What is an athame? A precise athame definition is difficult because the use of the word changes from one school of thought to the next. Also known as the athama, atham, arthame, and by other simular terms, the athame has become a staple in modern witchcraft, Wicca and the broader pagan movement. Although descriptions and uses vary between traditions, it is generally described as having a double edged dagger blade, dark handle, and not used for actual cutting. It is typically considered a masculine tool of sudden change. For this reason, it is most often associated with either the element fire. It is one of the four main tools, sometimes called weapons, in Creation’s Covenant and other traditions.
The athame found it’s way into modern witchcraft, Wicca, and other modern pagan practices threw Gerald Gardner. Sometimes called the father of modern witchcraft, Gardner did not invent the tool or the term. Like so many things, he simply made it popular. Previous to the writings of Gerald Gardner, the athame can be found in ceremonial magic. Notably, as the ‘arthame’ in the book Key of Solomon. Appearing first in the 14th or 15th century, the Key of Solomon dates the use of the black hilted knife to well before the modern pagan movement.
Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into the New Forest coven in 1939, it is likely the modern use of word athame traveled from the Key of Solomon, threw the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and via Gardner into modern use. Per the Hermetic Order, it is used for banishing. Some speculate it’s emphases was stressed by Gardner because he was an active knife collector. Others believe it is common sense that a tool so useful in everyday life be incorporated into one’s spiritual practices. After all, for much time the creation of steel was itself thought to me magic.
Notable exceptions to the general uses and description of the athame exist. In some traditions, the athame is used to cut cord or measures during initiation rites. As a rebirth, this is symbolic of cutting the umbilical cord. In some traditions, the handle must be black, in others simply dark. Even the shape of the blade changes from tradition to tradition. While most insist the athame has a double blade representing the Lord and Lady, others use a single edged blade which is shaped more like a Viking sax. One of the most well known photos of Doreen Valiente, the ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’ features her holding a single edged knife with a light handle.
As a single edged knife, the word athame has grown in popularity among ‘Kitchen Witches’. In those traditions, there is a trend to challenge traditional thinking of separating the magical from the mundane. Magical tools are used for everyday chores like cooking to stress the blending of magic in everyday life. Each meal becomes a spell, the preparation becomes a ritual, and magic becomes a part of everyday life.
More formally, the athame is used to cast a circle around the area in which rituals and ceremonies are conducted. It is used to invite and thank the Watch Towers. In Wicca and other fertility based traditions, the athame as a masculine symbol is joined with the chalice as a feminine symbol in a symbolic act of sex, termed the Great Rite.