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There were no witnesses, except for Harry, who was still a baby and didn't relive / remember the experience until much later. James and Lily were both dead, Voldemort was not quite dead but not much better and not likely to tell anyone what happened.

So how did Dumbledore, or anyone, know that Lily sacrificed herself for Harry?

Keep in mind that even finding out what happened in a more general sense, that James and Lily had died and Voldemort had been killed by a rebounding killing curse, was difficult enough.

Of course, it would be clear they had died defending their family, themselves and Harry, but nothing found at the scene would have told anyone that Lily had been given the choice to live, but did not take it. Perhaps James had been given the same choice, but declined as well. Or — less likely — perhaps he was the only one given the choice, while Lily was killed right away.

Yet Dumbledore seems to have known, as shown in this quote (emphasis mine):

But I knew, too, where Voldemort was weak. And so I made my decision. You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated — to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day. I put my trust, therefore, in your mother’s blood. I delivered you to her sister, her only remaining relative.

She may have taken you grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, yet still she took you, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you. Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you.

Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 37. Thanks to Anthony Grist for pointing out.

Here, Dumbledore talks about Lily's sacrifice, specifically her sacrifice, not just dying defending him, like what happened to James. Since Harry is delivered to the Dursleys within 24 hours, Dumbledore must have found out within that time span. And he must have known with enough confidence to base the entire protection of Harry upon that fact.


Slytherincess pointed me to a related question of hers, in which she asks how Voldemort knew about this type of magic (JKR's books and interviews seem to contradict each other there). But what I want to know is how it was found out what happened, with such detail that Dumbledore knew Lily had sacrificed herself.


This question has been asked on Quora, however, I can't read beyond the first answer there and even if I signed up to read all answers, from what I've heard, Quora doesn't seem to be the most reliable source.

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is "magic" an answer? –  calccrypto Jun 18 at 8:05
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Related interview: the-leaky-cauldron.org/2007/12/23/… “How did Dumbledore find out about what happened in Godric's Hollow?” JKR’s answer is a bit of a fluff, and doesn’t really tackle this question specifically, but might be interesting anyway. (via the Quora thread) –  alexwlchan Jun 18 at 12:49
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I have always assumed that Voldemort's wand would have been left at the scene as he departed his body when the killing curse aimed at Harry rebounded. The Priori Incantatem spell would allow for some deduction of events.. though this is purely speculative as Voldemort had his own wand back when he was resurrected in the cemetery by Wormtail. –  Ian Lewis Jun 18 at 14:42
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@IanLewis I think Wormtail retrieved the wand, so no chance for Priori Incantatem spells. although, that could be a whole other question, why did no one bother to retrieve his wand and snap it? scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/4493/… –  BP_Phoenix Jun 18 at 15:30
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+1 for not signing in on Quora... :) –  Awal Garg Jun 18 at 16:01
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7 Answers 7

I think the answer is likely a combination of everybody's favourite Potions master, Severus Snape, and some solid guesswork on Dumbledore's part. Dumbledore knew even before their deaths that Snape had asked Voldemort to spare Lily's life:

“If she means so much to you,” said Dumbledore, “surely Lord Voldemort will spare her? Could you not ask for mercy for the mother, in exchange for the son?”

“I have — I have asked him —”

...

The hilltop faded, and Harry stood in Dumbledore’s office, and something was making a terrible sound, like a wounded animal. Snape was slumped forward in a chair and Dumbledore was standing over him, looking grim. After a moment or two, Snape raised his face, and he looked like a man who had lived a hundred years of misery since leaving the wild hilltop.

“I thought … you were going … to keep her … safe. …”

“She and James put their faith in the wrong person,” said Dumbledore. “Rather like you, Severus. Weren’t you hoping that Lord Voldemort would spare her?”
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 33 - The Prince's Tale

Clearly they believed, for whatever reason, that Voldemort would keep his word. From there it's not a big leap to conclude that, since she had also been killed, she'd refused his offer to save herself.

As SQB stated in the comments, this all hinges on Dumbledore and Snape's belief that Voldemort would keep his word. Why would they do so?

At its simplest, Voldemort has absolutely no reason not to keep his word. Snape had helped him tremendously by informing him of (part of) the prophecy, and - as Voldemort said to Wormtail after his resurrection in Goblet of Fire - Voldemort rewards his helpers. Harry was the only thing he viewed as a threat, the last thing standing between him and true immortality, so keeping Lily alive doesn't impact him at all.

By keeping her alive he would secure Snape's allegiance by giving him the one thing he desires above all else. He may even have hoped that, given enough time, Lily could be persuaded to join him. He seems sufficiently lacking in understanding of human emotions to have considered that possibility; obviously she's never actually going to love the man who gave up her husband and son to be murdered, or join with the one who murdered them.

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@zyboxinternational Dumbledore built the protection on Harry at the Dursleys on top of Lily's sacrificial protection, so he obviously knew about it roughly a decade before Voldemort told Harry at the end of the first book. –  Anthony Grist Jun 18 at 20:15
    
I still can't see how that proves this. We all know Dumbledore had been planning events roughly in advance; because of this, I thought the protection was supposed to serve until Harry was old enough to go and battle against Voldemort (when Harry turned of-age). Remember that Dumbledore said at the beginning of book #1 'We can only guess, we may never know', implying that Dumbledore guessed of Lily's protection of love for Harry, or perhaps Dumbledore foresaw the event of Lily & James being murdered, and coldly calculated that Harry would be the only way to stop Voldermort. –  zyboxinternational Jun 18 at 20:18
    
We all know that he (Dumbledore) was responsible for the murder of his sister (or at least blames himself for it), and we also know that it is not uncommon for Dumbledore to see people as pawns, to get the end result that he wants. –  zyboxinternational Jun 18 at 20:24
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@zyboxinternational “But I knew, too, where Voldemort was weak. And so I made my decision. You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated - to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day. I put my trust, therefore, in your mother’s blood. I delivered you to her sister, her only remaining relative.” –  Anthony Grist Jun 18 at 20:31
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“She may have taken you grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, yet still she took you, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you. Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you.” (Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 37). He obviously knew about Lily's sacrifice when he placed Harry with the Dursleys, so he didn't find out at the end of the first book when Harry was eleven. –  Anthony Grist Jun 18 at 20:32
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There is no reason why the Penseive would not work on an infant. Harry could see and hear what was happening, even if he couldn't understand it.

So Dumbledore could have watched the whole thing from Harry's point of view and learned exactly what happened.

(One could argue that a baby's vision and memory are not fully developed, but the magic of the Penseive might be able to overcome that. Frankly if you are going to talk about scientifically implausible events in Harry Potter this would be a long way down the list.)

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I don’t have a quote to hand, but I’m fairly sure JKR has said that a Pensieve replays events as they actually happened, not as they were remembered. –  alexwlchan Jun 18 at 8:26
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@alexwlchan That seems likely. Harry was able to look around independently while inside the Penseive in Goblet of Fire, he didn't see only what Dumbledore saw. He was also able to walk away from Snape a certain distance and listen to conversations between the Marauders that Snape likely didn't hear himself. –  Anthony Grist Jun 18 at 12:18
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Here's the quote. accio-quote.org/articles/2005/0705-tlc_mugglenet-anelli-3.htm “Do the memories stored in a Pensieve reflect reality or the views of the person they belong to?” –  alexwlchan Jun 18 at 12:21
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Can't be, because Dumbledore didn't see Harry until after he knew. In the Sorcerer's Stone Hagrid says he pulled Harry from the wrecked house. There wasn't a chance for him to extract the memory and view it. –  MAW74656 Jun 18 at 14:54
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Also, doesn't someone have to give a memory for it be viewed in a Pensieve. I can't imagine infant Harry being able to do such a thing –  chama Jun 20 at 14:28
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"You all know that on the night I lost my powers and my body, I tried to kill him. His mother died in the attempt to save him - and unwittingly provided him with a protection I admit I had not foreseen. ... I could not touch the boy."

...

"His mother left upon him the traces other sacrifice. This is old magic, I should have remembered it, I was foolish to overlook it. but no matter. I can touch him now."

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Pg.421

We have traces from around the entire story that Voldemort is known to overlook things. Specially, at that time, he was over-confident at his powers.

They, who had seen proofs of the immensity of my power in the times when I was mightier than any wizard living?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Pg.421

He lived with a false interpretation that no one is more clever than him. Thats why he said:

I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I had become the greatest sorcerer in the world!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Pg.314

Dumbledore on the other hand is careful enough to admire every aspect of the situation and then come to a decision. He is pretty clever in real. If Voldemort could know that it is an old magic, then why not Dumbledore?

Not to mention, Dumbledore did not instantly come to a decision. It took him time. One of the first appearances of his possible clues were in the first book:

"But why couldn't Quirrell touch me?"

"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Pg.241

So, I guess. This must be a magic, popularity of which is similar to that of a Horcrux. It wasn't something very much unknown, but it was known only to those who had gone deep into the studies of magic. Dumbledore and Voldemort, both qualify to this category, only difference is Voldemort is ignorant, foolish, idiot and over-confident (and evil ofcourse).

It won't be extremely difficult for him to know this. There were other clues as well, see Anthony Grist's answer.

If Dumbledore can workout the location of a Horcrux heavily armed from traces of magic, this isn't difficult.

“And you knew this? You knew—all along?”

I guessed. But my guesses have usually been good,” said Dumbledore happily, and they sat in silence for what seemed like a long time, while the creature behind them continued to whimper and tremble.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pg.593

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This is my first answer here, so do be careful. :P –  Awal Garg Jun 18 at 16:43
    
@SQB Nice catch, thanks. Edited... :) –  Awal Garg Jun 18 at 17:20
    
Also, your last quote is exactly what my question is. How does Dumbledore know this? –  SQB Jun 18 at 17:21
    
@SQB The part before the last quote is to justify how does Dumbledore know this :P –  Awal Garg Jun 18 at 17:22
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For a Pottercast interview in 2007, JK Rowling addresses this question in part (edited for clarity):

SU: How did Dumbledore find out about what happened in Godric's Hollow?

MA: And what happened? There's this whole twenty four hours that people have been fantasising about for years.

JKR: Obviously Dumbledore could cast a spell on a dwelling that would immediately alert him if something happened to it. (SU: Oh.) So he could know instantaneously. That's not a problem at all. And then he could dispatch Hagrid and so on.

She doesn’t go into details about what this spell entails, but I think it was probably a significant factor. I think it certainly would have told him that Voldemort had attacked the house, and probably that somebody had survived (using a remote variant of hominem revelio).

Personally I think this spell was akin to an aircraft flight recorder, or a “black box”. It was recording events at the house (audio would probably be sufficient, but it probably also monitored magic within the house), and it alerted Dumbledore when Voldemort arrived. He was able to playback the recording after the fact, and used his considerable knowledge to deduce what happened.

This means he would have known what had happened (and what to do next) almost immediately, which is consistent with the canon. It’s only a guess, but it’s the best I’ve got.


I also briefly considered legilimency and/or use of Harry’s memories in the Pensieve. I discarded this theory on two grounds:

  1. It’s inconsistent with the sequence of events. If Hagrid and Dumbledore’s reports are accurate, then the first time Dumbledore sees Harry after the attack is when Hagrid brings him to Little Whinging. This means there's no opportunity for Dumbledore to inspect his memories, and thus no reason for him to bring them to the Dursleys.

  2. It’s potentially traumatising for Harry. The use of legilimency we see in Half-Blood Prince sees Harry reliving the memories that Snape’s inspecting. Even if Dumbledore could inspect Harry’s memories before taking him to the Dursleys, I think there’s a risk of further damage if he’s forced to relive his parents’ death just hours after it happened. I don’t think Dumbledore would want to risk it.


(Out-of-universe) The full transcript of the interview above points to @SQB’s theory as the correct one: that J.K. Rowling got this one wrong. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an in-universe explanation, or that there isn’t an explanation consistent with the existing canon, but it is worth noting.

MA: And what happened? There's this whole twenty four hours that people have been fantasizing about for years.

JKR: Yeah, I know. I've got a bit of problem with this myself, because every time I think it straight in my head I go back and look at what the fans are theorizing about, and I think "Yeah, maybe they've got a point." Dumbledore – Well there's an easy answer to how would Dumbledore know. Because you can – He? (laughs) You can. One can.

MA: Yeah. Yeah. (SU laughs)

JKR: Forgive me if I speak as though it's all real for a moment. (clears her throat)

SU: It is real! What do you mean it's not?

JN: That's what we all feel.

JKR: I know, exactly! That's how I feel as well. Yeah, so okay. Obviously Dumbledore could cast a spell on a dwelling that would immediately alert him if something happened to it. (SU: Oh.) So he could know instantaneously. That's not a problem at all. And then he could dispatch Hagrid and so on. I think The Scottish Book will have to answer that question. (SU, MA, and JN laugh) I'm gonna have to really go back through notes and either admit that I lost twenty four hours or I don't know, hurriedly come up with some back story to fill in. (SU laughs) Either way, you either get to be right, or you get more story. So you can't complain.

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If Lily hadn't sacrificed herself for Harry's life then even Harry would have been dead.

Since Harry was not dead & Voldemort was sort of dead, it would be easy for a mind like Dumbledore's to deduce that Lily used the magic of love & sacrifice to protect Harry. No other magic could deflect Avada Kedavra.

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Even though the power of Lily's love is a reasonable theory, there doesn't seem to be any conclusive evidence that it was the case. Frankly, Dumbledore could have concluded anything else: maybe Harry has anti-magic skin, or maybe Voldemort's wand was broken and killed himself, etc etc. –  Voldemort Jun 18 at 7:55
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Still not conclusive. –  Voldemort Jun 18 at 8:23
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@Voldemort: You're just bitter because you were defeated by a baby. :-) –  Royal Canadian Bandit Jun 18 at 8:24
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@KharoBangdo: That was an example. The point is that it could have been anything else, since there were no witnesses. –  Voldemort Jun 18 at 8:34
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@Voldemort you mean "(...) maybe my wand was broken (...)"? –  SQB Jun 18 at 8:47
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When lily died, she was standing in front of harry's crib. So that's where her body would be when hagrid went there. A genius like Dumbledore would've worked that out.

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Worked what out? Just because she was stood by Harry's crib doesn't mean she made a conscious decision to sacrifice herself for Harry, by refusing Voldemort's offer to stand aside. –  Anthony Grist Jun 18 at 9:41
    
Also, James was (presumably) found in front of their house. How does anyone know James wasn't given the same choice, but declined as well? –  SQB Jun 18 at 10:46
    
@SQB Because if that was the case he wouldn't have got as far as Lily and Harry. –  starsplusplus Jun 18 at 12:53
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I am not sure why not. Pretty much any father would stand in the way of someone trying to kill his child no matter what the risk, why would James be different? V would have just killed him on sight and continued into the house. –  Stefan Jun 18 at 13:22
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By the way, amogha, welcome to SF&F StackExchange. Unfortunately, your post doesn't really answer my question, so I'm guessing that's why it was downvoted (although not by me). Please don't let this discourage you, and hang around - who knows what great answers you may give later on. –  SQB Jun 18 at 13:57
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Voldemort himself told Harry, in the Philosopher's Stone (Sorcerer's Stone to you American folk).

A small extract from page 213 in the chapter "The Man with Two Faces":

'How touching ...' it hissed. 'I always value bravery ... Yes, boy, your parents were brave ... I killed your father first and he put up a courageous fight ... but your mother needn't have died ... she was trying to protect you ...'

Nowhere previously in the book does it say this, and to expand on Awal Garg's quote from his answer:

"But why couldn't Quirrell touch me?"

"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.

In the paragraph prior to this one (in the book- page 216):

'Well ... Voldemort said that he only killed my mother because she tried to stop him killing me.'

Harry recalls to Dumbledore what Voldemort had told Harry about Lily dying to protect Harry, therefore we can conclude that Lily sacrificed herself for Harry.

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I might have upvoted this answer, but I was unimpressed by your comments on other questions. And the fact that Lily sacrificed herself isn’t in dispute – this is confirmed by multiple canon sources – what’s asked is how Dumbledore knew this, which your answer doesn’t seem to address. –  alexwlchan Jun 18 at 20:35
    
@alexwlchan My answer quite obviously addresses this; that Dumbledoor first suspected this (as he mostly did in the books), and that Harry telling him confirmed that. –  zyboxinternational Jun 18 at 20:37
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I forget the details, but didn’t Dumbledore leave Harry with the Dursleys based on the protection left by Lily’s sacrifice? That means he would need to already know about the sacrifice when he left Harry there, so waiting for Stone is too late. –  alexwlchan Jun 18 at 20:42
    
@alexwlchan Guesswork is my best guess. Remember that much of Dumbledore's guesswork turned out to be correct, after all, it took Dumbledore a decade or so to confirm his suspicion about Voldemort's horcruxes, and only did so when Harry & Ginny became a victim of one. –  zyboxinternational Jun 18 at 20:44
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@zyboxinternational: If you leave an answer, it's understood that you think your answer is better than any of the existing ones. It's really unnecessary to spam all the other answers with comments saying you're right and they're wrong -- the audience can decide who has given the most convincing answer by up/downvoting. –  Royal Canadian Bandit Jun 18 at 21:27
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