In Harry Potter, what are the Unforgivable Curses?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In the Harry Potter books, an unforgivable curse is a curse which results in severe damage or death to the witch or wizard that it is performed on. If convicted of casting such a curse, the sentence is life imprisonment in Azkaban, the wizarding prison. Only three curses are considered unforgivable: the Cruciatus curse, the Imperius curse, and Avada Kedavra. Readers are introduced to these curses in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire during a Defense Against the Dark Arts class, when the curses are demonstrated on spiders.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The Cruciatus curse tortures the victim unmercifully. This unforgivable curse was commonly used by dark witches and wizards to extract information, and in some cases their victims were tortured to death or insanity. The parents of Neville Longbottom, one of the supporting characters in the books, lost their minds as a result of the use of this unforgivable curse. J.K. Rowling probably derived the name of the curse from the Latin word for “cross,” crux, which often appears in words meant to imply intense pain.

The unforgivable curse of the most concern to the Ministry of Magic is the Imperius curse, which is used to control the subject. An individual under the Imperius curse has no free will or ability to make decisions, acting essentially as a puppet of the dark witch or wizard who is casting the curse. Of course, a witch or wizard can also claim that he or she was under the Imperius curse when they carried out an act of treachery or violence, and the Ministry may find it difficult to prove otherwise. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, this unforgivable curse is used on several characters with devastating effect. The name of this unforgivable curse is taken from the Latin root imperium, which means “to command.”

Avada Kedavra, the killing curse, is the most devastating unforgivable curse. When cast on a witch or wizard, he or she will die instantly in a rush of green light. As Professor Moody tells his students in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the wizard casting the curse must do it with intent and viciousness, or it will be ineffective. The name for this curse is likely taken from the word cadaver. There is no known counter curse, and the only person known to survive an attack is, of course, Harry Potter himself.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@robbie21 - Obviously, no, they aren't going to Azkaban for performing the Unforgivable Curses, but I do think we are meant to see it as a serious act which marks the doer for the rest of his or her life even when done for all the right reasons. I think it is meant to enhance a sense of purity around Harry that he always manages to avoid the Killing Curse.

It is also, I think, significant that although the good guys might kill the bad guys to save their own lives, they don't use the Imperius Curse or the Cruciatus Curse. Those are reserved for the truly evil, the Death Eaters.

Mrs. Weasley is a particularly interesting example; I was really struck by it, too. I think it's significant that Bellatrix (and I agree with you, that's awesome casting - all the casting in the movies was so spot-on) had been threatening Ginny when Mrs. W. killed her. The books make the point over and over again that a mother's love is a powerful force, not to be underestimated - Lily Potter, Narcissa Malfoy, and Mrs. Weasley all do extraordinary things for their children. Voldemort consistently fails to understand it.


The strange thing about the Unforgivable Curses is that by the last book, it seems like everyone is casting them! (Everyone but Harry, of course, who keeps going for his trademark "Expelliarmus" charm to disarm, rather than kill, his opponent.)

When we first hear about them, they are associated with the truly, truly evil wizards and witches, like Bellatrix Lestrange (who in my head now always looks like Helena Bonham Carter) and her torture of the Longbottoms. But in Book 7, *Mrs. Weasley* casts the Killing Curse at Bellatrix. Mrs. Weasley! The nice fat lady with the red hair, too many children, and a door that's always open! Are we supposed to think that the good guys are going to wind up in Azkaban?


Avada Kedavra is apparently from archaic Sanskrit words meaning "From life, nothing". It has the opposite root meaning of the phrase "Abra Cadabra", which means "From nothing, life".

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