Salazar Slytherin is the founder of Hogwart’s Slytherin House. We know also that a lot of bad magical proto-Nazis like to trace their heritage to Slytherin; he is constantly referenced as the end all sign of magical purity. Indeed, he seems like a reactionary dude; after all, it is Slytherin who insists on discriminatory admittance to Hogwarts. We know from the films that because he was unsuccessful in convincing the others of his bigotry, Slytherin leaves the school. But, beyond this, we know very little about this infamous figure.
What if I told you that Salazar Slytherin could be found in a real historical figure? What if I said that there was more to Salazar than meets the eye?
Looking at history, there seems precious little in the medieval period which comes to mind (which is a shame, since in Harry Potter Slytherin lives near the ninth century). However, just after the medieval period ends and the epoch is known as Early Modern history begins, we see a figure which may just qualify for a Salazar inspiration.
Enter: Alonso De Salazar Frias.
So far so good, right? After all, the name “Salazar” matches perfectly. But, this goes deeper than mere linguistic similarities. You will be pleased to find out that this Alonso character was heavily involved in matters concerning historical witchcraft.
As Brian P. Levack explains, Alonso was “a university-educated canon lawyer in the service of the Spanish Inquisition, [where he] became deeply involved in the largest witch-hunt in Spanish history” (293). Alonso came from the Skeptical tradition. This meant that he was deeply suspicious of witchcraft confessions, believing people’s torture-induced confessions to be flawed and spurious at best. Alonso is a unique case because his skepticism “does not in any way deny the possibility of the crime of witchcraft or the existence of the Devil”. Alonso merely thought that waging war against the demonic should exclude hysterical measures.
As a lawyer, Alonso carried with him what was known as the Edict of Grace. This was a measure undertaken by the Spanish government which allowed witches to confess without penalty. Ordered to Logroño, the province with the highest number of executions and confessions for witches, Alonso “made nine reports to his superiors between 1612 and 1623”. Each report “exposes the inconsistencies in the testimonies given by those who confessed”. In sum, Alonso’s actions cleared thousands of suspected witches of imprisonment, torture, and death. When it comes to the carnage of the Spanish Inquisition, Alonso was one of the few voices of reason in an otherwise irrational dark.
At this point, I can hear your objections: “okay” you are perhaps saying, “that is cool, but what does it have to do with Harry Potter?” Let me explain.
In the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we hear Hermione speak of how Salazar Slytherin lived over a thousand years ago. As established previously, the historical Salazar lived hundreds of years after the Harry Potter Salazar. But because the historical Salazar—Alonso—was heavily involved in witchcraft-related matters, I feel comfortable in signing off on him as an inspiration for the Harry Potter Salazar. With that bit of inconsistency now suspended in disbelief, let us consider the historical Salazar in relation to the fictional.
Let us assume that real Salazar and fictional are one in the same person. How would we know that? Each shares part of the same name, for one. Two, both are involved in witchcraft. And, three, both would have worked hard to free their compatriots from Muggle induced terror; remember that the historical Salazar freed, literally, thousands of people suspected of witchcraft. But, he still believed in the existence of witchcraft. If the historical Salazar was J.K Rowling’s inspiration for the Salazar in the books, then it could plausibly be argued that this Salazar figure immersed himself in the Skeptical tradition to help liberate the few actual witches and wizards trapped by Muggle means. Salazar, then, would, to his magical compatriots, be seen as a great defender of magical folk and the magical bloodline.
Obviously, this would be considered a great deed. But since we also know that other parts of Europe were also infected with the witch-hunting fervor, it is reasonable to claim that this Salazar figure would desire to travel to other places and likewise help his magical brethren. In Rowling’s fictional universe, perhaps this is why Salazar, clearly demonstrated a Spanish derived name, winds up in England. Maybe he was there on a mission: maybe he went to England to help establish better protection for magical folk and believed in selective student enrollment because he saw how Muggle culture was becoming violent and paranoid. Perhaps he believed that admitting folks who were not “traditionally” magic might infuse the school with the same amount of that trouble which had so engulfed the non-magical world. Or, maybe he was simply a bigot.
Either way, it is impossible to tell. But, though we would be careful not to confuse history and pop culture derived from history, the life of the historical Alonso was reasonable, if not somewhat mild-mannered. It is not impossible that Rowling was inspired by this figure but at this present moment, it is also hard impossible to tell if she was inspired at all. At the minimum, we can draw some fascinating parallels with the historical, apply it to the fictional, and see if it sticks. In this instance, I feel the connections are strong. But whether they are true is another matter entirely.
The Witchcraft Sourcebook. Ed. Brian P. Levack. Routledge, 2004.