Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone

Commentary & Notes

Chapter 3 : The Letters from No One

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Δέννον καὶ Μαλακὸν καὶ Γοργωπόν: The ugly friends of Dudley and Piers. Δέννος (Dennis) in Greek means "disgrace", Μαλακός (Malcolm) - still an insulting term in Greek today, means "softie" and Γοργωπός (Gordon) is "staring-eyed"

ἁρειοκυνηγία is another hapax legomenon, and means "harry-hunting"; hunting with dogs was a popular pastime in England, although it was made illegal in 2004. In Greece it has always been a most exhilarating sport, especially if the quarry is the savage and dangerous wild boar. In England, as with Harry's friends, the creature pursued was normally defenceless - such as the fox, the hare or the stag.

φροντιστήριον It may come as a surprise to discover that Aristophanes's joke, his invented word for a "thinking-shop", where Socrates in the comedy Clouds dispenses nonsense of all kinds, became in later Greek a proper word for what they now call a "school". Strangely "school" is derived from our Greek word for idleness, having nothing to do: σχολή

Χωνεύσεις It is difficult to convey the importance which surrounds your choice of school in England. It is widely believed that the selection of school at age eleven will determine the course of a child's life. This is not because they choose according to the brilliance of the teachers (one could understand the importance of enrolling with a Socrates or a Plato), but because the English prefer to go to school only with children from families of similar income. Thus Dudley and Piers will go to an expensive school, such as Smeltings (Χωνεύσεις), and will be proud to wear humiliating clothes while attending (called "uniform", always the antique fashion in clothing of a bygone age), while Harry will be made to feel humiliated because he is attending a σχολεῖον μονοτάξιον, - a "comprehensive" - where his clothes will be of little importance (although the rags that Petunia intends him to wear would in fact cause humiliation!) It is a complex situation, and almost impossible for a non-English person to understand. (Like cricket, which mercifully is not a subject referred to in this book!)

Κώλυσις perhaps not a very exact rendition of Stonewall - but the school where Harry is enrolled will be one one those which they lie about when they say "stone walls do not a prison make". [For example] The main educational thrust in such establishments is the prevention (κώλυσις) of nearly everything.

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τῆς καινῆς στολῆς Items such as described here are all actually worn in "public schools" in England - though not all at the same time! Knickerbockers, tailcoats, straw hats are all worn (Christ's Hospital, Eton, King's Canterbury for example).

θυλάκους In England all males and most females wear these leg-enveloping garments called trousers, pants or jeans. Even in Scotland, where a healthier dress allowing air to circulate was once the custom, kilts are worn only on special occasions.

παίδευσιν χρηστὴν πρὸς τοὐπίον: English education has always prided itself on its character-building element (deemed more important than mere "book-learning" by many parents). Flogging, fagging, cold baths, rugger, detention and Latin have all been seen as "character-building". In order to humiliate others as an adult, it is apparently necessary first to be humiliated frequently oneself.

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φαιὰ ποιησομένη: Mrs Dursley is going to a great deal of trouble to ensure that Harry's uniform will be as gray as his fellow students'. She is in no mood to appreciate his jest about their wetness.

κτύπον τοῦ γραμματοκιβωτίου ... δοῦπον τῶν ἐπιστολῶν A very obscure passage for Greek readers - in modern Britain a man employed by a private business ("postman": ὁ ἐπʹ ἐπιστολῶν) brings you your letters every day. The letter-box (γραμματοκιβωτίον) rattles as the letters are pushed through, and they land on the mat inside the door with a thump. The sender has to buy a stamp (γραμματόσημον) which is smeared with a kind of glue which he licks in order to attach it to the letter. This is the most unhygienic and least effective (tens of thousands of messages are lost "in the post" every year) of various complicated ways of sending written messages in England. You don't want to know about texting, faxing and email: fortunately there is no mention of these in the Harry Potter corpus. How sensible the magic world is simply to use owls - in just the same way as in Greece when we want to send a message we just give it to a slave and tell him to take it to the person. But this is just too simple for modern people!

ἐν τῇ Οὐέκτει : Vectis - our Roman cousins' name for what the English call the Isle of Wight. Apparently Wight means man - which is odd for there is another island between England and Hibernia which they also call the Isle of Man. Who the man in question might be, no one seems to know. Both islands were popular destinations for "holidays" - every English person is entitled to be paid for several weeks every year when he does not work: this would be an excellent use for some of our revenue in Athens, I think. The English were once frightened to travel abroad on holiday in case they encountered frog-eaters or garlic-eaters: these islands gave them the illusion of travel without the inconvenience of eating foreign food. Nowadays they travel far and wide, but still avoid foreigners wherever possible. This attitude to βάρβαροι seems to a Greek quite normal, although we of course only travel to foreign countries in order to kill or enslave the βάρβαροι.

ἀπὸ τῆς δημοσίας βιβλιοθήκης: Every small town in England has a public library like the one in Alexandria, the difference being that citizens are - amazingly - allowed to borrow the books and take them to their houses to read. The βιβλιοφύλακες are very fierce, however, and demand fines from any citizen who has not read their books within two weeks. Further down this page, Harry refers to receiving threatening correspondence from them. Recent news,though, tells me that these libraries are being closed down, as the government believes thay could be places where the poor might plot revolution, or be exposed to revolutionary literature.

ψαλλομένης τῆς καρδίας καθάπερ εἰ ταινίαν τις κόμμι ἐλαστικοῦ μεγάλην ἔκρουσεν: a very puzzling expresssion. The concept that the heart has strings is familiar to the moderns (an abandoned puppy can be said in England "to tug at the heart-strings"); strings which resemble "gum being capable of being drawn out" (ἐλαστικός). The sense would appear to be that H is very excited - as if a harpist were playing very loudly on his heart strings. This gum is also used as a food-substitute by people in the modern world - they chew it until it becomes sticky and then they "park" it on the underside of a nearby piece of furniture. I have been unable to ascertain the purpose for this.

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πορφυροῦν σφράγισμα At least we can all recognise this as a letter - it has been properly sealed with wax (and is also made of a substance we know - διφθέρα). One of the other letters is in an "envelope" - those containing accounts are traditionally of a colour which is not quite tawny (ὑπόξανθος ), for which we have no exact word in Greek. It approaches the colour of a lion's mane or Menelaus's hair. The seal has an emblem consisting of four creatures - a lion, a snake, an eagle and a smallish furry animal larger than a rat (weasel? polecat? see note on chapter 2 page 13). I must say it reminds me of the punishment for parricides among the Romans - culprits were sewn into a sack containing a variety of animals, and thrown into the Tiber. The letter of the alphabet referred to is Y, a capital upsilon. You'll find out what it stands for quite soon.

περὶ ἐπιστολῆς πυροφόρου "concerning a fire-bearing letter". Believe it or not, such things exist in the modern world! They can be sent to an enemy in the hope of causing him harm. I think that we should all receive a great many each day if there were such things in Athens! But here it seems to be some kind of joke that Dursley is making - although how fire-bearing letters can be funny I do not understand.

κόγχην κακήν No English visit to the sea-coast is complete without consuming molluscs, known variously as winkles, whelks, cockles, mussels etc. According to a song which I have heard they are sold "alive, alive -o", and unsurprisingly many are poisoned by them. But modern people eat much that is unwholesome, and consequently most suffer from δυσπεψία most of the time, as it seems.

τῶν ἐν λεωφορίῳ φαναρίων These are what the moderns call "traffic lights". At a place where three roads meet they do not stop to worship Hecate, but sometimes halt their vehicles in order to watch a display of coloured lights, red, electrum-coloured, and green. These are on top of a herm-like post, so I can only assume the ritual has some quaint religious significance for them. It is hard to believe that Dursley's face went through this transformation from red to green in actual fact: but if so would it have passed through an intermediate stage when it was the colour of ἤλεκτρον? In any case his complexion soon changes again to the colour of πτισάνη, a kind of soup made from oats and milk which is the staple diet of many living in the northern parts of England (called Scotchland), where I presume it is always so dark that they cannot see it, and thus it becomes "neglected" (ἠμελημένη). Alternatively this could be due to the taste.

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δωματίων τεττάρων ὑπαρχόντων You will find it very difficult to picture the kind of house that the moderns live in. There is no division into men's and women's quarters as we are used to - in fact husbands and wives normally share a single bedroom! This seems strange, as this house, as if it were a πορνεῖον has actually four bedrooms - enough for a man with several concubines! But in Dursley's house it seems, one is reserved for a female relative who does not reside there (Marge is not a concubine), and the son does not sleep on the roof, but has two bedrooms of his own.

τὰ παίγνια καὶ τὰ ἄλλα σκεύη Where we might expect a child of ours to have perhaps a ball, or a rhombus, the modern boy owns a roomful of equipment, which in Dudley's case we are told is broken and therefore useless. Most of the objects are unfamiliar to me, and I cannot therefore do any more than list their outlandish names - I recognise, however, the birdcage, although I have never seen a parrot.

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τὴν χελώνην One of the strangest customs among the people of the modern world is pet-keeping. Dogs and cats are commonly kept in their houses, and treated more luxuriously than we do our slaves - who at least perform tasks on our behalf. Many pets live as if a member of the family and some are even permitted to share their owners' beds. The tortoises that are so familiar to us in Greece are common pets in England, although most die from cold within a few months of arrival there. All animals are protected by laws against ill-treatment here, just as our slaves are in Athens (although not everywhere in Greece), and throwing a tortoise at a θερμοκηπίον is against the law. A θερμοκηπίον, by the way, is a small house made of glass where plants are reared in similar luxury to that accorded to their animals. Glass breaks easily when struck by a hard object.

τὸ ἐγερτήριον ὡρολόγιον This what they call an "alarm clock". Modern people are obsessed with "telling the time" - everyone has a something like a very small sundial, by which they can tell which hour, minute and second of the day it is (a second is one sixtieth of a minute, which is one sixtieth of an hour). People become intensely agitated if a friend is a few minutes late for a prearranged meeting. You would find this very amusing. As the sun rarely shines in England, the people do not wake up when the sun shines into their houses each morning. Therefore they are unable to rise in the morning without the help of a clock (large) or watch (small) which makes a loud noise like a bell advertising fresh fish. I found them truly alarming. Many clocks make even louder noises at unexpected moments. How surprised they would be to find that we have only one clock in Athens, which, being worked by water, is pleasingly silent.

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τῇ Παρασκεύῃ The modern world divides the year up not only into 12 months, as we do, but also into 52 "weeks". The two systems are curiously incompatible, in that there are never an exact number of weeks in a month. Each "week" is divided into seven days, as they believe that their only god created the world in six days, with a day to rest on the seventh. We Greeks find this strange - as it's hard to see how a single god could look after all that goes on in the world - and of course our Olympian gods didn't have to create the world - they found it already there and just took it over! Παρασκεύη is what modern Greeks call the 6th day of their week, because then they do their preparation (παρασκεύη) for the Sabbath - the day when they worship their god - only they don't actually do this on the Sabbath (which in England is called Saturday, after the Roman god Saturn!), but on the next day which they call the Lord's in most countries, but Sun-day in England, although there they do not worship the sun - perhaps explaining why the sun is seldom seen there. The English call the 6th day Friday - after one of their gods. I find it extremely confusing that the week itself is in honour of their one god, supposedly their only one, while the actual days of the week are named after a number of other gods (Woden, Thor, Frigga), which we can identify with our Zeus, Hephaistos and Hera. I know we have different names for the months in different parts of Greece - but compared with England, our system is very simple!

τοῦ βαλανείου Unbelievably, nearly all houses today actually have a room with a bath: something that only a palace in Greece might have had. But I much prefer our system, where we go out to a public bath and meet other people and hear the news. Many English people receive the news also in their houses, through boxes of different shapes and sizes called radios, televisions or telephones.

τῇ Σαββάτῳ See note on τῇ Παρασκεύῃ.

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πόλλʹ ἄναντα κάταντα πάραντα ... Homer, Iliad 23.116. It originally described the comprehensive search by the men sent by Agamemnon to Mt Ida to gather wood for Patroclus' funeral pyre. Homer also adds δόχμια for good measure. But even today's ὀχήματα can't travel diagonally.

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ἐξαλεῖψαι ἐξωγηινον "to wipe out an extraterrestrial". Many of those today believe that there are men living on the stars and planets, who are plotting to invade our world. What was a fantasy for Lucian, is a reality for them. Consequently the children are encouraged to practise the simulated killing of aliens using their "computers". It sems to me similar to the Spartan system, where young men went out to kill Messenians at random as a game, though less enjoyable.

ἠρίστησαν. The strange items eaten for "breakfast" by the modern English will have already been noted. Instead of bread, they prefer their corn to be processed into small dry flaky things reminiscent of the scabs that form on a wound, which they moisten with cows' milk before ingesting. If they do eat bread, they prefer it partially burned. A tomato is a fruit like a large round red grape with a thick skin: the point here is that the tomatoes are uncooked, and that there are no eggs and pickled pork ("bacon"). A Greek would have been perfectly happy with this breakfast - in fact the bread, unburned, would have sufficed. But I shall have cause again to mention the large amounts of unnnecessary food consumed by modern people.

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ἐπ ᾽ ἄκρον πολυόροφον "to a many-roofed height"; "to the top of a many-roofed [thing]". Not all of you will have seen the Pharos at Alexandria, but this is the only building in our world where a roofed structure is added to the top of an already roofed structure, and then another on top of that and so on.These added roofs are called "storeys". Because in English cities the streets were designed for the most part for pedestrians or horses, there is little room to "park" their αὐτοκίνητα ὀχήματα. Consequently special towers are built for this purpose. As it is normally quicker to walk to one's destination in a city owing to the large number of "cars" attempting to drive simultaneously down the same street, it is hard to see why such buildings as these were thought necessary.

τὸν θαυμαστὸν ῾Υπέρτονον. Modern children require constant stimulation: as the adults are too exhausted to provide this, a theatrical or musical performance (such as we see at Athens two or three times a year) is available all day and every day, apparently performed by tiny actors/musicians inside a small box, which they call "television" (and I have rendered as τηλεόρασις, avoiding the distressing hybridisation of our language with that of the ῾Ρωμαῖοι). The nearest rendition I can find for Dudley's favorite performer, the Great Humberto, is "the amazing extremely loud one". Despite their diminutive size, these little musicians usually make an excessive amount of noise: louder by far than Demosthenes at his most vehement inveighing against Aeshines in the Pnyx.

πολιᾶς παρὰ θῖνα θαλάττης. Doubtless even the least educated of my readers will recognise the Homeric "tag". Dursley - in his own mind only - is like Odysseus, suffering at every turn as he seeks only to preserve his family. Some may feel he has experienced enough already today to earn the Odyssean epithet πολύτλας, though posssibly not δῖος! Alas, Petunia is no Penelope, and Dudley certainly no Telemachus.

ἄνεμοι ἐξῶσται : "winds that drive ships ashore". Traditional ingredient of storms!

λεπτά, δευτερολεπτά: see above under τὸ ἐγερτήριον ὡρολόγιον (page 29). These are the small units into which the modern hour is subdivided. I find it hard to imagine what the use might be for a "minute" - and impossible to grasp the significance of an instant of time that is one sixtieth of it. By the time one has uttered the word δευτερολεπτόν, it has already passed! Perhaps it might be handy for timing how long it takes Hermes to reach an evil-doer spotted by Zeus!

Chapter 4