clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Native American folklore behind Ilvermorny, J.K. Rowling's new wizarding school, explained

Ilvermorny's sorting quiz shows Rowling is slowly erasing Slytherin from the Harry Potter universe.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Ilvermorny is the latest magical school of witchcraft and wizardry to be revealed as part of J.K. Rowling’s ever-growing Harry Potter universe. The existence of a new school was first announced earlier this year, when Rowling expanded her sprawling wizarding world to North America in preparation for the upcoming New York–set Harry Potter spinoff film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Now, in her latest Pottermore write-up, Rowling released new details about the school’s history — including its official location — and unveiled the names and characteristics of its four houses.

Ilvermorny has immigrant roots

Rowling begins the story of Ilvermorny by narrating the life of a pureblood wizarding immigrant named Isolt Sayre. Isolt escaped an abusive childhood in Ireland by sailing to America on the Mayflower in 1620.

From there, she befriended a powerful magical creature called the Pukwudgie and went on to marry a Muggle-born man; American wizards would later call him a No-Maj, which is how Muggles are now known in the US. Together with their adopted children (you can read more about them in Rowling’s fable), Isolt and her husband founded Ilvermorny, teaching students out of their small cottage.

Ilvermorny crest.

The school is sheltered atop Mount Greylock, near the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Isolt and her family named each of its four houses after one of their favorite creatures from Native American folklore, creating Horned Serpent, Wampus, Thunderbird, and Pukwudgie. These houses, like those we know so well from Hogwarts, have their own quirks and peculiarities.

And now you can be sorted into the one that suits you best, via Pottermore’s new sorting quiz. I know, I know, you’re still adjusting to your sorting results from the last sorting quiz Rowling released. But in this case, you might be in for a few surprises; namely, don’t expect the parallels to Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin to be particularly exact.

Horned Serpent is similar to Ravenclaw

The horned serpent on Ilvermorny’s house crest.

The horned serpent is a key part of Native American folklore belonging to the Southern and Great Lakes regions of the US. In the horned serpent’s mythology, the animal has a diamond or other jewel inlaid in its forehead and uses the gem to dazzle any human who would harm it. Extremely powerful, the serpent is usually considered deadly but peaceful.

As per Pottermore, the horned serpent as an Ilvermorny house symbol "represents the mind" and often attracts the studious and scholarly. Though you might think its serpent symbology would more closely align Horned Serpent with Hogwarts’ Slytherin, it seems as though it’s all about academics.

Wampus is similar to Gryffindor, but more athletic

The Wampus on the Ilvermorny crest.

The Wampus cat is the legendary "big cat" of the rural US that still maintains the status of a recurring folkloric legend, as anyone who’s grown up near a wooded area, swamp, or mountainous region can attest. The Wampus in Native American folklore can sometimes shape-shift and often is seen as an omen of death. It’s also nearly impossible to kill, because it’s extremely fast and athletic.

In the Ilvermorny house hierarchy, Wampus represents the "body" of the four houses and attracts "warriors." In other words, like Hogwarts’ Gryffindor, it’s probably the house for jocks and athletes.

Thunderbird is also similar to Gryffindor, but even more adventurous

Thunderbird on Ilvermorny’s house crest.

The thunderbird is a powerful and familiar symbol in Native American folklore, known for its ability to bring and control rain, thunder, and lightning. Thunderbirds sometimes act as arbiters of justice, punishing humans, and they often watch over warriors during great battles.

At Ilvermorny, Thunderbird is considered the "soul" of the four houses. Witches and wizards who are sorted there tend to be adventurous.

Pukwudgie is similar to Hufflepuff, but with more bite

The Pukwudgie on Ilvermorny’s crest.

In Wampanoag folklore, the Pukwudgie is a vicious, goblin-like creature covered in porcupine-like quills. It has trickster characteristics — it can be either helpful or harmful according to its whim. It can also apparate and disapparate, and transfigure fire. It uses its own magic arrows to hunt and has a bit of a curmudgeonly, love/hate relationship with humans.

An interpretation of the Pukwudgie, based on its mythological appearance. (Illustration by Scott Purdy.)
Scott Purdy (deviantART)

Pukwudgie is described as "fiercely independent" and the "heart" of the four Ilvermorny houses. Wizards who are sorted there often show affinity for healing.

There’s one obvious difference between the four houses of Ilvermorny and those of Hogwarts: The class issues are nonexistent

You’ll notice that none of the four Ilvermorny houses exactly screams "Slytherin," a.k.a. the infamous "pureblood" Hogwarts house that most of Hogwarts’ most prominent villains — including Voldemort, Snape, and the Malfoy family — all belonged to.

All four houses show some overlap with Slytherin, as seen in Pukwudgie’s trickster nature, Thunderbird’s sense of adventure, Wampus’s warrior-like tendencies, and Horned Serpent’s physical snake form. But it seems that the cunning ambition and manipulative behavior that set Slytherin apart aren’t really on display in any of them. Perhaps Rowling decided that creating a house for innately evil children wasn’t an appropriate path for her American wizards to follow?

Indeed, because Ilvermorny was founded not by four powerful wizards with long ancestries but by a witch and her Muggle/No-Maj husband, Ilvermorny’s system of wizardry already seems a bit more egalitarian and less focused on class differences than its British counterpart.

But Rowling makes it clear that Ilvermorny is a DIY operation, composed of wizards practicing their magic in a new land; her latest story establishes that Isolt was the first witch in the new world, conveniently sidestepping the thriving (and controversial) Native American magical presence that, as Rowling wrote earlier this year, already existed there.

Because Ilvermorny was as new as America itself, class issues weren’t as embedded into the cultural fabric of Ilvermorny as they were in Hogwarts; so it makes sense that there’s no place at Ilvermorny for a house that values lineage and aristocracy alongside cunning and ambition. And after all, if the American dream is to be believed, then Americans have plenty of ambition to go around.

To take the sorting quiz yourself, log in to Pottermore and visit your house, where you’ll have an opportunity to sort yourself into your new Ilvermorny home.