Voldemort and the Legend of the Katschei
Essay written in October 2004. See how close I came to J.K. Rowling's concept of Horcruxes!
Voldemort tells Harry: "...I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal - to conquer death. And now, I was tested, and it appeared that one or more of my experiments had worked...for I had not been killed, though the curse should have done it"(Goblet of Fire, 421). It seems that Voldemort can't be killed by ordinary means, because of some Dark Art he performed on himself. Here's one theory of what that Dark Art might have been. J.K. Rowling uses many traditional European legends and elements of folklore in her books, so it's very likely that she'll use more. I've done a little research on one folktale about an evil wizard who cannot be killed.
This is the Russian/Slavic legend of the Katschei, an evil sorceror, ogre, spirit, or monster who, among other things, often menaces women and turns people to stone. OK, that doesn't sound too much like Voldemort, but another bit of the legend is that Katschei is the king of snakes. There are many variations, but all the legends agree that Katschei has a secret weakness. The reason he cannot be killed is that he has somehow removed his life-force from his body and hidden it inside a hard object, which can be broken, if it can only be found. In the legends, the hero always finds the object, breaks it, and kills the Katschei.
Katschei is either a name or a title, and is spelled Katschei, Kaschei, Kotschei, Koschei, or Koschey. He often has a fortress with high walls and a magical garden. His heart, death, soul, or life-force is contained in an emerald, a diamond, or an egg, and sometimes hidden within other objects. In the most complicated version, "his soul is hidden inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on the island of Bujan, in the ocean. Koschei will die when the needle is broken." (1) In the simplest, the hero simply breaks an egg. Most of them are in between. In Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird, Prince Ivan destroys Katschei's soul, which is hidden in the cleft of a tree, with the help of the magical Firebird.(2) Mercedes Lackey retells this tale in her novel The Firebird (a great read!), and a similar plotline is used in Lloyd Alexander's novel Taran Wanderer, where an evil wizard has "poured" his life into his little finger and cut it off; Taran finds the finger bone and breaks it. The Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols compares Katschei to the Shinto spirit-snake Koshi, the Minotaur of Greek myth, and Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent of Norse myth. (3)
So if Voldemort is a Katschei, this process of removing and hiding his heart could be the Dark Art that kept him from dying. So in order to defeat Voldemort, Harry and friends will somehow need to find his life-force and destroy it. This brings up several questions:
Where would he hide it? Well, if Tom Riddle became a Katschei while at Hogwarts, he might have hidden his life-force somewhere inside the school, which would make an interesting hunt for Harry and friends, similar to their getting past obstacles to find the Philosopher's/Sorceror's Stone. It could be somewhere in the Chamber of Secrets. If not at Hogwarts, it could be anywhere: a forest in Albania, the Forbidden Forest, somewhere on Azkaban island, the Malfoy manor, the Riddle House... It could even be an object we've seen before.
HP4U, a fan who attended the JKR Edinburgh Festival, has reported (original spelling): "I also asked when Harries parents were killed by Voldermort, Wormtail turned into a rat and pretended to be dead. How then did he give Voldermort his wand and robe back once he found him and helped give him back his body , she told me (after tapping her nose!) 'he hid them'."(4) The hiding place of the wand and robe may or not be the same as the hiding place of the heart (I personally think Voldemort would not entrust Wormtail with the location of his heart!), and we can't always rely on the word of one fan, but to me this makes the theory of Voldemort as Katschei seem more likely.
Why then did he lose his body when his Avada Kedavra curse rebounded off Harry? In some Katschei legends, no attack can have any effect on Katschei. Swords will bounce off his skin or go through without creating a wound. His magic is very strong, and his will overpowers any other, except sometimes the Firebird (Phoenix, anyone?). In other tales, his physical form (skeleton, ghost, or monster) is so distorted that it's impossible to fight him physically. In the Harry Potter world, I would guess that being a Katschei would preserve Voldemort from being affected by anyone else's Avada Kedavra curse. But from his own? It did enough damage to destroy his body, but his spirit lingers on, possessing others until he can recreate it.
How will Harry find out about it? Perhaps from Dumbledore, who may know some Dark Arts but is "too--well--noble to use them"(Sorceror's Stone, 11). Perhaps he'll find it by accident, like Taran in Taran Wanderer, and only realize what he has at the climax of book 7, when he'll break it and end Voldemort's miserable existence. Perhaps he'll find out from Wormtail or the Malfoys. Who knows?
Why would Voldemort be dumb enough to hide his heart somewhere anyone could find it? Hey, he's Voldemort. His overconfidence is his weakness. And maybe only Harry can find it. This seems likely because of the prophecy. Maybe it has something to do with Parseltongue, being a true Gryffindor, Lily's protection, or Harry's mysterious force and the Department of Mysteries. There are probably other issues with this theory, and my biggest problem with it is that it's been done before. But it would be a nice way for Harry to be able to defeat Voldemort without resorting to Dark Arts or dying himself. In any case, it's fun to speculate while we wait (im)patiently for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
(1) The Free Dictionary
(2) The Annotated Sandman
(3) Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962.
(4) The Leaky Cauldron