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)
Cauldrons – to be cauldrons – should be cauldron shaped! If it isn’t that shape
you simply have a pot or pan. Frankly, that doesn’t matter for practical
purposes but somehow a cauldron looks and feels a lot more ‘witchy’
than a new stainless-steel saucepan just bought from the supermarket!
Very occasionally you might find a cauldron with a side handle like the one our
friend in the photo above is using, but the most common is this type with the
handle joined at both sides:
Here is some advice on what to avoid when choosing a cauldron for use in witchcraft (or just in general):
- Look carefully at how the legs are attached to the base of the
cauldron – Do NOT buy a cauldron with legs that have been riveted on rather than cast on all in one piece. Those with rivetted legs always leak or will do so sooner or
- Do not buy cauldrons where there is a lot of rust that has corroded the iron to
make the base too thin so that it is almost breakable – rust is fine, it is to be
expected on an old cauldron, but too much rust is another matter altogether.
- Do not buy brass or copper cauldrons if you intend to use them to make
potions or drinks; the metal can contaminate the liquid and so iron is best. If
all you are going to use the cauldron for is burning incense inside then it
doesn’t matter if it is copper, brass, iron or bronze.
- Do not buy a cauldron made of pewter – any direct heat applied to it will cause
it to melt like a candle and indeed, you can melt pewter over a candle flame!
It doesn’t have to have a lid and most old / antique cauldrons either never had
them in the first place or have lost them at some time because a previous
owner didn’t want to use a lid.
- Do not EVER buy plastic unless it is like the massive plastic one our coven uses in Element Rites. Plastic is of no use for any general purposes…. but
dragging and carrying an immense water-filled cast iron cauldron to the middle
of a wood is not a very practical proposition! ……and then of course there is
the problem of hitchhikers……
Cauldrons can be suspended over a fire by their handles or chains from branches or a triangular framework in metal or wood:
From around the mid 1990’s cauldrons began to be made with the Wiccan
market in mind and are cast with pentagrams and triple moons etc. They are
made well and are inexpensive. Personally, we prefer the traditional
unembellished style but if the type below appeals to you they should serve you well.
One of our members recently found and bought the little antique iron cauldron below. It measures just 5 ½ inches by 4 ½” diameter (14cm x11cm). He’s been looking for a small
antique one this size for ages and uses it for brewing interesting potions
and also for burning incense inside. (Note of caution: add a liner to the cauldron when burning incense, or just put sand or salt in to insulate the charcoal and prevent burns!).
So, now you want to know where to buy a cauldron and how to look after it?
…Even Amazon sells them now as does eBay. Old ones come up on eBay sometimes at reasonable prices and sometimes at prices bordering on insanely expensive…
Also, just because the seller says it’s a cauldron doesn’t mean it is – it has to look like one
and not just a pot or bowl – sellers put the word ‘cauldron’ into the description
to attract naïve and unwary buyers ….usually as Halloween approaches.
Having bought your cauldron, you need to clean it – a new one with warm
soapy water / an old one with a wire brush ….and then warm soapy water!
Check for leaks at this stage and if ANY water no matter how little is leaking
out, return it to the seller and get your money back. Leaks have a tendency to
get worse under heat or over time.
Once cleaned you need to ‘prove’ the cauldron: All you need is 1-2 tablespoons
of olive oil and some salt depending on the size of the cauldron. Pour the oil
into the pan and sprinkle salt liberally all over the inside. Heat over moderate
heat until smoking hot, and then carefully rub the salt and oil well into the pan
with a paper towel. Remove from the heat and wipe dry. Proving provides a
natural protective ‘Teflon’ type coating which is non-toxic (unlike Teflon).