Wand and Blade: Which is fire and which is air?

Do these associations make sense?

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?

Or do these?

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).

The Golden Dawn’s Air Dagger and Fire Wand

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.”

The Great Rite in Token

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.

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5 thoughts on “Wand and Blade: Which is fire and which is air?

  1. It’s interesting that I stumbled across this article. Just the other day this was brought up within our coven. The line had to be drawn that before we commence in the discussion there is some conflict between the athame use in the Gardnerian system and the dagger use in the OTO / Golden Dawn system. Firstly being that the Dagger and Sword hold the same properties of Air (in the ceremonial correspondences) however the Sword corresponds to Geburah of the Qabalah which is ruled by Mars and is marshal in nature. In this sense the Sword is a tool of Fire. The thing is that in the ceremonial system the Sword can be used as the Dagger but the Dagger cannot be used as the Sword indicating that the additional properties of the Sword are unique to itself.

    That being said, the wand in the ceremonial system is phalic shaped as your picture indicates and is adorned with the Hebrew letter ‘Shin’ and Hebrew name ADNI. Shin corrisponds to fire as well as ADNI to LORD placed in the South of dominant Pentagram Rituals.

    In the Gardnerian system as much as I’m comfortable saying publicly is the Athame and Sword don’t hold the same properties. There is certainly a difference between the two systems and the use in the Gardnerian system of the Athame is much more a default, all powerful weapon. In a certain Gard ritual that you may not yet have access to is the imagery of a “Lance and Grail” alluding to the imagery of the dagger in the cup. If one looks at the Gnostic Mass, a notable influence on the initiatory rites of the Gard system, the tools used are: Sword (Air), Cup (Water) Paten (Earth) and Lance (Fire). This only alludes to a link that I believe at least once existed. But in the end we must revert back to the drawn line that in the Gard system, the Athame is not used parallel to the Dagger despite some historical links found in ritual here and there.

    • I’m sorry to make another entry, I just totally forgot to add a bit I intended to… In the ceremonial system the tools have alchemical aspects, Dagger / Sword are Mercury, the Wand is Sulpher, the Cup Salt. The Disk also Mercury. The alchemical properties of Mercury (Dagger / Sword) are summarized as fluidity and intelligence, Sulphur (Wand) is activity, energy, desire. Salt (Cup) is the vehicle of Sulpher and Mercury but has the ability to react to them.

      I agree with you that Gardner got the use of the traditional weapons from his time spent with Crowley and the ceremonial influences he was exposed to. On a personal note I feel totally fine using the Athame as it is done in the Gard system but it always seemed a bit strange to dip a dagger into a cup. The Wand is the source of the generative force in the ceremonial system, but as I summarized above, at times I think we just can’t always draw parallels to the ceremonial system from the Gard way of doing things.

      I think I’m done now. 🙂 Food for thought…

      • I agree that the wand should be air and the athame fire, however, I have worked with covens–Weax, Druid, Dianic, Eclectic–that used the athame and wand interchangeably. In other words, it could be and is used as a tool to project the practitioners intent, to cast circle, and the psuedo-Great Rite (as you mentioned chalice and athame). I believe that it is simply up to the practitioner and the group or mentor he /she is practicing with as to the tool used. The intent is the same either way. Thank you for your article. It was well researched and presented in a very informed manner. Blessed Be and 93.

  2. Oh, thank you! This is a huge point of contention for me. Correlating fire and athame makes so much more sense to me. To me, fire is purifying, transformative, and healing, and I am inclined to think of the forging of a blade as transformative, with the metal losing its impurities in the forge. In regards to healing, I think of the sharp blade; a scalpel making incisions, cutting quickly and precisely.

    Perhaps it is because my wands are made of wood, but I always picture the wands coming from the limbs of a tree, freely swaying. As we all know, trees breathe in carbon monoxide and breathe out oxygen, which further convinces me in associating it with air.

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