Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, students who are entering the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry must be assigned to one of four houses. The houses are residential halls but also function as small societies in themselves, although the students from all four houses may go to many of the same classes. Each of the houses was founded by one of the four founders of Hogwarts: Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Hufflepuff. During their lifetime, each of those founders would choose the kinds of students that they liked for their house. After the founders’ death, Gryffindor’s enchanted hat became the Sorting Hat. During a ceremony at the feast that marks the beginning of each academic year, each incoming student must put on this mind-reading talking hat. The Sorting Hat then decides where each student belongs and announces to the entire school where the student shall be assigned. The hat can have a private conversation with each student before making its decision.

J.K. Rowling has said that the attributes of the four schools were related to the four elements of ancient Greek philosophy: fire, water, air, and earth. However, the four schools also correspond precisely to the four varnas of the Hindu Vedas, and the conflicts between houses teach us important lessons about the conflicts within muggle (ordinary human) society. These four varnas are a universal concept: they served as the basis for the four suits of European playing cards! The correspondence between House and Varna becomes clear when the Sorting Hat has a “hatstall”—which means that the hat has a difficult time in assigning a particular student.

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