Personally, I am greatly thankful to have found our coven and its wonderful members. Initially, I too was drawn to Wicca and began to do a lot of reading on the topic, practicing and reciting rituals alone when the Sabbats arrived and passed. This quickly became difficult to maintain due to the lack of guidance and support; was I doing everything correctly? Did I truly understand? It was difficult to tell! Now however, I know that I always have support and somebody to help me along a path that I feel a true connection with.
Whilst stepping into our path with some fresh knowledge of Wicca will certainly be very useful, you will also soon discover that although there will be a level of familiarity, there will also be a significant amount of difference to the understanding that you have built of witchcraft.
To give you a little bit of background, our coven was formed in the early 1960’s by a group that held a significant interest in the local, traditional witchcraft of the Cotswolds. Looking at Gerald Gardner’s writings on Wicca, they were inspired to use some of the practices that he outlined as foundations on which to base Traditional Witchcraft practices from the Cotswolds.
Consistent with Gardnerian Wicca, our Coven has holds three degree levels after initiation that one can progress through within the coven, of course, having passed through the Probationer and Neophyte stages first. Pre-Initiation, teachings follow closely to those of Wicca, however post-initiation they deviate and become very different from Wicca, relating to Traditional English Witchcraft.
A good place to begin would be to take a look at our perception of deity. On our Path, we hold that there are two gods: one male and one female, harmonising to create perfect balance and that form two parts of one complete whole. To us, a monotheistic belief system lacks this and therefore does not sit comfortably with the dualistic balance of nature and the universe as a whole. Taking a look back to Wicca, we see that over the various different traditions, the Goddess is quite often seen to be dominant, and the God is sometimes ignored completely; take Dianic Wicca for example, a tradition where generally the Goddess is largely worshipped alone by all-female groups of coveners. On the front of our athames, you will find a symbol depicting a crescent moon, connected to a sun below, descending into an arrow (although a slightly wonkily one my case!). This is a polarity symbol, representing opposing forces combining to create power; God and Goddess, male and female, sun and moon, light and dark. On the reverse side is a full moon between waxing and waning moons, representing the connection between the lunar phases and ritual work.
We believe that the God and Goddess in reality, do not hold physical forms, but instead are conscious powers; we choose to assign them forms based on historic European Deities, this is for our benefit; it is much more difficult to form a connection with the Gods in their formless and nameless state, it makes them tangible. In Wicca, beliefs on deity tend to vary between individuals and covens quite widely. Some hold similar beliefs to ourselves, whereas others will believe in the Gods physical existence. Some practitioners will work with one deity, others a whole pantheon or personal selection; choosing any that they feel drawn to, from Diana to Anubis. Cernunnos is often chosen by Wiccans to represent the Horned God, although almost nothing is known of His ancient worship; Cernunnos is a simply means ‘Horned One’ and is not a name that we know was ascribed to him for certain.
A significant difference between our own path and a Wiccan one is a belief in the “Law of Threefold Return” which states that anything that you do, be it of good or bad intent, will come back on you three times over. Generally, Wiccans believe that if you do ‘good’, more good will come back to you; if you do ‘bad’, than that will too. According to occult author/researcher John Coughlin, the Law posits “a literal reward or punishment tied to one’s actions, particularly when it comes to working magic”. As written in the Wiccan Rede: “Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good. When misfortune is enow wear the star upon your brow. Be true in love this you must do unless your love is false to you. These Eight words the Rede fulfil: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”. On our path, we do not believe this law to be true, it was in fact jokingly mentioned to Gardner as a passing comment about harmful magic coming back upon you threefold, he however, took this seriously, providing us with the law that we see within Wicca today! It is much more important that we make our decisions fairly, basing them upon the feelings of coven members and general morality when faced with a difficult situation, opposed to a blanket ‘law’ for all scenarios.
In Wicca there are 8 Sabbats throughout the year: Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh and Mabon; in the 1960’s, Gardnerian Wicca began to use these Celtic names for the Sabbats whereas Traditional Witchcraft in England never did, henceforth on our path we refer to the Greater Sabbats as: Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas and Halloween, with the Lesser Sabbats being the Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice. Something that is common between Wiccan beliefs and our own is the significance of the Wheel of the Year. It is highly beneficial to ensure that your workings are in tune with the natural seasonal cycles; even things that we do in our daily lives can be influenced similarly. We believe that there is a power within these yearly cycles, by aligning our activities to them; we are able to produce the greatest results. An example being this Halloween, after our ritual we threw handmade papier mache skulls onto a large fire, focusing on elements that we would like to remove from our lives. Halloween is a time largely associated with death and the spirits of our ancestors, as well as being the witches’ New Year; it is a time representative of endings, but also new beginnings. By throwing the skulls and watching them burn, we were visualising the end of our chosen topic, and moving mentally into a more positive new beginning, free of it.
Our working tools will also be familiar to somebody holds some knowledge of Wicca as they are commonly used across a majority of traditions. On an altar, we will generally place a candle, censer, salt dish, pentacle and our athame(s). Tools associated with the God and masculine energies will be placed to the right hand side of the altar, and those associated with the Goddess and feminine energies to the left. In Wicca, the preferred layout of an altar will vary greatly depending on the tradition; however, it can be said that the altar will be laid out with one side representing the God and the other, the Goddess. A minor difference that we possess, is the fact that we refer to our own personal book of notes, rituals, spells and recorded teachings as a ‘Grimoire’ (a medieval term, simply meaning ‘grammar’), opposed to the Wiccan ‘Book of Shadows’, a term coined in the 1950’s by Gerald Gardner.
Personally, I am greatly thankful to have found our coven and its wonderful members. Initially, I too was drawn to Wicca and began to do a lot of reading on the topic, practicing and reciting rituals alone when the Sabbats arrived and passed. This quickly became difficult to maintain due to the lack of guidance and support; was I doing everything correctly? Did I truly understand? It was difficult to tell! Now however, I know that I always have support and somebody to help me along a path that I feel a true connection with; I appreciate all of the support that I have been given, both in my learning and even up steep hills!
I suppose I was prompted to start writing this article because yet again I heard ‘athame’ pronounced in a somewhat idiosyncratic way (I’m being polite): ‘ath-ah-may’, ‘ath-aim’, ‘ath-ugh-mee’….I’ve heard them all. So let’s be very clear from the outset: ‘Athame’ is pronounced ‘ath-ay-me’, not ‘ath–a-may’ or ‘ath-aim’ etc. But how do we know that?
The co-founder of Wicca, Doreen Valiente (and you don’t get a better authority than that!) says so on Page 78 of her book ‘Witchcraft for Tomorrow’:
‘ The typical weapon of Witchcraft is the athame, or ritual knife (pronounced ath-ay-me)’.
Now to be very clear, Doreen isn’t writing in a phonetical sense, so the last syllable is ‘me’ as in ‘you and me’ and definitely not as in ‘may’.
We can go off into all sorts of speculations about where the word originates from and how it might have been pronounced in whatever language back in the late Middle Ages, but frankly, this would be ‘an exercise in futility’ to quote Mr. Dillinger who used the phrase in a very different context. We don’t pronounce the word ‘through’ in the guttural phonetic way it was originally pronounced by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors (like it is spelled), we pronounce it ‘thru’ today. So let’s put an end to the debate once and for all – athame is pronounced ‘ath-ay-me’ ( the middle syllable ‘ay’ as in the word ‘hay’ and the last syllable ‘me’ as in ‘you and me’).
I have long pondered leaving behind the word ‘athame’ and simply using instead ‘ritual dagger’, but somehow ‘athame’ feels right, probably because I have known it for so long now, well over 30 years.
An athame traditionally has a black hilt (= handle). The authority here again is Doreen Valiente:
‘Traditionally, the athame should have a black hilt, a circumstance which caused Gerald Gardner to think that it might be related to the Scottish Highlander’s skean-dhu, which literally means ‘black knife’ and, in fact, usually has a hilt of this colour’ – Page 78, ‘Witchcraft for Tomorrow’.
I suspect that Gerald Gardner was being a little disingenuous with regard to his Scottish speculation – he almost certainly knew that ‘athame’ was one form of the word used in some French manuscript versions of the medieval grimoire ‘The Key of Solomon’.
The old grimoires give a variety of different markings that should be engraved on the hilt and/or blade. The writers had specific reasons for these markings that may not be relevant to our own use. I therefore believe that unless your particular Path or Tradition requires hilt markings, then unless you want to put them on….and can justify why you have done so…. then they are not necessary and your athame remains an athame even unmarked.
If you search eBay and other internet sites you will find a wide range of daggers being called ‘athames’. Beware, they aren’t athames just because a seller calls them athames. An athame should have a straight ‘dagger’ shaped blade or at least a blade the shape of a kitchen carving knife. It can be single or double-edged, but those edges should not be sharp. An athame is never used for mundane work such as cutting or killing for that matter. It is a weapon of the spiritual world, an extension of the will of its user as any ordinary dagger is, but the use of an athame is purely spiritual. A lot is said about sharp edges being a danger in Circle work with others, this is obvious, but an athame still has a point even if it is blunt and if I fell on you with it, you are pretty much going to get stabbed. The real point about blunt edges and tip is that it emphasises its spiritual function.
The hilt of the athame should be wood, horn, blackened bone or even metal, but definitely not plastic or resin. The guard on the athame can be ornate or plain, it might not even have one. The pommel (the bit on top of the hilt) can also be ornate or plain or, again, it might not have one.
The blade of the athame should be steel / iron or bronze. Bronze would be unusual and perhaps more appropriate for a boline (the curved knife used for cutting herbs etc). An athame does not have a blade made of wood. Some people use them, but this is a modern invention perhaps promoted by crafters who can carve up a ‘wooden athame’ in a few minutes, burn a few markings into it and sell it on Etsy for a serious profit to the unwary.
I do not want to denounce innovations and so if you like your wooden ‘athame’, then fine, but don’t pretend to yourself that it has any traditional historical legitimacy as an athame.
And as to plastic or ‘bronze resin’ athames – ughhhh! Please don’t even go there.
The finest blades are hand-forged and are made by folding different grades of red-hot carbon steel over and over giving an end result of beautiful grain patterns on the blade – these are sometimes referred to as ‘damascus steel’, ‘watered steel’ or ‘pattern-welded steel’ blades.
Don’t be cheap when buying an athame. You buy the best cell phone you can afford so why buy a cheap and trashy athame from China when surely you should buy the most expensive one you can afford. After all, you intend to use it for spiritual purposes – the highest of all purposes. Your purchase is a sacrifice – it should be, so don’t buy a piece of junk and wave it before the Gods and spirits as if you are proud of being cheap.
What if you cannot afford an expensive athame? Then buy what you can afford and save for a better one when you can afford it. Think: ‘my cell phone cost ‘x’, surely, I can and should spend more on my athame’. Of course, you could always make an athame….and that is a real sacrificial act. It doesn’t matter if you are not a master bladesmith, you tried and that is a true sacrifice and your athame, no matter how humble your efforts, will still be an athame and special.
But having said all this…Do you actually need an athame? It is after all a ‘prop’ and so whether you do or don’t is up to you. if you feel satisfied with conjuring a Circle by pointing your finger at the perimeter, dipping it into a chalice to exorcise the water in it, or even commanding a demon with your finger, fine! Maybe all the medieval grimoires that recommended ‘black hilted daggers’ didn’t take into account such a powerful person as you. Personally, I need to use and athame.
(Many thanks to Arts-of-Darkness eBay store for the athame photographs)
Today we celebrate May Eve, one of the most magical Sabbats bringing new life, inspiration, and enchantment into our world – mundane and occult alike.
This is also the season when our Coven begins a new period of recruitment and so we welcome membership applications from those sincerely interested in Traditional English Witchcraft and the Old Ways.
If you came across our website wishing to find like-minded people to honor the Old Gods with, celebrate the Sabbats in the truly magical way – outdoors – and study Traditional Witchcraft of England and the Cotswolds, then perhaps this might be a sign for You.
We are a friendly, supportive group of individuals deeply interested in the old witchcraft practices and dedicated to honoring the Gods, our ancestors, and the Spirits of the land. We are very practically oriented and welcome all those who not only love to read and learn, but also to get out in the nature and live what they believe in.
We are happy to consider applications from those new to our Path as well as from those who have been walking it for a long time but miss the powerful experiences that working in a group offers.
Although we never charge for teaching or membership, we ask for and value commitment in our members. We look for the willingness to learn, do some memorization and those who are prepared to attend Coven meeting at least once a month.
If this appeals to you, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bright Blessings and Merry May Eve,