In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Hagrid buys Harry the owl he christens Hedwig, saying:
‘Tell yeh what, I’ll get yer animal. Not a toad, toads went outta fashion years ago, yeh’d be laughed at – an’ I don’ like cats, they make me sneeze. I’ll get yer an owl.’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Animals of all shapes and sizes have long been associated with magic. Outside of the wizarding world they are often collectively named familiars, and were thought to have supernatural abilities enabling them to assist with the practice of magic.
The animals that Hogwarts students bring to school aren’t familiars in this sense. As J.K. Rowling tells us, they are largely pets rather than supernatural creatures, but the concept of familiars tells us quite a lot about the real history of witchcraft.
Owls have a long history with magic, so it isn’t surprising that they are one of the wizarding world’s most popular creature companions. J.K. Rowling tells us that the owl, one of her own favourites, was the symbol of Roman goddess of wisdom Minerva. No, not Minerva McGonagall, but maybe her name was inspired by her… Minerva’s counterpart Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was also often portrayed with an owl.
Ever since, owls have often had a reputation for being wise, but there have also been numerous myths portraying them as bringers of death and dark prophecy.
Because owls are mostly nocturnal, with night-vision and an innate hunting instinct, superstitions about their magical power have been associated with the darker side of witchcraft. For some, witches were believed to be shape-shifters, able to turn into other creatures at night – like the Animagi of the wizarding world but generally with sinister intent. In certain cultures, owls were recognised as a favourite form of these shape-shifters. Shakespeare’s use of the owl’s shriek to signal the death of King Duncan in Macbeth shows how owls were seen as evil omens during the Renaissance.
So, like the witches and wizards they serve so efficiently in the wizarding world, owls have been the subject of Muggle superstition. It’s a pity: they run a very efficient postal service.
Cats are the creatures most commonly associated with magic. We’ve all seen images of a witch sat on her broomstick accompanied by her black cat, the stereotypical familiar.
It’s an association that goes back centuries. In the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, Tituba, an enslaved woman and one of the first to be accused of witchcraft, was said to have both a black and a red cat familiar. The book used against her, Malleus Maleficarum – translated as ‘The Hammer of Witches’, and the best-known treatise against witchcraft – mentions cats a lot. In one chapter, it describes how the cat familiars of three witches attacked a workman in the diocese of Strasbourg. When he struck the cats in self-defence, the injuries he inflicted were suffered by the three women, who were at home in their beds.
Malleus Maleficarum even says of witches: ‘They used the phantasm of a cat, an animal which is, in the Scriptures, an appropriate symbol of the perfidious, just as a dog is the symbol of preachers.’
Malleus Maleficarum was published around 1487, but its reference to the Scriptures shows that the association of cats with dark magic was a long one. As independent, clever and occasionally nocturnal creatures, maybe it’s not surprising that cats have been linked with witches and maligned by ignorant Muggles. No doubt Professor McGonagall, aka one of the least perfidious cats (and witches) at Hogwarts, would have something to say about it.
Neville Longbottom’s Trevor was the only proper toad we see at Hogwarts (apart from the poor ones Neville was made to disembowel in detention!) but as a species toads have as long an association with witchcraft as owls and cats do.
J.K. Rowling tells us that toads were particularly useful as ingredients in the folk cures practised in the Dark Ages, and as familiars they seem to have a particular link with what were known in Europe in the 16th century as ‘cunning folk’. These were so-called white witches and healers who practised folk medicine using natural ingredients. Ursula Kemp, an English cunning woman and midwife who was tried for witchcraft in 1582, was said to have had many familiars including a black toad called Pygine.
Of all the animal companions we meet in Philosopher’s Stone, Ron’s rat Scabbers proves the most useless. Obviously this is because, as we discover in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he isn’t a rat, but a weak-willed Dark wizard called Peter Pettigrew.
As familiars, rats aren’t as common as cats, owls or even toads, but when they do show up in history they’re rarely weak-willed. The 1618 trial of the three women known as the Witches of Belvoir was one of the most significant English witchcraft cases, because the women’s accuser was the Earl of Rutland and the crime he accused them of was the deaths of his two sons, Henry and Francis.
Among the familiars said to have been used by those witches were several white, speckled rats, who were apparently suckled by sisters Margaret and Philippa Flower before being sent out to do their bidding.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Pottermore will explore themes, moments, characters and much more from the very first Harry Potter story. Next week we look at the life lessons we can take from Philosopher's Stone.