The Athame In Myth, Magick And Practice
Published Imbolc 1996
Probably the first magickal tool (or weapon) that the new pagan is tempted to acquire is that which is popularly called the athame. There are very few magickal paths which do not advocate the use of a personal knife, with the possible exception of the Dianic (frequently strongly feminist) groups which abound in the USA. Such groups frequently reject the use of all weapons as inventions of the patriarchy, choosing to cast the circle with a flower or feather instead. In the practices of wicca and most high magick paths, the athame is considered an essential tool as it is used to represent the direction of east and the element of air (and therefore of the intellect) if the individual or group does not have a sword. (This association of blade = east = air does not necessarily hold true in much Traditional (ie pre-wiccan) Witchcraft, however.)
The athame is most commonly a knife or dagger, usually with an iron or steel, less commonly a copper or bronze, blade, which may or may not have a number of sigils (ie magickal symbols) etched onto the handle or blade. These have been illustrated in a number of easily available books on wicca and high magick. Commonly the guard may be in the form of the crescent moon, or the pommel may have an engraved pentagram on it. Occasionally the knife, including the blade itself, may be made of carved wood or a simple piece of antler - however it could be argued that such "blades" are more in the line of wands than athames.
Popular modern paganism, particularly wicca, insists that the personal blade, usually hafted with a black handle, must never be used to cut anything, though some claim that it can be used to cut a handfasting cake. Most definitely, they insist, it must never be used to draw blood. And for group work, they will tell you, it should be blunted and the point broken off - since the edge and point are redundant if the blade is not to cut anything and a sharp blade is dangerous in a circle with other folks.
At the risk of being somewhat controversial on this point - I have to disagree. Since the discovery that certain rocks could be melted to produce a hot, runny fluid which could be transformed on cooling into useful and durable items, a personal blade in the form of a knife has been one of the most prized possessions of those fortunate enough to have owned one. The importance to early man of such metalworking skills, and the awe in which they were held, survives in the aura of magick which in folklore still surrounds the blacksmith today.
It is this powerful image of a strong and shiny blade being produced as if by magic from the melting of an apparently ordinary-looking and dull-coloured rock which is the real origin of the mythological image of the sword drawn from the stone which is so central to the concept of rightful kingship in the Arthurian myth. In mythological terms, by discovering the sword within the stone and being able to wield it, thus harnessing the new technology which it represented, Arthur undergoes a fundamental transformation from being an ordinary man into being a leader of immense power and charisma for his people. We are so used to Disney-esque or Malory's degenerate late medieval interpretations of the Arthurian material that we are unable to see the underlying image which is infinitely more significant.
The earliest blades were beaten from native (naturally occurring metallic) copper around 4,000 bce; later they were made of bronze which is a much harder alloy of copper and tin; later still (about 2,000 bce) iron working was discovered. Since the earliest discovery of metals they have been used for weapons and were so highly prized that they are among the commonest grave goods excavated by archaeologists. So valuable were they considered that they were taken by their owners into the underworld. Until the last couple of centuries and the industrialisation of iron and steel working, a quality blade was an expensive item such that most ordinary folks owned one. That one had to do everything from cutting vegetables to skinning meat and cleaning hides. One of the earliest ritual uses of the knife was in sacrifice - originally human, later animal.
Today, of course, the concept of sacrifice is one which neo-pagans find disturbing and embarrassing (the popular "Charge of the Goddess" very conveniently lets neo-pagans off on this one). Nevertheless sacrifice does underlie any ancient roots which neo-paganism may have. To imagine therefore that such a blade would have been deliberately blunted is clearly a nonsense. Apart from anything else, a blunted blade is completely useless for any practical purposes, and I doubt that so obviously useless an item would have been kept around the house at times of possible persecution. One does not have to actually carry out a sacrifice today in order to understand and appreciate the origins and background of the magickal blade - nor, indeed, to honour those origins. We ignore them, however, at the risk of turning our faith into a pretty game in which we shuffle our feet at the thought of death and in which we quietly agree to overlook the hag in favour of some pretty little fantasy moon goddess in a see-through frock.
Your athame is, above all else, a working tool and (in origin) a personal weapon and should be treated as such. It should be kept sharp and the blade cleaned from time to time to prevent rust developing especially if it is of iron or non-stainless steel. A useful method of protecting the blade is to make a blend of equal parts of beeswax and paraffin wax; this is softened and rubbed onto the blade and other metal fittings, left overnight and then buffed up the following day. The wax works its way into the grain of the metal and protects it most effectively from rain, dew and so on. This particular method is commonly used by historical re-enactment groups for protecting weapons even though the use of paraffin wax is not historically accurate!
If you have difficulty with the idea of the athame being a weapon I would suggest that you hang back from buying one until you feel happier about the fact; our pagan ancestors were, at various times, hunters of beasts and killers of men and, while such a lifestyle is not necessary today, you should bear in mind that the athame really represents a link with those long-dead ancestors of each of us who calls himself pagan today.
The only exception to the above considerations, to my mind, is when you are given an athame. Sometimes such things find their way to us (often by strange and circuitous routes) because they have been intended to do so - despite their not being suitable for all magickal purposes and despite the fact that they are not what we would necessarily choose for ourselves! This has happened to me and it sets up quite a dilemma - mainly due to the fact that in this particular case the knife's physical quality was perceived to be diametrically opposed to the value of the source. In such a case of conflict, you may well decide to keep the gift and use it as your personal magickal blade, but buy a good strong blade suitable to fulfill those magickal needs which (for whatever reason) the gift blade does not meet.
Athames do come as cheap as £15 for a mass-produced (and frequently extremely tacky) one from an occult shop or may cost well over £100 for an individually hand-crafted one with a hand-forged blade, though you can pick up a very serviceable (and sharp) one in a fishing-tackle shop for £10 upwards.
For something a bit special or more personal, you may be able to get a blade specially made for you either by a blacksmith (yes - there are a few still about) or by one of the weapons-makers who supply the re-enactment groups and make blades to order. Making your own, however, must be the ideal and if you want to give it a try, contact Greenwood Crafts (address below) who organise weekends in which you can earn basic smithcraft at the very reasonable price of about £85.
In recent months, following a number of horrific knife attacks, there has been a great deal of public debate and concern over the carrying of knives. Moves are afoot to clamp down of the sale of blades and on the carrying of them on the person. However, I suspect that the police are less concerned about knives per se than about some of the individuals who carry them. For instance, the knife which has somehow evolved as my own working blade is a folding lock-back with a blade of just under 3"; ie it is legal to carry it - which I do at all times. It is also strong, pretty sharp and extremely functional. Some months ago my car broke down on the motorway and within a few minutes a police car drew up and two West Midlands coppers came to investigate a lone woman in what they considered to be a vulnerable place. Their view of my vulnerability changed somewhat when they became aware of my solid yew staff (which they had a good look at and admired) and then of my blade in my hand. I told them I had been carrying a pocket knife for the best part of 30 years and hadn't stabbed anyone yet. Their reaction? Confiscation? Not at all. Good for you, they said. They were actually quite relieved that one honest citizen (especially a woman) was not prepared to be a victim.
Finally - one important point. As mentioned above, the received wisdom within wicca has it that the blade of an athame must never be "contaminated" by contact with blood. Again, I disagree most strongly! If each of us is indeed, as we are told, a child of the Goddess, created from Her own being, then our blood, which contains Her essence, cannot possibly contaminate anything - but most certainly can be used to bestow our (and Her) blessing and sacredness on that which it touches. The athame is one of those things which (normally) you will buy only once and in that sense it often represents your commitment to the faith. Some folks go as far as to magickally exchange part of their own spirit with that of the blade in such a way that they are magickally bonded to that blade and part of them is held hostage, as it were, by it. If you are willing to pledge your spirit to the faith and give surety for it, why not seal it with your blood? If your athame is sharp and clean, a small nick will be enough to produce a couple of drops of blood, won't hurt and will heal in a day or so.
My own feeling (and that of those who taught and initiated me) is that a blade has not been properly consecrated until it has been "blooded" for, contrary to much modern wiccan belief, the Old Ones do demand sacrifice of us - and that sacrifice is of ourselves to the Craft. If we are truly prepared to give ourselves fully to the Craft, the donation of a few drops of blood as the symbol of our lives is not a lot to ask!