Asphodel, Wormwood, Bezoars, and Aconite

“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”

Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.

“I don’t know, sir.” said Harry.

Well, now the fun begins.

I was not involved in Potter fandom during all those years of speculation about Snape’s true nature, his motives, or his loves. I missed the pre-DH Snape Wars. I missed the Sev/Lily ship. I missed it all. So when I read Harry’s first classroom encounter with Professor Snape, it just looked like Snape was singling out and taunting Harry with questions about things the poor kid couldn’t possibly know about.

But that’s not what some people who’ve spent years reading and thinking about this passage have gotten out of it.

First, let me mention the parts I do “get” without any outside assistance:

  • I get that the bezoar foreshadows Slughorn’s accidental poisoning of Ron Weasley, when Harry takes the Half-Blood Prince’s suggestion just to shove a bezoar down his friend’s throat.
  • I get that monkshood/wolfsbane/aconite foreshadows the arrival of Lupin as DADA professor during Harry’s third year.
  • I get that Snape only takes takes single points from Harry on this first encounter – despite Harry’s impression that Snape really hates him. (Admittedly, the second point Snape takes is unfair)
  • And I, of course, get why Hagrid won’t look Harry in the eye when he says that Snape has no reason to hate him.

But then there’s asphodel and wormwood, which – from what I have gathered – is one of the original foundations of the Sev/Lily ship. Here’s what Iggy wrote recently on the CoS Forum about Snape’s asphodel and wormwood question:

There were a few hints or things that made people consider [Sev/Lily]. In Snape’s first Potions class, he talks about the combination of two ingredients, Asphodel and Wormwood. Wormwood is a very bitter root, and Asphodel is a type of lily. Snape says these two create the Draught of Living Death, and in DH, there are a few instances where Snape’s eyes suggest he’s, to use a somewhat melodramatic phrase, dead inside.

Another commenter here, Judith, was kind enough to leave a link in a comments thread to a post she wrote several months before the publication of DH, in which she argues that…

Asphodel symbolically means death, esp. death of someone beloved to the person who offers asphodel. Asphodel is also a lily. Wormwood symbolically means bitter sorrow. So in essence, Snape is asking Harry if he knows what death wrapped in bitter sorrow is. Or put another way, he might be trying to tell Harry that he loved her and that he bitterly regrets Lily’s death.

Harry, of course, ignorant of not just the wizarding world, but of symbolism, feels the clue-by-four whizz over his head and begins to wonder why Snape appears to be singling him out for abuse.

Snape, of course, feels Harry (whose mother was a Potions prodigy) is being remarkably obtuse and/or possibly spurning his carefully couched condolences.

Additionally, I have discovered this rather extensive blog post on the Asphodel and Wormwood theory.

In essence, what these interpretations tell us is that it’s possible that Snape is not taunting Harry at all, but is rather giving him symbolic information, possibly even condolences on the loss of his mother.

So for those of you who have spent considerably more time in thinking about this passage than I have, I would love to hear your perspectives on Snape’s first interrogation of Harry… and on asphodel and wormwood. What was he really trying to accomplish in this encounter? Was he trying to put Harry in his place? Or was he trying to accomplish something else? Or both?

And with that, we will next turn to Chapter 9, “The Midnight Duel.”

26 responses to “Asphodel, Wormwood, Bezoars, and Aconite

  1. I don’t tend to think Snape was trying to tell Harry anything about his feelings. I do think Rowling chose the ingredients for their symbolic meanings (already described). I also think she chose the name of the potion she decided those ingredients made, “living death”. There are a couple instances scattered through the books in which Snape’s eyes are described as empty or dead.

    • I’ve always wondered, though, if the references to his eyes looking empty and dead – particularly in DH – are a result of his need to close down his emotions. In DH in particular, his actions belie his dead, cold eyes.

      • His eyes are so described in this chapter: “His eyes were black like Hagrid’s, but they had none of Hagrid’s warmth. They were cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels.”

        I’m not sure what to make of it. :-)

      • Yes, the description of his eyes in PS/SS is something I noticed. And at this point in the series, it may be true that he’s dead inside.

        Iggy was mentioning DH in particular in the passage I quoted from her. And I think there that he is hiding himself behind a death mask when Harry sees him in the presence of Voldemort.

      • Yes, I was thinking specifically about the death mask look right before he dies and that moment during The Sacking of Severus Snape when his eyes have “a dead, cold look.”

        There may be more in DH, but those are the ones I remember.

  2. Post DH, in addition to the symbolism of wormwood and asphodel, it seems to me that Snape is testing Harry to see if he’s inherited Lily’s potions talent. Apparently Harry didn’t.

    • Yes, good point. Of course, we’re not entirely sure if Lily and Severus were separately talented at potions or if they helped each other or if he helped her (or she helped him). But it’s clear that Lily was a talented girl.

  3. Aside from Snape’s “regrets follow you to the grave” (Asphodel) and his “bitter regret” (Wormwood) leaving him in a state of ‘Living Death’ – I also see the other questions as more than just a foreshadowing of events.

    The Bezoar as an antidote to the poison within him – to purge him of his days as a DE. And the Monkshood/Wolfsbane/Aconite reference is particularly symbolic to me.

    In the ‘Language of Flowers’ (HEAVILY used in the 19th century of England) Monkshood stands for Chivalry or the Knight Errant – while Aconite stands for Misanthropy. I was having trouble with the same plant meaning such different things when Arithmancer pointed out that most of the poison of the plant is in the ‘root’ – so the ‘root’ is mostly called aconite. So, the way I see it – it is symbolic of Sev’s ‘roots’ his youth both in the muggle world and at Hogwarts that lead to his misanthropy – his signing on as a DE. While the flower names (Monkshood – so named for the apparent ‘cowl’ or hood and Helmet Flower) refer to the ‘head’. Once Snape comes to his senses (with the shock of the threat to Lily), he become the chivalric knight in duty to his ‘lady’ — Hwyla

  4. Lots of good points but in some ways perhaps we are “reading too much into” Snape’s question at this point. About the meaning of those ingredients. For there are at least 3 viewpoints to take into consideration here. Snape, JK, and Harry. I’m sure JK intended the symbolism described from her viewpoint as author. I don’t believe however that Snape was trying to send a symbolic message to Harry. His message to Harry/the class seemed plain enough to me: that in his potions class, intelligence/knowledge and experience ruled. Rather than popularity or “celebrity”. Unlike all the students and probably most of the teachers, Snape was not “in awe” of Harry. He asked Harry a very difficult potions question (knowing that Harry could not answer it–having been raised by non-wizards) and one that (to me) smacks of the Dark Arts too! A sleeping potion so potent that it can cause death! For a first class with first-years, Snape’s discussion of potions seems almost too advanced—the living death potion, how to save yourself if poisioned, etc. How about taking a few moments to consider Snape’s motivations in presenting potions in such a dramatic fashion?
    Finally, as to the “dead, empty” look of Snape’s black eyes. That’s logical to me, from two different perspectives: the emotional impact of Lily’s death and the probably almost total emotional repression/control in his role as double agent. Snape’s defense against Voldemort’s influence/control had to be that strong in order to prevent discovery. The problem with emotional repression is that it eventually spreads to include all emotions. It becomes an unconscious habit. Extinguishing both pain and pleasure.

    • The potion in question is taught at Hogwarts, and since we know that no Dark Arts are taught at Hogwarts, it’s clearly not a Dark Arts potion imo (though it is an advanced one – taught at NEWT level).

      It’s the same potion that Harry later brews with help from Snape’s old potions book and that wins him the vial of Felix Felicis from Slughorn.

    • I don’t think Snape was deliberately answering questions Harrry could not answer. For a couple of reasons – first, he would not necessarily know Harry grew up in complete ignorance of magic. He might have had access to, for (non-random) example, his mother’s Potions book. Second, the questions were not impossible for a Muggle raised student to know the answers to – Hermione could answer all three. This suggests to me that the answers are contained in the first-year text. Snape had no way of knowing whether Harry would be the sort of student to read all his books ahead of time, or not. That “not” proved the answer was, as I see it, a contributing factor to the formation of his belief that in Harry, he was dealing with James, Mark Two.

      I agree about the questions being there to make a point about what matters in class, and as part of the dramatic presentation of Potions as an interesting and worthwhile subject.

    • I like your point about Snape’s emotions being completely stamped out because of the necessity to keep the truth from Voldemort, but I don’t think the questions were only meant to stump Harry. I do believe there was some underlying meaning referencing his mother’s death, but maybe it was meant more for Snape’s benefit than Harry’s.
      It also could have been a small test to determine whether or not he had more of his mother (whom Snape deeply loved and mourned) or more of his father (whom Snape bitterly hated for multiple reasons). When Harry does not show any of his mother’s affinity for potions and then points out Hermoine, Snape has himself determined that there is more James than Lilly in Harry.

      • We must remember that the Dursleys locked all of Harry’s school books away until school. Unless you expect him to read everything on the train ride to Hogwarts?

        Next, Hermione is an overachiever. She has always been the best because she memorizes the text. Dean Thomas didn’t know the answers and he’s a muggleborn. Neville – who is a genius at Herbology of all things – didn’t know the answers either. Draco Malfoy never raised his hand and he had Severus as a godfather.

        Draught of the Living Death is a 6th year potion. While they use the same course books mostly throughout their school years, you expect an 11 year old to read something meant for a high school Junior and to understand and remember it perfectly? Wolfsbane is an advanced potion, disastrous is brewed incorrectly which means it’s either a seventh year potion or not even taught at Hogwarts. The only thing on the list he should have know if he had time to read his books, would be the Bezoar as it is part of the 1st year curriculum.

        Draught of the Living Death induces a death like sleep, not death itself. The sleep is so powerful that if never given Wiggenweld Potion, the affected party will never awaken.

        As for Severus, the part of me that likes him wants to believe that his questions held veiled emotions and deep meaning. The part that acknowledges that he is an immature bastard that needs to get over himself, says that he’s a bully.

  5. Good points, arithmancer! Showing depth of thought. Yes, how would Hermione know unless she had read the textbook before class?! But I still wonder if that potion is really appropriate for first years?? For 11 and 12 year olds? Back to Snape, I still think he was trying to create a scene with Potter. His question singled out Harry. It was not a general question to the class. Snape had to know that Harry was raised by Muggles–if Hagrid and McGonagal knew, then I see no reason why Dumbledore would keep that knowledge from Snape. And, Snape could probably guess exactly where Harry had been sent after the death of his parents. The only (apparent) living relative of Lily Evans–Petunia. And Snape knew Petunia’s attitude towards magic. So the chances of Harry having access to any of his parents’ material possessions was nil.

    • I forgot to welcome you to the blog, DJ.

      I would imagine that Snape had something in mind when he quizzed Potter. Whether it was an attempt to create a scene with the boy or not, though, well, I’m not so sure.

      On the one hand, he is predisposed to have issues with the spawn of James. On the other hand, he has a much bigger job to do that includes having appropriate memories to show Voldemort when Voldemort inevitably returns.

      Clearly establishing a non-relationship with Harry Potter is one possible way of protecting Harry from Voldemort.

      And then of course, there is the possibility of the symbolic content of his interrogation – though I’m inclined to think, as you do, that the symbolism there belongs to JKR not so much to Snape. (I do, however, think that the earlier poetry of his introductory prose does to Snape and is being used to establish character).

      • I don’t think Snape had to worry much about Voldemort checking his memories because there are plenty of scenes revealed in DH2 that showed the relationship between Dumbledore and him, in terms of spying on Voldemort and sending him certain information that is approved by Dumbledore.

        • And even if Snape knew that harry was raised in a muggle family (which is most likely), he would have quizzed harry, because Snape hates Harry.

    • I like your reasoning for why Harry could/should have known the answers to the questions!

      However, as for Hagrid and McGonagall knowing Harry was with muggles, it’s actually quite possible that Snape didn’t know at that point. Remember, in the very first chapter, Minerva meets Dumbledore at the Dursleys’ front garden, and Hagrid is the one to bring little Harry to Dumbledore [and Minerva]– they were both present when Harry was left on the doorstep. Dumbledore, in the hopes of keeping Harry safer, probably didn’t tell anyone else where Harry was who didn’t need to be told– ESPECIALLY one who had a predisposition to hate the child and who had, at one point, been a Death Eater [yes, Dumbles trusts Snape, but at that point, (right after Lily’s death) Dumbles likely wouldn’t have wanted to test his luck, and then afterward it just never came up in conversation].

      The Dursleys were also NOT Harry’s only living relatives, they were *Lily’s* only living relatives; through his father, Harry was related to just about every British pureblood [admittedly to varing degrees]. I believe either Sirius or Ron commented on the fact that all purebloods are interrelated at some point. Saying Harry was doted on by his family could have meant ‘adopted wizarding family’ as well. Given this possibility, Snape may not have even known who Harry lived with ’til the occlumency lessons.

  6. There’s also this, found on the Harry Potter Wiki page concerning Asphodel and Wormwood.

    In Victorian Flower Language Asphodel was a type of lily meaning ‘My regrets follow you to the grave’ and Wormwood means ‘absence’ and typically symbolized bitter sorrow. If you combine that, it means ‘I bitterly regret Lily’s death’. This could be a subtle foreshadow, as this is one of the questions Snape asked Harry in the first book, voicing his regret.

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