There’s something magical (pun intended) about how J.K. Rowling constructed her Wizarding World, aka the Harry Potter universe. A part of the reason why it feels so real is that she used real-life terms and meanings behind the magic. For instance, one of the most well-known curses, Avada Kedavra, has a meaning in real life. So, what does Avada Kedavra mean?
Avada Kedavra is an old Aramaic phrase that means ‘let the thing be killed.’ It was used as a “spell” originally to cure illnesses (the ‘thing’ being destroyed was the illness). It’s also highly likely that the phrase was the origin of ‘abracadabra,’ a term used by magicians when doing magic tricks.
In the Harry Potter universe, however, Avada Kedavra has a much different meaning and a slightly different etymology. It’s not used as a ‘healing spell’ as it was originally used in Aramaic, but rather the exact opposite. If you want to learn more about the Killing Curse and its meaning, you’re in the right place. Let’s dive deep!
What are the Unforgivable Curses?
As you know, there are two sides to magic in the Wizarding World. There’s the good side, or light magic, that the students of Hogwarts learn in school. And then, there’s dark magic, or the bad side, which is used by dark witches and wizards who mean to do evil things.
One of the most recognizable, distinct parts of dark magic is the so-called Unforgivable Curses. They were given such a name because they are so vile that, should a witch or wizard use any of them, they must not be forgiven, regardless of context or the situation in which they used it.
There are three Unforgivable Curses – the Imperius Curse, which is a form of mind control spell; the Cruciatus Curse, which is a cruel torture spell; and the Killing Curse, which, well, is self-explanatory.
Should a wizard use any of these spells on another human being, they are instantly given a life sentence in Azkaban prison. While all three are vile and horrible, we’re here to talk about the third and the worst – the Killing Curse, aka Avada Kedavra.
What is Avada Kedavra?
Avada Kedavra, also known as the Killing Curse, is the worst out of the three Unforgivable Curses. It is used to instantly kill another living being – be it a human, or another creature, such as an animal or plant.
Using the Avada Kedavra curse gets you a one-way ticket to a life sentence in Azkaban, but the problem is – it’s mostly used by Death Eaters and Dark Wizards who have no intentions of going to Azkaban. And fighting them is extremely hard, given the fact that good witches and wizards must not use the Unforgivable Curses in any situation.
Avada Kedavra emits a roaring sound through the caster’s wand and emits a bright green light. If it hits a life target, it kills instantly and painlessly without leaving any physical trace of trauma whatsoever.
You can’t block or shield yourself from the Killing Curse with a shielding charm. The only way to shield yourself from Avada Kedavra is by Priori Incantatem (the Reverse Spell), Disapparating, or putting a physical block between the caster and yourself. However, if the curse hits a non-living object, it can cause a major explosion or fire.
There’s one more way of permanent protection against the Killing Curse – sacrificial protection made out of pure love. That’s how Harry Potter survived the Killing Curse cast by Lord Voldemort.
His mother, Lily, sacrificed herself to protect Harry, and it almost ended the Dark Lord right there and then – it would finish him had he not created the Horcruxes, but that’s a story for another day.
Avada Kedavra meaning & history
Believe it or not, Avada Kedavra wasn’t a completely made-up spell by J.K. Rowling – at least its etymology, of course, not the magic itself. While speaking to the audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2004, Rowling explained the meaning and origin of the phrase.
Avada Kedavra means “let the thing be destroyed” in Aramaic, which is an old Northwest Semitic language that originated among the Arameans in the ancient region of Syria. As Rowling explained, the phrase was originally used as a ‘healing spell’ when healing a disease or illness. The ‘thing’ in ‘let the thing be destroyed’ was, in fact, the illness.
However, Rowling saw it as quite an interesting phrase that could be twisted and used in a much more sinister manner. The ‘thing’ in Rowling’s Avada Kedavra curse – is life. Essentially, her version of Avada Kedavra means, ‘let life be destroyed.’ I’ve seen other translations, such as ‘I will destroy as I speak,’ but you get the gist.
There are two other reasons why Rowling chose Avada Kedavra as her Killing Curse incantation. First of all, Kedavra sounds a lot like the English word ‘cadaver,’ which we usually correlate with death or murder.
But secondly, Avada Kedavra is believed to be the phrase behind ‘abracadabra,’ a term used by people and magicians worldwide when performing tricks or simply acting as if they were using actual magic. So, Avada Kedavra was used by Dark Wizards to mock Muggles who use abracadabra as a real spell. That leads us to the history of the spell within the Wizarding World.
In the Harry Potter universe, Avada Kedavra was invented during the Middle Ages by Dark Wizards of the time, along with the other two Unforgivable Curses. They were deemed Unforgivably much later, however – in 1717, when the Ministry of Magic was formed out of the organization formerly known as the Wizards’ Council.
In 1927, the Unforgivable Curses were allowed during the First Wizarding War to be used against suspected Death Eaters as a way to even the odds and give a chance at winning the war against Dark Wizards. Later, it was revoked, and the Unforgivable Curse remained unforgivable.
They were used many times throughout history, however. Most notably, they were used by Lord Voldemort, which is why many know Avada Kedavra as his curse, despite the fact that its origins go back centuries before.
Can anyone cast Avada Kedavra?
As we learn through the Harry Potter books, the incantation and hand motion itself aren’t enough to cast a spell successfully. One’s mindset plays a huge part in casting a spell successfully, especially when it comes to more advanced magic.
We saw that with the Riddikulus Charm against a Boggart and the Patronus Charm against the Dementors In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Hence, one has to have the correct mindset to cast a Killing Curse – or any other Unforgivable Curse, for that matter.
We saw that during the Battle of Ministry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry tried to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange. She just laughed it off and mocked him for doing it so poorly. Despite the fact that Harry was livid with anger, his mindset was never to torture other people – hence he couldn’t do the Curse properly.
So, to answer the question – can any wizard or witch cast Avada Kedavra: probably not. It likely requires a lot of hate, evil, and focus in one’s mind to cast such a spell, and the witch or wizard must be powerful enough to perform it.
Weaker wizards and witches probably couldn’t do it with all the focus in the world simply because their minds and power were not up to the task.