Rowling’s History Of Magic In North America Is Not Magical To Native Peoples

Some of you may be aware of yesterday’s launch of “History of Magic in North America”, an expansion of the “Harry Potter” franchise by the children’s author and British unionist campaigner, J.K. Rowling. This compendium of short stories imagines a history of wizardry in the United States, tying it to the fictional “Potterverse” she has crafted since 1997 in a series of books, movies and in recent times an interactive online website. It also serves as a teaser to a new, upcoming trilogy of films, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, set in 1920s’ New York City, some seventy years before the main sequence of “Harry Potter” books.

The first story, titled “Fourteenth Century – Seventeenth Century”, is presented in a faux academic form, narrating the history of wizards and witches on the North American continent before it was colonised by European non-magical humans. Despite its relative brevity it makes several references to known religious or customary beliefs among the Native American peoples, including “skin walkers”, shape-changers from the mythological traditions of the Naabeehó Bináhásdzo or Navajo Nation (somewhat similar to our own examples from Irish and Celtic literature). It is this in particular which has caused some upset among indigenous American authors and activists. Adrienne Keene has elaborated on their concerns, particularly the seeming “Eurocentric” view of the Americas before European colonisation, reflected in Rowling’s terminology (note colonisation not exploration as the British author implies):

“I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal.

What you do need to know is that the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that. My own community also has shape-shifters, but I’m not delving into that either.

What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me) – but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.

The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not “misunderstood wizards”. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

My twitter mentions have been exploding non-stop all day, with the typical accusations of my oversensitivity and asking if I understand that Harry Potter is fictional, and more directed hate telling me my doctorate is being misused and I’m an idiot. In addition are the crew who “would love to know the real history” of these concepts (again, not for you to know), or are so grateful that JK Rowling is introducing them to these ideas for the first time. This is not the way to learn about or be introduced to contemporary and living Native cultures. Not at all.

Also worthy of note is that Rowling is known for responding directly to fan questions on twitter, and overall being accessible to her fan base. Despite thousands of tweets directed at her about these concerns, she has not addressed it at all. The silence is noted, and it’s deafening.

So this is the first day of the writings, I truly shudder thinking about the glossy way that first contact and subsequent genocide is going to be addressed.”

I find myself in some sympathy with Keene’s views, seeing them through the prism of another colonised and displaced culture – namely that of Ireland’s. Certainly the circumstances are different, with indigenous “pagan” Irish beliefs being subsumed into a broader body of Irish Christian literature during the early Medieval period, creating the hybrid body of mythology and folklore that we know today. This, arguably, made the Gaelic peoples more vulnerable to the Norman-British and Anglo-British invasions, occupations, annexations and eventually cultural exterminations that began in the 12th century and continued up to the 19th. Today we have our own sovereign nation-state in the greater part of the island of Ireland and for the greater part of the people of the island of Ireland. Yet native Irish identity continues to be in a precarious position. This is still a place where a young man can be arrested for answering in the Irish language to a question put to him in the English language, something common at the start of the 20th century in “unfree” Ireland but which one would have assumed impossible at the start of the 21st century in “free” Ireland. It is still a country where Irish-speaking defendants have no right to be tried in front of Irish-speaking juries but such a right is afforded to their English-speaking peers.

Even the suggestion that “outsiders” have no automatic right to know the beliefs of the Native American peoples is something I understand, even if I do not perhaps entirely agree with it. However I get it. I know where Adrienne Keene is coming from because I can contextualise the logic through innumerable Irish and Celtic examples. Likewise the century-old plundering of our literary tradition to provide substance to the fictional works of others, in whatever form, is something that has caused me and many others real annoyance. Especially when it is done with an utter disregard for the integrity of the original source materials. How many of us have seen horribly distorted versions or facsimiles of Gaelic mythology, a dog’s dinner of fantasy, science-fiction and horror works where bastardised members of the Tuatha Dé Danann rub shoulders with brownies and hobgoblins from Victorian fairy-lore? Of course, one might argue that no such respect is due a non-living tradition but what of those living traditions adhered to by many of the indigenous nations on the North American continent?

(Unless of course one believes in some form of the Creidheamh Sí, and even that is more often abused than not by Neo-Druidic and Wiccan types with their à la carte Celticness.)

For me the below tweet by the American author, Matt Wallace, sums up many of my feelings on the matter. Rummaging through the imaginative attic of J.R.R. Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin and sprinkling it with Disneyesque characters and beings may be one thing, but appropriating the living beliefs of living peoples is quite another. As I said elsewhere and in our own Celtic context, Gaelic is not Elvish!

Not unrelated to the spirit of the above, from the Blether Region, a short post on the opposition by bigoted representatives of the British unionist minority in the north-east of Ireland to, of all things, manhole covers inscribed with Irish and English language descriptions:

“…a councillor in Ballymena has made a similar complaint about — wait for it — bilingual manhole covers, and insisted that they be replaced (presumably they are bilingual because their supplier is based in the South and bid for the work). The Blether Region thinks this is silly, since a) they are manhole covers and, in the absence of merde de chien, commonly walked over and ignored, b) it would be difficult to remove the offending word without melting down and replacing the cover, and c) only a loopy colonial racist could possibly be offended at the presence of an additional language in an area to which it is native.

While a supposed concern for cost has been an integral part of the anti-Gaelic narrative purveyed by some politicians, the present case should surely dispel any doubt in that regard: whatever this nonsense is about, it is not about saving money.”

You can see why, when it comes to Ireland and the Americas, colonised knows colonised.

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26 comments

  1. You mentioned ‘Certainly the circumstances are different, with indigenous “pagan” Irish beliefs being subsumed into a broader body of Irish Christian literature during the early Medieval period, creating the hybrid body of mythology and folklore that we know today. ‘ Would you be able to recommend any sources for this? I’m interested for my own research.
    On the subject of folklore, I’m personally not a fan of the ‘Irish’ Fairy Door company who seem to be doing a great trade in peddling Victorian fairy tales while inserting the word ‘Irish’. This seems to be a sales trick rather than attempting any sympathetic attitude to native Irish folklore. They are selling bucket loads of these things to kids.

    1. Yeah, I dislike the New Age, hippy Celtic stuff on one hand and the “faerie” stuff on the other.

      It depends how deep your knowledge of the subject, I suppose. If its introductory stuff then “Celtic Mythology” by Proinsias Mac Cana remains the best despite its age (hard to get now, though still recommended). After that I would try “The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance” by the late Dáithí Ó hOgáin. Both give a good overview of the subject, academic but very accessible. For translations “Early Irish Myths and Sagas” by Jeffrey Gantz is another good place to start, even though it is quite old now.

      If you want more heavyweight stuff, or have a particular subject/theme you’re interested in, I can suggest a few others? If you look at the online sources at the bottom here, most are free to download.

      1. “This, arguably, made the Gaelic peoples more vulnerable to the Norman-British and Anglo-British invasions, occupations, annexations and eventually cultural exterminations that began in the 12th century and continued up to the 19th. Today we have our own sovereign nation-state in the greater part of the island of Ireland and for the greater part of the people of the island of Ireland. ”

        Oh purleeeze….The Norman British were not “British” as no such country as Britain existed at the time. They were Normans. Full stop. Their ancestors had conquered the Anglo-Saxons only a century earlier. They spoke French, not English. Their foot soldiers were mainly Welsh, Flemish or Breton mercenaries: which is why Walsh, Fleming and Britton are common Irish Catholic names today: and, well, the Fitzgeralds, Fitzpatricks, Lynches, Daltons, Burkes etc – presumably they should all be repatriated to Normandy via Pembroke?

        Our own sovereign nation state: yeah: a fully owned subsidiary of Deutsche Bank.

        1. The word ´British´ can have two distinct meanings, which can get a bit confused when the context is unclear or overlaps. It can mean either ¨related to the political state of Great Britain¨ or else ¨related to the peoples, languages and cultures of the Ancient Britons and their descendants, the Welsh, Cornish & Bretons etc.¨ Clearly any Welshmen who came to Ireland, at whatever date, including presumably St. Pat himself, must also have been ´British’ in the second sense. The Welsh themselves btw sensibly distinguish between ´Prydeinig´ and ´Brythoneg´. The first word is related to the Gaelic for ´Pict´, ´Cruithneach´ while the second has been through Latin.

          1. It is wise to differenciate the term British into 1. the modern imperial British political identity and 2. the cultural Brithonic Gaulish. In much the same way, as a Canadian, I reclaim the term American by referring to the country to the south as the US and its population as USers.

        2. I think we had this debate before, John. Since the term “Norman” fails to adequately describe the peoples who invaded Ireland from Britain (and elsewhere in the Norman sphere) 1169 onwards, historians have variously used Anglo-Norman and Cambro-Norman (Normans from England, Normans from Wales). British-Norman has gained some favour in recent years because it encompasses both those terms: peoples of the island of Britain of Norman ancestry or ethnicity. Of course many of those invaders went on to become Norman-Irish, and some became in time Anglo-Irish (even in the early 20th century some Irish families of the Ascendancy-style class were clinging on to the “Old English” designation rather than the Anglo-Irish one. Over the last couple of decades this has become Norman-Irish, emphasising the Anglo-French nature of these families rather than more explicitly English as we understand it).

          In your own comment you touch upon the complexities and layers here that no one word or term can fully encompass.

          1. It was only after circa 1600 that the “Old English” ie the Catholic descendants of the Normans and their foot soldiers started to make common cause with the Gaelic irish against the new wave of Protestant settlers. Even then, the two groups did not like each other very much. Sarsfield and Thomas Preston were “loyalists” in the sense that they were loyal the English throne: they just did not want to see a heretic Protestant occupying it.

  2. What about 2000AD’s ‘Sláine the Horned God’ Séamus? You’re fond enough of that one!
    The American tribes seem to get great mileage out of being offended I do feel. That’s fine but they don’t seem to have any mass cultural emphasis on holding on to their traditions. That said, who am I to set their yardstick.
    I don’t see how it would dilute the culture by exposing more people to it though. The writer, presumably some type of academic, comes across as a cretin to me anyway – “these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive”. Surely any exposure would strengthen the tradition amongst their own and possibly make outsiders more open to some of the ideas in it? It shouldn’t make any difference to a core of believers that some clowns are writing about it on bloody Twitter for gods sake. That kind of “soft power”, with focus on glamorous women, jazzed up music, celebrity users, is what Irish language “enthusiasts” are using to sell the language to the broader public these days. And it seems to be working, to a point at least.

    As for the manhole covers, all that is fine, but you can’t tell me that someone somewhere didn’t commission those covers without knowing full well that they’d be put into areas where the local population would know they’re being used as a weapon in a cultural war.

    1. Yes, indeed I am, and I made the point about non-living traditions (religions) versus living ones. Irish/Gaelic mythology is a blend of native, Christian and Classical sources, which took on its own dynamic (compare the elaborate Middle Irish tales of the 12th and 13th centuries with their more paired-down, Old Irish equivalents from the 7th century). So the comparison is not exact as I tried to indicate. However the likes of Sláine made some attempt at keeping to the spirit of the original myths, and constantly referred back to them, especially in later stories. There are other examples. Likewise, even the most distant inspiration, Julian May’s sci-fi classic, the Saga of the Exiles, made good use of the source materials and in a new and imaginative way.

      The brownies and hobgoblin authors with their claims to present a true picture of Irish (and Scottish and Manx) literature are injurious to the tradition not helpful.

      Native American beliefs on the other hand are for many as real as the beliefs of Christianity or Islam are to the peoples of those faiths. When some Navajo speak of shape-changers it is not in some abstract folkloric sense.

      Again, while I might not agree with all of Adrienne Keene’s criticisms I do very much “get” them. I understand where she is coming from, and I can contextualise them in an Irish stetting.

      I note, that she is not talking about the Native American languages but about Native American religious or customary beliefs. Which is somewhat different. I think one needs to make allowances for a certain militant, anti-colonial kickback in her thoughts. I’m given to it myself! 😉

      On the manhole covers, I disagree that it was a planned act of anti-colonialism or aggression. Weaponised manhole covers is a bit OTT 😀

  3. Ok fair enough on the non-living versus living religions. And I accept that religions and languages don’t always have the same place in peoples heads. But I’m not too sure about the native americans I have to say. They don’t convince me, what little I know of them, that they come at this world in a different way to their fellow Americans.

    I sense a bit of “uisce faoi thalamh” behind the whole manholes thing!

  4. has anyone any info on how long those manhole cover have been in situ?
    the whole rigmarole of “Horror! how dare anyone bring an irish word into my presence! Will no one think of the Children of Ulster!” is way OTT even for Ballymena

    PS how much will they waste replacing them?

  5. PS re Rowling – Is there no end to this woman’s greed that has to be satisfied at the expense of others?Rumours are that even henry potter was lifted from somebody else’s work (sorry no ref) Not a bit of wonder she’s annoying people elsewhere in the world.

    1. I’m convinced she got the idea for Horcruxes and Voldemort from Lloyd Alexander’s wonderful series “The Chronicles of Prydain”, a childhood favorite of mine. There’s a evil wizard named Morda who distills his soul/spirit into a piece of his bone, which almost makes him immortal.
      I don’t know that this makes her unethical though…writers borrow all the time.

  6. There must be some way to expoit those manhole covers. You could tell any New Agers who happened to venture to NI (for verily they will believe anything!) that the ‘mystic’ inscriptions denote a portal to the Otherworld — and charge an entrance fee. It would certainly be a unique sensory experience, talk about the Doors of Perception … 😉

    1. Well put, a gate way to the “sensory” (excellent!) world of “Merde de Chien,” or “Crompan den Cacamais.” Some savvy tour guide will build a Trump-like Empire off of the tourists.

  7. I’ve read the Harry Potter books and loved on them for their knowing use of English folklore. I was raised to know some English folklore, which was appropriate considering the cultural and ethnic makeup of my family. And so because of that, reading about and seeing the grindylows, the lesser version of Jenny Greenteeth, had some deeper meaning, even though it was a big silly movie, because I knew that the idea of these water beasts had particular purchase in Lincolnshire, the county that some of my family hailed from…and I’d heard about them.
    Seeing representations of the mythic can matter.
    Which is why when Keene says “we” don’t need to know, I think, yep. That’s legit. I think that her protectiveness is aimed at Americans, mostly, who just love wearing war bonnets to music festivals…or making money from fake “sweat” lodges.
    Speaking from the perspective of a witch: I’m also not certain that it would be possible for us to “know” much about shape-shifters, and other otherworldly beings, given the centrality of consistent- ritual-throughout-time to “knowing” them. People clamoring noisily on Twitter don’t really want to “know” anything. The New Age community, in particular, is, as far as I’m concerned, unable to know anything. They drift from one mystery to the next.
    And: Yeah, she’s a Unionist and really annoyed me with her depiction of the Irish Wizard, Seamus, whom you might recall does nothing other than lose his temper, refers to his mother as the source of all his information and- wait for it- constantly blows shit up- his wand, mostly. Rowling basically just grabbed the nearest mid-19th century Fenian trope and used that to characterize Seamus. Blech.

    1. Agree with all of that, Elizabeth. I sometimes find it amusing to point out to some (otherwise perfectly nice) folk in the Neo-Celtic or Druidic movement that their own faith is less than that of the average Muslim in the United States or Britain. The latter, if committed, learns something of the Quran and the public prayers in the language of the Prophet (contemporary Arabic). Most would-be followers of the Tuatha Dé cannot even bear to write their names in the original Irish, preferring instead to use various Anglicised versions of their titles.

      If all the New Age people claiming a Celtic faith knew something of the Celtic languages, however little, it would be something.

      Yep, I noticed that “Oirish” character in the books and movies. This Wiki entry on Ireland in the Potterverse is fairly, well, vomit inducing. Though that is probably just me. “Queen Maeve – a medieval witch who trained wizards and witches before the founding of Hogwarts.” Please!

      1. ‘Maeve’ < Medhbh which IIRC means 'drunk' or at least 'intoxicated' (like Welsh 'meddw') Certainly a larger than life character from the Ulster Cycle, but whatever she was on, I don't recall her ever being credited with magic or even prophecy. she's from a whole different layer of tradition, more 'saga' than mythology. Now the TDD, they have their counterparts in place names all across Western Europe, wherever the Celts set foot.

        1. True, which is why I get Adrienne Keene’s objections to JK Rowling appropriating Native American culture/religion to populate her fiction. It’s not the same of course, “living versus dead” religious beliefs as it were, but it still grates, irks and annoys. I’ve seen others do it, but with real sympathy or a feel for the source materials. Rowling lacks both. It is simply grist for a fictional mill, turning out a weak and unappealing gruel of bland nothingness.

          Lloyd Alexander’s books are a world away from the actual, literary Mabinogion but its spirit shines through.

  8. Lloyd Alexanders books are a perfect example of what you can do with mythic material that may not be your “own” (maybe he was Welsh-American, I dunno) but that you take the time to meaningly investigate. Hen Wen the Oracular pig is a smashingly wonderful and imaginative version of Twrch Trwyth, the Great Celtic Pig God.

    1. There are hints throughout the Welsh material that pigs may have been considered somewhat ‘otherworldly’, but I don’t recall any oracular pigs or any clear reference to a porcine deity. TT was a giant boar whose hunting was one of the tasks that Culhwch has to perform to win Olwen. He has the help of an early version of Arthur, who with his warriors are more like Fionn & the Fianna than the more familiar Frenchified literary incarnation. Of course the Fianna do plenty of pig-sticking but afaik these are perfectly unmagical piggies.

      So expand my knowledge, what are your sources?

      1. oh, my sources for -hold on, let me grab the book from the top of my crowded desk….”The Mabinogi”, trans. by Patrick Ford. That’s the translation I have used to read “Culhwch and Olwen” which, as you point out, does not features an oracular pig. Hen Wen is Lloyd Alexander’s invention totally. I would simply assume he read C & O, and took inspiration from it for using a pig in the first place for an oracular animal to drive the plot along, as opposed to say a hound or…I dunno , a deer.
        Pigs are so domestic.

    2. The Alexander books, along with The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, remain my childhood favourites. Almost more so than the Hobbit in the latter case. Wangerin could write tragedy and suffering for kids like no one else. I must post something about his works soon.

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