- Barty Crouch Jr. (as Alastor Moody): "But first, which of you can tell me how many Unforgivable Curses there are? "
- Hermione Granger: "Three, sir. "
- Barty Crouch Jr. (as Alastor Moody): "And they are so named? "
- Hermione Granger: "Because they are unforgivable. The use of any one of them will...."
- Barty Crouch Jr. (as Alastor Moody): "Earn you a one-way ticket to Azkaban. Correct. Now, the Ministry says you are too young to see what these curses do. I say different! You need to know what you're up against! You need to be prepared..."
- — 1994 Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson[src]
The Unforgivable Curses are three of the most powerful and sinister spells known to the wizarding world. They are tools of the Dark Arts and were first classified as "Unforgivable" in 1717, with the strictest penalties attached to their use. The three curses consist of the Killing Curse (Avada Kedavra), Cruciatus Curse (Crucio), and Imperius Curse (Imperio).
By the 1990s, using any of these three curses on another human being, Muggle or wizard, would result in a life sentence to Azkaban, unless there was sufficient evidence that the caster did so under the influence of the Imperius Curse. Aurors were permitted to use them during the First Wizarding War, and during the height of the Second Wizarding War under Lord Voldemort's regime, the curses were made legal, though this was presumably repealed following Voldemort's demise.
Since the Unforgivable Curses are very powerful, their use requires both great willpower and great skill in order to bring about the effects. For example, Harry Potter was unable to effectively cast the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange in 1996. Despite being furious with her for her murder of his godfather, he lacked the desire to cause pain for its own sake. Harry's "righteous anger" only inflicted a brief moment of pain on her.
Shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry not only successfully used the Cruciatus Curse against Amycus Carrow, he also cast the Imperius Curse against two individuals during the Gringotts heist which led to Harry, Hermione, and Ron getting in the Lestrange vault. Soon after being "cruciated" by Harry, Amycus Carrow was also subject to an Imperius Curse cast by Minerva McGonagall. Perhaps due to the fact the curses were cast during a period when the ban on their use had been lifted, there is no indication of either Harry or McGonagall being punished for using them in these circumstances.
The Three Unforgivable Curses
The Killing Curse (Avada Kedavra)
- Description: Causes instant and painless death.
The incantation of Avada Kedavra causes a blindingly intense green bolt of light to shoot from the end of the caster's wand, which, on contact with the victim, results in instant death. There are no secondary effects; the victim simply "drops dead" for no biological reason. It is possible that the victim's internal organs cease function. However, it seems to be more likely that the method of killing is due to the soul of the victim being magically ripped from their body. Evidence for this comes from the testimony of perhaps it's most prolific caster; Lord Voldemort. Having experienced the lethal effects of a rebounded Killing Curse but surviving due to his creation of multiple Horcruxes, Voldemort described the sensation of being struck by it as having his consciousness torn from his body, accompanied by a sensation which he described as being "pain beyond pain". Muggle coroners would be unable to find a cause of death in such an attack, but the Ministry of Magic recognises the signs of the curse.
The Killing Curse has no counter-curse and cannot be blocked by magical means. However, the green energy bolt may be dodged or blocked with a solid object. For instance, Albus Dumbledore once transfigured a statue from the Fountain of Magical Brethren to shield Harry Potter from Voldemort's Killing Curse during the Battle of the Department of Mysteries. If the curse misses the victim and strikes an inanimate object instead, it may cause a small explosion at the point of impact results, which may start a fire of green flame. However, the curse may also ricochet off the object in question.
The Killing Curse was used regularly by Lord Voldemort, possibly more than any other spell, and his Death Eaters used it as well. The spell is performed verbally as a rule; Bellatrix Lestrange killed a fox with a non-verbal spell after Apparating with Narcissa Malfoy at Spinner's End, thinking that it was a lurking Auror, but it is unknown whether it was Avada Kedavra or some other lethal curse.
Only two people have ever been able to overcome the effects of this curse: Harry Potter, who was given magical protection against Lord Voldemort's use of the curse through his mother's loving sacrifice and Voldemort himself due to his Horcruxes, which each have part of himself in them. Harry was later saved by the effects of Priori Incantatem when his and Voldemort's wands locked during a duel in 1995. When Voldemort struck him with a Killing Curse again in 1998, Harry was able to survive once again because Voldemort had taken some of Lily Potter's protection of Harry into his own body by using Harry's blood in his rebirth ritual in 1995. This process somehow tethered Harry to life so long as Voldemort himself was alive.
In 1996, Fawkes sacrificed himself by swallowing a Killing Curse that Voldemort aimed at Dumbledore. It killed him as it would anything living, but in a typical display of a Phoenix's response to death, he burst into flames and was immediately reborn from his own ashes.
Lord Voldemort murdered many people with this curse: his father, his grandfather, his grandmother, James Potter, Lily Potter, Charity Burbage, Frank Bryce, Gellert Grindelwald, Bertha Jorkins, and likely many more.
The Cruciatus Curse (Crucio)
Description: Inflicts excruciating pain on the recipient of the curse (tortures them).
The Cruciatus Curse, which inflicts excruciating pain upon the victim, requires the verbal incantation and the use of a wand. The effects of the curse depend upon the desires and emotions of the character — to produce the excruciating pain implied by the name, one must, according to accomplished caster Bellatrix Lestrange, desire to cause pain purely for its own sake. The extreme pain inflicted by the curse makes it uniquely suited as a form of torture, and was used regularly by the Death Eaters.
When Harry Potter was made the victim of the curse in June 1995, he described it as feeling like his head was being split open while having his bones set on fire. However, since this is the only time Harry is known to have been inflicted with the Curse, and as no one else has ever given a description of its effects, it is unknown if this is how the Curse always feels.
The Cruciatus is the curse which caused Alice and Frank Longbottom such suffering that they were admitted to the permanent ward at St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries as cases of insanity. This was carried out by: Barty Crouch Jr, Bellatrix Lestrange, Rodolphus Lestrange, and Rabastan Lestrange.
The Imperius Curse (Imperio)
Description: Causes the victim to perform the unquestioned bidding of the caster.
The Imperius Curse places the victim in a trance or dreamlike state, leaving him or her under the complete control of the caster. The experience is described as a "wonderful release" from any sense of responsibility. The victim is calm, from doing things they would be physically incapable of otherwise, to committing horrible crimes, and they obey any order. For example, Barty Crouch Jr., while disguised as Alastor Moody, had Draco Malfoy perform a series of astonishing flips, as a Ferret, under the Imperius Curse. It is also seen that the curse works on animals, as he also casts the Imperius Curse on a spider during class.
Death Eaters have made use of this curse; for instance, in forcing Broderick Bode and Sturgis Podmore to try to steal a prophecy from the Department of Mysteries and to place several officials under their control to facilitate their take-over of the Ministry of Magic in 1997. Many Death Eaters also claimed to be under the Imperius Curse during the First Wizarding War to avoid imprisonment in Azkaban.
Resisting the Imperius Curse is possible, but extremely difficult. Only those of a particularly strong will can achieve it. Harry Potter, Barty Crouch Sr., and Barty Crouch Jr. each learned to resist the curse after being subjected to its effects. Harry Potter in particular appeared to be extraordinarily good at this, as he was able to partially resist the curse from the very first time it was ever cast upon him, and he was later able to completely resist it when it was cast upon him by Voldemort himself.
- During an audience interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival (15 April 2004), J. K. Rowling said: "Does anyone know where avada kedavra came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means 'let the thing be destroyed.' Originally, it was used to cure illness and the 'thing' was the illness, but I decided to make it the 'thing' as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine." Rowling's use of this name may have been influenced by the Latin cadaver.
- "Crucio" means "I torture" in Latin, originating from crux (genitive crucis), which means "torture platform or stake", or more specifically, "cross". The word excruciating is descended from the same root — crucifixion was a form of torturous execution.
- "Imperio" is a corruption of "Impero", Latin for "I command".
Behind the scenes
- The three curses are called "unforgivable" because their use has carried the strictest of penalties, including most recently an automatic life sentence in Azkaban. The name may be an allusion to the concept of unforgivable sin (also known as "eternal sin" or "unpardonable sin") in some Christian faiths, an act that makes salvation impossible, which would be understandable given their spell effects, particularly the Killing and Cruciatus curses.
- Harry Potter attempted to cast the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange without success in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and attempted to do the same to Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, however, he not only successfully uses this curse on Amycus Carrow shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, but earlier in the book also uses the Imperius Curse on Travers and Bogrod during the break-in at Gringotts. There is no known incident in which Harry cast or attempted to cast the Killing Curse, even against Voldemort himself. Despite the use of the curses being said to carry an automatic life sentence in Azkaban, Harry was apparently not punished in any way for using them (although except for two times, they were legal as he cast them during the regime of Lord Voldemort, and as for the other two times, there are no known witnesses).
- Harry Potter is the only known wizard to have resisted the effects of all three curses. He survived the Killing Curse twice, once in 1981 and once in 1998. The effect of a Cruciatus Curse placed on him by Voldemort soon after the second incident was nullifed by the fact that the wand in question refused to harm its master. Finally, Harry learned to fight back against the Imperius Curse under the tutelage of Bartemius Crouch Jr..
- At the end of the film version of Chamber of Secrets, Lucius Malfoy appears to begin to cast the Avada Kedavra on Harry before being interrupted by a spell cast by a (recently freed) Dobby the House Elf. This isn't a very smart move, considering he's right outside of Dumbledore's office at the time. Within the film series, this is the first time the an Unforgivable Curse is (partially) named despite them not being introduced until the fourth film. It was later revealed that the original film screenplay simply called for Lucius Malfoy to attempt to curse Harry before being interrupted by Dobby, and Avada Kedavra happened to be the first curse name that Lucius Malfoy's actor came to mind.
- In the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it's stated during the Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson that use of any of the curses will "earn you a one-way trip to Azkaban". In the novel, it is specified that this only applies if the curses are used on another human being.
- It's unknown if using the Unforgivable Curses on non-human Beings, like Goblins or Vampires, would also be punished with a life sentence, but it seems likely.
- In the film version of Goblet of Fire, when Bartemius Crouch Jr. first writes the Unforgivable Curses on the blackboard he misspells the term as "Unforgiveable Curses". This may or may not have been a subtle hint that he was not actually Professor Alastor Moody, as a real professor would be unlikely to make such an error.
- Although the Unforgivable Curses ultimately carried a life sentence, imprisonment in Azkaban could not have happened until 1718, the year Damocles Rowle was elected Minister for Magic, as it wasn't until his term in office that Azkaban was made a wizarding prison. In the interim following 1717, when the penalties were first attached to their use, it is possible that another wizarding prison, or a different punishment, was used.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (First appearance) (Appears in flashback(s))
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (film) (Appears in flashback(s))
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (video game) (PS1 version only)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (film) (Avada only)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (First identified as Unforgivable Curses)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (film)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (video game)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (film)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (film)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (video game)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (video game)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (video game)
- The Tales of Beedle the Bard (Mentioned only)
- LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
- LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7
- Harry Potter: Spells
- Pottermore (Mentioned only)
- ↑ The Tales of Beedle the Bard (real) - Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump - Footnotes
- ↑ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 11 (The Bribe)
- ↑ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Chapter 28 (The Flight of the Prince)
- ↑ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Chapter 36 (The Only One He Ever Feared)
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Chapter 30 (The Sacking of Severus Snape)
- ↑ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Chapter 26 (Gringotts)