The Grail Hallows and Harry Potter by Bandersnatch

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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 Hallows?

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[1]

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 they are:

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 Grail Keeper.

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 WEB LINKthis link for various versions of the Fisher King tale, each mentioning some or all of the Grail Hallows. They are most clearly portrayed in the version by WEB LINKChretien 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.[2] According to the tales, the Tuatha de 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.[3]

In WEB LINKGods and Fighting Men, Lady Augusta Gregory’s 1904 retelling of Celtic 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 WEB LINKPart I, Book I).

The Tarot Suits[4]

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 WEB LINKMagician 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 WEB LINKthis fan essay in Scribbulus, for example, in which the author Erin Dolmage connected the four founders’ relics to the Tarot suits.)

Hufflepuff’s cup 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 might 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 defiled 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.

[1] Information on this section was gleaned from WEB LINKthis online study of the Fisher King - see especially Section VI on the Grail Hallows. Unfortunately I do not know who the author of this work is. It appears to be associated with WEB LINKCaliburn, the University of Idaho Arthurian Legend Society.

[2] I learned of Nutt and Weston in WEB LINKthis article: Wood, Juliette. "The Celtic tarot and the secret traditions: a study in modern legend making." Folklore, Vol. 109, 1998, pp. 15-24.

[3] For more information, see the following at the Celtic mythology section of WEB LINKEncyclopedia Mythica: Tuatha de Danann (note different spelling), Nuanda, Lugh, Dagda, Lia Fail.

[4] Information in this section was found in the Folklore WEB LINKarticle by Juliette Wood.

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February 20, 2014


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