Warning: Some of this post could be triggery. And if you’re not worried about triggers, but spoilers for Harry Potter would awaken your dragon, don’t read on.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets…
…a basilisk is lurking in the basements of Hogwarts. Basements are symbolic of the Underworld and the subconscious, by the way. (It’s basically because they’re underground, out of sight, in the dark places that our lives are built on. Interpreting symbols means getting really simplistic sometimes.)
The basilisk is there because Salazar Slytherin didn’t like muggle-borns. He was a wizard-racist. (The Harry Potter wikia was very helpful on this point):
“Slytherin, in his spite of his fellow founders’ acceptance of muggle-borns into the school, left a basilisk deep in the chamber, in hopes that one day his true heir would unleash her to purge all he deemed unworthy to study magic.”
Later on, Tom Riddle (aka The Dark Lord Boy) set the basilisk loose in Hogwarts and it snaked around paralyzing and killing people.
The basilisk is a product of racism, and represents a terrible time of genocide in the Wizarding World.
Nobody likes to talk about that time. In fact, they can’t even say the Dark Lord’s name. They like to pretend it’s all over and done with, and there’s no danger of the Dark Lord ever returning ever again. You might say they’ve repressed the memory. At the very least, they’re in some serious denial about it.
But the basilisk is still in the basement (cough cough subconscious). It’s a reminder that Seriously Bad Shit did go down, and when people come face to face with that, they are paralyzed. Literally. The horror of it is just too much to take.
And the basilisk itself isn’t just minding its own business. It’s angry. It wants some destruction and it slithers around going “Kill. . .kill. . .kill. . .” in a way that would make even the most homicidal maniac roll their eyes and ask “Who wrote that line?”
The basilisk is angry because it’s a child of hate and rage and trauma. Anger it kind of in its blood.
The mind is capable of some pretty crazy acrobatics.
Sometimes, the mind deals with trauma by repressing the memory. It has to find some way to go on existing and dealing with daily life without being in a constant state of panic, so the experience of the trauma gets pushed deep into the subconscious mind.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. The memory—or the emotions associated with it—comes up now and then, like a snake darting up suddenly from a hole in the ground. Or it’s like a snake that wraps around you, constricting your movements and your breathing—paralyzing you with fear. Maybe you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong. But something clearly is.
Even if the memory doesn’t get repressed, it’s easy enough to be in denial about pain.
I think this kind of reaction can occur in a culture’s collective consciousness, too.
When the culture experiences trauma (like war, rape, slavery, genocide) sometimes it gets pushed down into a place we can’t talk about, let alone go to. People are often afraid to bring up lingering wounds like this. (For example, talking about the echoes of slavery and Jim Crow laws resonating in modern racism isn’t the most fun party topic ever.)
Maybe instead of a repressed memory, it’s a form of denial. Either way, it’s something we would rather avoid.
But not talking about a thing doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
It’s a hero’s job to save his people, and often that means healing cultural wounds. It means going down into the subconscious where the anger and the pain lives, taking away its power to hurt people, and turning it into something redemptive to make things better.
Like Harry Potter. And like Perseus.
This isn’t a new theme. Let’s hop from Hogwarts to Ancient Greece.
Medusa lived in a cave. She was once a woman, but has been transformed into a hideous gorgon, half-woman and half-serpent.
There are several versions of Medusa’s story, and each is valid. The one that I hear the most today is that she was once a beautiful woman who was raped by a god—usually Poseidon. She tried to hide in the Temple of Athena, but Poseidon found her. And Athena was either jealous of Medusa’s beauty, or she had some pact with Poseidon, or she was out to lunch, because she didn’t protect Medusa.
In fact, Athena got mad at Medusa for “seducing the god in her temple” or some bullcrap, and she turned the woman into a gorgon whose very look could turn men into stone. Then again, maybe Athena thought she was doing Medusa a favor. I mean, if men turn to stone when they look at you, it’s gonna be tough for them to rape you, right?
Either way, Medusa has some serious rage issues. Kinda tends to happen when you’re a product of rape, trauma, and betrayal by the gods.
She goes to live in a cave (Remember what I said about symbolic Underworlds?) and the rest of the people in Ancient Greek Land can usually go about their lives without thinking about that one time Poseidon raped the pretty girl from the village. You might say they’re repressing the memory. Or they’re at least in some serious denial about it.
But Medusa is still there. She’s a reminder that Seriously Bad Rape did go down, and when men come face to face with that, they are paralyzed. Literally. The horror of it is just too much to take, and Medusa’s rage turns them to stone.
So we’ve got two snake monsters in subterranean settings.
Both creatures born of trauma, both of whom are so horrifying that people turn to stone when they see them. It’s one thing to hear about the Bad Things That Went Down. But coming face to face with it, really understanding it, is paralyzing.
Enter our heroes.
Harry Potter goes into the Chamber of Secrets and confronts the basilisk. He has the magical tools to face it that elude the rest of the Wizarding World. He speaks the snake’s language, for one thing, and he has a magical sword.
Perseus goes into Medusa’s cave and confronts the gorgon. He has magical tools to face Medusa. Sometimes he has a shield polished like a mirror, other times he has magical flying Hermes sandals (come on Nike, get on that!), and other times he has a sword or scythe.
So Harry manages to kill the Basilisk, and he takes one of its fangs with him. (Okay, the fang stabs him through the arm, but he still gets the fang and that’s what counts.) He takes the venomous fang back up to the regular world—as though retrieving something from the subconscious and taking it back up to be examined in the light. Later, he’s able to use the fang to kill the Dark Lord. Or at least, part of the Dark Lord.
And Perseus? He manages to kill Medusa, cutting off her head and taking it back up out of the cave into the regular world. Later, he’s able to use her head to kill a monstrous Kraken that’s threatening a maiden.
Harry uses the Dark Lord’s serpent’s venom to protect innocent people from the Dark Lord’s return.
Perseus uses the serpent woman Medusa’s anger to protect an innocent woman.
By facing what happened, both heroes gain the power to prevent it from happening again.
It’s pretty beautiful, actually. Harry Potter and Perseus have drawn anger and poison out of a cultural wound, and turned that poison into a protection. This is a badass redemptive transformation. They’d both earn a place at King Arthur’s table.
Moral of the stories? It takes a real hero to confront the Bad Things That Happened, and transform it into something that no longer harms, but heals—and even protects people against future harm.
You are this hero when you face your own demons, when you admit the anger and fear is there, but you don’t allow it to overwhelm you or paralyze you. Instead you transform that hurt and anger into a force that protects you. You learn to stand up for yourself.
You’re going to need some magical weapons, though.
L. Marrick is an author, ghostwriter, and suitcase entrepreneur—which is a hipster way of saying she travels and works from her laptop. Her blog, LMarrick.com, is where she writes about history and myth. Her memoir, “Working Girl: 132 Somewhat Moral Values I Learned from a Sex Worker,” tells about when she answered a shady classified ad and wound up working as a sex worker’s personal assistant.
© L. Marrick 2015. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author at the above links to request usage.