Feeling Pensive and the Pensieve

The end of a year and the beginning of a year is a time when it would not be unusual to be in a pensive mood.  The word is defined as being engaged in or reflecting deep or serious thoughts.

Like many of you, I tend to review the year in late December more intensely than at other times of the year. This year I found myself looking into photo albums (the physical kind) at my life and the lives of my now-grown sons.  Objects – like photos and journals – are objects that can evoke strong memories, both good and bad.

A “Pensieve” is something from the fiction of Harry Potter’s literary world.  My wife and I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, and on the walk through their Hogwarts, we saw a Pensieve.

pensieve
A poor photo I took of the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office while on the ride tour at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida.

That Pensieve and the ones seen in the film versions of the books look a lot like something I saw in my childhood Catholic church. The baptismal font that would be filled with water for baptisms of infants can appear in many shapes and styles from simple to ornate. Many are often symbolically eight-sided for eight days of creation and as a connection to the practice of circumcision, which traditionally occurs on the eighth day. Some are three-sided as a reminder of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These fonts are often placed at or near the entrance to a church’s nave to remind believers of their baptism as they enter the church since baptism was their initiation into the Church. In many churches of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there was a special chapel or even a separate building for housing the baptismal fonts, called a baptistery.

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours  them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”
— Albus Dumbledore’s explanation of the Pensieve

The Pensieve is a fictional magical object from the Harry Potter series of books and movies. It is a way to review memories.

Physically it is a wide and shallow dish made of metal or stone, that can be elaborately decorated or inlaid with precious stones. The Hogwarts Pensieve is made of ornately carved stone and is engraved with modified Saxon runes,Only the most advanced wizards use them and there are fears about their use.  It is filled with a silvery substance that appears to be a cloudy liquid and gas which are the collected memories of people who have siphoned their recollections into it.

By gazing deeply into it, memories can be viewed by the owner or from a third-person point of view by someone else. I could look into it and see your memories if you had siphoned them into the bowl. Gazing into a liquid and “reflecting” is obviously part of the symbolism here.

The “pensive” of Harry Potter’s world is a homonym of “pensive” with a wink at the “sieve” part which alludes to the object’s ability to sort meanings from the many thoughts or memories it receives, like an actual sieve.  “Pensive” comes from late Middle English and earlier from Old French pensif, from penser “to think” from Latin pensare “to ponder” and also pendere “weigh.”

According to J.K. Rowling,  the possible dangers of using the Pensieve relate to its power over memory and because someone else can relive your memories in every detail. That is dangerous if you have memories you want hidden. Pensieves are generally buried along with their owner’s wand for that reason.

Albus Dumbledore allows Harry to use the Hogwarts Pensieve. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he adds thoughts to the Pensieve. The Pensieve reminds us that Snape and Harry are forever connected. Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, and now is bound to protect Harry.

The Hogwarts Pensieve does not belong to an individual but to the school and has been used by many headmasters and headmistresses. Their memories remain within it.  This forms an invaluable library of reference for the headmaster or headmistress of the day.

In the second film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape’s memories are taken in the form of his tears. Severus Snape is not known for crying or warm emotions, but he tells Harry to put the tears in the Pensieve so that he may see something of his past and connections to him.

The connection between the Hogwart’s Pensieve and its use and the baptismal font is a tenuous one. The connection between using that magical object and reviewing our memories with or without some object to aid us is clear.

Harry Dumbledore Pensieve
Dumbledore and Harry at the Pensieve as a Christmas tree ornament

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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