The Seven Sacraments of Harry Potter, Part 6: Horcruxes

As we enter the week of the final film‘s release, out this Friday in a […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.11.11

As we enter the week of the final film‘s release, out this Friday in a theater near you, we finish our Harry Potter Sacraments series with two theologically potent elements, both of which are imperative for the saga’s conclusion. We’ll begin today with Horcruxes, the darkest of Dark Magic, and what they say about human malediction, and one’s desire for substitution. On Wednesday, we finish with the final book’s namesake, The Deathly Hallows.

Slughorn: “You must understand that the soul is supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature.”

Riddle: “But how do you do it?”

Slughorn: “By an act of evil—the supreme act of evil. By committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart. The wizard intent upon creating a Horcrux would use the damage to his advantage: He would encase the torn portion—There is a spell, do not ask me, I don’t know!…Do I look as though I have tried it–do I look like a killer?”


A Horcrux is an item within which a wizard has stored a portion of his soul, thus allowing a portion of himself to live on if his body is destroyed. Tom Riddle, the infamous Hogwarts student who would later take the name Lord Voldemort, learned about Horcruxes through his (and Harry’s) Dark Arts professor, Horace Slughorn. The process of creating a Horcrux is extremely gruesome, as it requires the murder of another, and repudiates one’s selfhood by fracturing it. Very few dark wizards have attempted the process even once. In the pursuit and study of Voldemort, Harry and Dumbledore slowly discover that the situation might be worse than imagined:

The careless way in which Voldemort regarded this (first) Horcrux seemed most ominous to me. It suggested that he must have made—or been planning to make—more Horcruxes, so that the loss of his first would not be so detrimental. I did not wish to believe it, but nothing else seemed to make sense.

Voldemort has, in fact, created seven Horcruxes, strewing himself into seven hidden compartments, including his own living body, thus living as long as these portions of his soul remain intact. This division, however unstable it renders the soul (the wizard becomes, as Dumbledore asserts, “most unhuman”) provides eternity for the wizard willing to take life. This eternity is cursory, though, in that one’s soul dwells in a substitute that is not its true home. Thus, the Horcrux is a noteworthy if perverse example of strength-in-weakness. It constitutes an eternally unstable strength invested in fragile and fractured foundations. This is why, when Harry asks whether or not Voldemort feels a part of himself destroyed when a Horcrux is destroyed, Dumbledore responds (contrary to the implied cinematic interpretation):

I believe that Voldemort is so immersed in evil, and these crucial parts of himself have been detached for so long, he does not feel as we do. Perhaps, at the point of death, he might be aware of loss…


The Horcrux, in a theological sense, is a literary representation of inverted substitutional atonement. Voldemort’s suffering as a human—his loveless childhood, his magical estrangement in an orphanage, hence his defensive arrogance and solitude—created a fierce desire for substitution. He longed for some intervenient being to stand in for his misery. Much like Dorian Gray’s portrait, his sins and sufferings are transferred onto (and within) substitutes that provide the façade of fulfilling such a need. While he is given life superficially, the cost of this substitution is profound. According to Hermione’s reading, the splitting of one’s soul in such a way leaves one with only the hope of healing through repentance:

Ron: “Isn’t there any way of putting yourself back together?”

Hermione: “Yes, but it would be excruciatingly painful… Remorse. You’ve got to really feel what you’ve done. There’s a footnote. Apparently the pain of it can destroy you. I can’t see Voldemort attempting it somehow, can you?”

Like any villain in the pursuit of power, Voldemort has chosen a path that ultimately leads to his own demise. The pursuit of self-sustaining eternity is directly linked to its self-destructive means, transforming  the man into a monster. It has also made Voldemort paradoxically vulnerable and out of control. In his greed for standalone immortality, his strength is involuntarily broken by a power he cannot understand. The love of Harry’s mother, a love that unequivocally surrenders for the life of another –proper substitutional atonement!—takes from Voldemort another Horcrux:

You were the seventh Horcrux, Harry, the Horcrux he never meant to make. He had rendered his soul so unstable that it broke apart when he committed those acts of unspeakable evil, the murder of your parents, the attempted killing of a child. But what escaped from that room was even less than he knew. He left more than his body behind. He left part of himself latched to you, the would-be victim who had survived.…He took your blood believing it would strengthen him. He took into his body a tiny part of the enchantment your mother laid upon you when she died for you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and while that enchantment survives, so do you and so does Voldemort’s one last hope for himself.

To read Part 7: The Deathly Hallows, go here.