Who Was Phineas Nigellus Black?

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  • Who Was Phineas Nigellus?
  • Phineas Nigellus’ Role in the Second Wizarding War

Phineas Nigellus Black, the great-great-grandfather of Sirius Black, appeared a handful of times in the Harry Potter series, but there was only a glimpse of him in the film adaptations (portrayed by John Atterbury). In Hogwarts Legacy, however, he plays a much more prominent role (voiced by Simon Pegg). In the video announcement on X, Pegg described the character: “He’s not noble. He’s not brave. He’s just a self-interested fool.”

Though Phineas is dead by the time the events of Harry Potter unfold, his portrait proved to be quite helpful on multiple occasions — thus, suggesting that there was much more beneath his abrasive, painted exterior.

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Who Was Phineas Nigellus?

Phineas was a pure-blood wizard who was born to the House of Black, one of the oldest and most prestigious wizarding families, in 1847. He had three siblings: Sirius I, his elder brother who died in childhood for unknown reasons; Elladora, his younger sister who began the family tradition of beheading old house-elves; and Iola, his youngest sister who was blasted off the family tree after marrying a Muggle man named Bob Hitchens. Phineas was raised to believe in the importance of blood purity, which is why he looked down upon blood traitors, half-bloods and Muggle-borns (for whom he used the derogatory term ‘Mudbloods’).

He attended Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he was sorted into Slytherin (like most of the Black family members). After graduation, he became a professor at the school and, some time later, the “least popular headmaster Hogwarts ever had”. Although his position indicates that he possessed skills and intelligence, he did not seem too pleased with the responsibility:

You know, this is precisely why I loathed being a teacher! Young people are so infernally convinced that they are right about everything.

He married a witch named Ursula Flint, with whom he had five children: Sirius II (named after his deceased brother); Phineas, who was later disowned for not sharing the Blacks’ pure-blood supremacist values; Arcturus; Belvina; and Cygnus.

Phineas died at the age of 78 in 1925, at which point he had at least thirteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. After his death, his portrait was hung at 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral Black home (which later became the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix), as well as in the headmaster’s office (along with all previous headmasters), to offer advice to the current headmaster. He could travel between the two, like other magical portraits, and sometimes passed on messages on Albus Dumbledore’s orders. Harry even saw Phineas’ dark outline in his frame at Grimmauld Place one night, and believed that Dumbledore had asked the portrait to watch over him. However, Phineas only begrudgingly assisted Dumbledore during his tenure at Hogwarts, as he believed that the eccentric wizard was too lenient with the students (or probably because of his pro-Muggle stance). In contrast, he held immense respect for Snape (a former Slytherin) when he became the headmaster.

During his brief number of appearances in the Harry Potter books, he was snide and surly, often making condescending remarks. He was only concerned about the Black family name:

We Slytherins are brave, yes, but not stupid. For instance, given the choice, we will always choose to save our own necks.

He was enraged when he learned that the “manky” Mundungus Fletcher was stealing heirlooms from Grimmauld Place and selling them. However, he did seem upset when he discovered that Sirius III had been murdered — bringing an end to the line of Black — even though he considered him “worthless” before, for rejecting the blood status hierarchy.

Phineas Nigellus’ Role in the Second Wizarding War

the Sword of Gryffindor

Phineas was more or less an insignificant character until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when his loyalty in the second wizarding war was brought to light. Despite his views on blood purity, he did not support Voldemort and, in fact, played an indirect yet vital role in destroying his Horcruxes.

While the Golden Trio were hiding out at Grimmauld Place, Hermione Granger retrieved Phineas’ portrait and placed it in her beaded bag, so he would not spy on them and report to Snape through his other portrait. Later, while they were traveling through the countryside, the three of them overheard other runaways discussing how Ginny, Luna and Neville attempted to break into Snape’s office to steal the Sword of Gryffindor. Worried about what happened to them, Hermione fetched Phineas’ portrait for answers, but blindfolded him so he could not see where they were.

While being questioned, Phineas inadvertently revealed that Dumbledore had taken the sword out of its case the previous year to destroy a ring. This is how Harry discovered that the sword was one of the few ways to destroy a Horcrux. From then onwards, Phineas would visit his portrait in Hermione’s bag to give news about the various ongoing events at Hogwarts. In fact, Harry and Hermione appreciated his bitter company as Ron Weasley had abandoned them at that point.

During one of these occasions, Phineas overheard Hermione mentioning to Harry that they were at the Forest of Dean. He passed this information to Snape, a secret ally of Dumbledore, who arrived at the forest undetected. He hid the sword in a frozen lake near their camping spot, and used his Patronus to guide Harry to it. Ron, who also returned just then, used the sword moments later to destroy Salazar Slytherin’s old locket.

After the Battle of Hogwarts, Phineas could be seen celebrating Voldemort’s defeat in the headmaster’s office with the other portraits (“Let it be noted that Slytherin house played its part!”).

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Harry Potter

When Harry Potter learns that he is a wizard, he enters a world beyond belief. Aside from continuing his studies at Hogwarts with best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Harry must also face Voldemort and his dark wizarding forces. The Harry Potter franchise is a worldwide phenomenon, spanning seven books, eight movies, three spinoff movies, a stage play, and numerous video games.

MORE: Harry Potter: Sirius Black’s Tragic Arc, Explained