The Athame

An athame is, quite simply, a ceremonial knife. It is one of the ritual tools that entered the tradition through the influence of magicians and witches who set out the wisdom, mainly at the beginning of the twentieth century and in the upsurge of covens during the 1950s. Gerald Gardener, one of the founding fathers of Wicca, considered ritual knives and swords of prime importance in modern formal witchcraft.

You can obtain an athame from a specialist magical shop, but as I said before, any knife - even a letter-opener - will do, although it should preferably have a silver-coloured blade. Athames are traditionally double-edged and black-handled, but a single-edged blade is better if you are new to magick, to avoid unintentional cuts.

There is a vast array of scouting and craft knives available, with black wooden handles on which you can engrave magical symbols such as your zodiacal and planetary glyphs with a pyrographic set obtained from an art shop. You can also paint moons, stars, spirals, suns, or crosses with silver paint. I use a curved-bladed knife with a silver engraved scabbard, which I bought from a souvenir shop in Spain.

The athame is set in the East of the altar and represents the element of Air. Like the sword, it is traditionally used for drawing magical circles on the ground and directing magical Air energies into a symbol. When you are casting a circle, you can point your athame diagonally towards the ground, so that you do not need to stoop to draw (which is not very elegant and bad for the back). With practice, the movement becomes as graceful as with a sword.

The athame can also be used as a conductor of energy, especially in solitary rituals, being held above the head with both hands to draw down light and energy into the body. This uses the same principle as that of arching your arms over your head to create a light body as described on page 124. One method of releasing the power is then to bring the athame down with a swift, cutting movement, horizontally at waist level, then thrust it away from the body and upwards once more to release this power. If others are present, direct the athame towards the centre of the circle. After the ritual you can drain excess energies by pointing the athame to the ground.

An athame may be used to invoke the elemental Guardian Spirits by drawing a pentagram (see page 203) in the air and for closing down the elemental energies after the ritual. With its cutting steel of Mars, it is effective in power, matters of the mind, change, action, justice, banishing magick, protection and for cutting through inertia and stagnation. The athame is sometimes also associated with the Fire element.

If you don't like the idea of a full-sized athame, there are some lovely paper knives in the shape of swords or with animal or birds' heads.

Some covens give each of their members a tiny athame, to be used for drawing down energies during ceremonies. The main athame is used by the person leading the ritual who may draw the circle, open all four quarters and close them after the ritual.

An athame with a white handle is used for cutting wands, harvesting herbs for magick or healing, carving the traditional Samhain jack-o'-lantern, and etching runes and other magical or astrological symbols on candles and talismans. Some practitioners believe that you should never use metal for cutting herbs but instead pull them up, shred them and pound them in a mortar and pestle, kept for the purpose. Pearl-handled athames are considered to be especially magical.

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