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Essays

Sibylls, Pythia, and Prophecies

by Clint Hagen

N.B.: Dates for this essay are based on the timeline in the Lexicon. Notes on sources from outside the canon are at the end.

Sibyll Trelawney is named after an ancient prophetess from classical mythology - or, more accurately, she is named after a whole group of prophetesses from classical mythology. The name Sibyll was applied in the ancient world to many women who were inspired by the god Apollo with the gift of prophecy. The only notable exception was Pythia, the priestess of Apollo at Delphi.

The classic mistake made by heroes in regards to prophecies is that the person to whom it is delivered misinterprets its meaning, either because of pride or lack of information. Oedipus, for instance, is told that he will marry his mother and murder his father; and so he leaves Corinth for good, not knowing that the king and queen of Corinth are his adoptive parents, and winds up fulfilling the prophecy in Thebes, his true birthplace. Croesus was told that if he attacked the Persians a great kingdom would be destroyed. He attacked, not expecting that it would his own kingdom that would be destroyed. More often than not, the prophecy is not properly understood until it has been fulfilled.

A good example of this is Prof. Trelawney's second real prediction:

"The Dark Lord lies alone and friendless, abandoned by his followers. His servant has been chained these twelve years. Tonight, before midnight . . . the servant will break free and set out to join his master. The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant's aid, greater and more terrible than he ever was" (PA16).

In this case, the recipient of the prophecy, Harry, does not understand what any of the prophecy means until afterwards. Although Harry never says so, it seems reasonable that Harry would have thought that the servant, "chained these twelve years," referred to Sirius Black. He certainly could not have known that the prophecy meant Peter Pettigrew.

Prof. Trelawney's first real prediction was delivered to Albus Dumbledore on a cold, wet night sometime before July in 1980 [Y0]:

"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches... Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies... and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not... and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives" (OP37).

But Dumbledore was not the only one to hear it; someone - who is not named - took the message back to Voldemort. Voldemort then acts in an attempt to keep the prophecy from coming true, as Oedipus and others did before him; but if the ancient Greek tragedies have taught us anything, it's that you can't escape fate. He ends up fulfilling part of the prophecy unwittingly: "The Dark Lord will mark him as his equal."

Voldemort, of course, does not so much misinterpret the prophecy as not hear all of it (OP37). It may well be that Voldemort intended to kill both Harry and Neville, the only other boy born "to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies" (OP37). Perhaps Dumbledore is right to think that Voldemort chose the boy more like Voldemort himself - although it seems unlikely that Voldemort would have left such an important matter to chance.

The main question, then, might be this: is there any possibility that Dumbledore - the one who received the first prophecy - might have misinterpreted it? That is to say, could Neville Longbottom be the boy of the prophecy? In one sense, Neville also is marked - not by a physical scar, but by the continual pain of having parents who are alive but insane. His pain is no less real than Harry's; and while Voldemort was not directly responsible for the Longbottoms' insanity, he is responsible. Four Death Eaters (Rodolphus and Bellatrix Lestrange, Rodolphus' brother Rabastan, and Barty Crouch, Jr.) committed the crime because they were his followers (GF30, OP6). Is Neville, too, marked by the Dark Lord?

This is probably not what Rowling intends. The evidence that Harry will have to face Voldemort one on one in a final battle has been mounting since PS. In fact, in every instance that Harry has come face-to-face with Voldemort (including Tom Riddle), he's had to do it alone. In PS16, Ron and Hermione helped him through the tasks guarding the Stone; but in the end, Harry faced Quirrell alone. In CS, Hermione figured out that a basilisk was loose, and Ron went with Harry (along with Prof. Lockhart) partway into the Chamber, but Harry faced Riddle and the monster alone. In GF, Harry had help from many people as he faced the tasks of the Triwizard Tournament - Moody (or, more accurately, Barty Crouch, Jr.), Hagrid, Dobby, and others. Cedric even accompanied Harry to the Little Hangleton graveyard; but he was killed, and Harry had to face Voldemort alone.

It seems likely that, in the end - although he will have help from many friends - Harry will face Voldemort alone. In this, the story has followed the hero cycle as outlined by Joseph Campbell. While the hero may have companions to help him or her along the way, the "last trick" must be done by the hero himself.

The end of OP is a little different, though. It seems certain that Harry would have died had Dumbledore not arrived to defend him. Perhaps this happened simply because Harry was not yet ready to face Voldemort alone. Nevertheless: is it possible that someone will come to Harry's aid in the final battle - as his mother's love did in his first encounter with Voldemort or as Fawkes did in the Chamber of Secrets? Could that person be Neville? He is, after all, starting to show some talent in Defense Against the Dark Arts (OP21, OP25) and he has a strong motive for wanting Voldemort permanently vanquished.

One major difference between Prof. Trelawney's prophecies and those of the ancient Sibylls and the Pythia is that no one seems to get real prophecy from Prof. Trelawney by asking for it. To receive a prophecy from the ancient Sibylls or the Pythia, heroes traveled hundreds and even thousands of miles and asked the prophetess a question. Prof. Trelawney does not seem able to predict on demand, as became clear when Dolores Umbridge required one during her inspection (OP15).

Prof. Trelawney's first real prophecy has another interesting line: "Neither [the Dark Lord nor the one who will vanquish him] can live while the other survives." It would seem that, as of the end of OP, both of them live - unless Voldemort does not truly live at all in some dark sense. If the classical Sibylls and the Pythia are any example, it will do Harry no good to try and avoid the prophecy. But then, the future is difficult to predict.


For the story of Oedipus: Morphord and Leonardon, Classical Mythology, 7th ed.; see WEB LINKhttp://www.classicalmythology.org/chaptertopics/17/summary.html

For the story of Croesus: Herodotus, History 1.6; see WEB LINKhttp://www.herodotuswebsite.co.uk/essays/croesus.htm

More about the Pythia and the Sibylls: see their entries, as well as the entry on Delphi, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. Hornblower and Spawnforth, eds.

For Joseph Campbell, the monomyth, and the hero-cycle, see Campbell's interview series with Bill Moyers entiled "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth" (available from PBS).

© 2003 by Clint Hagen, used by permission

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