‘It’s all right,’ said a dreamy voice from beside Harry as Ron vanished into the coach’s dark interior. ‘You’re not going mad or anything. I can see them, too.’
‘Can you?’ said Harry desperately, turning to Luna. He could see the bat-winged horses reflected in her wide silvery eyes.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Luna, ‘I’ve been able to see them ever since my first day here. They’ve always pulled the carriages. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.’
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Before we share our Thestral investigations, it’s important to remember that the ability to see the carnivorous horses has two requirements.
The first requirement is easiest to remember: ‘that the beholder has witnessed death’. But the second, more complex, requirement is that in order to see a Thestral, the beholder must have ‘gained an emotional understanding of what death means’.
So, witnessing death alone isn’t enough – it must be coupled with a deeper understanding.
You’ll notice we haven’t included characters we know could see Thestrals and why. Harry, Luna, and Neville, for example. But this stray thought isn’t concerned with them – this time we’re investigating some characters that we don’t know about for sure.
Get ready, as Dumbledore would put it, to enter the realms of guesswork and speculation…
Dumbledore lived a very long life, but sadly he wasn’t very old when he became acquainted with death. On finishing Hogwarts, Dumbledore and his friend, Elphias Doge, were planning on travelling around the world. But on the eve of their departure Dumbledore’s mother, Kendra, died. But could Dumbledore see Thestrals after this? The problem is we’re not convinced that Dumbledore was actually home when his mother died – in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows he told Harry ‘I returned to my village in anger and bitterness’. A return to Godric’s Hollow really does sound like he wasn’t there when Kendra died. Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Dumbledore family again not long after Kendra’s death. Dumbledore’s sister, Ariana, was killed during a fight between Aberforth, Dumbledore, and Dumbledore’s ambitious new friend, Grindelwald. Dumbledore spent the rest of his life haunted by the guilt he felt about Ariana’s death, so we think he probably gained a true emotional understanding of death’s meaning from that early age. In addition, Hagrid told his Care of Magical Creatures class that when Dumbledore was taking a long journey and didn’t want to Apparate he would ride a Thestral. An odd choice if he couldn’t see them.
It would have been a little strange if Hagrid hadn’t been able to see the Thestral herd that he looked after in the Forbidden Forest. But stranger things have happened in the wizarding world, so just like Harry, Ron and Hermione would, we investigated. It appeared that during his Care of Magical Creatures lesson on Thestrals, Hagrid was able to see the creatures coming, as well as touch them – even to the extent that he reached out to pat his favourite, Tenebrus. But when did Hagrid start seeing Thestrals?
We know that Hagrid’s father died when he was young:
‘Dad raised me ... but he died, o’ course, jus’ after I started school. Sorta had ter make me own way after that.’ Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
But if he was away at school, it’s possible Hagrid wasn’t there when his dad died.
We also know that Hagrid fetched baby Harry from the remains of the Potter house at the end of the First Wizarding War. Perhaps he witnessed death on other errands for Dumbledore during that dark time and that’s why Thestrals were visible to him?
We set ourselves a challenge in Minerva McGonagall. Like Albus Dumbledore, she was an intensely private individual – perhaps owing to her childhood in an all-Muggle village where she was encouraged by her witch mother to hide her magic. Unlike Dumbledore however, there was no The Life and Lies of Minerva McGonagall to point us in the right (or wrong) direction. What we did find out however was that tragedy struck Minerva after she started teaching at Hogwarts and might have meant she could see Thestrals from then on.
After turning down his proposals of marriage multiple times, Minerva finally married her old Ministry boss, Elphinstone Urquart. According to J.K. Rowling, their marriage ‘was a very happy one’ and ‘period of great fulfilment for Minerva’. Very sadly, he died from an accidental Venomous Tentacula bite, three years into the marriage. We don’t know whether Minerva was actually present when this happened, but she was so devastated that she couldn’t bear to be alone in their cottage and fled to the Hogwarts castle and threw herself into her work. We might not know for sure whether she could see Thestrals, but knowing all this, we love her even more.
There isn’t much doubt in our minds that Severus Snape could see Thestrals. Most memorably, on one terrible night, he killed Albus Dumbledore. But that was late on in Snape’s slippery career working as a double agent for both Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort. One interesting observation is that when Dumbledore asked Snape to kill him – instead of Draco Malfoy doing it – Snape protested:
‘That boy’s soul is not yet so damaged,’ said Dumbledore. ‘I would not have it ripped apart on my account.’
‘And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
This might indicate that Snape hadn’t murdered anyone before Dumbledore, but it still doesn’t give us any clues about whether he’d previously seen death. It is likely that Severus Snape at least witnessed murders, given how many were carried out by Lord Voldemort both times he came to power. But did he have an emotional understanding of what death really meant whilst hovering in Voldemort’s shadow? We would guess that if he didn’t, when Lord Voldemort made Lily Evans his victim, those Thestrals would have come into sharp focus for Snape.
Many would say that there’s an easy answer when it comes to Lord Voldemort: he must have started to see Thestrals during his time at Hogwarts because he killed his father and grandparents – and framed his uncle Morfin for it – whilst still a student. Not to mention he was present when the Basilisk, the creature he controlled, killed Myrtle in the girl’s bathroom which housed the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets. And if that wasn’t enough – he embarked on making Horcruxes, which require murder to be created.
Lord Voldemort almost certainly satisfied the first requirement: he wasn’t just seeing death; he was bringing it about. But the question we have is, does he ever gain an emotional understanding of what death means? Can someone so quick to end a life, whether by his own hand or on his orders, really understand what death truly means? Can someone who doesn’t love, really understand the significance of death?
‘Kill the spare’ Voldemort said of Cedric Diggory in Little Hangleton graveyard – but Cedric was loved, and missed, and mourned – all part of death. From what we know of the Dark Lord, it appears none of that would have crossed his mind?
On the other side of the Knut, Lord Voldemort created the Horcruxes in order to achieve his goal ‘to conquer death’. He feared death. He snarled mid-duel in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: ‘There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!’
Perhaps that meant he understood its significance too well? Death means lay down your weapons, it means your reign is over, the end of your power. And death came for Lord Voldemort at the last, no matter how hard he tried to outrun it.
Despite Thestrals themselves being harmless, this stray thought led us to some of the darkest moments across the Harry Potter series and reminded us of the people some of our favourite characters loved and lost. If you’re feeling down after all this talk of Thestrals, we’d like to remind you of a piece of wisdom Dumbledore shared with Harry in his very first year at Hogwarts: ‘to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever’.