I had a conversation at dinner that was inspired by several things that I’ve been reading and thinking about for a while. Mostly, the question is, Why isn’t the magic in Harry Potter more like real magic?
For clarification, by “real magic” I mean the magic that was used by actual pre-Christian pagans. We can find this sort of magic written down by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Hebrews, and other groups around the Mediterranean. In Northern Europe, we can find the remains of what we assume to be runic magic and some written reports by conquering Mediterranean groups. Both myself and my conversational partner have had some experience studying Mediterranean-based pre-Christian magic in our academic fields, so I’d like to think that we aren’t totally off-base.
Some inspiration for this came from writing my own fic, Alchemy, Draegyn's H is for Helga series, and from several fics whose titles and authors I sadly do not remember and thus cannot properly credit, but who delightfully discuss the usage and regulation of magic within legal and traditional systems in Harry Potter's Britain.
In any case, before I start harping on the differences between real magic and Harry Potter magic, I would like to admit that there are some similarities. For example, the mangled Latin of the spells is true to form. I am currently looking over some of my old textbooks and in The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation there are many spells that make use of mangled foreign, older, or otherwise strange languages. It is often currently believed that using languages strange to the ears of both the user and anyone listening made the spell appear more magical.
However, of all of the magic used in the Harry Potter books, my conversational partner and I realised that Professor Snape's seems truest to form. I noticed this myself when I was researching old alchemical texts for use in Alchemy. (Note that not all alchemy is devoted to turning base metals into gold.) For example, for the whitening if pearls, calls for dissolving quicklime in the milk from a white dog, which one then kneads around the pearl. Obviously, some recipes are simpler than others, but many of Snape's recipes and concoctions, as well as his ingredients and methods, appear to hearken back to the writings of Maria the Jewess and Zosimos.
Where are the prayers to the gods? (Okay, I realise that Rowling is writing for a twentieth/twenty-first century audience and I'm not totally insane, but hear me out.) Most ancient magicians relied upon the power of their gods to work their magic. Even the Christian alchemists laid their gifts at the feet of saints and their Trinity. In the books, we have not seen Pansy make a sacrifice to Hecate. Nor does Snape explain that the knowledge of potions came from St. Jerome who was inspired by God in his holy wisdom. They rely upon themselves for their gifts.
Wands. What's with the wands? This is chasingtides admitting that she doesn't know when wands came into play. Harry Potter wizards appear fairly dependent upon wands and there is a great deal of fuss made, both in canon and fanon, when wandless magic is performed. (This is another place where Snape, with his disdain for "foolish wandwaving," hearkens to the traditional magician.) According to the sign on Ollivander's storefront, wizards have been using wands since 382 B.C. Why is Harry Potter magic so dependent upon the use of a hair/heartstring/horn encased in wood? Is the wand a replacement of the traditional prayer?
Wands also seem to be something of a liability. What would one do if one lost the wand? An ancient magician could always give supplication to Selene or Hecate or any deity associated with magic? But if you are dependent upon a stick and you lose it, you're fairly screwed. (Also, the likelihood of an eleven year old losing a stick - fairly high. Think of how many times you've lost your car keys/good pen/purse/wallet/glasses - now pretend you're eleven and you only get one.) Potions is treated as fairly disgusting and almost useless, though that might have more to do with Snape than the subject matter. However, Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, both forms of wandless magic, are also scorned, treated as dry and boring. It almost appears as though the wizards of Harry Potter want to depend upon their wands for their very survival. (And what happens if, since we do have a convenient homicidal psychopath running amuck in the countryside, Ollivander and his ilk are killed and the art of wandmaking is either lost or greatly diminished?)