Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: Sibyll Trelawney, the Prophet

In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Sibyll Trelawney

Hermione Granger once referred to Sibyll* Trelawney as an “old fraud,” and perhaps she’s right. The vast majority of Trelawney’s in-text predictions are debatable at best, meanwhile her legitimate prophecies seem to be erased from her memory as soon as she’s voiced them. But the prophet’s mission is not to adhere to social norms or even to make others into believers—their purpose is to speak, to reveal the truth, and allow others to do with that what they will. The prophet does not partake or interfere with the action, but lets events unfold as they are meant to.

One thing we learn about prophecy in Harry Potter and, indeed, most any media that uses it as a narrative tool, is that often it’s only destiny because it’s self-fulfilling. In the case of the Potterverse, Trelawney’s prophecy about Voldemort and Harry would not have come to pass if Voldemort himself either hadn’t heard of it, or if he had chosen to ignore it.

“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…”

As Dumbledore later tells Harry, by believing the prophecy to be irreversible truth, and believing it to mean Harry rather than the other possibility, Neville, Voldemort gave Harry the power to defeat him. And what’s more is that he gave Lily the opportunity to either save or sacrifice herself for her son, thereby offering Harry a shield of protection that would last long after her body fell. And so we see that the truth Trelawney spoke was only truth because Voldemort made it so; the power lays less with the prophet and entirely with the subject of her predictions.

This is evident in some of Trelawney’s less-reliable predictions as well, as we may examine here:

  • In Prisoner of Azkaban, Neville breaks the teacup Trelawney says he will break, but there’s a good chance that clumsy Neville would have dropped a cup regardless of whether or not Trelawney put the fear of god into him. In the event that Trelawney is self-aware enough to know that she’s living a lie, it’s likely that she picked up some tricks of the trade in an attempt to pass herself off as genuine, one of which is the ability to read people. Thirteen-year-old Neville is an easy read, especially if tales of his struggles were ever the subject of Hogwarts gossip, which we often see travels at the speed of light.
  • Trelawney’s warning to Lavender is easily debunked as the power of suggestion more than anything mystical. On the predicted sixteenth of October, Lavender’s purportedly most dreaded fear was realized when she received word that her bunny had been killed by a fox. As Hermione points out, “Binky didn’t even die today, did he? Lavender just got the news today.” Not only that, but considering that Binky was only a baby, why would Lavender be dreading his death? Considering that Lavender fell under Trelawney’s spell from day one, it’s more likely that whatever bad thing happened that day, Lavender would claim it to be something she had been dreading.
  • Trelawney’s prediction that “one of our number will leave us forever” came to pass when Hermione quit the class, but it’s likely that Hermione wasn’t the first to walk out of Divination due to pure aggravation with the subject and its teacher. Truly, Trelawney proves herself to be sanctimonious in the face of any who would doubt or challenge her, so it stands to reason that she’s instigated her fair share of walk-outs.

Despite these hiccups, there was one of Trelawney’s in-class observations that turned out to be true. From Goblet of Fire:

“I was saying that Saturn was surely in a position of power in the heavens at the moment of your birth… your dark hair… your mean stature… tragic losses so young in life… I think I am right in saying, my dear, that you were born in mid-winter?”

“No,” said Harry, “I was born in July.”

It may very well be that she’s reading the piece of Voldemort’s soul that is as of yet unknown to Harry, as Tom Riddle was born on December 31st and, like Harry, possesses all the aforementioned qualities.

In Half-Blood Prince, twice does Harry cross paths with Trelawney while she’s muttering to herself and shuffling through “a pack of dirty-looking playing cards”—more specifically, Tarot, with which Trelawney predicts elements from the end of the book. While it’s likely that Rowling uses these scenes as a simple thematic device, since Tarot does not work in the way Trelawney uses it here, it nevertheless offers insight within the narrative. Trelawney’s first reading, “A dark young man, possibly troubled, one who dislikes the questioner,” could, in this context, refer to Harry’s dislike of her, or possibly Malfoy’s dislike of Snape during their run-ins regarding the former’s mission for Voldemort. Trelawney’s second shuffle through the cards is less ambiguous, and indeed clear foreshadowing of Dumbledore’s death: “The lightning-struck tower… Calamity. Disaster. Coming nearer all the time.”

Much like Neville’s teacup, Trelawney’s reading here could be the markings of a Seer, or simply her conclusion after the reappearance of Voldemort—which would lend an abundance of calamity and disaster—and Dumbledore’s obvious weariness as of late.

It does, however, seem that Trelawney is self-aware in her falsehoods

Trelawney’s appearance and overall demeanor are described in eccentric terms. Perhaps this is another trick of the trade, and she presents herself so dramatically in an effort to beguile and impress, or she has been genuinely made this way by years of dabbling in the supernatural, an activity that would no doubt leave lingering effects.

It does, however, seem that Trelawney is self-aware in her falsehoods, as she prefers to create an environment of ambiance rather than actual fact. And although her confidence in her abilities is strong in the face of dubious students, when questioned by an authority figure—namely, Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix—Trelawney noticeably fumbles her way through the inquisition. Now, it may very well be that Trelawney’s mental state has been affected by a lifetime of mystical musings (as is the case with many prophets), and Umbridge continually proves herself a difficult adversary, so it’s equally as likely that Trelawney snapped under such pressure.

In further efforts to legitimize her abilities, Trelawney often boasts that she is the great-great-granddaughter of the famed Seer Cassandra, a claim that alone led Dumbledore to admit her a job interview years before the events of the series. In Greek mythology, Cassandra is a princess of Troy with whom the god Apollo fell in love and bestowed upon her the gift of prophecy; and when his love went unreciprocated, rather than revoke the gift, Apollo cursed Cassandra so that no one would believe her predictions, nor any of those who would come after her. Considering Trelawney’s accurate predictions and how often she is dismissed as a fraud, many fans believe that Trelawney is descended from this particular Cassandra. This theory is, however, questionable for two reasons: One, Cassandra Trelawney is cited as a celebrated Seer, so her abilities were never doubted (unless Apollo’s curse only affected non-magical peoples); and two, it seems unlikely that only three generations would pass between an ancient Greek story and Trelawney’s birth (although, considering the extended lifespans of wizardkind, this is up for debate).

Considering Trelawney’s accurate predictions and how often she is dismissed as a fraud, many fans believe that Trelawney is descended from this particular Cassandra.

So is Sibyll Trelawney a real Seer, a true prophet, or does she simply take her ancestry and roll with it? Is her lifestyle some sort of purposeful long con, or does she truly believe that she has this gift? Does she use others’ general disdain for Divination as a shield to assure herself that she does indeed possess the Sight for which her great-great-grandmother was so famed? Or does she fear her own potential power, so much so that she dresses it up in dramatics and inaccuracies to protect herself?

Certainly Trelawney retains some vestiges of Cassandra’s powers, as two of her predictions inarguably came to pass. She speaks in theatrics that may or may not be fulfilled, and in truths that she cannot recall, and perhaps that is the sign of the true prophet—one who can’t interfere in the future because they, like the rest of us, don’t know what that future holds. Harry is made privy to the destiny Trelawney predicted for him and takes hold of it, but in the end she herself is more human than mystical. But despite all her over-the-top showmanship, there is something within Trelawney that she is able to tap into—she proves herself a prophet when it comes to changing the Wizarding world, and in the case of Harry Potter, that’s all she ever needed to do.

*Professor Trelawney’s first name is subject to some variations in the Harry Potter novels—“Sybill” in the UK edition and “Sibyll” in the US. As someone who grew up with the latter, that’s the spelling I chose to stick with.

Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.