Author J.K. Rowling’s use of mythology, legends, ancient languages, botany, and astronomy in creating the world of Harry Potter is magical in itself: Just check out these 14 hidden messages in the Harry Potter books you never noticed. But did you know that some of the magical objects, places, and even people Rowling incorporated into her books are actually real? Readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will remember that Nicolas Flamel was the only known maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone, which can grant immortality: Flamel was over 600 years old in the book. In real life, Flamel was a medieval scholar, philanthropist, and alchemist who did, in fact, pursue the legendary stone. Alas, he didn’t live to see his 600th birthday—he died in 1418, and his tombstone recently went on display at the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit in London and New York.
This sounds like a made-up magical discipline, but alchemy, and alchemists like Nicholas Flamel, did actually exist—even physicist Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy. A medieval forerunner to modern chemistry, alchemy was concerned with the transformation of substances through experimentation. Its practitioners also explored the spiritual and mystical aspects of transformation, which is why they were called “philosophers,” as in the British title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And it could be why the best college ever uses Harry Potter to teach philosophy. Alchemists did, in real life, search for ways to make the stone, as well as transform lead into gold.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and his fellow herbology students learn about mandrakes, whose roots take on human form and whose cries can kill you. Although they aren’t deadly (unless potentially ingested at high doses), mandrakes are a real plant—and their roots do look like small human bodies. Native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, mandrakes were used for their medicinal properties. Rowling also didn’t make up their supposedly fatal cries, as legend has it that the plant’s screams can cause insanity and death. Shakespeare even mentions them in Romeo and Juliet: “…shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth, that living mortals, hearing them, run mad.”
King’s Cross Station
Harry and his friends board the Hogwarts Express to school via Platform 93⁄4 at King’s Cross Station, accessible only to witches and wizards through a brick wall. Although the fictional fractional platform isn’t real, King’s Cross is a real London train station. “King’s Cross, which is one of London’s main railway stations, has a very personal significance for me because my parents met on a train to Scotland which departed from King’s Cross station,” J.K. Rowling wrote on the official Pottermore site. The real King’s Cross took the Harry Potter connection in stride, even using it as a marketing opportunity. Fans can get their picture professionally taken (or you can take your own) with a luggage cart sticking partway into the wall. “It makes me beam proudly every time I pass,” Rowling says. Be warned: Lines for photo ops can be long. Another “real” Potter location is the domicile used as Harry’s old Godric’s Hollow home in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 film.
Snape first mentions a bezoar to Harry Potter in Sorcerer’s Stone, noting it can save people from most poisons. The lesson comes in handy when Harry used a bezoar to do exactly that for his friend Ron in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. But what is a bezoar? As Snape correctly explained, a bezoar is “a stone taken from the stomach of a goat”—or another animal; even humans have been known to have bezoars. They form from indigestible material, such as hair, that collects in the stomach and creates a mass. From the Persian word for “antidote,” bezoars were thought to be a poison cure and became collectibles among the rich. Reportedly, Queen Elizabeth I had one set in a gold ring.
This might be one of the tiny details you missed the first (and second) time you read Harry Potter: At Hogwarts, super-student Hermione is the only one of her friends to elect to study the language of Ancient Runes—which comes in handy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as Dumbledore leaves his copy of Tales of Beedle the Bard, which is written in runes and contains important clues, to her. Although they do take on a mystical significance in the Harry Potter books, runes were a real type of ancient alphabet used by the Germanic peoples of northern Europe and Scandinavia before they adopted the Latin alphabet. The Vikings often left runic inscriptions in places they visited. Harry Potter isn’t the only modern magical tale to use runes: Disney fans might also recognize rune-like symbols in the Scandinavian-inspired Frozen.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore uses a truth potion on evil spy Barty Crouch, Jr.; in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Professor Umbridge threatens to use it on Harry (but Snape says his stash is out). A serum to make people tell the truth would be useful in the muggle world as well as the magical one, but does it really exist? Although they have their limitations and can’t actually be used in official interrogations, some drugs, including barbiturates, have been used as truth serums. They may have the power to make users more honest or uninhibited in what they’re willing to say, as it’s harder for your brain to function and come up with lies when it’s under the influence of these drugs.
Professor Snape’s first questions to Harry in his Year 1 Potions class sound like another language to the boy, who’s just learned that he’s a wizard. But the ingredients Snape lists aren’t made up—they are real plants. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?” Snape asks. Asphodel is a type of tall white flowering plant, a relative of the lily and often associated with death—interesting, considering that Harry’s deceased mother’s name was Lily. Coincidence? Nope: here’s the hidden meaning of Professor Snape’s first words to Harry.
The second item in Snape’s question sounds like a bug that eats wood—but it’s also a real plant. A pleasant-looking herb, wormwood was used to treat gastrointestinal problems (including parasitic worms), and its oil is also used in liquors including vermouth and absinthe. You may find it at the garden store by its Latin name, Artemisia absinthium. By the way, the answer to Snape’s question is that asphodel and wormwood make Draught of Living Death.
Snape’s final question in Harry’s first Potions lesson is the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane—but it’s a trick question, because they are actually the same plant, and a real one, too. Also known as aconite, it produces purple drooped flowers that look like the hook of a monk. But the flowers are very deadly—even brushing up against the plant may be enough to kill you, as reportedly happened to one British gardener in 2014. In the past, the poisonous plant was also used to kill wolves, hence the name “wolfsbane.” In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, wolfsbane is used to make a potion to ease Professor Lupin’s werewolf symptoms.
It’s one of Harry’s most prized possessions: A cloak that renders the wearer invisible. But science has actually made some real-life objects invisible, even if these cloaks aren’t yet available for the public. Scientists from the United Kingdom developed a “surface wave cloak” that manipulates electromagnetic waves to hide objects—even humans could be invisible if wireless sensors were placed on the body, the study author said. Researchers at the University of Rochester also discovered ways to make objects invisible using lenses to manipulate light. Yet other experiments in Montreal produced a “spectral cloak” that hides objects by changing the frequency of light as it hits them. Invisibility cloaks, rare in the wizarding world, may actually be more common here among muggles.
Most people think Nicolas Flamel is the only real person in the Harry Potter books, but that’s not actually the case. Reportedly, a young fan named Natalie McDonald makes a cameo in Goblet of Fire, as the Sorting Hat sorts her into Gryffindor, the same Hogwarts house as Harry. A friend of the real McDonald, a terminal cancer patient from Toronto, wrote to J.K. Rowling and told her about McDonald’s dire condition; Rowling wrote back, even revealing plot twists from future books. But sadly, McDonald didn’t live to see the letter, so Rowling honored her in Goblet of Fire: “‘I do hope this year’s batch of Gryffindors are up to scratch,’ said Nearly Headless Nick, applauding as ‘McDonald, Natalie!’ joined the Gryffindor table,” Rowling wrote. “It was kind of a magical thing that happened in the year after Natalie died,” McDonald’s mother told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.
The real-life version of this plant won’t slowly squeeze you to death like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but it is poisonous, and its spiky seedpods are devilishly creepy-looking. Also called jimsonweed and, officially, Datura stramonium, it’s a nightshade plant, and waits until nighttime to open. Harry Potter‘s version also dislikes sunlight, and is known by the rhyme, “it’s deadly fun, but will sulk in the sun.” If you remember that, you may have what it takes for our Harry Potter quiz that only die-hard fans can ace.
OK, so she’s not exactly real, but the studious, ambitious, and serious “Hermione Granger” might as well be an alias for Rowling herself. “I have often said that Hermione is a bit like me when I was younger,” she reportedly said. “I think I was seen by other people as a right little know-it-all, but I hope that it is clear that underneath Hermione’s swottiness there is a lot of insecurity and a great fear of failure, as shown by her Boggart in Prisoner of Azkaban.” (Hermione’s Boggart, the thing that you’re most afraid of, was Professor McGonagall telling her she’d failed everything.) Rowling has also said her favorite animal is an otter, so it’s no surprise that Hermione’s Patronus (a kind of spirit animal) is an otter, too. Want some more Harry Potter secrets? Check out what the cast really thought about their costumes.