The Athame Through Story
by Race MoChridhe
In my last article, we examined the sacred tools of the Druidic magician, with a particular eye on the ways in which story informs the meaning of magickal equipment. This month, we will look at how the meaning of tools is shaped not just by the stories they represent, but by the stories that produce them, in the form of what is now probably the most commonly used magickal tool of all—the Witch’s athame. The athame is a double-edged dagger, generally with a black handle, used by Witches in most Wiccan traditions for a variety of magickal purposes, most notably casting circles, invoking and banishing the elements of the four quarters, and representing the masculine principle in the Great Rite.
The word probably comes from the medieval Latin artavus, or “quill knife”—a special, small knife used by scribes in the middle ages to resharpen pens. Often garbled in translations, the word appears as arthame in certain late French editions of the medieval grimoire known as the Key of Solomon. This is probably where the creator of modern Wicca—Gerald Gardner—first encountered it. It is in those pages that it is specified the knife must be black-handled (as Gardner’s own instructions to his initiates later stipulated), and it is there that detailed instructions may be found for the drawing of sigils (particularly pentagrams) for summoning and banishing spirits.
Medieval magicians were not known for their kindness in this last respect. Although it is often believed by Witches today that the requirement for the blade to be double-sided is simply meant to avoid awkward turns of the wrist to keep the knife oriented during sigil work in the air, the traditions of ceremonial magick that made use of the artavus felt the advantage of a double-sided blade to be in its more threatening appearance, since it was primarily used for threatening and cajoling the spirits summoned. This resonated also with the custom of Roman emperors to wear another kind of double-edged dagger—the pugio—as a symbol of their authority over life and death. For medieval magicians to forge such a blade from iron was preferable, since iron was held to be baneful to the fairies and other spirit creatures, and provided a measure of control that the wooden wand (commonly used in other operations, such as the making of talismans) did not. Gardner’s substantial study of occultism would likely have made him aware of all of this, and this heritage of Western magick is one part of his athame’s story of origin.
Gardner's own biography plays a tremendous role as well, though. Gardner was 16 years old when he moved to Sri Lanka, he went on to spend the greater part of his life in Malaysia. By the time he retired and moved back to England, he had spent thirty-six years in Asia. In that time, he had become one of the world’s leading experts on ritual knives of southeast Asia. He came back to Britain towing a large collection of them, and he was particularly fascinated with the traditions surrounding the kris—a (mostly) ceremonial dagger central to the cultures of Malaysia and Indonesia, and well-known in many nearby regions. This too is a double-sided blade used for the working of magick, but the customs that pertain to it are less violent and tyrannical than those of Europe's ceremonial magicians wielding the artavus.
Javanese culture, especially (where the kris is arguably most revered), emphasizes the kris’ quality of piyandel—the ability to inspire self-confidence in its user—and regards gentility of expression as a sign of that self-confidence. A Javanese groom, for example, comes to his wedding wearing a kris festooned with wreaths of jasmine, symbolizing the possibility for his assurance of his own manhood to conquer his impulses toward anger, cruelty, aggressiveness, and tyranny.
This weapon would not only have been on Gardner’s mind as he crafted the role of the athame in the Witchcraft religion he would teach in the 1950s and 60s, but would also be in front of his very eyes on a regular basis as a part of his collection. Gardner’s athame indeed seems to carry traces of both weapons’—the artavus and the kris’—spiritual heritage. In his and in multiple other traditions, the athame is used as an expression of power to project etheric fire in the casting of the circle, but is also used in a complex and subtle way to express the masculine principle in relation to the feminine chalice. When the Great Rite is performed symbolically, one of the common methods is to dip the athame, point-down, into the chalice to symbolize the union of the masculine and feminine principles—a reflex of the elemental union of fire and water, which is alchemically representative of many different polarities and conjunctions. For Gardner, this operation of union was most commonly depicted in the sexual union of male and female (whether literally or metaphorically), but in his tools we find suggestions that it is an operation internal to the masculine nature as well.
Far less common among Wiccans today than the athame, but important for very traditional Gardnerians, is the scourge. This tool also, Gardner identified with the element of fire, on account of its being “an instrument for exercising power over others.” Very commonly, however, Gardner writes of the scourge as representing the sacrifice and suffering one is willing to undergo for learning (while its feminine counterpart, the kiss, represents the blessing and abundance received through learning). One does not sacrifice, however, by exercising power over others, but by submitting oneself to them. Here we have a paradox not unlike that of the Javanese wedding kris, where one gains the ability to act with restraint and humility as a result of the blade’s gift of self-confidence.
|A medieval style athame|
One cannot help but detect a trace of the aforementioned in Gardner’s comments regarding his second degree initiation rite, in which the candidate for initiation is scourged three times at the beginning of the ritual, but at the end returns this scourging to her or his initiator threefold: “For this is the joke in witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.” It is with “an instrument for exercising power over others” in our hand that we most keenly realize the virtue of curbing that power, so that we may bear it when we must submit ourselves to the power of others, just as it is with the assurance of the kris on his back that the Javanese groom can lay aside his need to prove his masculinity, and recognize the fullness of his own manhood in gentleness and service toward his wife.
When we remove the athame from the context of its ancestry, we are left with many things: a representation of fire, a tool for focus, a phallic object… But we are left without its essence—without the part of it that we must internalize in order to use it properly. This comes only with the knowledge of its story, and the stories of those who made it.
In our next installment, we will seek the story behind bells in ritual usage.
Other articles in this series:
The Druid's Sacred Tools