The athame is the "true witches' weapon." This quote is as stated in the Gardnerian ritual for first-degree initiation in 'A Witches' Bible' by Janet and Stewart Farrar. In fact, the whole of it reads:
"Next, I present the Athame. This is the true witches' weapon, and has all the powers of the magic sword."
Ummmm.... hold on.... okay, here you go....
"First, the Magic Sword. With this, as with the Athame, thou canst form all Magic Circles, dominate, subdue and even punish all rebellious spirits and demons, and even persuade angels and good spirits. With this in thy hand, thou art ruler of the Circle."
Symbolism behind the athame speaks to it representing an individual's control of the elements and as a personal symbol of witch-hood. Just imagine the control man felt the first time his knife made a difference in whether he lived or died, either from attack or starvation. The knife is a personal tool; revered and held in the highest of regards since it was crafted from stone. So much so that it has been buried with its owner since the beginning and taken to the next world with them.
Elementally, the Athame has been associated with fire, since it involves the use of an individual's will. It takes the heat of a forge and the skill of a smith (always considered a magical profession, akin to an alchemist) to produce a blade, furthering it's link to the element of fire. Its affiliation with the element of air is much of a controversy with many saying it was a "blind*" perpetrated by the Golden Dawn, from where Gardner may have adopted many of his ideas for Wicca.
But, modern day ceremonial magicians use a black-handled knife much the same way we do - to inscribe symbols and circles in the air. This knife is not, however, the "air" knife, which by Golden Dawn standards is yellow-hilted, with purple sigils. The "controversy" has always seemed to me unwarranted- it's all a matter of perspective.
In the Tarot, the suit of Fire is the Wands; of Air, the Swords (long Athames). On the other hand, the fiery Archangel Michael brandishes a sword, while Rafael, Archangel of the East, Air, etc, etc, is seen with a staff/wand. I do not think these revered traditions teach these attributions as blinds, rather, meaningful living symbols that aid us in our Work. However you use or decide to use your athame and its associations, just try to always remember the mantra: "Every coven is a law unto itself."
The sword/athame ultimately typifies the phallus and the masculine half of the Universal Creative Force, (the other half being the Chalice.) To take on the role of a man during a ritual a woman needs only to buckle (I said buckle!) on a sword and bam! - An instant appendage. (He-he, and yes - we've heard the joke about the man buckling on a chalice.) The fiery dagger being placed into the watery womb of the chalice signifies the union of that "essential [masculine / feminine] polarity that pervades and activates the entire universe" during the Great Rite. (2nd degrees… get it??)
The athame and its use has been traced back to the writings of King Solomon. Although there is no mention of a black handled knife, there is a depiction of a sickle-like curved blade with the word'Artavo.' The bolline utilized for herb gathering is usually sickle-shaped. In medieval texts we do have the words Artavus, Artamus, Arthanus, Arthana, Arthamy, and Artharme used in relation to ceremonial or ritualistic knives. The pratice of carving or placing symbols on either the haft or blade also stems back to the time of Solomon but I'm pretty sure the practices of the Norse had some influence. They would carve Tyr's rune onto the blade and invoke him before battle.
To Wiccans, the athame is singularly THE "witches' tool," although there are many variations to it's type, color, and usage. "A Witches' Bible" dedicates five and a half pages to the athame alone. In comparison, its ritual counterpart - the chalice only received half a page. (The pentacle was the second highest tool with two pages.) But no matter what a witchcraft groups ideas on the athame are; the common thing they share is that they all have one (an athame, that is), whether some believe it is usurped by Gardner from ceremonial magic or a link to the ancient hunter/gatherer from which our religion spawns.
The knife, in our tradition, is a double-edged dagger; the dual edges expressing the dual nature of the universe; positive/negative, active/passive, masculine/feminine, projection/reception, good/evil, and also symbolizing the dual nature of energy manipulation or magic all driven by the will; by intent for good or ill; for healing or destruction, protection or attack. The double edge gives the athame its symbolism. I have seen some exquisite examples of single-edged blades that are also athames, so as stated above, whether to choose that style is up to your own tradition.
The haft is traditionally black. Black is the absence of colour, the absence of anything, a metaphoric black hole allowing the athame handle to receive your personal energy readily and store it for future use if needed. There have been several non-black-handled athames I have encountered usually made of bone, deer hooves or a fanciful wood like Brazilwood or rosewood. I would by no means suggest the coloring of these types of handles, but "do not leave the handle bare out of laziness." Besides, black is another color of the Goddess and the impaling of the shiny, pointed steel deep within the void of blackness helps to lend more symbolism to your tool.
There are some consecrations that require marking your handle or blade as mentioned earlier. If you desire to do this always take it into consideration before acquiring your tool. Obtaining by gift or purchase an athame owned and extensively utilized by a powerful witch is a phenomenal find and highly prized by those who understand the concept of resident energy and how it can guide and empower your own magic.
The tool will have never touched blood when you first acquire it, unless of course it is a storied blade previously owned by a witch. This is a holy tool, one that you'll be using in rituals where you'll be before the gods and performing spells of healing and benefice. To have a blade that has taken a life, any life, or that has a sketchy past is to bring that unknown energy (resident energy again) into whatever it is you are doing. Therefore, your blade should be new and shiny. I love browsing antique shops and flea markets too, but you never know the history of a used knife unless you're a gifted psychometrist.
Whether you decide to blood it later will be up to the consecration you use and of course, as always, your own tradition. While we're on the subject of acquisition, one caveat I'm a firm believer in is the "no-haggle" policy many Wiccans have adopted when it comes to magical tools. Ask the price; if it's too much it wasn't meant to be. Don't cheapen your magic by cheapening the tool. Bargain basement magic is just not the order of the day. Something you can do is ask the universe for the perfect tool and I'll bet, you being or wanting to be a witch and all, it'll manifest. Such is the way of the witch.
Another dictate regarding the athame that I don't agree with is that of dulling the blade and breaking it's point. Granted, the athame will only be used for the control and manipulation of energy, but if you have a problem with your double-bladed knife being a "weapon" then perhaps a wand of crystal or wood would suit you better. Some arguments regarding this mandate is the 'danger in a group' factor. Okay, I can see that, but if everyone practices safe conduct in regards to their weapon, then there should be no problem. In my years with a group, we have never had a mishap of someone accidentally cutting someone else… of course, stabbing oneself is a different matter all together.
Another argument against 'blooding' the blade whether intentional or accidental is as Donald Tyson explains; "once it has tasted blood it ceases to be a symbol of the will and becomes a weapon no longer consecrated in the service of the Goddess but to service the God of War." While this is beautifully stated and my Libran sense can grasp and understand the position, I personally want my Goddess-hafted weapon to be an instrument of war (besides isn't it Boaz that is severity?) How the Hel else will you be able to 'dominate, subdue and even punish all rebellious spirits and demons' if it is not a threat. On top of that, once consecrated the tool has an astral double that the adventurous witch could effectively utilize while traveling the astral plane. The astral plane can contain some nasties and I want to be sure the astral blade I call to my defense is wicked razor sharp. Again, this is my opinion… defer to your own tradition.
Do not think that I condone carrying your athame around with you so you can use it as an everyday means of defense. I most certainly DO NOT!! Number one, it is usually illegal to carry such a weapon and number two; it would be like the "Catholic priest taking the communion chalice down to the pub for a beer."
That being said, I disagree with the Kitchen Witchery philosophy of utilizing your athame for every mundane task to help build your rapport with it. If we were poor and lived in a one room cottage during the Middle Ages, I can see having one knife serve several purposes but we don't live in cottages in the Middle Ages and any witch worth his or her salt who wants to grow in their abilities will utilize their ritual dagger as often as possible because they will be doing magic all the time. As always, defer to your own tradition.
So... there you have it, my dissertation on the numero uno tool of the witch although this post would not be complete without the mention of your Goddess/God-given athame. Your God-given athame is the one you were born with. It is your pointing finger and your middle finger joined together to direct your energy. How's that for a bargain?
~Lady Atheona (with help from the magnificent Lord Tanys)
Improvise! Adapt! Overcome!
*A 'blind' is a deliberate 'lie' or omission in many books written by those who have sworn an oath to protect the information they have been given. Are there blinds in the essays I write? Yes, in the form of omissions. I have sworn that same or similar oath. But that oath also says I cannot refuse the true seeker. Join a class and find out for the truth for yourself.
Originally Posted 2 Sep 2007