Perhaps the most fascinating species of magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe are thestrals. Only visible to people who have witnessed death, thestrals are black horses with white shining pupil less eyes, dragonish faces and necks, leathery bat-like wings, and black manes and tails. Their bodies are skeletal and fleshless, their skin clinging to their bones underneath glistening black coats. Thestrals are known for their fast flying abilities and insanely accurate sense of direction. In Harry’s fifth year, Hagrid brings along a carcass for the thestrals to eat during their Care of Magical Creatures class. Attracted to the smell of blood, the creatures come out of the forest to join the class and eat their fill. Contrary to popular belief, thestrals are not bad omens or bad luck. Rather, they are gentle, useful, and clever creatures who are obedient to those who trust them. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Magic still classifies them as dangerous.
Associated with wizards who descend from the Celtic peoples, thestrals are mainly found in the British Isles and Ireland, but can also be seen in parts of France and the Iberian Peninsula. In the Harry Potter universe, the only domesticated thestrals live in the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts, tended to by Hagrid with Tenebrus being his favorite. The domesticated thestrals stick to themselves in their herd and are trained not to harm students or the owls that fly up to the school. In the wild, thestrals often eat birds. The original herd, composed of a male and five females, were believed to have come to Hogwarts as a means of transportation for the students before the construction of the Hogwarts Express. Today, thestrals pull the carriages from the train station up to the school. Witches and wizards who have not seen death assume the carriage is pulled by invisible horses. Dumbledore also uses thestrals to help him travel on long journeys.
In fact, the thestrals’ ability to transport the characters comes in handy throughout key moments in the Harry Potter books. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Luna, Neville, and Ginny ride thestrals to the Ministry of Magic to rescue Sirius Black. During the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, the first battle in the second wizarding war, eleven Death Eaters are captured and the prophecy about Harry is destroyed. Believing that the prophecy contained the secret on how to destroy Harry, its demise was a huge loss for Voldemort. Most importantly, the minister sees Voldemort, and everyone believes Harry’s claim that Voldemort has returned. Unfortunately, Sirius does not survive the battle.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the thestrals again play a part in the second wizarding war. Kingsley, Hermione, Bill, and Fleur were four of the seven who disguise themselves as Harry by drinking polyjuice potion. Riding thestrals, they risk their lives to help move Harry from 4 Privet Drive to the Burrow when the blood magic that protects Harry from harm breaks on his seventeenth birthday. Having been informed about the plan by Snape, Voldemort and the Death Eaters give chase. Moody and Hedwig die. George’s ear is blown off by Snape’s sectum sempra curse, which he was originally aiming at a Death Eater’s wand arm. Despite a few lost lives and George’s injury, the thestrals again come through, creatures without whom the aftermath could have been much worse. Also, the thestrals participate in the Battle of Hogwarts later in the book.
The circle of life following them wherever they go, it is unsurprising that the sight of and interaction with thestrals has impacted three key characters: Harry Potter, Luna Lovegood, and Neville Longbottom. Thestrals are eerie and otherworldly. Thus, it is only right that those who see them have gotten a glimpse into the afterlife.
“Being able to see thestrals is a sign that the beholder has witnessed death and gained an emotional understanding of what death means,” said J. K. Rowling in a Wizarding World article. What does death mean? As readers learn from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the most powerful wizard who holds the Deathly Hallows is the Master of Death. To master death is to understand death, to know that death is not only the end of life, but the meaning behind mortality. Human or wizard, people know that their days are numbered. They must be okay with this fact, willing to accept the end when it comes. Those left behind must understand the finality of death, how it relates to their own life, and undergo the grieving process, coming to terms with the loss of their loved one. The length of time it takes for the living to process death varies from person to person. For this reason, seeing a thestral is symbolic. Just as death was the end of the road for their loved one, seeing a thestral is the end of the road of grief and a sign of emotional maturity for the seer.
Harry, Luna, and Neville became emotionally mature at different times. Harry was unable to see the thestrals until his fifth year; he believed the carriages were pulled by invisible horses. As Harry had watched his parents die in front of him as a baby, in theory, Harry should have been able to see the thestrals. However, Harry had been young, unable to comprehend and understand death. In his fourth year, Cedric Diggory is killed in cold blood at the site of Voldemort’s rising. This experience allows Harry to realize the finality and cruelty that comes from such a killing.
Both deaths defined Harry as a character. His parents’ passing makes Harry curious, always asking questions and wanting to know more about everything he encounters. Every adventure in the series revolves around Harry’s curiosity. What is Fluffy guarding? Why is the Chamber being opened? He and his friends work to find these answers.
His parents’ death also makes Harry do good, helping others whenever he has the chance. One character Harry assists often is Hagrid. Harry sneaks Norbert to Charlie’s friends so Hagrid wouldn’t get in trouble. Harry, Ron, and Hermione also rescue Buckbeak from his execution. The list goes on throughout the series.
After Cedric’s death, Harry becomes a brave fighter, his mission to stop Voldemort from coming to power taking the forefront after the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Harry fights to protect others from being killed in cold blood. He wishes death upon no one. Harry leads Dumbledore’s Army, teaching Hogwarts students how to defend themselves. Harry and others participate in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, fight Death Eaters on their way from Privet Drive to the Burrow, and challenge their opponents in the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry even sacrifices himself. Knowing that he was a Horcrux and that part of him must die, Harry lets Voldemort kill him so that others may live. Harry emerged victorious so that the deaths he witnessed would not be in vain, so that everyone could live in a better world.
At nine years old, Luna sees her mother die. Luna’s mother liked to experiment with magic. Unfortunately, a spell went wrong one day and she died. After that, Luna is able to see thestrals. Unlike Harry, it is believed that Luna does not take a long time after her mother’s death to be able to see thestrals. Her willingness to embrace the spiritual world makes Luna much more prepared to face her mom’s tragedy. In fact, Luna even believes in the afterlife. After Sirius’s death, she tells Harry that they will be able to see their loved ones again as the afterlife was just beyond that veil.
Along with her spirituality, Luna becomes more open to other things in her world. She never closes her mind off from anything, no matter how strange. She believes in her father’s crackpot theories about crumpled-horn snorkacks. When Harry tells Luna that Voldemort had risen, she takes Harry’s word for it and does not question him. By remaining open to all things, Luna is more intelligent than the rest because in the magical world, many outlandish theories, like the Deathly Hallows, can be true.
When Neville looks at the thestrals during Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures lesson, he seems calm and tells Umbridge later that he’s not afraid of them. Although no one knows how his granddad passed away, it could be assumed that the death was not as tragic as what Harry and Luna experienced. Like the other characters, Neville understands the finality of death. However, unlike the others, Neville has experienced a different kind of death, the death of the sanity of his parents. When Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Ginny go to visit Mr. Weasley at St. Mungo’s, they encounter Neville and his grandmother visiting his parents. Bellatrix used the Cruciatus curse on Frank and Alice Longbottom, two very respected aurors, as she searched for Voldemort after the first wizarding war. Even though Bellatrix was caught, the two were never the same again and went to St. Mungo’s.
It is debatable which is worse, the loss of someone’s physical body or the loss of their mental capacity. These losses define Neville as a character, making him more equipped to deal with hardship. Like Harry, he uses his losses as fuel to the fire of his desire to help others, standing alongside Harry to fight, even killing Nagini.
It is clear that thestrals have a huge impact in the Harry Potter books. Their flying abilities and sense of direction have aided in saving characters lives while their very presence reminds the characters of past loved ones. After the Battle of Hogwarts, many have been added to the list of characters who can see thestrals. By analyzing why Harry, Luna, and Neville can see thestrals, readers begin to understand how these losses affect the characters and if they have experienced a loss, themselves.