Dumbledore explained that it was "ancient magic" which Lily used to sacrifice herself to save Harry and about which Voldemort knew but underestimated it.

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.

My question is, isn't all magic ancient (but, being too old, may be forgotten by many) or at least old?

Are new spells invented, like Muggle technology, or discovered gradually?

  • Possible dupe? scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/5078/… Oct 19, 2016 at 13:24
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    magic is improved by both research,as well as accidental discoveries.
    – Himarm
    Oct 19, 2016 at 13:26
  • i think this can garner a more unique answer then we have here, scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/5078/… , which just talks about if creating a new spell is possible, while this seems to focus more on the innovation aspect of new magical discoveries.
    – Himarm
    Oct 19, 2016 at 13:27
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    If I had digital copies I'd attempt to answer this officially, but imo it's both. Dumbledore is said to have 'discovered the 12 uses of dragon's blood' and we see that Snape invented a spell "Sectumsempra". I'm also up in the air as to whether a dupe... :\
    – NKCampbell
    Oct 19, 2016 at 14:35
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    Discovered gradually seems strange. I just happened to say "wingardium leviosa" one day while I was swishing and flicking my wand, then magic happened. I'd be more inclined to believe that spells are developed.
    – Matt
    Nov 4, 2016 at 15:57

4 Answers 4



It’s clear that magic is a natural force, and operates on natural principles. Nonetheless, witches and wizards may control and direct that force through artificial means, such as wands and incantations. We might consider a real-world parallel: the distinction between physics and engineering. Computers, for example, were invented. Unlike, say, DNA, they weren’t lying around in the natural world waiting to be discovered. But they operate on electromagnetism, solid-state physics, and information theory, which did exist in nature long before humans created the first vacuum tube. Similarly, many of the trappings of magic are wizarding inventions. Spells are manufactured entities based on natural principles of magic. Magical beings create objects from magical materials to channel magic, of which wands are the foremost example.

Magic as a natural force

Magic has concrete rules, which cannot be broken. For example, Gamp’s Laws dictate the impossibility of certain kinds of Transfiguration:

“Your mother can’t produce food out of thin air,” said Hermione. “No one can. Food is the first of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfigur —”

“Oh, speak English, can’t you?” Ron said, prising a fish bone out from between his teeth.

“It’s impossible to make good food out of nothing! You can Summon it if you know where it is, you can transform it, you can increase the quantity if you’ve already got some —”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It is also impossible1 to resurrect those who have died (this may also be one of Gamp’s Laws):

“No spell can reawaken the dead,” said Dumbledore heavily. “All that would have happened is a kind of reverse echo. A shadow of the living Cedric would have emerged from the wand . . . am I correct, Harry?”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Magical principles such as these can be discovered through trial and error (or possibly deduction), much like mundane laws of physics. Wizards and witches probably tried many approaches . Like laws of physics, of course, such principles are empirical; they may be mistaken, and theoretically are open to being amended if proven wrong.

The words and wand movements themselves also matter2 in magic:

“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too – never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said 's’ instead of 'f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

While probably not necessary to perform any given spell (as discussed below), they certainly seem to be inordinately helpful, so much so that some witches and wizards will refer to certain magic as “requiring” a wand:

“Come off it, Amos,” said Mr. Weasley quietly, “you don’t seriously think it was the elf? The Dark Mark’s a wizard’s sign. It requires a wand.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry felt the cold tip of the long white finger touch him, and thought his head would burst with the pain. Voldemort laughed softly in his ear, then took the finger away and continued addressing the Death Eaters.

“I miscalculated, my friends, I admit it. My curse was deflected by the woman’s foolish sacrifice, and it rebounded upon myself. Aaah . . . pain beyond pain, my friends; nothing could have prepared me for it. I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost . . . but still, I was alive. What I was, even I do not know . . . I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal — to conquer death. And now, I was tested, and it appeared that one or more of my experiments had worked . . . for I had not been killed, though the curse should have done it. Nevertheless, I was as powerless as the weakest creature alive, and without the means to help myself . . . for I had no body, and every spell that might have helped me required the use of a wand. . . .”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Ancient magic, too, like the power of love, operates on fundamental magical principles, and thus might said to be discovered, not invented. While people can certainly develop spells that draw on this power (as Dumbledore did to protect Harry at the Dursleys’), it can also work without any human intent as long as the right conditions are met (for example, certain kinds of willing sacrifices).

Magic as a human invention

Much of what we think of as “magic” in Harry Potter is helpful-but-unnecessary tools developed human beings: i.e., invented.

For example, wand movements may matter, but at their heart wands are tools for channeling a witch or wizard’s3 natural power. As Ollivander says:

“A person can still use a wand that hasn’t chosen them, though?” asked Harry.

“Oh yes, if you are any wizard at all you will be able to channel your magic through almost any instrument. The best results, however, must always come where there is the strongest affinity between wizard and wand. These connections are complex. An initial attraction, and then a mutual quest for experience, the wand learning from the wizard, the wizard from the wand.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Because of this, there is always an element of the artificial about magic. Untrained young wizards are perfectly capable of manifesting wandless magic. Harry himself, for example, regrew his hair, floated to the top of school roofs, and many other such things.

This is not merely a peculiarity of Rowling’s earlier writing, either. More recent publications on Pottermore refer to spontaneous manifestations of wandless magic in young wizards:

Even the midwife who attended Alice Longbottom had failed to notice that Neville managed to shift his blankets more snugly over himself moments after birth, assuming that his father had tucked the baby in more securely. Neville’s family persistently missed faint signs of magic in him and not until he was eight years old did either his disappointed great aunts and uncles, or the old stickler of a Book, accept that he was truly a wizard, when he survived a fall that should have killed him.

Thus, at least at the level of the instruments wizards and witches use, magic is invented, like a laptop computer or a microwave: these are tools created to allow people to extend their innate abilities.

Spells are similar. There’s not a theoretical perfect list of spells out there. Instead, witches and wizards develop them based on magical principles. As such, people usually refer to spells as being “invented”:

“No, Potter!” screamed Snape. There was a loud BANG and Harry was soaring backward, hitting the ground hard again, and this time his wand flew out of his hand. He could hear Hagrid yelling and Fang howling as Snape closed in and looked down on him where he lay, wandless and defenseless as Dumbledore had been. Snape’s pale face, illuminated by the flaming cabin, was suffused with hatred just as it had been before he had cursed Dumbledore.

“You dare use my own spells against me, Potter? It was I who invented them — I, the Half-Blood Prince! And you’d turn my inventions on me, like your filthy father, would you? I don’t think so . . . no!”

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Various discrete spells were invented during the books. For example, Severus Snape invented Sectumsempra, Levicorpus, and Muffliato. Lord Voldemort also invented some spells to help return himself to a rudimentary form. Fred and George Weasley also developed various new and interesting kinds of magic.


1: This rule has myriad hedges and exceptions. It’s possible to bring back echoes and temporary manifestations, to leave thinking imprints upon death, and even to communicate with the dead in a sort of limbo under very rare and unusual circumstances. In addition, if one is prepared to do something silly such as messing about with time, the dead can in a sense be brought back. This is a very foolish thing to do if one goes back more than a few hours, or in any circumstance where things could reasonably have gone much worse than they did.

2: It’s not really clear why words (and perhaps movements) matter. They’re clearly more than mere focusing aids, as various examples make apparent. It’s sometimes even possible to use a spell without having any idea of its intended usage, as long as one knows the words, as Harry did with Levicorpus and Sectumsempra. On the other hand, there’s probably not some kind of universal magical language, as in the Inheritance Cycle, since many of the spells seem to have specific linguistic origin, and magic certainly predates the origins of some or all spells mentioned. Words definitely have magical significance, but it’s not clear how they acquire it.

3: Witches and wizards are not the only entities that can use wands. Goblins and elves, at least, and probably many other creatures, are perfectly capable of using wands, but are disenfranchised by wand laws biased against non-humans. To paraphrase Sheev Palpatine: “They don’t trust you. They know your power will be too strong to control.”

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    this is the most comprehensive summation of all answers. You have gone overboard I think to cover both sides.+1
    – cartman619
    Nov 7, 2016 at 11:24

We know that people with the innate ability can perform magic by accident and without training when young, there are several direct examples of HP doing this in the early part of book 1 (such as regrowing his hair and removing the glass from the snake's cage) and it is mentioned fairly frequently throughout the series. These are often associated with emotional or stressful situations and are apparently not under the conscious control of the witch or wizard.

There are also certain innate magical abilities such as being a morphmagus (eg. Tonks) and the ability to speak parseltongue.

At the other end of the scale is something like potion making which, often seems to be as much about the ability to carefully and accurately complete a process as innate magical power. Indeed while it is implied that you need to be a wizard to make potions this is never explicitly spelled out.

The we have things like the twin wands effect and the events surrounding the attempted murder of the infant Harry by Voldemort which had the unintended consequences of providing him with special protection and making Harry into something like if not exactly the same as a horcrux. These examples seem to have a more structured effect than just random magic but aren't formal 'spells' of the sort that we see students learning at Hogwarts.

It is also hinted (especially by Dumbledore) that in the magical world the sort of narrative and moral logic of cause and effect which we see as being metaphorical has more tangible power. For example when Dumbledore talks to Harry about sparing Wormtail's life as creating a magical bond between them.

With all this in mind it seems that magic does have underlying rules and laws, although perhaps in a more abstract way than how we understand physics, etc. (note also references to Gamp's Laws of Transfiguration). However, like real technology it seems that it takes a certain amount of research to create something useful and controllable.

It is also worth noting that defined spells have variable effects. For example in their OWL exams students are asked to transfigure a teapot into a tortoise, common sense suggests that there isn't a specific spell for doing exactly that; which implies that you need to be able to visualize what you want to achieve in some way. So we can speculate that the particular incantations and wand movements are as much an aid to mental focus withing a particular class of magic as anything else.

Perhaps it is a bit like martial arts, you practice particular stylised motions as an aid to learning proper technique but a real fight is not just a question of accurately reproducing a predetermined pattern of moves for a given situation.

It is also worth considering the products made by the Weasley twins for their shop. Many of the appear to be innovative and original and it is implied that their approach is to use a sort of mix and match approach to applying specific sets of enchantments to specific objects (such as the shield hats they sold to the ministry).

We also hear of specific innovations like the Philosophers Stone, Wolfsbane Potion and 12 uses of dragons blood. It seems logical that potions is an area where there is a lot of scope for research and innovation, as ingredients seem to have specific reliable properties. Indeed the Weasleys talk about the time they spent researching ingredients and just as importantly antidotes for their Skiving Snackboxes which seem to have involved a lot of informed trial and error.

The material in Harry's potions book in HBP is also quite interesting in this context. The additional potion making notes seem to give progressive improvements over the standard instructions which again implies that potion making is very process based with a spectrum of success. One the other hand Harry is able to effectively use spells with unknown effects on the first attempt just from the name of the spell which goes against what is established elsewhere in the series about the need for practice and concentration.


My question is, isn't all magic ancient (being too old may be forgotten by many) or at least old?

I think this is a slight misunderstanding of 'ancient' I don't think Dumbledore just meant old, but something more like 'Primal'. The overwhelming urge to protect your your child, even at risk to yourself, is a very primal instinct (magical or not). It wasn't a spell that Lilly consciously cast.

It is something that Voldemort has no experience of, as either parent or child.


If one assumed Magic to be a form of energy, spells can be seen as ways to manipulate said energy. "Discovered" implies they're in existence already, and just found by researchers or explorers. As opposed to "Invented" which suggests it's created from scratch, like one would invent a machine to manipulate energy.

It's possible for a spell, or a similar form of a spell that does the same thing, could be lost to history and then re-discovered via exploration, but one would assume it was still "invented" at some earlier point.

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