As we all know, the athame (pronounced as either ah-THAH-may or ah-THAY-may) is the Witch’s ceremonial blade. Its traditional physical form among many British Traditional Witchcraft lines is that of a cross-shaped, double-edged, black-handled dagger. This means that the guard extends perpendicularly and in a straight line from the knife’s handle and blade. The blade is typically made of a ferrous metal, and the handle is often a wood which has been stained or painted black. This traditional athame also has a sharp point and sharp edges, and it is inscribed–either physically or energetically–with magical sigils that can denote the blade’s energies as well as its name and its weilder’s magical name. In oath-bound traditions, the particular sigils of the tradition are often imparted after initiation. The traditional athame does vary in size, but it will often be between 8 and 12 inches long from tip to tip. According to lore, an individual’s traditional athame should be as long as the distance from the crook of one’s elbow to the bottom of one’s palm (incidentally, this is also the size of one’s foot).
Note that I was very careful to say “the traditional athame” above. In practice, I’m starting to think any knife can be called an athame. You’ll see hilts of every color and material, single-edge blades, blades made from any metal and containing more twists and turns than a Hula dancer, knives made entirely of wood or ivory or bone, and hardly anyone physically inscribes anything upon their athame these days. And you know what? I think that’s great. It is such a personal tool that I find it difficult to believe that every athame would physically conform to a rigid guideline of what a particular knife might look like. In this sense, I am all about tossing traditional restrictions to the wind and finding the knife that feels right to you for use in your own personal practice. As for myself, just about the only tradition I insisted upon was a dark handle. “Candle” is just 8.25″ long (my elbow to palm distance is 10.5″), has a wavy copper blade that is technically single-edged, that edge is dull and the point blunted, and the guard doesn’t extend beyond the handle. I also have no intention to physically inscribe anything upon my beautiful athame. And you know what? My athame works perfectly for me.
As Roderick points out, some traditions hold that the athame is the only tool essential for witchcraft. I strongly disagree–witchcraft is the union of all elements into spirit, not the privilege of any one over the rest. I think the privilege given to the athame by many traditions may have some historical connection with Gardner, though. Old Gardner was very fond of his blades: a full set would entail not only the athame, but also a sword, a boline, and a white-handled knife. The blade fetish carried over into his fiction, too. In Gardner’s novel High Magic’s Aid, the magus Thur can literally do no magical work until he secures the white- and black-handled knives of the witch Vada. Nothing else has magical value without these blades (which alarmingly implies that the blades–not the weilder–is the source of the magic). Even coven practice implicitly reinforces the idea that the athame is the most important tool. For example, it is the one personal magical tool everyone in Hartwood Grove must bring to our group rituals and the only tool our leaders ask that we acquire before initiation. (To be fair, though, each of us also keeps a secondary chalice of our own at the covenstead for use in group Cakes and Wine, so that counts for something.) With a culture such as this, I can see why some practitioners do not view the athame as having equivalent power to the wand, pentacle, and chalice.
I do think, though, that the athame’s physical presence plays a role in commanding this idea of ‘most important tool.’ The other tools basically amount to dinnerware and a stick. The athame, however, is a dagger. You could use it to hurt or kill a person. It is a Scary Thing with capital letters, and as such it immediately commands attention on a mundane level. I find it a little sad that we allow our first cultural/psychological association with the item to give it so much eminence in our tool chests.
Similarly, I find it heart-breaking that some people allow that mundane association of Scary Thing to keep them from using the tool at all. Yes, the dagger carries associations of male dominance, warfare, and aggression…but, as any good cook can tell you, it’s also the tool that makes a good dinner possible. (Think it’s the stove and a pan? Take a look inside a raw foods kitchen. Knives and cutting implements out the wazoo.) In this light, the knife is step one in hearth tending…even if it could also lead to domestic destruction. That being said, I do get a little nervous when a fellow practitioner’s athame looks like a hunting or warring blade or is such a fantasy piece it’s points have points. These look like pure destructive weapons to me, or something without a shred of spiritual purpose. I can definitely understand why some people would feel this way towards all blades.
Magical practitioners who can’t quite get around their mental blocks for using a knife (or who circle with young children) have used plenty of other items to direct energy. I used my right index and middle fingers for years. I’ve also used a quartz crystal, feathers, wands, candles…they all directed energy. In fact, I thought they worked so well that I practically had to be drawn kicking and screaming into using my ‘big girl’ athame instead of my own fingers every time I did magical work. But when I did…I learned I’d been using a paring knife to do the job of a chef’s knife. The knife allowed something to click in my brain that let me direct that energy much more cleanly and efficiently. And now that I’ve gone black, I don’t think I can go back. I would definitely encourage other practitioners to work through their blade blocks, too.