There is, however, a darker side. Some may be calculated to frighten enemies – think of the Black family crest, adorned with skulls and the legend ‘Toujours pur’ (‘always pure’).
Historically, ‘standards’ were used to help identify combatants on the battlefield. The act of replacing or desecrating a rival standard was seen as a potent act of aggression. Think of the moment in Deathly Hallows when Voldemort threatened ‘There will be no more houses. The emblem, shield and colours of my noble ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, will suffice for everyone…’
Some are straightforward to interpret: the emblem for St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, for instance, is described in Order of the Phoenix as a crossed bone and wand, which suggests enchanted healing. The Dark Mark’s prominent skull is uncompromising and ominous. The Deathly Hallows symbol is simple enough to decipher, once you know how.
Let’s take a look at some of the more elaborate icons, designed by MinaLima – the graphic artists for the Harry Potter movies – explain their significance and point out some parallels with some real-world symbols.
The MACUSA seal
This circular seal bears a passing resemblance to the Muggle Seal of the President of the United States, with a few crucial differences. The central bird is a phoenix, which typically represents resurrection and immortality, as opposed to the eagle, which on the Seal of the President suggests authority and judicial power.
The MACUSA design has a confidence and grandeur that reflects the American wizarding world.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set in 1926, and eagle-eyed history experts may notice that there are 48 stars on the seal. Alaska and Hawaii had yet to become part of the United States at this point in history.
Based on the coat of arms described in the Harry Potter books, the central shield (or, ‘escutcheon’, if you want to know the fancy term) within the Hogwarts coat of arms is divided into four, with each quarter representing one of the founders: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw and Salazar Slytherin.
For bonus points, an item like the separate ‘H’ in the middle is known in heraldry as an ‘escutcheon of pretence’.
Imagine it were an actual shield. To the person holding it, the left side (known in Latin as ‘sinister’) has Slytherin on it. The right (‘dexter’) side is conventionally seen by heraldry as being the most noble, and it’s interesting to note that Gryffindor is on that side.
Durmstrang’s crest is packed with symbolic significance. A double-headed eagle traditionally symbolises a ruling faction’s supremacy over both church and state.
Durmstrang is believed to be located in the far north of Europe, so it’s not surprising that many European influences have been used in this crest design. For example, the name of the school is embossed in both Latin and Cyrillic script, a practice in that region. Similarly, the onion dome backdrop is a prominent feature in Muggle Russian architecture – think of the Kremlin.
Finally, the stag’s head is traditionally associated with peace and harmony, although in this case it may be more to do with prowess in deer hunting.
The name translates as ‘beautiful sticks’, and their crest is just as elegant – two crossed wands can be seen at the top of the design. These crossed wands were seen by Harry on the door Beauxbatons carriage in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
In heraldry, crossed swords pointing up indicate preparedness for battle, whereas pointing downwards they imply a major battle has been won. In essence: don’t mess with us. The significance of both wands facing upwards seems rather clear.
The design also has a beguiling, asymmetric natural border called ‘rococo’: a popular form of French decorative art.
Ministry of Magic
A straightforward, some would say workmanlike, letter ‘M’. Note the ‘serifs’; projections which extend from the corners of the letter and subtly imply power and importance. A wand is placed dead-centre, making it clear that magic is their business.
When integrated into the Wizengamot symbol, a set of scales (near-universal symbols for justice), and a Latin motto – ignorantia juris neminem excusat (‘ignorance of the rules is no excuse’) are incorporated.
Just as with the serif, Latin adds a little more gravitas and significance.
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes
A lovely mirror image for the Weasley twins’ business. It’s simple but with an explosive touch in the middle – their speciality, of course.