Learning to make potions is a vital skill not only in witchcraft, but also in creating remedies for illness and diseases. In the magical world, potions have been used or healing the sick, for changing someone's appearance, or for inducing people to fall in love.

Curators looking at the British Museum's Battersea CauldronThe British Library

'"I don't expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly shimmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes..."'

Professor Snape, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Ulrich Molitor, De laniis et phitonicis mulieribus ad illustrissimum principem dominum Sigismundum archiducem Austrie tractatus pulcherrimus (1489/90)Original Source: IA.5209.

Witches with a Cauldron
The first printed image of witches with a cauldron is found in this book, printed at Cologne in 1489.

This illustration shows two elderly women placing a snake and a cockerel into a large cauldron, in a bid to summon up a hailstorm. Popular perceptions of witches as ugly, haggard and demonic can ultimately be traced to this highly influential publication.

An exploded cauldron (20th century)Original Source: The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, 170

An Exploded Cauldron
This cauldron is no longer in pristine condition. It reportedly exploded when a group of modern-day Cornish witches were using it to brew a potion on the beach. So the story goes, when ‘it was realised that the volume of the smoke was reaching unprecedented proportions … they lost their nerve and panicked and fled the spot as best they could.’ When their friends visited the site, all they found was this damaged cauldron, coated in a black, tarry substance.

Visitor in Potions room with Jim Kay's portrait of Professor SnapeThe British Library

"Hermione threw the new ingredients into the cauldron and began to stir feverishly. 'It'll be ready in a fortnight', she said happily."

Hermione Granger, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Portrait of Professor Severus Snape by Jim Kay, for The Prisoner of AzkabanThe British Library

Professor Snape
This portrait of Severus Snape was painted by Jim Kay for the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

It is rich in symbolism. The bottled mole signifies Snape’s role as a spy for the Order of the Phoenix, while the lilies of the valley by his hands represent his enduring love for Harry’s mother, Lily. The scissors refer to ‘sectumsempra’, the Dark Magic spell Snape invented, and the green cravat and table top echo the colour of his house, Slytherin.

Installing a book in the Potions roomThe British Library

'Snape put them all into pairs and set them to mixing up a simple potion to cure boils.'
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Jacob Meydenbach, Ortus Sanitatis (1491)Original Source: IB.344.

A Potion’s Class
This hand-coloured illustration of a Potions class is found in Hortus Sanitatis (‘The Garden of Health’). Hortus Sanitatis is the first printed encyclopaedia of natural history, and it features sections devoted to plants, animals, birds, fish and stones.

The Potions master is wearing an ermine-lined green cloak, with his assistant holding open a book of recipes.

Bald's Leechbook Bald's Leechbook (10th century)Original Source: Royal MS 12 D XVII

'[Snape] swept around in his long black cloak, watching them weigh dried nettles and crush snake fangs...'

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Bald's LeechbookOriginal Source: Royal MS 12 D XVII

Bald’s Leechbook
This Anglo-Saxon recipe book is named after its first owner, Bald, a 10th-century physician. Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of everything then known about medicine. One remedy against snakebite prescribes drinking the herb betony mixed with wine; another recommends smearing earwax on the wound while reciting a prayer.

An apothecary’s shop, in a surgeon’s manuscript (14th century)Original Source: Sloane MS 1977

Ye Olde Apothecary’s Shoppe
Seven hundred years ago, you would have had to visit an apothecary to buy your potions or ingredients, like betony or bezoar stones. This medieval illustration shows an apothecary – a medical professional, the equivalent to a modern pharmacist – working in his shop. He has handed a striped jar to his customer.

Hanging from the ceiling is a dish used for mixing the ingredients.

Pierre Pomet, A Compleat History of Druggs (1748)Original Source: 546.k.19.

The Bezoar Goat
Bezoar stones, a mass of undigested fibre that forms in the stomachs of certain animals, have historically been used as an antidote to poison. They are mostly found in the ‘bezoar goat’, illustrated in A Compleat History of Druggs, but they have also been discovered in the guts of cows and elephants. The medicinal strength of a bezoar reputedly depended on the animal that produced it.

"Blimey, it was lucky you thought of a bezoar..."
George Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

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