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When Harry Potter was growing up, people did not know why he was the only person to survive the Killing Curse.

“The nature of that prophecy is unknown, although speculation is rife that it concerns Harry Potter, the only person ever known to have survived the Killing Curse, and who is also known to have been at the Ministry on the night in question.”
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 3 (Will and Won’t)

The fake Mad-Eye Moody (Barty Crouch Jr.) mentioned that Harry was unique and that there was no (known) way to block it.

“Moody swept the dead spider off the desk onto the floor.

‘Not nice,’ he said calmly. ‘Not pleasant. And there’s no counter-curse. There’s no blocking it. Only one known person has ever survived it, and he’s sitting right in front of me.”
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 14 (The Unforgivable Curses)

If people had known that sacrificing one's own life for another conferred protection against the Killing Curse, Barty Crouch would not have said there was no blocking it.

JKR has confirmed that not only was Harry the first to survive, but that even his mother died without knowing the protection she gave him.

MA: Did she know anything about the possible effect of standing in front of Harry?

JKR: No - because as I've tried to make clear in the series, it never happened before. No one ever survived before. And no one, therefore, knew that could happen.
- The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview (July 16th, 2005)

But a few years later, the real Mad-Eye Moody knew that Lily Potter's sacrifice had protected Harry. He mentioned this while preparing Harry for leaving the house at 4 Privet Drive.

“Now, your mother’s charm will only break under two conditions: when you come of age, or” — Moody gestured around the pristine kitchen — “you no longer call this place home. You and your aunt and uncle are going your separate ways tonight, in the full understanding that you’re never going to live together again, correct?”

Harry nodded.

“So this time, when you leave, there’ll be no going back, and the charm will break the moment you get outside its range. We’re choosing to break it early, because the alternative is waiting for You-Know-Who to come and seize you the moment you turn seventeen.

-Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (The Seven Potters).

During Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts, Dumbledore told him of the protective power of a self-sacrifice. More to the point is that he knew it was somehow connected to Lily being a close blood relative of Harry, so he must have known (assumed?) this was possible the day he placed the baby Harry on aunt Petunia's doorstep. Perhaps Dumbledore knew this possible before anyone survived the Killing Curse. But how did he know?

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.

So when did magic users learn that the only protection against the Killing Curse is for somebody else to sacrifice their lives in love for another?

How could they have learned this when Harry was the first to survive the Killing Curse? It's not as if this kind of sacrifice occurs often enough for people to understand the effects of it. To my best knowledge, the second time it occurred was when Harry sacrificed himself to Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest to confer protection for the defenders in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Harry explained the protection to Voldemort during their final confrontation.

“You won’t be killing anyone else tonight,’ said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other’s eyes, green into red. ‘You won’t be able to kill any of them, ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people –’

‘But you did not!’

‘– I meant to, and that’s what did it. I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them. You don’t learn from your mistakes, Riddle, do you?”
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 36 (The Flaw in the Plan)

I'm looking for answers supported by quotes from canon sources or quotes from the author.

Side note: I am curious how Mad-Eye Moody learned not only that a love-sacrifice confers such protection, but also that the protection ends for underage people when they become adults or when they leave a family home forever.

  • 4
    Moody presumably was told by Dumbledore. As for how Dumbledore knew.... – Alex Apr 20 at 0:58
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It is only said as being ancient magic.

It is never said exactly how wizards know of the type of magic created by a willing sacrifice. Harry is explicitly stated to be the first known survivor of the Killing Curse and the first to be saved that way, so he was the only practical example of it, and few people knew how he survived. It is only said to be a known branch of ancient magic - both Voldemort and Dumbledore refer to it as such.

“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.’

Voldemort raised one of his long white fingers, and put it very close to Harry’s cheek. ‘His mother left upon him the traces of her 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, Chapter 33 (The Death Eaters)

Both Dumbledore and Voldemort know of it as a type of ancient magic, so it is known to exist.

“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.”
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 37 (The Lost Prophecy)

However, it is never explained how the wizarding world has knowledge of this magic when there has been no known occurrence of it before. This knowledge also contradicts JKR’s statement that no one knew that sacrificial protection could happen.

MA: Did she know anything about the possible effect of standing in front of Harry?

JKR: No - because as I've tried to make clear in the series, it never happened before. No one ever survived before. And no one, therefore, knew that could happen.

MA: So no one - Voldemort or anyone using Avada Kedavra - ever gave someone a choice and then they took that option [to die] -

JKR: They may have been given a choice, but not in that particular way.
- The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview (July 16th, 2005)

If it was a known type of ancient magic, it would have been known that it could happen at least in theory if never observed.

Two charms exist - Lily’s and Dumbledore’s.

However, there is more than one charm protecting Harry. There are two different charms ensuring Harry’s safety. The first is the charm placed on him upon his mother’s sacrifice, which deflected the Killing Curse that Voldemort cast.

“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 me.”
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 33 (The Death Eaters)

Lily’s sacrifice gave him a lingering protection which remained in him forever - it did not expire. This protection caused Voldemort pain upon touching him until he used Harry’s blood to recreate his body.

“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.”
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 33 (The Death Eaters)

The second charm protecting Harry is the one Dumbledore cast, using Lily’s sacrifice as its base, that ensured his safety from Voldemort while he was at the Dursleys’ house.

“For he has been better protected than I think even he knows, protected in ways devised by Dumbledore long ago, when it fell to him to arrange the boy’s future. Dumbledore invoked an ancient magic, to ensure the boy’s protection as long as he is in his relations’ care.”
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 33 (The Death Eaters)

Dumbledore was able to create this charm because of Lily’s sacrifice. However, Dumbledore had to actively cast the charm, and it was sealed when Petunia took Harry.

‘But she took you,’ Dumbledore cut across him. ‘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.”
- Harry Potter and the he cast Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 37 (The Lost Prophecy)

Dumbledore’s charm ensuring Harry’s safety at the Dursleys’ house is the one that would break once he turned seventeen. As for how Moody knew this, presumably as the founder of the Order, Dumbledore would have told at least one Order member how the charm worked once he knew his death was inevitable.

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  • 10
    I wouldn't say that JKR's statements are necessarily contradictory: It is possible for it to be known Ancient Magic that Sacrifice can cause Protection, without that Protection having been tested against the Killing Curse - a spell which apparently bypasses and destroys every other magical shield or protection. Especially if the specific requirements for the Sacrifice to invoke Protection are lost to history, possibly even before the Killing Curse was invented. – Chronocidal Apr 20 at 15:01
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    Now that you mention it, it kinda sounds like she's cribbing off The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – Nacht Apr 20 at 23:22
  • Also we're supposed to believe that no mother ever jumped in front of Avada Kedavra to save her child before? – Nacht Apr 20 at 23:30
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    @Nacht-ReinstateMonica "Circumstances may vary". In this case: Snape, bound to Riddle via the Dark Mark asked him to spare Lily, which he apparently - at least provisionally - agreed to. Then, as we learn in GoF, Lily begged for Harry to be spared 3 times, and offered herself "in trade". 3 times, he ordered her aside, so he could attack Harry instead. Only then did he kill her. Magic may see that as a binding contract, and the attempt to attack Harry as an attempt to break it: Harry himself fought/denied Riddle 3 times (in PS, GoF and OoTP) before their meeting in the Woods too. – Chronocidal Apr 20 at 23:56
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    @Nacht-ReinstateMonica How often would someone kill people with the killing course, especially a child, how often would the mother be around, willing to sacrifice herself (instead of trying a charm), get the timing right and someone being left to see what happens, understand what happened and provide that information to others. It's not that far fetched that it never happened before (or wasn't reported). – Frank Hopkins Apr 20 at 23:57

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