Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone

Commentary & Notes

Chapter 4: The Keeper of the Keys

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τηλέβολον ... πυρόβολον Hard to explain: τηλέβολον [ὅπλον] is used to describe a weapon that might in former times (from a modern viewpoint!) have been used to attack a city. The siege of Troy would hardly have lasted ten days if the Greeks had had such a weapon! Dudley could only ever have seen one on the τηλεοπτικόν, of course. The point here, though, is simply that it made a very loud noise. πυρόβολον [ὅπλον] is a much smaller weapon, that appears to work on a similar principle to the τηλέβολον. Each weapon seems to be a smaller version of Mount Etna, which throws out a piece of metal at high speed (just as we see stones projected high into the air by the volcano) which can cause severe injury or death to an enemy many stades distant. The τηλέβολον is bigger and used againt cities, the πυρόβολον is a smaller version which can be carried by an individual person. Both weapons would have made a considerable difference to our wars in Greece - but I cannot escape the feeling that the true warrior must face his enemy man to man, rather than killing him when is is still a mile away. Perhaps Dursley - a would-be Odysseus in the last chapter - is now wishing to be seen as Achilles, or perhaps Perseus. But the πυρόβολον, as will be seen, is useless in hand-to-hand combat. Dursley, had he foreknown the nature of his enemy, would have been better off with a good ashen-shafted spear.

τεΐου τι: Like Polyphemus, the giant Hagrid is no wine-drinker. He prefers "tea" - a drink made by pouring hot water on to dried leaves, and then diluting it with a dash of cow's milk. The English attribute magical powers to this concoction, and will particularly look to it for support in times of stress. When traditionally prepared in a "tea pot" and served in a "tea cup", the drink leaves dregs which would be ideal for a game of kottabos. The English, however, use these "tea leaves" to foretell the future, thus saving an expensive trip to the Delphic oracle.

ὦ βούπαι The giant appears to be mocking Dudley's bulk, oblivious of the irony.

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τὸ κανθάρινον ἐκεῖνο τὸ τῶν ὀφρύων JKR seems a little obsessed with Hagrid's resemblance to a κάνθαρος (beetle). Not only do his eyes shine κάθαπερ τὸ φαιδρὸν κανθάρων που ἐν θάμνῳ λαθόντων (page 37), but his eyebrows too resemble beetles! You may be interested in the remark of the English philosopher J B S Haldane: "The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles." The creator of Harry Potter has an inordinate fondness for Hagrid, certainly.

κλειδόφυλαξ ... τοῦ ῾Υογοήτου. The first mention of Hogwarts, the "school of witchcraft and wizardry" which Harry will be attending for the next few years. Greeks will recognise the elements in the name: ῾Υο- from ὗς, ὑός (connected with English word swine, and Latin sus meaning pig, hog) and γοήτης, a magician, sorcerer. I find it strange that it is Dudley Dursley who so closely associated with pigs and pig products, rather than the future magician Harry. (Dudley is given a pig's tail, is described as ἀλλαντοειδὴς ἤδη [page 39] and therefore not requiring the sausages he craves. Harry's description of the infant Dudley is δελφάκιον ἐν φενάκῃ (page 15) - a piglet in a wig.

There is considerable scholarly dispute as to the origin of the name Hogwarts: I assumed that it referred to a mythical founder (we are told that the school is over 1.000 years old) named Hogwart - on the analogy of British public schools called Blundell's, Fette's, Colfe's. Hence the use of the genitive case always, by analogy with ῞Αιδου ( Hades's - standing for the house of Hades) in our literature. But JKR apparently says it was the name of a flower she saw aged eight in Kew Gardens! This would have been presumably hogwort [The hogwort (Croton capitatus), also known as the woolly croton is an annual plant with erect, branched stems, densely covered with light brown, woolly hairs that give it a whitish appearance. It grows in dry, open areas, especially sandy and rocky soils. It is distributed across the Southern U.S.A., and elsewhere. Hogwort contains croton oil, a powerful laxative. - from Wikipedia]. But the ultimate connection with hog remains!

μεθυστικώτερόν τι Possibly Hagrid is not after all the teetotaller imagined (above, page 37) - his voluminous θυλάκια (pockets) contain a bottle holding ὑγρόν τι ... ἠλέκτρινον το χρῶμα - an amber liquid, which may well be an alcoholic beverage of some kind (page 39). Although, to be fair, he also carries a τεϊδόχη - and tea would seem to be his drink of preference.

θερμοῖς ἐν λούτροις I can tell you that Harry's idea of a "hot bath" is nothing but a metal tub filled with warmish water where "modern" people wallow in their own filth, incompletely removed from their bodies by "soap" - a slimy substance concocted from lye and pig or sheep fat. They know nothing of our wonderful baths, where a gentle heat induces sweat, enabling a skilled slave to scape the dirt from our bodies, liberally lubricated with scented oil.

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τοῦ ἀλλᾶντος ὀπτωμένου. Such food is as popular with the English today as it was in Greece of our time. Scholars have pointed out the Harry, like Odysseus, seems constantly hungry. But perhaps that is simply a characteristic of a growing boy rather than of an epic hero. Although the use of the Homeric κνῖσαν (the aromatic sizzle from burning fat which drifts upwards to nourish the gods in an epic sacrifice) for the smell of the sausages would help reinforce an identification of Potter with Odysseus.

ἀλλαντοειδὴς ἤδη. The overfed person is, it appears, as much a figure of fun in Britain as he is in Greece. Although with childhood obesity a major health problem inthe modern world, one might cavil at JKR's use of this "humorous" trope.

Καὶ δῆτα τολμᾶτε ... Hagrid's rage at the Dursleys' incompetent parenting obviously is intended to recall Creon's outburst against Antigone in Sophocles's play, where he, similarly, cannot believe that anyone can be so wilfully disobedient.

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οὐκ οἶσθα σεαυτὸν ὅστις εἶ; To "know oneself" is a duty for all us Greeks, of course, as prescribed by the oracle at Delphi (γνῶθι σεαυτόν). Harry of course will not truly "know himself" for a long while yet. But Plato would be pleased to see his quest beginning here: the boy from the "bronze" family will learn to accept his membership of the "gold" elite. Doubtless the reference to the Republic 327b (ἀλλὰ περιμένετε) on the previous page is intended to alert the reader to this Platonic parallel.

ἐκβεβακχευμένῳ ἐοικώς Like a man in a bacchic frenzy. Temporary madness comes, as we know from Bacchus - whether as a punishment, as in Euripides's play, or as a result of ingesting the god in excess. Can one feel a little sympathy with Dursley, struggling, like Pentheus against forces he can neither understand nor hope to defeat?

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᾽Αθηνᾶ. Μαγονωγαλέα prefers Minerva, the Roman version of her name Athena, for no apparent reason.

τὴν γλαῦκά σου "your owl". The mention of "owl" and "Athena" will immediately remind Athenians of the proverb γλαῦκ᾽ ᾿Αθήναζε: "an owl to Athens" whose equivalent among the English today is "coals to Newcastle". γλαῦξ as mentioned earlier (see page 2) refers to our very common Greek owl, known in England as the "little owl" (Athene noctua). Sending an owl to Athena would thus be a by no means unusual event!

τῇ ἕνη καὶ νέᾳ "The old and new day" -the English have no such colourful expression for the last day of the month, alas. Alas, too, they no longer use our meaningful names for the months, but have borrowed the dull Roman system - apart from a few named after Roman gods (January, March, May, June), and a couple named after tyrants (July and August), the rest are simply numbered - I say simply, but for some reason September, the seventh month (Latin septem) is actually the ninth month, and October the 10th and so on. Only February retains some suggestion in its name of what to expect in February (fevers!). I shall never understand Roman numbers. And of course their months, despite the connection of the name, have no connection with the moon! (So the new moon [νουμηνία] in their world may be nowhere near the 1st of the month!)

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Μύγαλος. μύγαλος is a field mouse. It's not at all clear why the non-magical community should be called "field mice". Perhaps it's an obscure reference to one of Aesop's fables - where the humble country mouse is overawed by the sophistication of his city relative. The commoner Greek form is μυγαλῆ, which reveals it as a combination of μῦς and γαλέη, the only two Greek words for smallish furry animals, which could as easily equate to rat + weasel as mouse + shrew. Perhaps here we have a clearer idea of what constitutes a "Muggle" - something simultaneously insignificant and quite irritating.

χάσκειν It has been remarked on how frequently Harry (and others) spend their time "gaping", that is standing there with their mouths open. [As illustrated on the original dust jacket of this book!] Apparently this is a way to register surprise or amazement. I am amazed that it's not taken as a sign of complete stupidity. As my old mother used to say, "What are you doing dear? Catching flies?"

μάγος The Magi, as you know from Herodotus, were a class of Persian religious experts, who would be consulted about any ritual or worship of their god Ahura Mazda, the Great God. I'm afraid it's rather typical of our Greek attitudes to the Persians (whom we inappropriately call βάρβαροι) that the name of this priestly caste has come to mean magician, and hence quack, charlatan. At least in this book, the μάγος has some status (although not in Dursley's eyes).

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νὴ τὴν ῎Εμπουσαν Hagrid swears by the hideous hobgoblin Empusa (we remember her from Aristophanes's Frogs, where Dionysus, in the "dark" appears to find her among the audience!). ῾Ηρακλεῖς ("By Heracles!") is a very frequent masculine oath.

κεχήνοτος Harry is "gaping" again just one page later! Scarcely a page goes by without this foolishness.

Φολιδομορτός The first mention of the "unmentionable". We Greeks are familiar with things we're not allowed to name (like the ***** that is shown to initiates during the Mysteries at Eleusis).

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βασάνου δή τινος δεόμεθα The modern world no longer knows what a touchstone is. For us its a familiar word for testing something - whether in its original use for testing precious metals for purity, or in its metaphorical use for the torture we insist on for an accused slave, to test his honesty. Hagrid would agree with Orestes in Euripides's Electra: οὔκ ἐστ᾽ ἀκριβὲς οὐδὲν εἰς εὐανδρίαν

οὐδ᾽ ἐγῷδα πλὴν ἕν An Euripidean phrase spoken by a dim-witted agricultural character. We are reminded of the division of the human race by the Greek poet into foxes and hedgehogs: πόλλ᾽ οἶδ᾽ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ᾽ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα. Most of us Greeks, like Odysseus, prefer to be foxes!

τὰ ῾Εκάταια the offering to Hekate: in Greece made at the end of every month at a place where three roads met. Hekate is a powerful goddess associated with witchcraft and magic.

ὑδραυλέως The ὕδραυλις is an ancient musical instrument where sounds are produced from pipes filled with water: a different amount of water produces a different note. The modern equivalent is called an "organ" and uses air, not water.

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῎Εσωσα σέ ... Tragedy fans will be reminded of Medea's speech to Jason in Euripides's play.

ἀλεξιβρόχιον φοινικοῦν Greek readers will not be familiar with this essential item of equipment for one living in England - as normal for the English as a ληκύθιον is for us. It is similar to our sunshade or parasol, but in modern England everyone must carry such protection against the constant savage rain storms inflicted on these benighted peoples by an angry Zeus. φοινικοῦν here refers to its colour (pink) - very unusual as umbrellas carried by men are invariably black. However, there is a secondary meaning to the word, as will become clear when Hagid and Harry visit the ῥαβδόποιος in the next chapter.

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γέγραπται It is quite the norm among the English upper classes for a child to be "put down" for a major public school at birth, or even, it is rumoured, at conception. Hogwarts is very much the Eton of the magical world.

κορδακίζοντα No need to describe the kordax to Greeks, that famously rude dance involving much buttock activity! Recently the moderns have invented "twerking", a form of dance displaying extreme buttock vibration - after 2500 years they are still playing catch-up!

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ἀμφὶ βούλυτον In the modern world you can only tell the time using numbers (6 o'clock etc). How useless! Six o'clock might be late in the afternoon, or pitch dark according to he time of year: whereas "about the time the oxen come in from the fields" is something we can all relate to.

μυγαλαῖ Hagrid really did have mice in his pocket, not Muggles!

Chapter 5