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According to Sirius, Snape was a real expert in the Dark Arts before he came to Hogwarts.

"Snape's always been fascinated by the Dark Arts, he was famous for it at school. Slimy, oily, greasy-haired kid, he was," Sirius added, and Harry and Ron grinned at each other. "Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year and he was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters."
(Goblet of Fire, Chapter 27, Padfoot Returns).

How did Snape come to be so knowledgeable about Dark Magic in his early years. His father was a Muggle who didn't care about magic and all we really know about his mother was that she was captain of the Gobstones club.

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    He certainly knew he was a wizard, which Lily Potter didn't really. Since his mother was a witch, maybe he found her old spell books and went from there? It always surprises me that young wizards didn't experiment with magic a lot more. – marcellothearcane Feb 17 '18 at 16:24
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    We know that between assorted books on hexes and jinxs mentioned in the HP books there is a fair amount of darks arts material (certainly for the low level stuff anyway) available to the public and anyone with a "fascination" for the dark arts. given snape had an interest, little in the way of friends and a lot of talent that would be my guess. its also possible that much like with "sectumsempra" he simply experimented on his own (though less likely in my opinion). finally theres always the chance Sirius was "embellishing" slightly either due to his own memory failling or just for harry. – Ummdustry Feb 17 '18 at 21:55
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    Before turning 11, I knew hard-core science stuffs which even average adults don't know. It's all about curiosity and exposure. Harry was busy finding ways to avoid Dursleys before turning 11. Weasleys possibly were possibly busy playing Quidditch. Snape turned out to be curious about magic and suddenly he found dark magic books in his mother's closet which shaped his curiosity further. – Avenge The Fallen Mar 20 '18 at 22:12
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    The question is widely applicable to a large audience - where are the aurors i wonder while TheDarkLord promotes the Dark Arts in this very stack? – witchy Mar 21 '18 at 9:00
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    I agree with other answers, but also I believe we should not take Sirius's words literally. He might be exaggerating here. Snape could have shown surprising level of magical skills in his first year and perform a dark hex or two, but I can't see how would Sirius know the whole range of his knowledge at the time – Shana Tar Sep 30 '18 at 7:41
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+100

It mightn’t be hard for a determined young wizard to learn curses.

Snape was a very dedicated and intelligent student with an interest in the Dark Arts. Even if he didn’t have any Dark-Arts specific books, he’d still probably be able to pick up a good bit. Some of the Hogwarts textbooks that Severus would have needed to get before attending, especially in subjects like Defense Against the Dark Arts, might describe curses with the intent of explaining what would be defended against. If the textbook said something like “to defend against the Tongue-Tying Curse (incantation Mimble wimble) use a Shield Charm”, someone could learn how to cast the Tongue-Tying Curse simply from that. It’s unclear whether his mother would have kept much of anything to do with magic around the house since his father didn’t like magic much and they lived in a Muggle neighborhood, so he mightn’t have had his mother’s books to read - but they’d need to get him his own books once he got his Hogwarts letter.

We know that students at Hogwarts do get their books ahead of time and can read them before starting, so he wouldn’t have needed to rely on his mother having spellbooks to learn some spells before attending Hogwarts.

“Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard – I’ve learnt all our set books off by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough – I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you?”
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 6 (The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters)

Snape was definitely eager to go to Hogwarts as well, so he’d probably be interested in learning before he got to Hogwarts, and being interested in the Dark Arts, would have wanted to learn curses. It doesn’t seem that hard for young students to learn them. Hermione, who wasn’t interested in the Dark Arts, knew two different spells that were classified as curses - the Leg-Locker Curse and the Full-Body Bind.

“Little did Harry know that Ron and Hermione had been secretly practising the Leg-Locker Curse. They’d got the idea from Malfoy using it on Neville, and were ready to use it on Snape if he showed any sign of wanting to hurt Harry.

‘Now, don’t forget, it’s Locomotor Mortis,’ Hermione muttered as Ron slipped his wand up his sleeve.”
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 13 (Nicolas Flamel)

She also successfully performed the Full-Body Bind in her first year, so she was actually able to do it in addition to knowing it.

“Petrificus Totalus!’ she cried, pointing it at Neville. Neville’s arms snapped to his sides. His legs sprang together. His whole body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board.”
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 16 (Through the Trapdoor)

Of course, Severus (presuming he could find the money somehow) could have bought a book specifically focused on curses.

“Hagrid almost had to drag Harry away from Curses and Counter-Curses (Bewitch your Friends and Befuddle your Enemies with the Latest Revenges: Hair Loss, Jelly-Legs, Tongue-Tying and much, much more) by Professor Vindictus Viridian.”
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chapter 5 (Diagon Alley)

It’s not necessary, and may not be what he did (especially considering his poor background) but it’s also a possibility.

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    A great answer. – Valorum Mar 27 '18 at 19:28
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It is quite possible that

Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year

because:

Knowing a spell is not the same like being able to cast it

Snape could have known fifty curses in his first year. This does not mean that he was able to cast them.

Curses are not very useful ... unless you are fighting.

If we take a look from the practical side - curses are not very useful in general. Charms and Transfiguration are better for day-to-day tasks. So most of the students just learned curses so that they can the pass the exam and the put no further efforts in developing their skills in this direction.

Snape, on the other side, was fascinated by the Dark Arts so learning curses fun for him.

Snape was able to (intentionally) break a twig before his first year at Howgarts.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 33:

There was a crack: A branch over Petunia’s head had fallen. Lily screamed: The branch caught Petunia on the shoulder, and she staggered backward and burst into tears. “Tuney!”

But Petunia was running away. Lily rounded on Snape.

“Did you make that happen?”

“No.” He looked both defiant and scared.

“You did!” She was backing away from him. “You did! You hurt her!”

“No — no I didn’t!”

But the lie did not convince Lily: After one last burning look, she ran from the little thicket, off after her sister, and Snape looked miserable and confused. . . .

The "intentional" part is not very clear but Snape was very ashamed of what happened. So it wasn't just a burst of involuntary magic.

Snape was a geek (or maybe a nerd is a better description. AFAIK geek is a nerd who's also cool ... :) )

Snape did at least "a foot more" on his DADA OWL exam:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 28

he had written at least a foot more than his closest neighbors, and yet his writing was minuscule and cramped.

In his sixth year Snape had many ideas about improving recipes for potions. He also invented the Sectumsempra spell.

This is not direct evidence but it shows that he was quite brilliant and dedicated.

Snape grew up in a broken family

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 33:

“How are things at your house?” Lily asked.

A little crease appeared between his eyes.

“Fine,” he said.

“They’re not arguing anymore?”

“Oh yes, they’re arguing,” said Snape. He picked up a fistful of leaves and began tearing them apart, apparently unaware of what he was doing. “But it won’t be that long and I’ll be gone.”

Seeking escape in books is not uncommon in such cases. Wizard books contain charms and curses.

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    This doesn't seem to answer how Snape got the knowledge he had, apart from in the last two sentences (which is speculation). – The Dark Lord Feb 18 '18 at 22:36
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    @TheDarkLord got your point. Will re-formulate the answer so that is follows a certain logical flow. Note that it will still remain a speculation but at least a plausible speculation. – vap78 Feb 19 '18 at 11:04
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    As shown in the first book in several examples (e.g. a pullover shrinks drastically, a glass wall of a terrarium vanishes which frees a snake) wizarding children are prone to magical accidents that match their current desires. So I doubt that Snape broke the twig intentionally, a magical surge is more likely. – straycat Feb 25 '18 at 20:39
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While we can't explain exactly how Snape managed to learn all his curses before entering Hogwarts, we can at least show that this isn't an isolated case.

Hermione knew a fair amount of spells before She entered Hogwarts:

On the train, when first meeting Harry she successfully repaired his glasses and, after watching Ron try to turn Scabbers yellow She said : "I've tried some spells and they've all worked for me".

So, if Hermione who has two muggle parents and no previous contact with the wizarding world can learn spells before Hogwarts, Snape, with one magical parent would have been exposed to the wizarding world from birth and being gifted would have had no trouble finding out about spells.

The fact that he learnt curses rather than more benign spells speaks volumes about his character . . .

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