I think it takes approximately two seconds of reading any two different pagan books to realize that one chunk of the community associates the athame with fire and the wand while another chunk hold that the athame is air and the wand is fire. That’s kind of a big discrepancy, isn’t it?
From as best as I can tell, most Wiccan traditions influenced by Gerald Gardner practice the athame:air::wand:fire analogy. However, it does not appear that this association was handed down from Gardner. Frederic Lamond, one of the last surviving members of Gardner’s last coven, wrote in his book Fifty Years of Wicca that “each tool symbolizes one of the four elements”, “although the Book of Shadows does not state it” (90) and also that “Gerald Gardner did not tell us that each of the magical tools symbolizes one of the four alchemical elements, which is well known in other magical traditions” (125). Nevertheless, Lamond notes that while he’s personally felt that the blades represent fire, Gardnerian tradition holds that they are air (90).
I believe that the Gardnerians et. al drew these associations from ceremonial magic traditions that were popular in the middle of the twentieth century. It’s well known, for example, that Gardner drew a deal of influence from Aleister Crowley, and Crowley’s Thelemites practice the dagger:air::wand:fire analogy, too. Some of the O.T.O. initiates I am acquainted with have told me they consider blades to be air tools because blades–like air–can penetrate all things. Similarly, wands are fire tools because they are made of wood and can burn, which indicates that fire resides within them. The Golden Dawn–the granddaddy of modern magic–also holds this association: Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn lists the “four elemental weapons” as “the Fire Wand, Air Dagger, Water Cup, and Earth Pentacle” (323).
In the Golden Dawn system, these elemental associations are primarily made with joining elements to the phrases “to Know” and “to Will”. The airy quality of knowledge here is defined as the ability to make distinctions, that which allows us to “slice up” the known universe into understandable metaphors that then allows us to see the necessary magical dualism in the singular universe. Golden Dawn practitioners also tend to point out that this association of sharpness and the intellect is such a deep one that our very language is littered with idioms that reinforce the pairing. For example, we have the phrases “sharp mind,” “honed reason,” “keen wit,” and my favorite “sharp as a tack”.
Conversely, within the Golden Dawn the Wand/Fire paring draws heavily on the association between Will and Fire. The wand is basically a pointer: a tool that directs someone’s attention to that which you desire them to see. It’s a tool, then, that communicates the bearer’s will. More importantly, though, is the Fire Wand’s direct association with the human penis and sexual will. Unlike the stereotypical Wiccan wand, the Golden Dawn’s Fire Wand is tipped with a fairly large bulb. This was done to emulate the scrotum and make the already phallic wand more penis-like. Of the four Golden Dawn elemental tools, then, it is the most masculine and most akin to the creative, sexual will. Naturally, Golden Dawn practitioners demonstrate the elemental link with sexual will in the idioms our language has acquired. A flip through any Harlequin novel will expose dozens of phrases like “burning loins,” “fiery lust,” and “flaming passion.”
Here’s the thing: the Golden Dawn’s rationale behind linking their wand to fire is exactly why I think Gardnerian-influenced Wicca is a little misguided in following the athame:air::wand:fire analogy. In our religious practice, sexual union is most commonly enacted symbolically by inserting the athame into the chalice. In many BTW traditions, this is enacted as part of the consecration of food in Cakes and Wine, and–very often–it is accompanied by words such as “As the athame is to the male, so is the cup to the female, and so conjoined they bring blessedness and delight.” While we can use, and sometimes prefer, the wand for this act, nine times of ten we reach for the athame. Therefore, in practice our most masculine tool, the tool of sexual Will, is the blade and not the wand, and if we followed logic like that of the Golden Dawn, the athame would be a tool of Fire, not Air.
Indeed, I think that there is far more intuitive evidence to support the athame:fire::wand:air analogy than there is to support the Gardnerian-influenced one. For example, when I asked my Gardnerian HPS a year ago why we aligned the athame with air and the wand with fire, she essentially asked me to meditate on a few questions, one of which being “How might a knight rule with a sword and how might he rule with a scepter?”
I don’t think my answer to that was quite what she thought it would be. To my mind, a leader who leads by military control–or the sword–is one whose reign is characterized by his own needs, not those of his people. As history has demonstrated time and time again, those rulers who secure and enforce their sovereignty by military control almost always earn the label of ‘despot’. Magically speaking, this type of totalitarian ruler is far too Willful. On the other hand, those leaders whose people grant him sovereignty through the symbolic scepter might be a monarch, but they are very often also the heads of a collaborative government that–if not elected by the people–still often represent the people’s best interest to their monarch. The scepter here is a tool of order that the monarch might use to point to an advisor to grant him permission to speak and let his will, and that of the people’s, be known. This type of collaborative ruler is always in search of the best possible information in order to make the decisions that will benefit the most people. Magically speaking, this type of ruler thrives through knowledge.
If we look at the manufacturing of each of these tools, I think we’ll also find a natural alignment between the blade and fire and the wand and air. Though both the wand and the athame are created from materials that come from the earth, the argument could be made that both are ‘tempered’ in their respective elements. For example, casting and shaping the athame’s blade requires a great deal of heat to melt and temper the metal. Similarly, wands are harvested from tree branches–not the roots or the trunks. Therefore, they come from the parts of the trees that are shaped by the wind: branches must be pliable enough to bend with the breeze but strong enough to resist its forces. Wind, then, tempers branch wood as much as flame does metal.
As I mentioned earlier, my O.T.O. acquaintance argued that wands corresponded to fire since they can be burned, which he interprets to mean that fire resides within the wand. But, as we all know, metal is capable of producing fire…and it doesn’t have to be destroyed to do so. Anyone who’s watched a Hollywood sword fight knows that steels spark when struck. Sparky knives were even common in the time before man could work metal. In the stone age, many tools were made of flint, which also sends out a spark when struck with a harder surface. Since blades can emit literal fire and not be destroyed, I would say they contain the element of fire within them. Similarly, wands contain air within them, too. They are the only one of the four elemental tools that is crafted from a formerly living substance. They were capable of drawing air into their cells, using oxygen, and emitting carbon dioxide. Air was–and still is–in them, but it doesn’t consume them as, say, oxidation does to metals.
In the end, I believe that in the context of Wiccan practice, the analogy of athame:fire::wand:air makes far more logical and magical sense than athame:air::wand:fire. When I use the athame as air during work with my Gardnerian coven, I have to admit that I do feel like I’m beating someone to death with a knife. In the end, good magic is made–the person does eventually die in my metaphor–so the tool does work in this air capacity…but it works much more efficiently to stab with fire.
I suppose every practitioner should honor the couplings as taught by their tradition when working with and in that tradition, but I do strongly encourage all practitioners meditate on these couplings and work out the couplings that personally feel right. You might be surprised at the difference it makes.