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.
Gryffindor and the Kshatriya Varna
Godric Gryffindor wanted to teach “all those with brave deeds to their name.” His house’s symbol is the lion, and the house’s colors are red and gold. This color scheme represents fire. The name “Godric” is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning “he who rules with God” or “he who rules well.” The name “Gryffindor” was derived from the medieval French for golden griffin (griffon d’or or griffon doré). A griffin was a beast that has the body of a lion and the face and wings of an eagle. Gryffindor’s house was to include courageous people who would use their powers for the good of all. This corresponds to the Khsatriya varna. The Kshatriya were the rulers: the people who had the power of command and the responsibility to maintain public order and national defense. Their power is the power of violence. A kshatriya is someone with the power and authority to say, “do as I say or I will punish you.” The word varna in Sanskrit meant color, and the color red (which represents blood) was used to represent the Kshatriya varna. European playing cards have one suit that is either a sword or a spade (the word spade originally meant blade, so both mean the same thing.)
Slytherin and the Vaishyas
Salazar Slytherin selected students who showed resourcefulness, cleverness, determination, and a certain disregard for the rules, along with the ability to speak Parseltongue (the language of snakes). He also selected his students according to cunning, ambition, and pure bloodlines. The Slytherin house is symbolized by a serpent, and the house colors are green and silver. This house represents the element of water. The name Salazar sounds like the word “salamander,” which is an amphibian that spends a lot of time in water. The surname Salazar is Spanish. It came from the Spanish word sala (hall) and the Basque word zahar (old), so it literally meant “old hall.” It was the name of a noble family from an area of Spain that was largely Basque-speaking in the middle ages. When the Roma (“gypsies” or gitanos) were forced to adopt surnames for census purposes in the 14th and 15th centuries, many of them chose Salazar, to sound prestigious. So this name suggests nobility and social climbing, at the same time! And of course Slytherin sounds like slithering, like a snake. It is natural for people to have a fear of snakes, some of which are venomous. Also, the Serpent in the Garden of Eden story represented the temptation to achieve god-like status, which led to expulsion from Eden.
The Slytherin house corresponds to the Vaishya varna: the people who have the power of wealth and the responsibility to oversee production and distribution within the economy. A Vaishya is someone with the power of wealth. A Vaishya is someone who has enough money to hire and bribe lots of people. A Vaishya can say, “do as I ask and I shall pay you.” According to the Vedas, the Vaishya’s traditional color was yellow, which represents gold. However, the Slytherin house’s colors of green and silver represent modern money (as well as representing water). American paper currency is green, and the French word for money is argent (literally, silver). The card suit that represents the Vaishya varna is either coins or diamonds. So the Slytherin house represents ambitious snobs who love money. These sound like bad traits. Nevertheless, ambitious, resourceful, clever people can play a valuable role in society, as long as the kshatriya keep them in line. Thus, the Harry Potter books show the Gryffindor and Slytherin houses as coexisting, but with predictable tension between them. That’s why the main conflicts in the Harry Potter books are between Gryffindors and Slytherins, while Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs make cameo appearances.
Ravenclaw and the Brahmins
Rowena Ravenclaw was known for her intelligence and creativity, and her house was for intelligent students who learn quickly. The name Rowena is a Latinized form of an old German name that probably meant famous friend. A Welsh mythological character named Rowena was a beautiful femme fatale regarded as the “mother of the English nation” (thus personifying Saxon treachery, from a Welsh perspective). The name Ravenclaw implies intelligence. Ravens are clever birds, members of the crow family. And their claws are used for grasping. So a Ravenclaw is a clever person who is able to grasp concepts. They are lofty-minded people who can take a bird’s‑eye view of things. They can use their powers of analysis to figure out the solution to problems, but they do not necessarily have the selfless courage that it takes to be a Gryffindor.
The Ravenclaws have a bird as a symbol (though an eagle, not a raven!). Their house is associated with the element of air. The Ravenclaw house’s colors are blue and bronze. Blue represents air, and bronze represents ancient technology (or an eagle’s wings!).
The Ravenclaw house corresponds with the Brahmin Varna. The Brahmins were priests, scholars, and scientists who had the responsibility for teaching and preaching. Brahmins have the power of wisdom. They cannot force you to do anything, and they cannot bribe you to anything, but they can advise you on what would be the correct thing to do. In European playing cards, Brahmins are represented by hearts or by cups (which represent the wine cup used in Holy Communion).
Hufflepuff and the Shudras
Hufflepuff is the most inclusive of the four houses. While the founders of other houses selected special students, Helga Hufflepuff would accept anyone. In other words, the Hufflepuffs are not particularly brave, not particularly ambitious, and not particularly clever. However, they are just and loyal, patient, true, and unafraid of toil. They are also depicted as jolly, friendly people.
The Hufflepuff house corresponds to the element of earth, and thus to farmers (people of the soil) and other laborers. The Hufflepuff house corresponds to the Shudra varna: the laborers. According to the Vedas, the Shudra varna is associated with the color black, which represents soil and ignorance. Likewise, the Hufflepuff house colors are black and gold, which could represent soil and hay or grain. Their symbol is the badger, which is a burrowing animal commonly found in the British countryside. Shudras are not expected to be overly bright. Nor are Shudras expected to be the ones to stand up against injustice—unless they mobilized as part of a mass movement, such as Gandhi’s Salt March or the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Then, their sense of loyalty and duty gives them the courage that they might otherwise lack. Unlike the upper three varnas, the Shudras have the strength of number, which they can exercise as a result of their solidarity with one another.
Why Harry, Hermione, and Ron Are Gryffindors
The Hindu concept of Veda is often confused with the concept of caste, which means hereditary occupation. Yet your varna refers to your current role within your society, not your ancestors’ roles within theirs. Clearly, wizards would have some way of foretelling what role a person would play in their society. J.K. Rowling therefore wanted to have some sort of magical device for sorting the students into the four houses. She considered various ways that people make these decisions, including drawing names out of a hat. That idea inspired her to create a talking hat. It makes perfect sense that Godric Gryffindor’s hat became the Sorting Hat. Since Gryffindor represents one who rules justly, he was the one to make the decisions of what should be done. However, the Sorting Hat sometimes finds it hard to make a decision.
When Harry donned the Sorting Hat, the Sorting Hat noted that Harry is brave, smart, and talented, and with “a nice thirst to prove yourself.” Harry could speak Parseltongue, like a Slytherin. Yet when Harry was an infant, he had somehow managed to survive an encounter with the evil wizard Voldemort, who had been a Slytherin. Both of Harry’s parents died defending Harry. Most of the people in the Wizarding world are so afraid of Voldemort that they refer to him as “You-Know-Who” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.” Yet Harry did not hesitate to refer to Voldemort by name. The lightning-shaped scar on Harry’s forehead was a permanent, public reminder of his encounter with Voldemort. Nearly everyone in the wizarding world knew who Harry is and what his scar represents. So when the Sorting Hat said, “So where shall I put you?” Harry responded, “Not Slytherin.” The Sorting Hat noted that Harry could achieve greatness as a Slytherin, but since he didn’t want that, he had to be a Gryffindor. This event marks the moral choice that determines the course of the rest of Harry’s life.
The Sorting Hat had a similar problem with Hermione. She was clearly bright enough and studious enough to be a Ravenclaw, yet Hermione herself doubted that book-learning, by itself, would lead to true greatness. As a result, she too was assigned to Gryffindor. There, she was as studious as a Ravenclaw, but for the purposes of struggling for justice in the world.
The Sorting Hat had no trouble whatsoever in assigning Ronald Bilius Weasley to Gryffindor. Ron came from a pure wizard bloodline, which theoretically could have qualified him for Slytherin. Yet his family was poor and not particularly ambitious. In fact, they actively opposed the “pure-blood” doctrines being put forth by Slytherins, who regarded the Weasleys as being one of the biggest “blood-traitor families.” For this reason, the Sorting Hat had no hesitation in assigning all of the children in the Weasley family to Gryffindor.
What House Do You Belong In?
If you have read this far in this essay, you are probably a Ravenclaw—unless you are someone like Hermione, who was smart enough and studious enough to be a Ravenclaw but was assigned to Gryffindor because of her selfless courage. Slytherins would find this sort of reading a waste of their valuable time, and Hufflepuffs would probably just be bored or baffled. If you are a Gryffindor who would have qualified for Ravenclaw, then you are precisely the kind of person I want to meet!
Photo by HarshLight