The Grail Hallows and Harry Potter
In medieval tales about the search for the Holy Grail, the word hallows
has been used to describe a set of four sacred or magical objects.
These objects have been connected back to Celtic mythology, as well as
to the Tarot deck. Is Rowling referring to them in the title of her
final book in the Harry Potter saga, Harry
Potter and the Deathly
The first three sections of this essay will present some information
about hallows that may (or may not) be relevant to Book Seven. In the
final section, I will follow Dumbledore’s
lead and journey, as many
fans have done, “into thickets of wildest guesswork” (HBP 10).
The Grail Hallows
In many versions of the Grail story, the questing knight enters a
castle in a barren wasteland. There he meets the Keeper of the Grail,
sometimes also identified as the Fisher King, the Rich Fisher, or the
Maimed King. He is an old man whose life has been unnaturally
prolonged, but who is inflicted with a wound that will not heal. He
lives in the castle with his attendants and guards the Grail.
Within the castle are four objects of magical or religious
significance, the Grail Hallows, which are usually displayed before the
knight as he dines there. Their exact natures differ from story to
story, and in some versions not all four are mentioned, but in general
1. A sword, sometimes broken; often presented to the knight.
2. A spear or lance, dripping blood from its point; usually said to be
involved in the Crucifixion tale and/or the weapon which wounded the
3. The Grail itself, described as a cup, chalice, or bowl; from it
issues forth boundless food and drink.
4. A silver platter or serving dish (but in other versions it is a
disk-shaped Eucharist dish, a dish with a severed head on it, a table,
a stone, a stone chair, or even a magical chessboard).
See this link for
various versions of the
Fisher King tale, each
some or all of the Grail Hallows. They are most clearly portrayed in
the version by Chretien de Troyes.
The Treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan
Several scholars (such as folklorist Alfred Nutt and Arthurian academic
Jessie Weston) have suggested that the four Grail Hallows originate
from Celtic mythology, specifically from the four Treasures of the
Tuatha de Danaan. According to the tales, the
Danaan were a race of mystical beings who came to Ireland in the
distant past, bringing with them four magical objects:
1. The Sword of Nuada.
2. The Spear of Lugh.
3. The Cauldron of Dagda, from which came limitless food and drink.
4. The Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, which would roar with joy when
stood upon by kings.
In Gods and Fighting Men,
Gregory’s 1904 retelling of
tales, the Treasures are said to have come from four cities, “where
they [the Tuatha de Danaan] fought their battle for learning…. And in
those cities they had four wise men to teach their young men skill and
knowledge and perfect wisdom…” (from Part I, Book I).
The Tarot Suits
Arthur Waite, the British occultist who (with illustrator Pamela Smith)
published the Rider Pack of Tarot cards in 1910, was influenced by Nutt
and other scholars. He was convinced that the symbols on the Tarot
cards were an esoteric tradition passed down through the ages. He also
decided that the four suits of the Tarot - swords, wands, cups, and
coins - were derived from the Grail Hallows, and ultimately from the
Celtic Treasures. To make this connection, he associated wands with the
lance / spear, and cups with the Grail / cauldron. Waite also replaced
the original suit of coins that appeared on earlier versions of the
cards with the pentacle, and connected it to the platter / stone.
(Waite’s Magician card,
which has images of all four
objects, depicts the
five-pointed star etched on a disk.) Jessie Weston, who later wrote of
the Grail Hallow / Tarot suit connection (without mentioning Waite),
fantasized that this pentacle was a design on Gawain’s shield.
The Deathly Hallows - Some Speculations
In HBP23, Dumbledore explains to Harry that “Lord Voldemort liked to
collect trophies, and he preferred objects with a powerful magical
history. … Four objects from the four founders would, I am sure, have
exerted a powerful pull over Voldemort’s imagination.” These relics,
possessing magical properties, having once belonged to four great
wizards and witches who sought to educate children in the ways of magic
- these Voldemort wished to infuse with fragments of his maimed soul,
granting him everlasting life (one of the gifts of the Grail). Fans
have speculated that these objects will turn out to correspond to the
four Grail Hallows, and their cousins, the Celtic Treasures and the
Tarot suits. (See this fan essay in
Scribbulus, for example,
the author Erin
Dolmage connected the four founders’ relics to the Tarot suits.)
might correspond to the Grail, the Celtic cauldron,
and the Tarot cup. Slytherin’s
locket could perhaps connect to the
Celtic stone or the Tarot coin / pentacle-disk. The remaining two
founders’ objects that Voldemort coveted are as yet unknown. Gryffindor’s
sword (his “only known relic”) is a tempting choice,
leaving fans to speculate that Ravenclaw’s object
be a wand, a
spear, a staff, or the like.
Voldemort may not have
obtained his goal of collecting all four
founders’ relics; Dumbledore,
at least, is certain that Gryffindor’s
sword was untouched. But the ones that he did acquire have been
by unspeakable evil, tainted with fragments of a murderer’s soul. Are
they what Rowling means by deathly hallows? Whether this speculation is
true or not, it seems clear that in the final book, Harry will go on a
kind of anti-Grail quest, first seeking out these hallowed objects to
purify them, and then denying immortality to The Dark Lord, who waits
at the end of the journey as a sort of inverted Fisher King.
I am not at all an expert in Arthurian lore, Celtic myths, or Tarot
cards. In fact, I had never heard of the Grail Hallows and their
cousins until Rowling’s title inspired some internet research. Thanks
to Donna Hosie for pointing me towards the first in a chain of
interesting web sites.
I also cannot pretend that the above speculations are original. The
connections of the final four Horcruxes to the Treasures of the Tuatha
de Danaan and the Tarot suits have been made by cleverer fans than I,
even before the release of Rowling’s final title. My hat is off to them.
 Information on this section was
gleaned from this online study
of the Fisher King - see
Section VI on the Grail Hallows. Unfortunately I do not know who the
author of this work is. It appears to be associated with Caliburn, the
University of Idaho Arthurian Legend Society.
I learned of Nutt and Weston in this article:
Wood, Juliette. "The
Celtic tarot and the secret traditions: a study in modern legend
making." Folklore, Vol. 109, 1998, pp. 15-24.
 For more information, see the following at
the Celtic mythology section of Encyclopedia Mythica:
Tuatha de Danann
(note different spelling), Nuanda, Lugh, Dagda, Lia Fail.
 Information in this section was found in
the Folklore article by
© 2006 Bandersnatch