Defence Against the Dark Arts

By The British Library

The use of magic as a shield against evil powers is a feature of numerous cultures worldwide. Amulets protect their owner against dark magic, and focus on avoiding the 'evil eye' (a curse bestowed by a look from a sorcerer). protection is equally desirable against a variety of dark creatures, such as werewolves, kappas and basilisks.

Visitors looking at Jim Kay's portrait of Professor LupinThe British Library

'"You will each write an essay, to be handed in to me, on the ways you recognise and kill werewolves."'

Professor Snape in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Portrait of Professor Remus Lupin by Jim Kay, for The Prisoner of AzkabanThe British Library

Professor Lupin
Remus Lupin taught Defence Against the Dark Arts in Harry Potter's third year at Hogwarts. Unbeknown to the students, he was actually a werewolf, who transformed every Full Moon.

Jim Kay’s pencil drawing shows Lupin with greying hair, with dark rings under his eyes. A poster of the Moon hangs on the shelves behind him.

Werewolves, in Johann Geiler, Die Emeis (1516)Original Source: 3835.c.26.

Human-Devouring Werewolves

Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg preached a sermon on werewolves, published in this book, called Die Emeis (The Ants). He listed seven reasons why they might attack and explained that they especially liked to eat children.

According to Geiler, the likelihood of an attack was influenced by the werewolf’s age and its experience of eating human flesh.

‘Of the Sphinga or Sphinx’, in Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607)Original Source: 435.h.6

Tricksy Sphinx

Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes was the first major book about animals (both real and legendary) to be published in English.

In this chapter on the sphinx, Topsell describes an animal ‘of a fierce but tameable nature … having his body rough like Apes’. Less well known is its ability to store food in its cheeks – just like a guinea pig!

A Neneko kappa in Tonegawa zushi by Akamatsu Sōtan (1855)Original Source: 16084.d.15

The kappa is named after the Japanese for ‘river’ (kawa) and ‘child’ (wappa). Written by Akamatsu Sōtan, Tonegawa zushi is an illustrated history of the Tone River. According to Sōtan, the river was believed to be home to the neneko kappa, illustrated here. With webbed claws and scaly skin, it was a dangerous creature that moved location every year, causing chaos wherever it went.

'The Kappa is a Japanese water demon that inhabits shallow ponds and rivers. often said to look like a monkey with fish scales instead of fur, it has a hollow in the top of its head in which it carries water.'
Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them

Albertus Seba, Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, et inconibus artificiosissimis expressio, per universam physices historiam, (1734–1765)Original Source: 43.k.3-10

Snake magic

Snakes have long been considered magical creatures. Their ability to shed and regrow their skin is integral to their association with renewal, rebirth and healing. In many cultures, snakes can represent both good and evil.

A serpentine wand (20th century)Original Source: The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, 362

This slender wand is made of dark wood, and was a tool for channelling magical forces. Its serpentine shape forces us to question whether it was used for good or for evil.

Image of a snake charmer, in a bestiary (13th century)Original Source: Royal MS 12 C XIX

The Snake Charmer

This image of a ‘wizard’ charming a serpent is found in a medieval bestiary. The text describes the emorroris, an asp whose bite caused the victim to sweat out blood until they died.

It could be trapped if a conjurer sang to it in its cave, lulling it to sleep. This allowed the snake charmer to remove the precious stone growing on the asp’s forehead, rendering it powerless.

Albertus Seba, Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, et inconibus artificiosissimis expressio, per universam physices historiam, (1734–1765)Original Source: 43.k.3-10

This illustration shows a reticulated python, native to South-East Asia. It was owned by Albertus Seba, a Dutch apothecary and collector. Based in Amsterdam, Seba supplied the port’s ships with medicines, which he traded for exotic natural specimens.

In 1731, he commissioned artists to draw every item in his collection, including this snake.

'He realised with a thrill of terror that it was a gigantic snake, at least twelve feet long.'
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

A serpent staff (1998)Original Source: The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, 2025

This magic staff was carved from 'bog oak', timber that had been buried for centuries in peat. The staff has been decorated with a serpent to enhance its power.

Snakes represent a capacity for renewal and transformation, and their coils symbolise the dual cycles of light and dark, healing and poison, protection and destruction.

Study of Harry Potter and the basilisk by Jim Kay, for The Chamber of SecretsThe British Library

'The Basilisk's head was falling, its body coiling around, hitting pillars... He could see the vast, bloody eye sockets, see the mouth stretching wide, wide enough to swallow him whole, lined with fangs long as his sword,'

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Jim Kay’s Basilisk

In this striking image made for The Chamber of Secrets, the giant basilisk is shown coiling past Harry Potter.

Harry is clutching the ruby-decorated sword of Godric Gryffindor in his hands, frozen in the air mid-swing.

The basilisk’s terrible yellow eyes are streaming with blood after Fawkes the phoenix has scratched at them with its claws.

A basilisk, in [Jacobus Salgado], A Brief Description of the Nature of the Basilisk, or Cockatrice (c. 1680)Original Source: 1256.d.9.

A Brief History of the Basilisk

Comprising just two pages, this pamphlet lives up to its name: A Brief Description of the Basilisk. It was written by James Salgado, who displayed a basilisk given to him by a Dutch doctor.

He described the beast as yellow, with a crown-like crest and a cockerel’s body attached to a serpent’s tail.

This creature is portrayed having just killed a man.

A basilisk, in Historia animalium (1595)Original Source: Add MS 82955

Beware the Basilisk

This manuscript, made in Italy in 1595, contains an unique series of drawings of mythical beasts. Here is the basilisk, renowned for being able to kill with its stare alone. According to the Roman writer Pliny, basilisks could only be killed by dropping a weasel down their burrows. The weasel’s scent would prove fatal to the basilisk, although both creatures would die in the ensuing struggle.

Ethiopian magical recipe book Ethiopian magical recipe book (c. 1750)Original Source: Or 11390

Ethiopian protective magic

Curator looking at an Ethiopian magic book showing amulet designsThe British Library

Ethiopian magical recipe book Ethiopian magical recipe book (c. 1750)Original Source: Or 11390

A Book of Magic
Written in Ge’ez or classic Ethiopic, this book of Ethiopian magic contains a collection of protective amulets, talismans and charms. It would have belonged to an exorcist or däbtära, a highly educated religious figure.

The images would have been used for making amulet scrolls. Talismanic drawing focuses on the image of the eye, as a defence against the evil eye.

A protective amulet scroll in a cylindrical silver case, with a separate talismanic scrollOriginal Source: Or 12859 + Or 9178

Amulet Scrolls
Amulets have been worn worldwide for thousands of years. This Ethiopian scroll contains prayers for undoing spells, combined with talismanic drawings intended to cure sickness and to exorcise demons. Written on parchment, such scrolls are known as yä branna ketab (‘written on skin’).

A protective amulet scroll in a cylindrical silver case, with a separate talismanic scrollOriginal Source: Or 12859 + Or 9178

They are kept in leather cases or in silver containers, and are designed to be hung up at home or worn around the neck.

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