one of this Death Eaters and this made his parents incredibly proud.
Regulus was also used in the phrase ‘regulus of antimony’ because it was so easy to combine with gold. Sirius said that Regulus was ‘soft enough to believe them’ – ‘them’ being his parents and their pure-blood mania which they effectively felt made them wizarding royalty. Regulus in the wizarding world could easily be described as the little prince who was fooled by the glitter that was not gold. Gold is also one of the softest metals.
Regulus is also a name of another of the brightest stars in the sky known as Alpha Leonis. The translation from Ptolemy is the ‘star on the heart of Leo’ and one analyst believes that the word Regulus in Arabic means ‘paw of the lion’. It took enormous courage for Regulus to drink the poisonous waters protecting Voldemort’s Horcrux and to give his life for a house-elf. And yet, that is exactly what he did. The heart of a lion.
Few names are as hated as that of Bellatrix Lestrange née Black. She was one of Voldemort’s leading lieutenants, a warrior with no heart, leaving behind her a string of broken lives. She was, in every sense of the word, true to the etymology of her name – Bellatrix. It is the feminine form of the word ‘bellatricus’ which is Latin for warrior and it is also the name given to a blue, eruptive star in the Orion constellation. In most descriptions, Bellatrix the star is described as the one which sits on the left shoulder of Orion – a rather perfect spot for a second lieutenant of Voldemort, don’t you think? Orion himself is described as a giant hunter or the god of war. In many cultures he is seen as a giant, with the Irish calling him Caomai or ‘the armed king’.
What’s interesting about the star, Bellatrix, is that it isn’t consistently bright either. It tends to vary in size – it is rarely consistent in its shine. If anyone battled with staying level and consistent, it was Bellatrix Lestrange. She was one person who could do with a level head and a guiding hand.
Bellatrix the star is further seen as a good omen for women who are born under its sign. Thomas Hood, the English poet, said that, ‘Women born under this constellation shall have mighty tongues.’ When we consider the words which Bellatrix spoke with her tongue, she was just that – mighty. And quite terrible.
Narcissa was Bellatrix’s little sister and another who adhered to the crazed Black visions of purity and race. While Narcissa never really did anything particularly evil, she didn’t exactly leap out and do anything of any kind of importance either. She tended to waft around with ‘dung under her nose’, making vaguely unpleasant comments and waving her wand around at appropriately nasty moments.
It was only at the end when she pretended that Harry was dead and saved his life that she did anything extraordinary. But even then, her decision was motivated by selfishness and a single-minded love for her son. This low-level blandness is very much a part of the meaning of her name which is Greek in origin and means sleep or numbness. It is the feminine of the infamous name Narcissus – the character from Greek mythology who loved himself so much that when he caught his reflection in the river he stared at himself until he died.
Imagine having such a negative name where the only choices you have in living up to it are to either be as boring as dust or completely in love with yourself? Narcissa managed to hold up her end of the deal though, numbly following her husband as he snootily wafted from one stupid mistake to the next.