The Meaning of "Expecto Patronum": From Hogwarts to Ancient Rome!
No, Not THAT Kind of Patronus!
Latin, Language of Wizards
As a former Latin instructor, I'm delighted by the use of Latin at Hogwarts. It's a fun way to expose 21st century lectores (readers) to that ancient tongue. Rowling has apparently forgotten most of her school-Latin, but I've forgotten all my French, so I can sympathize.
Some Harry Potter Latin is perfectly good Latin: accio, "I summon," evanesco, "I vanish," cruciatus, "torture," and ridiculus, which means exactly what you think (except I think Rowling spelled it funny). Some Hogwarts spells are ancient Greek or Latin, but the grammar is a bit dodgy: oppugno av[e]s, "I attack the birds," is probably not what Hermione meant to say when she ordered birds to attack Ron, and anapneo, Greek for "I breathe," is not a helpful thing to say when someone else is choking.
A few Hogwarts spells are fake Latin: wingardium leviosa gives itself away with the English word "wing" (Latin doesn't have the letter "w"). A very few spells are not Latin or Greek, and appear to be gibberish, although avada kedavra is probably some alternate form of "abracadabra."
Then there's expecto patronum, meaning "I await a patron." That translation doesn't explain much, does it? What does "patron" really mean?
It appears that Ms. Rowlings looked up the English word "protector" in a Latin-to-English dictionary and picked patronus, the first word listed as a translation. Fortunately, she aced the grammar on that one; -um turns the -us ending into a direct object. Unfortunately, patronus makes me think of The Sopranos.
Dictionaries do not always give you a complete picture: if I tell you levis translates "light," you won't know whether I mean visible light or a lack of weight, would you? Patronus is another one of those words that loses something in translation.
Harry Potter in Latin
Someday, I need to get around to reading Harry Potter in English. This is a fair Latin translation -- at least, I assume it is -- and a fun way to practice Latin. I was stumped by some of the foods and flavors the first time through, however, and kept having to reach for a dictionary. ("Earwax"? That can't be right.)
The Real Meaning of Patronus
So, then, what is a patron? Essentially, a patronus in ancient Rome was a rich, powerful man who would defend his clientes (clients) in lawsuits, assist them in business transactions, find them plum jobs, and pay them a small daily allowance in exchange for certain services. The clientes' role was to visit their patron's house each morning, ready to take on whatever errands or assignments the patronus commanded, and to provide an escort for him when he went out into the city.
Patronage was the way young, upwardly mobile Romans made their way up the social ladder, like Percy attaching himself to Cornelius Fudge. For the rich and powerful patron, a crowd of clientes waiting at your door was a symbol of your prestige, like the number of friends or followers in a social network (only rather more significant). Clientes also served as vital security and protection at a time before police escorts, effective locks, or fully-enclosed vehicles. The patronage system also supported the arts. Like ancient Andrew Carnegies, wealthy patrons funded poets and artists, in exchange for an occasional flattering poem or sculpture that preserved their name and fame for eternity.
The patronage system was the secret of Rome's staying power: it assumed political cronyism, bribery, lobbyists, rigged elections and corruption as a fact, and incorporated them into the system. Over the centuries, as the central government of Imperial Rome slowly crumbled, the patronage system endured. I have never seen a historical study on the subject, but I am fairly certain that the patronage system lasted right through the Middle Ages to become the Italian mafia. In the mafia, aristocratic Rome survives to this day.
To expect a patron was to expect your boss to bribe a judge if you got sued, or at least defend you in court as your lawyer and bribe the jury. I don't think ancient Roman patroni would have been a match for Dementors, although they might have tried to hire them as guards for their estates.
What other words might fit Rowling's intended meaning? I feel a certain hubris in offering advice, but I might suggest expecto custodem (guard) or expecto genium (guardian spirit), unless she really intended for Harry Potter to be calling on The Godfather.
- Roman Social Class and Public Display: Who's Who in Roman Society
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- Latin Spells in Harry Potter: Translation, Meanings, and a Fun Quiz!
My translation of the Latin spells in Harry Potter: not what they do, but what the Latin words mean. Also a trivia quiz to test your Potter lore!