J.K. Rowling recently spoke out about certain false claims regarding her real-world inspiration for Harry Potter. For example, the Portuguese bookshop Livaria Lello is not, in fact, the inspiration for Hogwarts. (Although it is gorgeous.) Oh, and the Elephant House pub in Edinburgh is NOT the birthplace of Harry Potter, even if they stencil it over the door.
Rowling is happy to set the record straight about the places and people that falsely claim to have inspired her beloved series. However, the author did draw on real-world historical figures, as well as myths and folklore. Let’s hop on the Hogwarts Express and take a whistle-stop tour of the inspiration behind Harry Potter.
Although it was marketed as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in America, the original title refers to the Philospher’s stone. Real-life alchemists in Medieval Europe tried to create this object that could, it was rumored, turn lead into gold and grant eternal life.
One of those alchemists was Nicholas Flamel. He was a real person who lived in 14th-century France. Although we’re pretty sure he didn’t actually create the philosopher’s stone, he did live to a ripe old age. There’s also a street named after him in Paris.
The idea of a three-headed dog guarding something didn’t originate with Harry Potter. In fact, you’ll find that the Ancient Greeks were telling stories about Cerebus a couple thousand years before J.K. Rowling was born.
In mythology, Cerebus was a monstrous, three-headed hound who guarded the gates of the underworld. When Orpheus tried to get past the guardian to rescue his beloved Eurydice from death, he played the beast a tune on his lyre. Cerebus fell asleep, and Orpheus was free to descend. That’s not so different from how Harry, Ron, and Hermione slip past Fluffy!
Many of the creatures studied by students at Hogwarts are inspired by legends from around the globe. Kappas–encountered in Prisoner of Azkaban–are blood-thirsty, water-dwelling spirits from Japan. Cornish Pixies are (you guessed it) legends from Cornwall. Even Nagini, Voldemort’s giant snake sidekick, draws inspiration from a legendary snake people woven throughout Buddhist and Hindu myth.
Speaking of snakes, the basilisk that petrifies people in Chamber of Secrets is also derived from folklore. It was said that a basilisk could be hatched by incubating a snake egg under a rooster. (Y’all, the Middle Ages was a wild time.) The basilisks of legend were said to be scared of weasels.
And Fawkes the Phoenix? He’s an inspiration double-whammy. The Phoenix is another Ancient Greek myth that operates just like in the Harry Potter books, being consumed in flame and then rising again from the ashes. However, you might not know that is name is a reference to Guy Fawkes, the historical figure who plotted to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. His failure has been celebrated as Bonfire Night (or just Guy Fawkes Night) with bonfires and fireworks ever since.
Rowling is unapologetic about borrowing from other cultures for her fantasy world. In fact, she argued that the myths and legends of Britain were already a melting pot of other influences.
“I’ve taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I’m quite unashamed about that. … You know, we’ve been invaded by people, we’ve appropriated their gods, we’ve taken their mythical creatures, and we’ve soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it’s so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own,” Rowling said.
In April of this year, Rowling purchased a real-world location that inspired her books more than any other. She and her husband bought her childhood home, which inspired the Dursely’s house and Harry’s cupboard under the stairs. She also named one of the many Quidditch teams populating her magical world after the village of Tutshill where she grew up.