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.”