Beatrice Groves – The Running Grave: Strike 7, the I Ching and the Yarrow Stalks

New information is coming thick and fast for Book 7, which we now know is called The Running Grave! Are you, like me, confused about ancient Chinese divination? Do you know your yarrow stalks from your divination coins? What on earth can this have to do with Norfolk? Help is at hand: Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: The Running Grave: Strike 7, the I Ching and the Yarrow Stalks.

The Running Grave: Strike 7, the I Ching and the Yarrow Stalks

On January 12th JK Rowling revealed the title of Strike 7 with a cryptic crossword clue on Twitter: if you ‘disentangle’ the letters of ‘the hanging venturer’ you get the answer The Running Grave. This return to playing games with fans on Twitter seems to be part of Rowling’s New Year writing roll, which she tweeted about on 3 January 2023:

I know I should be out in the fresh air and the beautiful snowy landscape, but is there anything better than bashing out thousands of words – not all of which are crap – in a single sitting because your brain’s on fire and you’ve got to get the story down fast? No, there isn’t. Days like this, where writing’s a pure rush, make up for all those where you’re rewriting and revising and trying to make gold out of what you fear might be lead (and sometimes is). Of course, I’ll have to revise everything I’ve done in the last seven hours, but who cares?

Those of us who have written about alchemy in Harry Potter were delighted with this instinctive turn to alchemical metaphors for her writing (John – the magus on this subject! – has kindly put together a list of what I’ve written on this topic here) and it provided a twist on her sense of her process as ‘the Lake and the Shed’– kitting up what had previously seemed a rather low-tech shed with the medieval hardware of an alchemical laboratory!

Part and parcel of what Rowling called her writing ‘euphoria’ is engaging with Strike fans on Twitter and she responded to @CormStrikeFan’s request for a ‘Strikey’ header on New Year’s Day with a new image of Cromer pier. As header-watchers know, Rowling has chosen Cromer Pier as a header before; but it is also the case that we’ve seen her reposting similar header images before. There was a slew of white horses before Lethal White and the repeated headers of Highgate Cemetery before Ink Black Heart. So, while in one sense this new header didn’t provide that much information, in another sense it might hold a big clue. Given what happened with the last two locations given multiple header postings, it seems a worthwhile guess that the murder/discovery of the body will occur on/under Cromer Pier. If this is correct, this means that Norfolk could be the location of the next case, as well as The Running Grave seeing Strike ruminating on memories of his childhood trauma in Norfolk.

Two days after the Cromer pier image Rowling then updated her header to an image of the I Ching (or Yijing) – an ancient Chinese wisdom text used for divination, which is usually translated in English as The Book of Changes. Richard J. Smith explains its origins in his helpful scholarly guide:

The Changes first took shape about three thousand years ago as a divination manual, consisting of sixty-four six-line symbols known as hexagrams. Each hexagram was uniquely constructed, distinguished from all the others by its combination of solid (——) and/or broken (— —) lines. The first two hexagrams in the conventional order are Qian [all solid lines] and Kun [all broken lines]; the remaining sixty-two hexagrams represent permutations of these two paradigmatic symbols. At some point in the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1045–256 BCE), no later than the ninth or eighth century, each hexagram acquired a name, a brief description known as a “judgment,” and a short explanatory text for each of its six lines called a “line statement.” This highly compact document, less than 4,200 characters in length and probably first inscribed on strips of bamboo, became known as the basic text of the Yijing.” [1]

Rowling tweeted about her new header: ‘I realised I’d done that one [Cromer pier] before (or very similar), so thought @CormStrikeFan deserved something NEW!’ Given how rarely Rowling has changed her header in response to fan requests, and the link between writing-joy and fan engagement, it seems likely to me that her writing roll was in full swing on January 1 when she first responded to @CormStrikeFan – suggesting that Norfolk and the I Ching are connected. This idea is also supported by the emojis she used in her title-confirmation tweet: The gravestone is obviously a reference to the title, and the Chinese lantern to China/the I Ching but the wave could relate to Cromer pier (or perhaps something else watery alluded to by the ‘Running’ of the title)?

This idea of connecting the Norfolk commune of Strike’s childhood and the I Ching also makes sense given what we know of Leda. We know, for example, of Leda’s love of astrology, and Strike dreams of ‘Leda, laying out her tarot cards in the Norfolk commune of long ago’ in Troubled Blood, (chap 44).  Leda would certainly have been a fan of I Ching had she known of it – for, born in the mid-1950s, she was the right age to have been caught up in the countercultural enthusiasm for the I Ching in the 1960s and 70s, stemming from a new translation in English bearing Carl Jung’s imprimatur: ‘in 1924 the missionary-scholar Richard Wilhelm (1873–1930) published a German translation of the Changes titled I Ging, Das Buch der Wandlungen, which became a global sensation when it was translated into English by one of Carl Jung’s students, Cary Baynes, and published in 1950 as I Ching, The Book of Changes… In 1961, after about a decade on the American scene as a rather cumbersome two-volume set, a handy one-volume edition of Richard Wilhelm’s The I Ching or Book of Changes, with Carl Jung’s original foreword appeared.’[2]

This header is, in fact, the second reference to the I Ching Rowling has given us – for, as spotted by Lindsay’s (@LindsayMLand) sharp eyes and confirmed by Rowling I Ching divination coins (used by those who can’t get the hang of the yarrow stalk ritual) have been visible on Rowling’s website since 9 September 2021. I discussed the Easter Eggs in this website here and I think that the presence of the coins there tells us that she already knew in 2021 what part the I Ching would be playing in The Running Grave, which increases the chance that it takes an important role.

Following Rowling’s reveal of the I Ching header, she joined in fan discussion but exclusively in relation to one aspect of the I Ching: the use of yarrow stalks:

They’re complicated, full stop! Took me a while to get the hang of them x

7:43 PM · Jan 6, 2023

Yarrow stalks are the proper way to do it. Coins are for amateurs

12:03 AM · Jan 6, 2023

Those are indeed the coins people can use, but you haven’t done it properly until you’ve learned to use the yarrow stalks!

12:07 AM · Jan 6, 2023

Yarrow stalks are the traditional method for casting the hexagrams of the I Ching, and – according to Fritjof Capra (the author of The Tao of Physics [1975], an important book in bringing the ideas of the I Ching to a Western audience) – yarrow stalks were very much part of the material culture of Leda’s community at that time:

The radical questioning of authority and the expansion of social and transpersonal consciousness gave rise to a whole new culture — a “counterculture” — that defined itself in opposition to the dominant “straight” culture by embracing a different set of values. The members of this alternative culture, who were called “hippies” by outsiders but rarely used that term themselves, were held together by a strong sense of community. To distinguish ourselves from the crew cuts and polyester suits of that era’s business executives, we wore long hair, colorful and individualistic clothes, flowers, beads, and other jewelry… It had its own rituals, music, poetry, and literature; a common fascination with spirituality and the occult; and the shared vision of a peaceful and beautiful society. Rock music and psychedelic drugs were powerful bonds that strongly influenced the art and lifestyle of the hippie culture. In addition, the closeness, peacefulness, and trust of the hippie communities were expressed in casual communal nudity and freely shared sexuality. In our homes we would frequently burn incense and keep little altars with eclectic collections of statues of Indian gods and goddesses, meditating Buddhas, yarrow stalks or coins for consulting the I Ching, and various personal “sacred” objects.

Capra’s description is of a mindset which is very much akin to Leda’s as she lays out the cards, has her son’s natal horoscope cast (‘She loved all that shit’ [Troubled Blood, chap 21]) and urges her son ‘from the middle of a blue haze of cannabis smoke’ not to become a soldier and ‘trying, without success, to persuade him to learn the guitar or, at the very least, to let his hair grow’ (Troubled Blood, Chap 17). Leda would have loved the I Ching and it seems highly likely that there would have been yarrow stalks lying around in at least some of the places where she lived ‘in a fug of incense, dirt and mysticism’ (Troubled Blood, Chap 35).

This last description is also interesting as it come from the first time that Jung was mentioned in Strike. Jung’s famous preface to the I Ching makes it likely that the I Ching may also appear in The Running Grave via Prudence, Strikes’ Jungian therapist half-sister. Robin tells Strike (as they are discussing astrology):

Jung says it was man’s first attempt at psychology, did you know that?… Folklore and superstition haven’t gone away. They’ll never go away. People need them,” she said, taking a sip of coffee. “I think a purely scientific world would be a cold place. Jung also talked about the collective unconscious, you know. The archetypes lurking in all of us. (Troubled Blood, Chap 35)

My guess is that Prudence – influenced by Jung’s preface to the I Ching – will say something that will trigger yarrow-stalk memories from Strike’s childhood (bringing the Beatles-echo of Prudence’s name full circle). Interestingly (and ominously) another westerner famously influenced by the I Ching was Aleister Crowley, who plays an important part in the occult background to Troubled Blood (as I discussed here). Whittaker (Leda’s husband at the time of her death) was into – ‘the Satanic Bible, Aleister Crowley, all that crap’ (Career of Evil, Chap 22) – as Strike puts it. An interest in the I Ching could connect the new (and as far as we can guess, entirely positive) familial relationship Strike is forming with Prudence with aspects of his past he’d most like to forget.

Jung’s introduction creates an obvious link with Prudence’s work, and it is also the most famous part of the I Ching for English readers. Jung writes:

I of course am thoroughly convinced of the value of self-knowledge, but is there any use in recommending such insight, when the wisest of men throughout the ages have preached the need of it without success? Even to the most biased eye it is obvious that this book represents one long admonition to careful scrutiny of one’s own character, attitude, and motives. This attitude appeals to me.

This fits well, of course, with the startling insight each of our heroes has gained into their own true hearts in Ink Black Heart. It also segues neatly with the general theme of ‘practical self-improvement following self-scrutiny’ that we know awaits Strike in Ink Black Heart. He started vaping in Ink Black Heart (my successful Ink Black Heart prediction!) – and it looks like there will be no cigarettes and much less cake in The Running Grave. I don’t think Strike will go to therapy, though presumably it is Prudence who suggests that he should: ‘Somebody (not Robin) does suggest therapy to him in the next book!’. I expect, however, that he will have some insightful conversations with Prudence which will take his thinking in new directions. And, certainly, the idea of change which is at the heart of The Book of Changes – both the inherent flux of life but also the capacity for altering outcomes by shifting one’s own response – is something of a keyword in Rowling’s thinking about Strike right now:

He reaches a crisis in this book [Ink Black Heart] and is forced up against some hard facts: change your lifestyle, or your career’s over. And his health crisis mirrors his emotional crisis. He’s voluntarily lived in denial about his feelings for Robin and change is forced upon him there, too.

Richard J. Smith describes the I Ching (or Yijing)’s appeal to Jung lies in his reading of it as exploring ‘creative self-understanding’ and notes that it has been used clinically by Jungian therapists:

The notion of creative self-understanding proved to be extremely appealing not only to laypersons but also to clinical practitioners, leading in time to a branch of Jungian psychology that increasingly used the Yijing as a therapeutic device. An early example can be found in Jolande Jacobi’s essay in Jung’s Man and His Symbols (1964), in which Jacobi’s patient, “Henry,” on his therapist’s advice, uses the Changes to interpret a dream. Uncannily (or not), the symbolism of the two primary trigrams of the chosen hexagram, Meng (number 4, “Youthful Folly” in Wilhelm’s rendering), coincided precisely with the symbols that had emerged in Henry’s recent dreams, provoking a breakthrough in his therapy.[3]

If Prudence were to suggest a therapeutic use of the I Ching we can anticipate Strike’s response, but Jung anticipates it likewise:

Any person of clever and versatile mind can turn the whole thing around and show how I have projected my subjective contents into the symbolism of the hexagrams. Such a critique, though catastrophic from the standpoint of Western rationality, does no harm to the function of the I Ching. On the contrary, the Chinese sage would smilingly tell me: “Don’t you see how useful the I Ching is in making you project your hitherto unrealized thoughts into its abstruse symbolism?”

Yarrow Stalks and Firenze

I’ll be learning – and blogging! – more about the I Ching as we approach publication day, but for now I’ll conclude with a surprising connection between the I Ching and divination in Harry Potter. As mentioned above, yarrow stalks are the ancient ritual method for casting the I Ching and Rowling tweeted three times about them (eschewing coins as ‘for amateurs’) after revealing her new header. Richard Wilhelm’s introduction to the I Ching notes that the use of yarrow stalks is meant to root the practice in nature (just as each of the eight fundamental trigrams – the three-line building blocks which are combined to form the 64 [8×8] hexagrams) are all named after natural phenomena. We’ve seen nature-based divination in Harry Potter too:

‘Centaurs may attempt to divine by the burning of certain herbs and leaves, by the observation of fume and flame …’

It was the most unusual lesson Harry had ever attended. They did indeed burn sage and mallowsweet there on the classroom floor, and Firenze told them to look for certain shapes and symbols in the pungent fumes, but he seemed perfectly unconcerned that not one of them could see any of the signs he described, telling them that humans were hardly ever good at this, that it took centaurs years and years to become competent, and finished by telling them that it was foolish to put too much faith in such things, anyway, because even centaurs sometimes read them wrongly. He was nothing like any human teacher Harry had ever had. His priority did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaurs’ knowledge, was foolproof.

(Order of the Phoenix, chap 27)

Firenze’s divination methods are much closer to the I Ching than Trelawney’s, and the fumes and scented smoke that are central to his divination practice are part of the classic yarrow stalk method of the I Ching: ‘burn incense to “show reverence.” Then, taking the bundle of milfoil [yarrow] stalks from a container located to the north of the divining board, the person consulting the Changes holds the stalks with both hands and passes them through the smoke rising from the incense burner.’[4]  And although Firenze uses the (punningly wise?!) sage rather than yarrow, his character does, in fact, have a connection with that flower.

Firenze is based on the centaur Chiron who (according to Homer) passed on the knowledge of healing herbs to mankind. In the Homeric account of Patroclus tending Eurypylus’ wound (Iliad, Book 11.804-848), Eurypylus’ asks Patroclus to ‘sprinkle soothing herbs with power to heal on my wound, whose use men say you learned from Achilles, whom the noble Centaur, Cheiron, taught’ (translation by A.S. Kline). While other classical centaurs – like the other centaurs in Harry Potter – are generally antagonist to mankind, the generous and gifted Chiron became a tutor to heroes such as Achilles. Chiron, therefore, is the clear model for Firenze: the only Hogwarts centaur that thinks it worthwhile to tutor the hero.

In Harry Potter centaur-wisdom is more about divination than herbs, but it is herbal wisdom nonetheless. Firenze, in his forest classroom, burns magical herbs and flowers – mallowsweet is a magical herb created as a portmanteau of two English flowers: mallow and meadowsweet. Firenze also seems to have the kind of attitude of which the I Ching would approve – not seeking solid answers but nonetheless taking personal responsibility (in opposition to Bane who thinks they must not interfere with what is foretold):

“Do you not see that unicorn?” Firenze bellowed at Bane. “Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane”’

(Philosopher’s Stone, chap 15).

Although Firenze does not (as far as we know) burn yarrow stalks in his divination, the story of Chiron teaching Achilles his wisdom – the story behind Firenze’s character – is inscribed on the yarrow flower. For the Latin name of yarrow is Achillea millefolium – it is named as Achilles’s herb as a reminder of the herbal wisdom he learnt from Chiron. And translations of the I Ching regularly refer to the herb as milfoil – from the second half of the plant’s Latin name: ‘countless leaves’ (from the Greek ‘myrios’ [countless] and ‘phyllon’ [leaf]). Take, for example, this description of how to use the yarrow stalks for divination from Smith’s biography:

The major model for orthodox milfoil divination in late imperial times, and especially the Qing period, was Zhu Xi’s famous essay “Milfoil Etiquette,” first published at the end of his Fundamental Meaning of the Zhou Changes and subsequently appended to a great many other works on the Yijing… taking the bundle of milfoil stalks from a container located to the north of the divining board, the person consulting the Changes holds the stalks with both hands and passes them through the smoke rising from the incense burner, located to the south of the container, below the board. The diviner then addresses the stalks: “Availing of you, great milfoil with constancy [i.e., reliability], I, official so-and-so, because of thus-and-such affair, wonder if I may express my doubts and concerns to the spiritual powers. Whether the news is auspicious or inauspicious, involves a gain or a loss, remorse or humiliation, sorrow or anxiety, you alone with your divine intelligence can provide clear information [about the situation].”[5]

The idea of yarrow belonging to divination – an idea at the heart of the practice of the I Ching – has come full circle in Harry Potter, in which the centaur with true wisdom in divination is modelled on Chiron, the centaur after whose herbal wisdom yarrow is named.

It might mean that Rowling knew about the I Ching before she invented Firenze (thus subconsciously connecting yarrow with centaurs and therefore centaurs with divination). It is also precisely the kind of circle of which Strike would not approve – but Jung just might.

[1] Richard J. Smith, The I Ching: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p.2.

[2] Smith, The I Ching, chapter 5.

[3] Smith, The I Ching, p. 50.

[4] Smith, The I Ching, p.71-2.

[5] Smith, The I Ching, p.71-2.

All of Dr Groves’ on line Rowling scholarship can be found in the Beatrice Groves Pillar Post.

Beatrice Groves – The Running Grave: Strike 7, the I Ching and the Yarrow Stalks