“I don’t think everyone should believe in magic, but I’m not sure I would trust anyone who doesn’t,” says JK Rowling, who created the spellbinding world of Harry Potter.


The books have sold more than 400 million copies and spawned a multimillion-dollar film franchise; Rowling is reportedly worth £600 million. Yet the Hogwarts universe isn’t wholly fiction – Rowling was inspired by a history of magic, alchemy and folklore and wove it into her stories.

Twenty years after the publication of the first Harry Potter book, The Philosopher’s Stone, a new British Library exhibition displays the objects that inspired Rowling to write one of the most influential series of novels in the world.

Chinese oracle bone

Chinese Oracle Bones (British Library, EH)
(British Library)

This artefact from 1192 BC was used in an ancient Chinese divination ritual. Questions relating to subjects such as warfare and natural disasters would be engraved on the bone before heat was applied with metal sticks, causing it to crack. The diviners would then interpret the patterns of the fractures.

What did it inspire?

Divination is one of the most important subjects at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. “I have a lot of fun with divination in the Potter books because I make it clear that you get lucky once every million times,” says Rowling. “Free will is the abiding principle of the Potter books, not prophecy.”

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Ripley scrolls

Ripley Scroll (British Library, EH)
(British Library)

The 16th-century Ripley scrolls are named after George Ripley, an English alchemist who wrote a book on how to make the philosopher’s stone — the ultimate aim in alchemy — which would turn all metal into gold and bestow immortality. This six-metre-long manuscript depicts Ripley’s instructions for creating the philosopher’s stone.

What did they inspire?

One of the few who claimed to have success (despite failing to achieve immortality) was Nicolas Flamel, a 14th-century alchemist, bookseller and scribe. “I had a really vivid dream about Nicholas Flamel while writing The Philosopher’s Stone,” says Rowling. “I dreamt I was in his alchemist’s studio.”

Olga Hunt’s broomstick

Olga Hunt Broomstick (Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall, EH)
(Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall)

This colourful broomstick is said to have been owned by a Devonshire woman named Olga Hunt. When there was a full moon, legend has it that Olga could be spotted leaping around Haytor Rocks on Dartmoor.

What did it inspire?

Forget football — at Hogwarts it’s all about Quidditch, where the students fly through the air on broomsticks just like this.

Lists of Hogwarts subjects and teachers

A list of Hogwarts subjects and teachers handwritten by JK (JK Rowling, EH)
(JK Rowling)

In this handwritten note, made as she was writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling has listed the subjects taught at Hogwarts alongside the prospective names of their teachers. The lists of Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers include the unfamiliar names Enid Pettigrew and Oakden Hernshaw; neither appears in the published books.

The Phoenix

A phoenix rising from the ashes in a 13th-century bestiary (British Library, EH)
(British Library)

This 13th-century illuminated manuscript shows a phoenix, a fictional creature that resurrects itself in old age. It creates its own funeral pyre from branches and plants before fanning the flames with its own wings in order to be consumed by the fire. On the ninth day, it rises from the ashes.

What did it inspire? In the Potter books, headteacher Albus Dumbledore has a phoenix named Fawkes as his faithful messenger and friend. “It’s my favourite creature,” says Rowling.


Mermaid (Trustees of the British Museum, EH)
(Trustees of the British Museum)

This figure of a mermaid from the 18th-century Edo period in Japan is said to have been caught in the sea more than 200 years ago. On loan from the British Museum, it’s actually composed of the upper part of a monkey’s body and a fish’s tail.

What did it inspire?

There’s a colony of warlike merpeople in the great lake at Hogwarts, who first appear in The Goblet of Fire.


Harry Potter: a History of Magic is on Saturday 28th October at 9pm on BBC2