The Witch’s Blade – Some Notes on the Athame

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?

athame1

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.

athame4

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.

athame2

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.

J.

athame3

(Many thanks to Arts-of-Darkness eBay store for the athame photographs)

Anointing Oil – an old recipe

The witches that Gerald Gardner encountered back in the 1930’s had a simple recipe for anointing oil: In Gerald’s words, here it is:

“I have been shown a recipe for anointing oil.  This consisted of vervain, or mint crushed and steeped in olive oil or lard, left overnight, then squeezed through a cloth to remove the leaves.  Fresh leaves were then added and the squeezing repeated three or four times until it was strongly scented and ready to use”.

Vervain is easily grown, but in these days of chemicals everywhere killing everything that doesn’t make money, it isn’t easy to find in the wild like it used to be in Gerald’s day.  You can buy a packet of vervain seeds – but it must be ‘verbena officinalis’ and not any other variety as this is the wild one traditionally used by witches.  If you want to use mint instead, use bergamot mint as the smell is wonderful!

As to lard ………this has always been a traditional base for ‘flying ointments’, but olive oil is better (sweet almond oil could also be used) and the recipient will not have to worry that he or she has been covered in melted animal fat!

Witch’s guide to Frankincense

incense1

Green Hojari (frankincense) burning in an ancient Etruscan incense bowl

Frankincense is an aromatic resin that is obtained from various species of the Boswellia tree species. It is widely used in the West both in the world of the occult and Christianity.

incense2

Frankincense (Boswellia) tree

The name ‘frankincense’ is from the French: ‘franc encense’ meaning incense of high quality. There are many types of frankincense some of which are poor quality. The finest frankincense comes from Oman.

The very finest frankincense is ‘Green Sultan Hojari’ and is very expensive and sometimes impossible to obtain outside the Middle East – occasionally it can be obtained from specialist suppliers lucky enough to have contacts in Oman who have access to this precious commodity.

incense 3

‘tear drops’ of Green Sultan Hojari, just 10g costs around £25

Royal Green Hojari is undoubtedly the next best – it is expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as ‘Green Sultan’.

incense4

Royal Green Hojari – price around £20 for 25g

There is also a Silver Hojari or ‘White’, but Green is superior in aroma. Silver is a good general quality grade.

incense5

Silver Frankincense granules

Most commonly sold is the lower grade frankincense. The aroma is nothing like the finest grades, but for general use is far more economical. This grade is also ideal for use as a ‘base’ for incense blends; of course, you could use Green Sultan, but it would be like mixing the finest French wine with Pepsi …..somewhat of a waste!

Red Frankincense is seldom seen, but its aroma is unlike most frankincense varieties almost like musk.

incense6

Red Frankincense ‘teardrops’

Black Frankincense is generally greyish in colour rather than black, the scent is good, but does not compare to the highest grades. It is usually exported – the Arabs buy green.

incense7

Black Frankincense granules.

So, to sum up: VERY occasionally treat yourself to Royal Sultan Hojari if you can find and afford it, use Royal Green Hojari when you need to smell very high-quality frankincense or maybe for that special ritual. Use Red or Black when you want something different from your frankincense collection and the general quality for everyday rituals, esbats and blending.

….and finally, I suppose I should say something about how to burn it. You can use incense charcoal disks for all grades of frankincense, but maybe with Sultan and Royal Green, you may wish to treat it with the utmost respect by burning it the Japanese way with odourless charcoal covered with rice stalk ash and with a mica place resting on the ash upon which to place a small amount of this green treasure. This is the best way to burn incense if you wish to go to the trouble – many incense lovers in Arab countries use electric incense burners, but for me, this just lacks some ancient and special quality – a bit like the difference between the light of a full moon and an electric street lamp, although to be fair, it works just as well as the Japanese method and is easier.

Check out our supplier lists here!

incense8

Roman lady with child making an offering of incense to the Gods