Although not a happy childhood – her pure-blood obsessed Aunt Gormlaith kidnapped Isolt after murdering her pro-Muggle mother and father – her early years, at least, were idyllic. After travelling to America, Isolt chose to remember them in numerous ways. The name Ilvermorny was one, calling her Pukwudgie companion after her father was another, and Ilvermorny’s symbol – the Gordian Knot – was a third. Isolt wove the Knot, based on an old brooch of her mothers’, into both Ilvermorny’s Sorting Ceremony and the clasp that fastens students’ robes.
Ilvermorny began its transformation from home to school when Isolt – inspired by Hogwarts – started to teach her adopted sons, Webster and Chadwick Boot. She and her husband, James Steward, also created wands for their charges. Steadily their family lessons expanded as magical children gravitated towards the little house.
Gradually the building grew in size as the school grew in reputation. Over time, it became a castle with dormitories, teachers and other staff, hidden at the top of Mount Greylock by swirling mists and multiple enchantments. Within a few decades, North America had its answer to Hogwarts.
Isolt’s husband James was instrumental in Ilvermorny’s set-up. He designed their house, helped make the cottage a home and carved the wands used by his adopted sons and the other students taught by Isolt.
And yet James Steward was a No-Maj – a Muggle stonemason from England who had travelled to America alongside the Boot family. His lack of magic hadn’t stopped James befriending the Boots, and it didn’t stop him and Isolt from falling in love – or founding a school together.
Unusual as it is to have a wizarding school co-founded by a No-Maj, these unique beginnings helped foster Ilvermorny’s reputation as one of the magical world’s most democratic schools.
This is even more unusual given Isolt’s background. Descended from Hogwarts founder and pure-blood obsessive Salazar Slytherin, some of Isolt’s family were so anti-Muggle they were prepared to commit terrible crimes to keep their wizarding blood pure. Her Aunt Gormlaith killed Isolt’s parents and, on hearing that Isolt had married Muggle James, journeyed to America intending to kill them, too.
But although Isolt shared her family’s talent for Parseltongue – and had stolen her aunt’s wand, which (unbeknown to her) was Slytherin’s own wand – she chose a different path. Isolt’s ability to speak to snakes allowed her to converse with the Horned Serpent that lived near their cottage. The Horned Serpent enabled the creation of her sons’ wands, and those wands helped save their lives when Gormlaith arrived in Mount Greylock.
Isolt was brought up on stories of Hogwarts, and Gormlaith’s disdain did nothing to dampen Isolt’s fascination. Later, she told them to her adopted sons and they, too, became enamoured of a magical school with four competing houses.
So it was that Ilvermorny’s four founders – Isolt, James and their first students, Webster and Chadwick – divided their own school. Each named a house after their favourite magical creature: Horned Serpent (Isolt), Wampus (Webster), Thunderbird (Chadwick) and Pukwudgie (James). As J.K. Rowling explains:
‘It is sometimes said of the Ilvermorny houses that they represent the whole witch or wizard: the mind is represented by Horned Serpent; the body, Wampus; the heart, Pukwudgie and the soul, Thunderbird. Others say that Horned Serpent favours scholars, Wampus, warriors, Pukwudgie, healers and Thunderbird, adventurers.’
And if you fancy finding out your own Ilvermorny house, you can here.
J.K. Rowling tells us:
‘…one by one, [students] are called to stand on the symbol of the Gordian Knot set into the middle of the stone floor. In silence the school then waits for the enchanted carvings to react. If the Horned Serpent wants the student, the crystal set into its forehead will light up. If the Wampus wants the student, it roars. The Thunderbird signifies its approval by beating its wings, and the Pukwudgie will raise its arrow into the air.
Should more than one carving signify its wish to include the student in its house, the choice rests with the student.’
Amazing – if a tiny bit intimidating…
After finding out their house, Ilvermorny’s first years are shown into the hall where they acquire their wands.
Hogwarts’ first years might purchase theirs before they start school, but in America the situation is different because of the country’s complex history. Until 1965, Rappaport’s Law stated that no child was allowed a wand until they came to school. Although since repealed, the tradition remains that the first wave of a wand happens in that school hall.
Ilvermorny’s song is less irreverent than Hogwarts’ 'Hoggy Warty Hogwarts', speaking as it does of the school’s history. Shown in a deleted scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the song was co-written by J.K. Rowling and Alison Sudol, who plays Queenie. It opens with the lyrics:
We stand as one united
Against the Puritan
We draw our inspiration
From good witch Morrigan
Hogwarts has Filch. Ilvermorny has Pukwudgies. This tradition stems from Isolt’s first companion in America: a bad-tempered Pukwudgie she saved from disembowelment by a Hidebehind. Pukwudgies are fiercely independent, and Isolt’s was humiliated by being in her debt. He also refused to tell her his name, so Isolt named him for her father, William. Although William eventually left rather than care for the Boot boys, when the family was attacked by Gormlaith it was he who saved them.
Upon discovering James had named his Ilvermorny house for him, William decided to stay – and he and his family became Ilvermorny’s first providers of security and maintenance. A number of Pukwudgies continue to work at the school which is partly named for their kind.