49

The motto for Hogwarts is "Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus", or, "Never tickle a sleeping dragon".

This seems like quite obvious advice and rather silly as a school motto. Is it essentially an inside joke that J. K. Rowling made up for those that would actually translate it? Or does it have any particular meaning beyond the literal? Is it possible she used it as a hint or tip-off that Draco might be more dangerous than we thought (and maybe later changed her mind on that?)

Has she ever indicated there to be more than just the literal meaning for this phrase?

  • 5
    In Kanon's Los Alamos, the scientists refer several times to tickling the tail of the dragon (based on a real "tickling the tail of the sleeping dragon" comment by Feynman I believe). I can't think how that would be related (Hogwarts: magic's Manhattan Project!) but it's a fun coincidence. – Tony Meyer Feb 8 '12 at 11:03
  • 2
    It is just downright funny, as I do Latin at school I could easily translate it. It is also something the founders would do. – user12832 Feb 28 '13 at 18:02
  • 6
    Many things in the first Harry Potter book are quite silly compared with the later books. – DJClayworth Nov 10 '13 at 20:14
  • 10
    Well the Hogwarts School Song is "Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts..." Never tickle a sleeping dragon sounds pretty cool compared to that! :D – The Dragon Rider who Lived Nov 11 '13 at 7:49
  • 1
    @mikeazo: Well, that's the kind of thing I wanted to know, which is why I asked. Apparently there's no evidence of that. – Tango Jul 10 '15 at 19:24
39

Word of God

The motto is deliberately practical advice.

Ailsa Floyd for the Times Educational Supplement in Scotland - How did you think up the motto "Never tickle sleeping dragons", which appears under the crest? Is there a story about it?

JK Rowling: You know the way that most school slogans are thing like persevere and nobility, charity and fidelity or something, it just amused me to give an entirely practical piece of advice for the Hogwarts school motto.
Then a friend of mine who is a professor of classics - my Latin was not up to the job, I did not think it should be cod Latin, it is good enough for cod Latin spells, that is they used to be a mixture of Latin and other things. When it came to a proper Latin slogan for the school I wanted it to be right, I went to him and asked him to translate. I think he really enjoyed it, he rang me up and said, "I think I found the exactly right word, 'Titillandus'", that was how that was dreamt up.
(source: Edinburgh "cub reporter" press conference, ITV, 16 July 2005)

Is it an "obvious advice"?

Not really, since it's an advice regularly disregarded by many students.

Consider every single thing Harry did (tackling, in some semblence of order: a fully grown mountain troll, Fluffy, Voldemort, Aragog and his offspring, Whomping Willow, basilisk, Tom Riddle's diary, Sirius Black, a gazillion Dementors, a dragon, mermaids and Grindylows, monsters in a maze, Voldemort again... and I'm only up to book 4 and going from memory. Bold ones he tackled voluntarily).

Now consider every single thing the Marauders did.

Still think it's trivial, obvious, useless advice, either literally or metaphorically? :)

Bonus pedantry: technically, Latin translation is "a sleeping dragon must never be tickled", though the difference isn't semantically meaningful.

  • 1
    I like this, but as a comment. This doesn't really explain why Rowling included the motto. – Arturo Torres Sánchez Dec 4 '14 at 18:13
  • 3
    It is sort of an explanation. It seems to me to be along the lines of putting up "don't drink and drive" signs outside bars. True, it's obvious, but it's also rather needed. – March Ho Jan 9 '15 at 7:48
  • You missed off IRISH PIXIES!!!! – user46509 Oct 26 '15 at 9:40
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    @AncalagonTheBlack *Cornish pixies :-) – maguirenumber6 Jan 7 '16 at 10:42
44

I think it's a Wizarding-world equivalent of the English idiom "let sleeping dogs lie" (though I like the Hebrew equivalent better, which translates as "Don't wake the demons from their nap").

But beyond that, I feel it's a hint that while Hogwarts seems like an innocent enough place - only a school for children, after all - it's from this school, and at this school, that the greatest challenges to Voldemort emerged, and where the biggest battles were fought.

  • I read the Harry Potter series in Hebrew and I'm wondering where you got that "equivalent" because that isn't a Hebrew phrase or the Hogwarts motto in the Hebrew translations. – Lord Voldemort Oct 26 '15 at 5:43
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    It's the equivalent of the English phrase "let sleeping dogs lie" (לא להעיר שדים מרבצם), not of the Hogwarts motto. – Avner Shahar-Kashtan Oct 26 '15 at 6:03
  • That's interesting, I always thought it was דובים and not שדים but I guess it doesn't make much of a difference (: – Lord Voldemort Oct 26 '15 at 6:32
  • 1
    Both versions are extant, but we're veering way, way off-topic here. :-) – Avner Shahar-Kashtan Oct 26 '15 at 6:33
11

AFAIK, she has not ever mentioned the reason behind this. Ask her on twitter, that worked for me when I found an 'inside joke' in Inheritance.

It's probably just a wizardification of "let sleeping dogs lie". There are other such wizardifications:

  1. "Hold your hippogriffs" ("Hold your horses")
  2. "Time is galleons" ("Time is money")
  3. "No room to swing a kneazle" ("no room to swing a cat") and more.
6

I'd assume it means don't mess with Hogwarts. Hogwarts IS a sleeping dragon, and when it wakes up it puts up a damned good fight. Consider the battle between experienced Death Eaters, werewolves, and giants, versus teachers, some 15- to 17-year olds, house elves, and a handful of experienced fighters along with the Hogwarts defenses. Winner? Hogwarts. Don't mess with the dragon that is Hogwarts. The statues themselves will beat you back.

2

Like many details from Hogwarts, it just adds flavour and... a pinch of humour.

  • This answer is barely an answer, if at all. – Möoz Jan 5 '17 at 23:36
2

The literal meaning is obvious, but the message that I take from this is, I think, quite genuinely good advice, and it doesn't seem to have been picked up on. To me, the point is that there's a distinction to be drawn between bravery and stupidity. There's nothing smart about doing something obviously dangerous, like tickling a sleeping dragon, because it's probably gonna work out disadvantageously for you.

Perhaps less philosophically interestingly, it could also simply be a warning against causing trouble unnecessarily, against opening up a can of worms, or stirring up a hornet's nest.

To me, assuming the first interpretation, the Muggle parallels would be things like (thank you english.stackexchange):

  • Don't play with fire (quite apt, actually)
  • The trouble with grabbing a tiger by the tail is that sooner or later you have to let go.

Or my personal favourite:

  • Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
1

It's a reference to CS. Lewis' comment on "steal[ing] past watchful dragons", when he spoke about writing Christian-themed literature in a story that is not explicitly Christian, which is what Rowling has done in the Potter series.

-1

It could refer to Dumbledore as he was known to be the great defeater of Grindlewald even though Grindelwald had the Elder wand. Dumbledore was also known to have been over 100 years old and had obtained a lot of knowledge and experience meaning that he could be a massively dangerous wizard that would obliterate any enemies if provoked.

-1

It clearly means not to mess with Hogwarts as a whole. If you combine all the house mascots you get a winged scaily griffin that eats and takes what it wants when it wants, and that's a pretty fierce dragon if you ask me!

protected by Kevin Oct 26 '15 at 3:27

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