- "Now... those three curses - Avada Kedavra, Imperius, and Cruciatus - are known as the Unforgivable Curses. The use of any one of them on a fellow human being is enough to earn a life sentence in Azkaban. That's what you're up against. That's what I've got to teach you to fight. You need preparing. You need arming. But most of all, you need to practise constant, never-ceasing vigilance. Get out your quills... copy this down...."
- —Bartemius Crouch Junior (as Alastor Moody) explaining the nature of the Unforgivable Curses[src]
The Unforgivable Curses were three of the most powerful and sinister spells known to the wizarding world. They were tools of the Dark Arts and were first classified as "Unforgivable" in 1717, with the strictest penalties attached to their use. The three curses consisted 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. Many Dark wizards attempted to use this excuse to prevent themselves from incarceration if caught, particularly after the First Wizarding War.
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of the Second Wizarding War under Lord Voldemort's regime, the curses were made legal, though this would have been repealed following Tom Riddle's demise.
- "Harry shouted, “Crucio!”. The Death Eater was lifted off his feet. He writhed through the air like a drowning man, thrashing and howling in pain, and then, with a crunch and a shattering of glass, he smashed into the front of a bookcase and crumpled, insensible, to the floor."
- —Harry Potter’s use of the Cruciatus Curse on Amycus Carrow[src]
During the First Wizarding War the Death Eaters made frequent use of these curses and in an effort to even things out, the Ministry of Magic gave Aurors special permission to use them as well. After the First Wizarding War ended with the disappearance of Lord Voldemort, Alice and Frank Longbottom were tortured into insanity with the Cruciatus Curse by four Death Eaters. This crime was considered by many to be one of the most horrific crimes in living memory. The victims never recovered and spent the rest of their lives in the Janus Thickey Ward for irrevocable spell damage at St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.
When disguised as Alastor Moody using Polyjuice Potion during the 1994–1995 school year, Barty Crouch Jnr performed each Unforgivable Curse on a spider in front of his fourth year Defence Against the Dark Arts class in 1994. He told his class the penalty for using an Unforgivable Curse on another human being is life imprisonment in Azkaban. He also told the class that they were not supposed to be shown what the curses do until their sixth year. He later bewitched several of his students with the Imperius Curse, to teach them how to resist the effects of the curse, with only Harry Potter being successful. On the 24 June 1995, Harry Potter was subjected to the Cruciatus Curse twice and the Imperius Curse once by Lord Voldemort during the Duel in Little Hangleton; he was able to resist the latter, ironically thanks to Barty Crouch Jnr's teaching.
During the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, Harry tried to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange, but it didn't have much effect. She taunted Harry that he needed to really "enjoy" giving pain in order for it to work, as he learned later when he successfully used the Cruciatus Curse on Amycus Carrow before the Battle of Hogwarts on 1 May 1998, incapacitating him.
Snape killed Dumbledore using the Killing Curse on top of the Astronomy Tower. Also during the Battle of the Astronomy Tower, Thorfinn Rowle was recklessly firing off Killing Curses left and right, one of which accidentally killed fellow Death Eater Gibbon. Throughout the 1996-1997 school year, Draco Malfoy used the Imperius Curse on both Katie Bell and Rosmerta, and unsuccessfully attempted to torture Harry with the Cruciatus Curse, as he was severely injured by the Sectumsempra curse casted by Harry.
Bellatrix Lestrange brutally tortured Hermione Granger with the Cruciatus Curse at Malfoy Manor and Harry used the Imperius Curse numerous times during the trio's 1998 Gringotts break-in. In the same year during the Battle of Hogwarts, Voldemort attempted to murder Harry with the Killing Curse twice, once in the Forbidden Forest and the other during their final duel in the Great Hall. Also during this battle Bellatrix almost hit Ginny Weasley with the Killing Curse, missing by a several inches, but because of Harry's sacrifice and Ginny's ability to relatively easy dodge opponents' spells, it would not have most likely harmed her.
During the Second Wizarding War the Unforgivable Curses were made legal by Lord Voldemort, after he and his Death Eaters successfully infiltrated and usurped the British Ministry of Magic. After the war ended, this was reversed by Kingsley Shacklebolt, when he became Minister for Magic.
Since the Unforgivable Curses are very powerful, their use requires both great willpower and great skill in order to bring about the effects. One must also have a desire to use the curses for malevolent purposes. 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 because 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 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 its 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 most magical means. However, the green energy bolt may be dodged, blocked with solid objects or intercepted with a few other powerful fast spells, particularly Stunning spells. For instance, Albus Dumbledore enchanted 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 was performed verbally as a rule; Bellatrix Lestrange killed a fox with a non-verbal Killing Curse after Apparating with Narcissa Malfoy at Spinner's End, thinking that it was a lurking Auror.
Only two people have ever been able to survive 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 used the Disarming Charm and was additionally aided and saved by the effects of Priori Incantatem when his and Voldemort's wands locked during a duel in 1995 because of their wands' twin cores. 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, as phoenixes are immortal.
Lord Voldemort murdered many people with this curse: victims include his father, his grandfather, his grandmother, James Potter, Lily Potter, Charity Burbage, Frank Bryce, Gellert Grindelwald, Bertha Jorkins, a German-speaking family of three, and countless more. It is known he killed enough people to create an army of Inferi.
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, the caster must, according to accomplished caster Bellatrix Lestrange, truly despise the victim and to enjoy causing pain. 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 Curse 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 Jnr, Bellatrix Lestrange, Rodolphus Lestrange, and Rabastan Lestrange. This act is considered one of the most depraved crimes of all time, in terms of damage to the victim and the sadism of their attackers.
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, an experience is described as a "wonderful release" from any sense of responsibility, making the victim under its power profoundly susceptible to the influence of the caster, whose hold on their free will is deeply rooted in part by the victim's unwillingness to impart with the comfortable sensation and in part by their newfound lack (and thus indifference to) the moral perspective of the caster's desires, making the victim inclined to carry out whatever task thrust upon them for no other reason than that they fail to see why they should not do so, leaving him or her largely under the complete control of the caster.
The victim is calm, from doing things they would be physically incapable of otherwise, to committing horrible crimes, and they obey any order. It is also seen that the curse works on animals, as Barty Crouch Jnr cast the Imperius Curse on a spider during class when disguised as Alastor Moody.
Death Eaters often 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 Snr, and Barty Crouch Jnr 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.
- Despite their reputation, they can be used for less malicious purposes—such as when Snape killed Dumbledore with the Killing Curse. Snape used the curse as a mercy killing rather than wanting Dumbledore dead.
- It is possible that the British Ministry of Magic temporarily legalised the Unforgivable Curses also during the Global wizarding war, given how quickly one of Theseus Scamander's Auror subordinates uses it during Gellert Grindelwald's rally in Paris.
- 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). It is also possible that nobody would care what he did to Bellatrix Lestrange or any of the other high-profile Death Eaters, given the circumstances in which he used them (such as after Lestrange killed Sirius Black), or that his use of the Imperius Curse on the goblins would have been deemed beneficial for the greater good.
- 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 nullified 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 Jnr.
- 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 came to Lucius Malfoy's actor's mind.
- In the film adaptation 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 Jnr 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.
- Despite the need for evil intentions to use the curses, which means that generally only a dark wizard can use them, Barty Crouch Jnr's use of them on a spider while disguised as Alastor Moody doesn't seem to raise any suspicions among the Ministry or Hogwarts administration, both of whom likely knew of the idea.
- Although Aurors were authorised to use them against dark wizards during the First Wizarding War, the requirement of a desire to cause pain or cause harm in order to successfully execute them would have likely rendered them incapable of using any of them other than the imperius curse.
- 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 Order of the Phoenix (video game)
- 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)
- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (play)
- Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - The Original Screenplay
- Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Mentioned only)
- The Tales of Beedle the Bard (Mentioned only)
- J. K. Rowling's official site (Mentioned only)
- Wizarding World
- LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
- LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7
- LEGO Dimensions
- Harry Potter: Spells
- Harry Potter for Kinect
- Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery
- Harry Potter: Wizards Unite (Mentioned only)
Notes and references
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 14 (The Unforgivable Curses)
- The Tales of Beedle the Bard (real) - Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump - Footnotes
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 27 (Padfoot Returns)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 11 (The Bribe)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 30 (The Pensieve)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 23 (Christmas on the Closed Ward)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 15 (Beauxbatons and Durmstrang)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 33 (The Death Eaters)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 36 (The Only One He Ever Feared)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 30 (The Sacking of Severus Snape)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 27 (The Lightning-Struck Tower)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 12 (Silver and Opals)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 24 (Sectumsempra)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 23 (Malfoy Manor)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 26 (Gringotts)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 34 (The Forest Again)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 36 (The Flaw in the Plan)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 28 (Flight of the Prince)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 1 (The Riddle House)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 2 (Spinner's End)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 34 (Priori Incantatem)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 35 (King's Cross)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 17 (A Sluggish Memory)
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 1 (The Boy Who Lived)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 1 (The Dark Lord Ascending)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 26 (The Cave)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 31 (The Third Task)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 26 (Seen and Unforeseen)