is a ceremonial double-edged dagger, one of several magical tools
used in Traditional Witchcraft and other pagan beliefs and religions such as Wicca
for various ritual knives. It is variously pronounced /ˈæ.θə.meɪ/, /ə.ˈθeɪ.miː/, etc. A black-handled knife called an arthame
appears in certain versions of the Key of Solomon
, a grimoire
originating in the Middle Ages..
The athame is mentioned in the writings of Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, who claimed to have been initiated into a surviving tradition of witchcraft called Wicca. The athame was their most important ritual tool, which had many uses, but was not to be used for actual physical cutting.
There has been speculation that Gardner's interest and expertise in antique swords and knives, and in particular the magical kris knives of Malaysia and Indonesia, may have contributed to the tool's central importance in modern Wicca.
An athame can take many forms. It frequently has a double-edged blade with a sharp point, and a handle which is often black. The handle may be inscribed with particular symbols dictated by the tradition. Janet and Stewart Farrar in A Witches' Bible
suggest that the point of an athame be dulled so as to prevent un-intended physical harm during ritual use.
In "eclectic" forms of witchcraft the handle decorations range from astrological glyphs to runes, the symbols being chosen by the owner. Many fantasy-themed athames are also available from medieval and neopagan supply shops.
The athame's primary use is for ritual
and magical purposes only, to direct energy; if things such as herbs
or cords need to be cut, another knife called a boline
- a white-handled knife - is used. An exception is the "kitchen witchcraft" philosophy, which actively encourages the use of magical tools for mundane purposes to increase the witch's familiarity with them.
An athame may be employed in the demarcation of the Magic circle rite.
As a masculine principle, it is often used in combination with the chalice, as feminine principle, evoking the act of procreation, as a symbol of universal creativity. This is a symbol of the Great Rite in Wiccan rituals.
Some modern witchcraft traditions may prefer not to use iron blades, instead preferring alternatives such as copper, bronze or wood. This is most common amongst traditions that have a particular fondness of the Sidhe, to whom iron is supposedly harmful.
Many traditions associate the athame with the masculine
principle and with the element
of either air
and Stewart Farrar
suggested this difference is due to the Golden Dawn
releasing false information in the hopes of preventing its rituals being used in the correct way.. They add that a witch should always choose the association which seems the most correct to them. Touching another person's athame without permission is considered an intrusion of the owner's personal space.
There are rituals of consecration for a newly acquired athame, be it new, or acquired from another person. When purchasing a knife for this purpose (or any ritual tool) it is considered important never to haggle over the price.
The term athame derives, via a series of corruptions, from the late Latin artavus ("Quill knife"), which is well attested in the oldest mansucripts of the Key of Solomon. It means "a small knife used for sharpening the pens of scribes" ("Cultellus acuendis calamis scriptorii"). Artavus is well-attested in medieval Latin, although it is not a common word. This explains why it was left untranslated in some French and Italian manuscripts, and ultimately became garbled
in various manuscripts as artavo
. Latham described the etymology of artavus as being dubious, but Joan. de Janua in Catholico derives it from arto, artas, etc (to narrow).
Idries Shah, who was personal secretary and close friend of Gerald Gardner, provides an alternate etymology from an alleged Arabic al-dhammé "blood-letter", which was supposed to be the ritual knife of a medieval magical cult of Morocco and Andalusia. This etymology is controversial, however. It appears in his book The Sufis as a quote from A History of Secret Societies by Arkon Daraul (a probable pseudonym of Shah). Robert Graves (an acquaintance of Shah) suggests an Arabic derivation from al thame (or adh-dhame), which he translates as "the arrow".
A Latin manuscript version of the Key of Solomon has a drawing that looks like a sickle, labelled Artavo. Gerald Gardner's use of 'athame' probably came from modern French versions of the Key of Solomon, probably via Grillot de Givry's Witchcraft, Magic and
Alchemy (1931), who misinterpreted the term as applying to the main ritual knife, as shown by his index entries "arthane" or "arthame.
- The Malay kris is a ritual knife regarded as having magical powers, and Gerald Gardner was a recognised authority on these knives prior to his involvement in Wicca.
- The Roman secespita was a ritual knife, however, it was used for sacrifice.
- Zoroastrian priests ("magi") traditionally used a knife ("kaplo"), a spear (or stick with a nail on the end), or even the forefinger, to draw ritual furrows ("karsha") for purpose of protecting the sacred ritual space from evil and ritual pollution.