The main trait of Slytherin house is ambition and cunning.

Malfoy fits the bill. Snape fits the bill. Harry Potter has both, to an extent.

But how can someone argue that Crabbe, Goyle or Millicent (or Pansy if Hermione is to be believed, though she's a bit biased) are intelligent enough to be ambitious (never mind cunning)?

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    I don't think it's demonstrable that you need to be intelligent to possess low cunning or ambition.
    – Paul
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 1:42
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    You may have stumbled on the answer yourself. "Cunning" isn't the same thing as "smart", and "ambitious" isn't the same thing as "successful". Crabbe and Goyle may well be considered cunning and ambitious by allying themselves with Malfoy... to the full extent that their limited mental capabilities allowed them to be cunning and ambitious, that is. It's true that we wouldn't objectively call them cunning and ambitious, but the Sorting Hat doesn't seem to use the external world as a yardstick. Would they have been a good fit in Hufflepuff because they're "all the rest"? Probably not. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 8:03
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    @MatthieuM. - the question isn't "why are ALL dumb ones in Slytherin?". It's more of "Why are ANY of the dumb ones in Slytherin?" Sorry for confusion Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 11:14
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    @WillemVanOnsem: for that matter, we don't really know how the Sorting Hat sorts. We know how it claims to sort, certainly, and we can see how it sorts for particular cases... but ultimately, if it's not just doing what it wants, it's probably following the wishes of the founders. And if I were Salazar Slytherin, I'd recognize the value of less intelligent toadies who are self-centered but ultimately predictable in their ambitions. Conversely, if I were Helga Hufflepuff I'd be fine with people like that not ending up in my house. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 14:48
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    @fredsbend: Agreed. I seem to recall that when Harry and Ron use Polyjuice potion to impersonate Crabbe and Goyle, that Malfoy expresses surprise at Crabbe and Goyle seeming to be stupider than usual.
    – ruakh
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 21:38

8 Answers 8


Your House can represent traits you value, not necessarily have.

This is a good explanation for all the Sortings that that don't seem to match up with the student's traits. Peter Pettigrew could have been a Gryffindor because he wanted to be brave, not because he was. Although he did develop courage later on, unlike Pettigrew, the same thing could be said for Neville Longbottom. Hermione Granger would have probably been a Ravenclaw based solely on her traits, but apparently she valued bravery more, as evidenced by her telling Harry that friendship and bravery were more important than books and cleverness.

“I’m not as good as you,’ said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.

‘Me!’ said Hermione. ‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 16 (Through the Trapdoor)

There, she basically stated herself that she valued Gryffindor traits over Ravenclaw traits.

Students also tend to be put in the house they want to be in most.

Choice also is a part of each Sorting, so if someone wants badly enough to be in a particular House, then they probably will be. Hermione showed a clear preference for Gryffindor over Ravenclaw when she was talking to Ron and Harry on the Hogwarts Express.

“I’ve been asking around and I hope I’m in Gryffindor, it sounds by far the best, I hear Dumbledore himself was one, but I suppose Ravenclaw wouldn’t be too bad …”
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 6 (The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters)

There's never been a case where a student is shown to be thoroughly unhappy with their Hogwarts House in the seven books, so it seems likely that the Sorting Hat does place some importance on the student's opinions. There’s also never been a case in the seven books where a student really wants a particular house and is sorted elsewhere.

Out-of-universe answer - Rowling wanted all the bad guys to be in Slytherin.

Over the course of the series, Slytherin is used as the 'evil' House, where everyone bad goes whether they have cunning and ambition or not. Some of them did actually have Slytherin traits - like the Dark Lord himself, who was undeniably both cunning and ambitious. However, others, like Crabbe and Goyle, had none of the defining Slytherin traits. But to fit the idea of Slytherin being the 'evil' House, they were put in Slytherin without any further thought as to why they belonged there other than that they were the bad guys.

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    That is a complaint of mine. It makes the bad guys simplistic. For an otherwise intriguing story, this "slytherin is the baddies" talk kind of bothered me. I would have loved to see more gray morality, rather than black and white. But I suppose Rowling wanted to appeal to 15 year olds, not 30 somethings with nothing to do on an airplane.
    – user15742
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:40
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    Rowling was also sort of chained to the first book as the foundation of her world. Notice that as her writing improved, so did the levels of moral ambiguity. The Philosophers Stone was written for 10 year olds. As such, it established the baseline. She couldn't deviate from what was established without an inordinate amount of effort and illiness
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:56
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    @fredsbend There is a fair bit of that. Not all Slytherins are baddies (though, true, most are at least somewhat ambiguous)—Snape is more or less redeemed, Slughorn was never quite likeable but never portrayed as a baddie either. Lockhart and Quirrell were both Ravenclaws (though their houses are never mentioned outright), as is Marietta Edgecombe. Zacharias Smith is a Hufflepuff. You have to remember that the story is told through a hot-headed Gryffindor’s eyes. A more unbiased narrator would present a more unbiased general image. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 9:12
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    @fredsbend We also see Gryffindors do a fair few things that, if they’d been described by Slytherin kids, would probably have been perceived by the reader as very serious transgressions (shoving a student into a potentially lethal, broken Vanishing Cabinet? Slashing open a student’s body with Sectumsempra?). But because Harry tells the story, these are more or less shrugged off and excused in ways that would likely be possible of many Slytherin acts that end up being portrayed as cruel and horrible. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 9:19
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    @mtraceur When I say Lockhart wasn't 'bad', I'm not referring to an objective definition of it when fully considering his acts, or my personal opinion - I mean the way his character was looked upon in the books. The books lay out their own sense of right and wrong, which doesn't always make objective sense. Lockhart was played as more of a comic-relief villain than a serious one. The things he did weren't taken as seriously in the books as those of people like Quirrell or even Draco. He was treated as more of an annoyance than a true villain in the books - regardless of whether this is true.
    – Obsidia
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 19:02

That's not entirely true. It's just that the less-bright kids who end up in the other 3 houses try to make up for it somehow, so you don't think of them that way. You think of them as "hard-working", or "diligent". Let's do our own sorting here...

Say you've got a kid who's not too bright, and doesn't like learning for its own sake. We know right off the bat that kid can't go in Ravenclaw. The less-bright kids in Ravenclaw still do pretty well in school, because they enjoy learning new things. It just takes them longer.

Let's further say he isn't inclined toward making up for his lack of talent with hard work, and is a bit self-centered. He doesn't really see much point to taking a tougher path when easier options are available, or to doing things that don't ultimately help himself in any way. Well, we can't really put that kid in Hufflepuff.

Let's further say he isn't particularly brave. For example he will only pick fights with kids that are much smaller than himself, and/or when backed up by superior numbers. Well, he clearly can't be Gryffindor.

But of course none of those things are at all out of place in Slytherin. So all your dumb bullies will naturally end up there. They'll even be welcomed. After all, bullies make great followers for the more devious Slytherin, and together they can all get ahead.

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    The first sentence hinted at a really great point about how we read the books through the sole perspective of a Gryffindor, but the rest of the post didn't follow up on it.
    – Knetic
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 2:37
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    @Knetic - I'm not sure I was intending to make that point, but it is truth. I have immediate family members who got sorted into all 4 houses, and I assure you that being sorted into Slytherin does not itself make someone a bad person. It was the Slytherin kids who saved the day in the final book by doing the tactically sensible thing when everyone else was busy doing either the Right Thing, or hiding.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 15:34

In addition to @Bellatrix's comprehensive answer, inbreeding also plays a role. Most Slytherins are pureblood supremacists and elitists, so they prefer to marry with other pure-bloods from a select few influential families, narrowing their gene pool. While not all Slytherins end up having severely inbred children, their racist and elitist ideology allows/encourages them to go far enough. The Slytherins mentioned in the OP (mentally challenged and/or physically deformed), and also some others like Bellatrix (reckless, extremely ill-tempered and insane), Merope Gaunt (emotionally unstable, has problems with her magical powers and apparently not the most good looking) show some "typically inbred" traits.

It's the cause of the weakening of the Gaunt family. (HBP)
Ron says "Most wizards these days are half-blood anyway. If we hadn't married Muggles we'd've died out.", suggesting it has serious consequences like in the Muggle world. (CoS)


Increasing numbers of wizards now preached that marriage with a Muggle did not merely risk a possible breach of the new Statute, but that it was shameful, unnatural and would lead to 'contamination' of magical blood.**

[...] ** In fact, the reverse appears to be true. Where families adhered consistently to the practice of marrying within a very small group of fellow witches and wizards, mental and physical instability and weakness seems to result.

Then again:

As Muggle/wizard marriage had been common for centuries, those now self-describing as pure-bloods were unlikely to have any higher proportion of wizarding ancestors than those who did not. To call oneself a pure-blood was more accurately a declaration of political or social intent ('I will not marry a Muggle and I consider Muggle/wizard marriage reprehensible') than a statement of biological fact.

Still, the last quote doesn't necessarily mean that some exceptions don't go more extreme lengths, just that they usually don't or do just enough to keep up appearances.

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    Is there any support for this in the books though? Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 12:12
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    @Gallifreyan - "Ah! Another Weasley!" Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 12:47
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    @Bellatrix - I'm surprised you're letting this person get away with calling you "reckless, extremely ill-tempered and insane" in their answer :)
    – Ben Sutton
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 16:24
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    @BenSutton Why would I say anything to them when Unforgivable Curses can speak much louder than mere words?! ;) A few rounds of Crucio should be enough to convince them to change their opinions of me!!
    – Obsidia
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 19:34
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    It's not that the Sorting hat puts inbreeding in Slytherin, but that the people who don't like "mudbloods" tend to be in Slytherin, and that Slytherin parents are more likely to have Slytherin children. Since avoiding "mudbloods" means sticking with only a few "pure" families, you get inbreeding. The same thing happens in real life, like with royalty who would refuse to intermingle with "commoner" blood.
    – trlkly
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 6:40

While just a fanfic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality gave a surprisingly good explanation that I like as headcanon. As we know from canon, the Sorting Hat sorts people based off of not just the quality they most aspire/demonstrate, but also what they personally want, so they don't end up in a house they are unhappy with.

The problem is that Slytherin has become associated with pureblood fanatics and prejudice against Muggles. There are plenty of people that would not want to be associated with this sort of bigotry. It's also known as an "evil" house, prone to birthing dark wizards, which people also wouldn't be happy with. Thus some who may otherwise demonstrate cunning and ambition end up being sorted into other houses. They disagree so much with the other traits Slytherin has become associated with that they would be unhappy being in the House.

Of course, canon suggests that the number of students in each house has to be kept roughly equal. Thus the Hat may be forced to take people who don't fit into the level of "cunning:, but who don't mind being associated with pureblood rhetoric, just to keep the numbers similar to that of the other houses.

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    "The hat sorts people based off of not just the quality they most aspire/demonstrate, but also what they personally want, so they don't end up in a house they are unhappy with." - that's exactly what happens in real canon - in the first book and the very last chapter of book 7 for goodness sake - please reference canon when applicable, not terrible fanfic
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 14:12
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    The Hat taking personal preference into account explains why someone doesn't end up in a House they don't want, but it probably wouldn't go so far as to definitely sort you in a House you do want regardless of qualities. If I was terribly dim but I still really wanted to end up in Ravenclaw because that's where the rest of my family was, I have a hard time imagining the Hat would say "oh well, off you go then". If Crabbe and Goyle were manifestly unfit for Slytherin, they probably wouldn't have ended up there. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 14:54
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    @NKCampbell Only the first paragraph is explicitly the same in official canon, and it was required for context. I don't believe the poster was implying that the entire answer was solely from HPMOR canon. Also, no terrible fanfics were referenced in this answer. =P Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 16:00
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    A significant part of this particular fanfic is to take existing comics in canon and try to understand them in a logical way. Sometimes it means it just changes how it works, but it tries not to if possible. I believe the author is very much a theorycrafter, and it shows in his work.
    – trlkly
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 6:44

If you have a clear idea on where you want to go, you go to that house.

Until Cursed Child came along, we never saw anybody unhappy with their sorting.

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    Which is why I'll never read Cursed Child.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 1:22
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    Have an upvote! ;)
    – Obsidia
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 23:47
  • Except perhaps the one time a Squib got to the Hat and was utterly rejected and humiliated: pottermore.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/scottish-rugby That too would be disappointment...
    – Pryftan
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 18:23
  • But that was not a case of a student unhappy with his sorting, but rather a student unhappy that he was not sorted at all.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 3:57

I think that we need to consider the extent to which HP is part of the sizeable genre of "British Public School" (= private school in most other cultures) literature. And the fact that in most such institutions, you will generally be placed in the house to which your parent who attended that school belonged - probably all the way back to your 7xgreat-grandparent! Crabbe Snr and Goyle Snr are Death-eaters

  • Strong argument there. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 21:18
  • Good point. Plus many of the traits would be in DNA which would then continue the trend. And good call on pointing out the difference of school types as I imagine many don't know that.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 18:17

I think it's simply not the case that "less bright students end up in Slytherin". Probably all houses have their share. Witness: Neville ... Hufflepuff. You just don't notice them because (a) they are supported (as others have said) and (b) only evil stupid students make it into the plot line.

(I also vaguely recall some less-bright students in Divination classes, though can't quite remember who or what house, but not Slytherin).

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    You mean Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown (both Gryffindors)?
    – Nautilus
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 18:22

On Pottermore this is part of the welcome to Slytherin house message:

Because you know what Salazar Slytherin looked for in his chosen students? The seeds of greatness. You’ve been chosen by this house because you’ve got the potential to be great, in the true sense of the word. All right, you might see a couple of people hanging around the common room whom you might not think are destined for anything special. Well, keep that to yourself. If the Sorting Hat put them in here, there’s something great about them, and don’t you forget it.

And I think that is something to keep in mind in any world; there is much more to everything than it might seem esp at first glance. There are reasons you shouldn't judge a book by its cover or by its name. The same goes here. Just because someone doesn't act on some trait (or doesn't have some trait) doesn't mean they don't have it (or can't eventually develop it).

Something else is this: Rowling wrote about how the Hat is obstinate it is never wrong but then you have:

The Sorting Hat is notorious for refusing to admit it has made a mistake in its sorting of a student. On those occasions when Slytherins behave altruistically or selflessly, when Ravenclaws flunk all their exams, when Hufflepuffs prove lazy yet academically gifted and when Gryffindors exhibit cowardice, the Hat steadfastly backs its original decision. On balance, however, the Hat has made remarkably few errors of judgement over the many centuries it has been at work.

But nothing is perfect in our world and nothing is perfect in the world of Harry Potter (perhaps exactly because our world is imperfect).

Finally, Dumbledore says to Severus that he sometimes thinks they sort too soon. After all, Severus was very brave too. But there it is: he also had qualities of Slytherin, didn't he? Dumbledore says this about Harry also. Similarly Hermione turned out to be brave and the Hat considered .. was it Ravenclaw (? I'm pretty sure that's the one) .. for her. And look at Neville; he didn't believe in himself but he turned out incredibly brave. We all have hidden talents and other kinds of traits we don't know about or don't fully realise or develop to full potential. I know this is very true of myself as I've proven to myself (and friends/family insisted) in some things and friends/family insist to me about other things.

To put it another way: we all have many positive and negative traits as well as neutral traits (if you can call any trait 'neutral' as I can). Does any one trait or even any five traits necessarily define that person? Only to those who are biased; anyone being realistic and accepting the possibility will see that there is much more to everything in this world perhaps people esp.

Pottemore also has another article on this very subject which I by chance noticed a few minutes ago: https://www.pottermore.com/features/why-being-sorted-is-not-as-simple-as-it-seems

They also bring up the concept of a Hatstall which is another thing to consider: it really isn't as simple as the traits they look for. It's not black and white.

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