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It seems to be commonly accepted in discussions on this site (viz. the first two answers to this question) that there is the magical world and there is the muggle world and there are strict boundaries between the two; that anything that muggles know about is completely non-magical. But this doesn't hold up to events as depicted in the books: wizards commonly traverse through and interact with the muggle world (The Ministry of Magic is in London – think about all the routine interactions that implies on a daily basis for all the people who walk in through the public lavatories). Wizards are born to muggle parents. The Night Bus drives on Muggle roads. It's always the case that the magical world is right under the noses of the muggles, but the muggles are just bewitched into not noticing the magical things, or rather, the magical side of things, all around them.

With that in mind, we have plenty of evidence that animals in Harry Potter are not the same mundane species as we know them. Similar to Are Owls in Harry Potter universe normal ones?, are all snakes in the Harry Potter universe magical creatures or normal animals?

Consider Parseltongue, a complete language that only snakes, magical creatures resembling snakes (the Basilisk) and wizards can speak. Furthermore, the ability to speak Parseltongue is strictly inherited or imparted with dark magic – no one can learn to speak it. Dumbledore learned to understand it, but could not speak it, and Harry lost the ability to speak and understand it when Voldemort’s piece of soul inside him was killed.1

Here in the real world, there is tons of ongoing research into understanding animal communication as it relates to human language (and even understanding human language itself). The smartest, most communicative animals discovered have impressive skills, but that's still orders of magnitude away from every snake being able to hold a conversation (even a simple one like Harry has in the zoo).

Without devolving into arguments on the semantics of unknown phenomena vs. magic, what is the explanation for snakes being able to talk? The fact that muggles in the Harry Potter universe haven't discovered how to talk to snakes is circumstantial evidence that it's not just hyper-intelligence.

The distinction hinges, I think, on why Parseltongue is magic-based. The simplest explanation that makes sense to me is that snakes are part magical2. The next simplest is that Parselmouths share ancestry with snakes.

1: J.K. Rowling Live Chat, Bloomsbury.com, July 30, 2007: http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2007/0730-bloomsbury-chat.html

2: I suppose the simplest explanation is actually that J.K. Rowling wrote it that way for purposes of the plot and didn't consider all the ramifications of the existence of magic on reality as science currently understands it. (Consider Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.) But still! I'd like to know why Parseltongue is magic-based instead of a pure linguistics challenge.

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    My understanding was that all snakes "speak" through hissing. Similarly birds "speak" with chirping, cows "speak" with mooing, etc. All of these creatures are non-magical and communicate with animal noises that humans can't understand unless that human has Parselmouth. But that just grants the human an ability; the creatures themselves are still non-magical – hppp Jan 9 '18 at 23:28
  • related: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/14541/… – NKCampbell Jan 9 '18 at 23:29
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    Nagini is a magical snake. Rowling states this somewhere, I am pretty sure of it. And do you count Basilisks? Although they are from mythology you could say that if they have the power to petrify and also kill by staring directly at the victim's eyes that's pretty magical (not to mention their age). Otoh my understanding is the snake Harry inadvertently frees in PS isn't magical in the slightest. And if a snake is turned into a Horcrux is it in another way magical also? – Pryftan Jan 9 '18 at 23:41
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    I suppose that means I’ll never be able to learn Parseltongue... :( – Bellatrix Jan 10 '18 at 0:18
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    @Bellatrix You could still practise! It's actually quite fun. Sure a snake might not understand it but it could scare people! Add a Dark Mark tattoo (I'd never have a real tattoo but if it's your thing you could continue the RP!) and then .. well you know. I know there is at least one website that somehow generates the sound of Parseltongue but what site I don't know. Could have a tape recorder or have it on your phone really loud? – Pryftan Mar 7 '18 at 20:17
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Snakes probably aren’t inherently magical, from what we know.

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, snakes aren’t mentioned as all being magical creatures. If they were supposed to all be considered magical, it should have been mentioned somewhere in there.

A few different species of magical serpents are mentioned; however, simply being a snake doesn’t seem to be enough to classify a creature as magical. There’s also a bit of circumstantial evidence - if snakes were all classified as magical, it stands to reason that, similar to how the individual species of dragons aren’t specified as “magical” dragons since all dragons are inherently magical, the individual types wouldn’t be referred to as “magical” serpents since all serpents would be magical.

Even “nonmagical” snakes seem to be fairly intelligent, however.

In addition, none of the “regular” snakes we see (the one Harry meets at the zoo and the one Harry conjures in the duel, for example) seemed to do anything that would be considered magical, other than understanding more complicated conversations than might be expected when spoken to in Parseltongue, and being smarter than expected.

The snake that Harry frees at the zoo doesn’t seem to have any magical abilities. However, it was intelligent enough to read the sign saying it was native to Brazil and bred in captivity, and understand what it meant.

It seems, therefore, that snakes probably aren’t magical creatures, but simply possess a high degree of intelligence in the Harry Potter universe.

  • That's more of what I was driving at. I take your point about the dragon and serpent dichotomy. What about Parseltongue though? Why is it inheritable, and why is it that only wizards can learn it? – Dacio Jan 10 '18 at 16:43
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    @Dacio Thanks, I’m glad you liked my answer! It’s not clear why Parseltongue is an inherited skill. It seems to be similar to being a Metamorphmagus in that way - a specialized magical skill that can be hereditary. Only wizards can learn Parseltongue because the skill itself is magical, similar to how only wizards can turn matchsticks to needles, even though neither matchsticks or needles are inherently magical. – Bellatrix Jan 10 '18 at 18:05
  • Interesting point. So perhaps the ability to speak to snakes hinges on super-sensory abilities – muggles could work out the linguistics, but not have the ear for it, so to speak (no pun intended). Our ears can't make out serpent phonemes and our mouths can't form the words without magic. I can believe that, I think. I'll leave it open and accept in a day or two if no one comes up with sourced answer. – Dacio Jan 10 '18 at 20:20
  • @Dacio Yes, that explanation makes the most sense. It’s similar, I’d guess, to how no Muggles can really speak to or understand any other animals. – Bellatrix Jan 11 '18 at 0:32
  • @Bellatrix Tell that to Dr DoLittle. But then again we can talk and understand animals; I certainly can. I mean it's not the same way we understand English or some other spoken language but it's still possible. Though I admit I do speak with animals on a lower level than many. Snakes don't find me or whisper things although I have practised imitating Parseltongue - it's quite a lot of fun actually. Pottermore suggested to do it once... probably for some event they wrote about but I don't recall what it was (I have a guess though). I'd add though: some snakes are magical but most not in HP. – Pryftan Mar 7 '18 at 20:07
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No, they're not.

Parseltongue is simply the ability to talk to snakes. It's the ability which is magical, not the snakes.

It isn't just snakes in the magical world which speak Parseltongue. Snakes in the Muggle world do so too. Harry hears one speaking to him in the zoo as a 10 year-old.

As the snake slid swiftly past him, Harry could have sworn a low, hissing voice said, "Brazil, here I come...Thanksss, amigo."
(Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 2, The Vanishing Glass).

This isn't a special snake. It's just a standard Muggle zoo snake.

"Where do you come from, anyway?" Harry asked.
The snake jabbed its tail at a little sign next to the glass. Harry peered at it.
Boa Constrictor, Brazil.
"Was it nice there?"
The boa constrictor jabbed its tail at the sign again and Harry read on: This specimen was bred in the zoo. "Oh, I see - so you've never been to Brazil?"
(Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 2, The Vanishing Glass).

So Parseltongue works on all snakes, which have nothing especially 'magical' about them.

Of course, there are snakes like Nagini and the Basilisk (although technically that's a seperate species) which are distinct and possess unique magical qualities. These are exceptions, however. Most snakes in the Harry Potter universe are not like this. That's part of the mystique of the Harry Potter universe, however. Not everything is magical. Yes, there is a world of magic but it is hidden and small in comparison to the huge and expansive world of Muggles (and boring snakes). Most of the world is mundane and unremarkable - until you bring that hidden magic into the picture.

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    I think that what OP meant was, if all snakes are magical. Including the "muggle" one. Or maybe he didn't but still, there is this possibility. – TGar Jan 10 '18 at 0:09
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    @TGar What does 'magical' mean in that context? If the snake is normal or Muggle or whatever you want to call it then it wouldn't appear to be 'magical'. – The Dark Lord Jan 10 '18 at 0:11
  • @TheDarkLord AIUI, the OP thinks they might be 'normal' within the Potterverse (even the Muggle part of it) but still somehow 'magical' by our standards. – Rand al'Thor Jan 10 '18 at 0:13
  • I imagine that magical animal can think, for example. In the real world you can't talk with regular animals, not only because of language (that too of course) but mainly because they're dumb (not magical). – TGar Jan 10 '18 at 0:14
  • @Randal'Thor That makes 'magical' near-impossible to define and quantify, though. Who's to say on what grounds snakes should be considered 'magical' or not? I know it's not your question but if you're right then that makes it very subjective and hard to answer from canon. – The Dark Lord Jan 10 '18 at 0:26

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