The Flour of Chivalry: King Arthur Flour and American Medievalism

Recently, King Arthur flour is having a moment, as people under stay-at-home orders turn to baking to fill time and relieve stress. King Arthur flour has ramped up production and posted recipes, blog entries, and how-to-videos aimed at the quarantine market.

I had actually been thinking about King Arthur flour and planning my own blog entry about it even before the virus hit us. In fact, I’d just picked up the interlibrary loan books I needed when my institution went to remote learning, but the demands of online teaching meant I haven’t been able to blog until now.

King Arthur flour had come up in my Making History class (an introductory course for history majors) as part of our study of medievalism (the appropriation of medieval material in modern contexts). We’d read about American medievalism in Marcus Bull’s Thinking Medieval, which had a passing mention of the Knights of King Arthur, a boys’ organization similar to the Boy Scouts, founded in New England in 1893.1 In class, I asked the students if they were aware of any other Arthurian connections associated with New England, and one student answered right away, “You mean King Arthur flour?” I did. But I didn’t know anything more about the company than the name and that they were based in New England. Time for research!

I knew that Howard Pyle’s illustrated retellings of the King Arthur stories (which I read as a child and which I’m sure influenced my choice of scholarly specialty) dated from around 1900.2 Given that the Arthurian boys’ clubs were founded in 1893, I wondered if the flour company also began around that time and could be seen as an example of a fin-de siècle American fashion for things Arthurian.

It turned out that I was half right. The company was actually founded in Boston in 1790, not 1890, as Henry Wood and Company, selling flour imported from England. They began selling American-grown and milled flour in the 1820s. In 1896, the company, known since 1890 as Sands, Taylor, and Wood, introduced a new, high-end flour. One of the partners, George Wood, had recently attended a play about King Arthur in Boston, and, in the words of the company history published in their 200th anniversary cookbook,3

came away feeling that the values inherent in the Arthurian legends, purity, loyalty, honesty, superior strength and a dedication to a higher purpose, were the values that most expressed their feelings about their new flour. So it was decided that King Arthur would be its symbol.

King Arthur Flour at the Boston Food Fair, 1896
King Arthur Flour was introduced at the Boston Food Fair in 1896.

The new product was introduced at the Boston Food Fair in 1896, promoted by a man dressed in armor riding through the streets of Boston on a horse. An article in the Boston Post described the scene:4

A horseman clad in glittering armor and armed cap-a-pie [head-to-foot] has been creating no small sensation of late as he guided his prancing steed through the streets of the Hub. No stranger contrast can well be imagined than this figure of medieval romance set down in the busy turmoil and traffic of modern Boston.

It seems at first sight that one of Walter Scott’s heroes had come to life again, or, perchance, that a new Don Quixote had arisen to tilt against the deadly trolley.

The Crusaders’ cross gleams on the coat of mail and adorns the silken standard that he bears aloft. It is, in truth, King Arthur come to earth again—the picture of that gallant warrior is literally perfect. The standard bears the legend ‘King Arthur Flour,’ and the inference is obvious—that as King Arthur was a champion without fear and above reproach, so is King Arthur Flour the peerless champion of modern civilization.

The writer makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in accuracy. Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (which we also read in Making History) was enormously popular in the nineteenth century and enormously influential in creating the modern understanding of the Middle Ages (which is the reason we read it in Making History), but it has nothing to do with King Arthur—it’s set in England in the late twelfth century, the time of Good King Richard and Bad Prince John.5 Further, King Arthur never went on Crusade, so his depiction with a Crusaders’ cross can’t really be called “literally perfect.” And I’m not at all sure what Don Quixote is doing there. Over a thousand years of history has been compressed into a single medieval moment—King Arthur, Crusaders, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Don Quixote all ride through the streets of modern Boston at the same time.

This medieval mashup is also seen in the original King Arthur Flour logo, a version of which still adorns the company’s bags of unbleached flour. In the original version, not only is King Arthur dressed as a Crusader—a Templar, in fact—but in the background you can see palm trees and a desert sun setting behind the walls of a Middle Eastern city.

Vintage King Arthur flour logo
Vintage King Arthur Flour logo, with the Middle Eastern setting.

This discrepancy was eventually noticed by the company, and in the 200th anniversary cookbook, the author, Brinna Sands (married to a fifth-generation member of the Sands family that had been involved with the company since 1840), wrote,6

When our logo was conceived a century ago, the artist inadvertently placed King Arthur in the Middle East as if he were a crusader. King Arthur may have been a crusader, but not in the sense the term is generally accepted. His Crusade was in the land of hill fort “castles’ and ancient oaks which we have substituted for the palm trees and mosques.

Logo from the 200th anniversary cookbook
Logo from the 200th anniversary cookbook, showing a castle and “ancient oaks”

The logo is simplified now, with neither palm trees nor ancient oaks in the background. They still celebrate the Arthurian connection, however. The company name was changed from Sands, Taylor and Wood to The King Arthur Flour Company in 1999.7 The commercial product line (sold only in 50-pound bags) includes Sir Galahad (all-purpose), Sir Lancelot (high gluten), and Round Table (low protein) flours. Queen Guinevere, however, has been dethroned, as her namesake product, a bleached cake flour, was discontinued when they developed an unbleached version. The campus in Vermont, where they moved in 1984, is known as Camelot.

I’ll definitely be doing some research on the Arthurian boys’ clubs for a future blog. But now I think I’ll go bake something.

Vergil or Virgil: What’s in a Roman Name?

Yesterday I made a brief Facebook post regarding an insight one of my students had during a discussion of Book II of Vergil’s Aeneid (the Fall of Troy). The account of the attack on Priam’s palace reminded him of the siege of Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. A friend of mine questioned my spelling of “Vergil” in the post. I assured him that I was correct and realized that this was a perfect opportunity for a blog post on Roman onomastics (the study of naming customs).

My friend thought that the correct spelling for the name of the poet of the Aeneid is “Virgil.” He’s not wrong: look at the cover of my (well-thumbed) copy of the Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid.

So why did I write “Vergil” and not “Virgil”? The poet, of course, didn’t spell his name either of those ways. His full name was Publius Vergilius Maro. But that just leads us to another question: why are we referring to him by a shortened form of his middle name? Well, it’s not a middle name in our understanding of the term—that is, the second of two personal names chosen by our parents, and followed by our last name, which is the family name. The name in the middle position of a 3-part Roman male name was not a personal name chosen by one’s parents; it was part of the family name. In other words, Publius Vergilius Maro’s father and brothers would also be named Firstname Vergilius Maro, and not Firstname Middlename Maro.

Here’s how it worked. The name of a male Roman typically had three parts:

The praenomen (first name) Marcus
The nomen (clan or gens name): Tullius
The cognomen (branch of the gens): Cicero

There were so few praenomines available that the Romans developed a set of standard abbreviations for them; these abbreviations are found, for example, in inscriptions on Roman monuments. They are also commonly used by modern writers. So we could refer to our poet as P. Vergilius Maro, and there would be no doubt that we are talking about a Publius. Here are all the praenomines and their abbreviations (I tell my students that an ancient Roman baby name book was a single page):

A.Aulus
App.Appius
C.Caius or Gaius
Cn.Cnaeus or Gnaeus
D.Decimus
K.Kaeso or Caeso
L.Lucius
M.Marcus
M’Manius
Mam.Mamercus
N.Numerius
P.Publius
Q.Quintus
S. or Sex.Sextus
Ser.Servius
Sp.Spurius
T.Titus
Ti.Tiberius

Notice that not only are there merely eighteen names to choose from, but some of them are just numbers: Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus (Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth)! I don’t know if those names were reserved for actual fifth, sixth, or tenth sons (or children); I also don’t know why the other numbers are missing.

A boy born after the death of his father was given the praenomen “Postumus.” Sometimes a second cognomen was added (later called an agnomen), especially in honor of military achievements: P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (P. Cornelius Scipio, the conqueror of Africa). If a boy was adopted by another family, he would assume the new family’s nomen and cognomen; his original nomen would have the syllable “an” inserted in it (making it an adjective) and would become his agnomen. For example, when P. Aemilius Paullus was adopted by the Scipio family, his new name became P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (the Aemilian Cornelius Scipio). Similarly, when C. Octavius was adopted by C. Julius Caesar, his new name became C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (the Octavian Julius Caesar). We commonly refer to him as “Octavian.” (Later, he was granted the agnomen “Augustus”).

If this is how male names worked, how about female names? Was there a corresponding list of female praenomines, and was P. Vergilius Maro’s mother known as Mrs. Vergilius Maro? No and no. Female Romans had only one name: the name of their father’s gens (his nomen) with a feminine ending. If a family had more than one daughter, they would be distinguished by maior (the elder) and minor (the younger). Roman women did not change their names at marriage. Here are some examples:

C. Julius Caesar’s daughter = Julia
M. Tullius Cicero’s daughter = Tullia
L. Aemilius Paullus’ daughter = Aemilia
T. Livius’ daughter = Livia

Back to Vergilian spelling. One good indication that a particular Roman has had a prominent place in the western tradition is if his name has been anglicized. We don’t say “Q. Horatius Flaccus”; we say “Horace.” We don’t say “T. Livius”; we say “Livy.” We don’t say “P. Vergilius Maro”; we say “Vergil.” But that still doesn’t answer the question where “Virgil” came from.

The answer is that it comes from the Middle Ages. The poet of the Aeneid was especially revered during the Middle Ages, when his work was used for divination: a questioner would open the Aeneid at random and point to a line, whose significance would then be used to answer the question. This practice is known as the sortes Vergilianae (or Virgilianae). As a result, the poet got a reputation as having been a magician. The Latin word for “magic wand” was virga; hence, his name came to be spelled “Virgilius.” This was later anglicized as Virgil.

Today, both spellings are used and both are acceptable. I prefer “Vergil” because it’s closer to his original name. But if I were writing about medieval uses of the Aeneid (for example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy), I would probably spell it “Virgil.”

Schliemann Syndrome

A trireme. A warp-weighted loom. A hike across the mountains of Attica. A peplos. Jumping weights. Hoplite armor.

What do all these items have in common (apart from their connection to ancient Greece)? They are all examples of a phenomenon in classical studies that I have labeled “Schliemann Syndrome.”

Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) is well known as the excavator of ancient Troy and Mycenae. His work, along with that of other pioneering archaeologists like Sir Arthur Evans, pushed back the boundaries of ancient Mediterranean history by thousands of years. But Schliemann was no average dry-as-dust academic.1

Heinrich Schliemann

Most classical scholars of his era believed that the poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were entirely works of the imagination. Nothing like the Trojan War ever occurred, and the Homeric poems were literature and not in any way historical.

Schliemann had a different attitude. He saw Homer as a historian and his account of the Trojan War as a reliable history. Schliemann was not an academic; he was mostly self-taught. But he was fluent in multiple languages, including ancient Greek, and, having made his fortune in business (including in the California Gold Rush!), he had the resources to test his hypothesis.

In 1871, he began his excavation at Hissarlik, a mound on the Aegean coast of what was then the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), one of the possible candidates for the site of ancient Troy. Among the artifacts he found there in 1873 was a cache of golden objects, which he labeled “The Treasure of Priam.”2 Priam was the wealthy and powerful king of Troy during the Trojan War, so clearly, reasoned Schliemann, any treasure found in Troy must be his. Some of the treasure was jewelry, and Schliemann took a photo of his wife Sophia wearing what he called “the jewels of Helen of Troy.” Who wears jewelry? Beautiful women. Who was the most beautiful woman in the world, who, according to Homer, was living in Troy? Helen. Ergo, the jewels were hers.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the “Jewels of Helen of Troy.”

Schliemann believed that having found the remains of a wealthy, hitherto unknown civilization on the site of Troy meant that he had proved his hypothesis, that the Homeric poems were historical. We might see some holes in this argument, but Schliemann didn’t. Instead, having found the home of one side in the Trojan War, he set out in 1876 to explore the home of their opponents. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek contingent, was called by Homer the King of Mycenae, and so to Mycenae Schliemann went. There, among the artifacts of a pre-classical Greek civilization that would come to be called “Mycenaean,” Schliemann found a hammered-gold death mask. Who would get an elaborate burial with precious grave goods? A king. Who was king of Mycenae? Agamemnon. So Schliemann, naturally, promptly identified it as the “Mask of Agamemnon.”

The Mask of Agamemnon, now in the National Museum of Athens.

Schliemann was an important scholar who made significant discoveries, but as you can see, he was enthusiastic to the point of obsession and tended to over-identify with his subject. For example, he named the two children he had with Sophia “Andromache” (the wife of the Trojan hero Hector) and “Agamemnon.”3 In his honor, I refer to examples of later scholars who behave similarly as exhibiting “Schliemann Syndrome.”

One of the most significant, most studied, and most controversial events in ancient Greek history is the Battle of Marathon. The main source for the battle, Herodotus’ Histories, raises a number of questions. For example, Herodotus states that the Athenian army advanced on the invading Persian force “at a run.” Many classicists have questioned whether it was physically possible for the heavily armed Athenian hoplite phalanx to do this, especially given that the two armies were a mile apart. How to resolve the question? Run an experiment with American college students. In 1973, two professors at Penn State, Walter Donlan and James Thompson, equipped Physical Education majors with 15 lbs. of weight and had them run in formation for 1600 yards; they couldn’t do it. Donlan and Thompson concluded that Herodotus’ account was inaccurate.4

Another Marathonian question arises in the aftermath of the battle, when, Herodotus says, the victorious Athenian army marched back to the city as quickly as possible, hoping to arrive before the (still intact) Persian fleet could round the peninsula of Attica.5 Could they have made it back in the time Herodotus says they did? British scholar N.G.L. Hammond (1907-2001), author of a standard textbook in ancient Greek history,6 writes,

Taking the direct route from Mt Pentelicus, I walked fast from Athens to the mound at Marathon in 6 hours and returned the same day to Athens in 7 hours.7

Based on this experience, Hammond concludes that Herodotus’ account of the timing is plausible.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of Schliemann Syndrome that I have come across is also connected to the Persian Wars: the reconstructed trireme Olympias. Ancient historians had many questions about the trireme, the three-oared warship that brought the Athenian navy victory in the Battle of Salamis in the 2nd Persian War in 480 and was the foundation of their fifth-century empire. For one, how were the “3 oars” (the literal meaning of “trireme”) arranged? If there were three levels of oars, how was the ship constructed so that they didn’t get tangled up with each other? How easy was the ship to maneuver? How fast could it go?

Another British scholar, John Morrison (1913-2000), hypothesized that the 3 levels of oars were cantilevered out from the hull. He tested his hypothesis by building a full-sized replica of an ancient trireme and then launching it in the Aegean Sea beginning in 1987. I brought Ford Weiskittel, one of the organizers and volunteer rowers involved in this effort, to Mount St Mary’s to speak back in the 1990’s. I took him to dinner before his talk and told him about the concept of Schliemann Syndrome, and then somewhat hesitantly suggested that Olympias was a manifestation of it. He immediately replied, “oh, absolutely.”

The trireme Olympias.

Not all instances of Schliemann Syndrome are military. While preparing a class on ancient Greek athletics, I learned about the practice of using halteres, or “jumping weights,” in the long jump event. Curious about how these worked, I discovered a study undertaken at Texas Tech University in which scholars constructed some weights, gave them to student athletes, and measured their efforts.

The history of textiles is another area that lends itself to Schliemann Syndrome. Looking for images of Minoan artifacts, I came across not only the so-called Snake Goddess figurines uncovered in Crete but also modern re-creations of the costume.

The Penelope Project, named for the wife of Odysseus in the Odyssey who tricks her suitors by unraveling by night the shroud she weaves by day, explores the technology of ancient weaving. I’ve also found patterns and videos for making a peplos, the dress worn by ancient Greek women.

I wanted to show a clearer representation of the peplos to my students, so I made Peplos Barbie.8 Uh-oh—I think I’ve caught the Syndrome.

Horses on the Wall? A Delightful Dickensian Discovery at the V & A

Last summer my husband and I traveled to the UK for a family wedding and combined it with a brief vacation. Having just binge-watched the mini-series Victoria before we left, the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A) was a must-see.

Mosaic on the facade of one of the buildings of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The silhouette behind the figures is the profile of the Crystal Palace. Photo by Teresa Rupp.

We were thrilled to discover a small special exhibit in celebration of the bicentennial of both Victoria’s and Albert’s 1819 births entitled “Building the Museum.”1 The exhibit chronicled the role of the Queen and the Prince Consort in the planning of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (also known as the Crystal Palace) and how the V & A grew out of it. We’d just seen the Victoria episode on the Exhibition, so this was perfect. We must have looked interested, because a docent stationed in the gallery came over to us and gave us an impromptu tour.

One of the things we learned was that Henry Cole, who organized the Great Exhibition, was also the first director of what became the V & A. Cole saw the mission of the new museum as educational, and part of that mission was to elevate the taste of the public. To that end, he put on an exhibit in 1852 called the “Gallery of False Principles” that provided both good and bad examples of design (the press referred to it as the “Chamber of Horrors”). The “False Principles” included decorating a home with representations of objects rather than the objects themselves. For example, one of the items in Cole’s original exhibit also included in the”Building the Museum” exhibit was a sample of wallpaper printed with a pattern of Gothic architectural ornamentation. This is a “false principle” because the papered wall doesn’t really have Gothic ornamentation on it but only a printed representation of it.

”False Principle #31: Imitation of Architecture.” Wallpaper sample exhibited in Henry Cole’s 1852 exhibit, ”Gallery of False Principles.” Photo by Teresa Rupp.

Another example, our docent explained, would be a flowered carpet. At that point I interrupted her, saying, “It’s just like that scene in Dickens’ Hard Times where the government official tells the students that they shouldn’t have flowered carpets or wallpaper with horses on it!” The docent responded excitedly, “Wallpaper with horses was one of the examples!”

I teach Hard Times every fall in my modern European history class. The novel, first published in 1854, is set in Coketown, a fictional northern English industrial city. Hard Times opens with a scene in a school founded by Mr Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy industrialist who believes in teaching only Facts.2 Gradgrind, along with an unnamed visiting government official (referred to only as “the gentleman”), is visiting a class taught by Mr M’Choakumchild.3 The gentleman asks the students,

“Would you paper a room with representations of horses?”

Some say yes, some no, whereupon the gentleman explains,

“Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality—in fact? Do you? . . . Why then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.”

In case the children didn’t get the point, he poses another question:

“Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?”

One of the students, Sissy Jupe, daughter of a circus clown, says she would. When the gentleman asks her why, she says,

“If you please, Sir, I am very fond of flowers.”

“And that is why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?”

“It wouldn’t hurt them, Sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, Sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—”

“Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,” cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. “That’s it! You are never to fancy.”

This opening scene sets up the conflict between Fact (represented by Gradgrind and his school) and Fancy (represented by Sissy and the circus) that drives the rest of the novel. (Spoiler alert: Fancy wins.)

I was very pleased to be able to show my students this fall the photo I took of the objectionable Gothic wallpaper. I couldn’t take a photo of the equestrian wallpaper, as it wasn’t included in the “Building the Museum” exhibit, but I have since found it in their collection.

”False Principles 35.” Wallpaper sample exhibited as part of Henry Cole’s ”Gallery of False Principles” and satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I had always assumed that the nameless government inspector who intimidates poor Sissy Jupe was exaggerated to the point of absurdity in order for Dickens to make his point about the weaknesses of an education based solely on Fact. I was stunned, but delighted, to learn that the character was not an exaggeration but was, if you’ll pardon the expression, based on fact—a thinly disguised version of Henry Cole. The inspector’s closing remarks could easily have been spoken by Cole:

“You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,” said the gentleman, “for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colors) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”

Having served his philosophical and narrative purpose, the gentleman from the government with the limited taste in wallpaper does not appear again in the novel. Maybe Dickens didn’t give a name to the character because he knew that 1850s readers would recognize him as Henry Cole–and now you can, too.

Mercurial Connections

I teach a course called “Harry Potter and the Middle Ages.” It’s an approach to medieval culture that takes the Harry Potter books as a starting point; we learn about the medieval background to many of the elements JK Rowling used to construct the Harry Potter universe. The course is organized around the Hogwarts curriculum. For example, in conjunction with Care of Magical Creatures, we study medieval bestiaries and medieval map-making (both Fantastic Beasts AND where to find them). Transfiguration and Potions classes offer the opportunity to learn about medieval alchemy.

Alchemy is clearly an important theme in the Harry Potter books, starting with the title and plot of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1 It does not appear to be one of the courses offered at Hogwarts, however; perhaps Rowling wanted to save it for her underlying structure. In any case, learning more about alchemy enhances our understanding of both the Harry Potter books and of the Middle Ages.

The more I read about alchemy, the more I realized that mercury is a key substance in the alchemical worldview. Many medieval and early-modern alchemists hypothesized that the starting point for generating the Philosopher’s Stone was to mix mercury and sulfur (which may or may not refer to the physical substances that go by those names); this is known as the Mercury-Sulfur principle. I also realized that the meaning of Mercury is multivalent, with multiple connections to multiple things. Let’s trace some of those connections. The words in bold face are shown on the accompanying diagram.

Mercury was a Roman god, the Roman counterpart to the Greek messenger god Hermes. In late antiquity, Hermes also became identified with Hermes Trismegistus, or “thrice-blessed Hermes,” a figure to whom many early alchemical writings were attributed, known collectively as the Hermetic corpus and which were influenced by Neo-Platonist thought. This Hermetic tradition is evident in the term used by medieval alchemists to describe what they did to keep air out of a piece of equipment, a term we still use—“hermetically sealed.

In addition to being the name of a god, Mercury is also the name of a planet. Ancient and medieval astrologers believed that the stars and planets influenced life on earth. Which planet a person was born under influences that person’s personality. Someone born under the influence of Jupiter might grow up to be jovial (jolly), while Saturn’s influence would make you saturnine (gloomy). The influence of Mercury, the fastest-moving planet, results in a personality that is mercurial (quick to change).

In ancient cosmology, each of the seven planets was associated with one of the seven metals. (“Planet,” from the Greek for “wanderer,” was the term for any heavenly body that “wandered” in relation to the fixed stars that form the constellations, which stay put. So the Sun and Moon were considered planets, but the stationary Earth was not.) Some of the associations are obvious—gold goes with the sun, silver with the moon. Mars is associated with iron, both because of the planet’s rusty-red color and because the god of war would have used iron weapons. Venus is copper, which in the ancient Mediterranean came from the island of Cyprus, where Venus was born from the sea.2 Saturn is lead, the heaviest of metals for the slowest of the planets. Jupiter gets tin because that’s what’s left over, and the planet Mercury, the fastest-moving planet associated with the god with winged feet, gets the slippery-slidy metal Mercury.

With one exception, we no longer use these associations. But alchemical texts might speak of combining Jupiter and Mars when they mean tin and iron. The only one of the metals that still retains its planetary name in common use is Mercury. There is, however, also a name that refers to the metal only—quicksilver. “Quick” here means “living,” rather than “speedy”; think of cutting your nails to the quick. So “quicksilver” is “living silver.” The Greek name for the metal is “hydroargyrum,” or “liquid silver.” This is the source of the modern chemical abbreviation for mercury (or quicksilver)—Hg.

So what does all this have to do with Harry Potter? Well, which character has a name that’s a form of the god/planet/metal we’ve been talking about? That’s right, Hermione (a feminine form of Hermes). And what’s her last name? Granger. So what does that make her initials? HG. And what do her parents do? They’re dentists. What do dentists traditionally make fillings out of? Mercury. Coincidence? I think not.

For further reading:

Lawrence M. Principe. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.