Making a start on the my Tools of the Trade series, and combining it with the Pagan Experience, I am going to have a look at the athame and bolline, the bladed tools of the pagan world. Both are most commonly associated with Wicca but some non-Wiccan traditions will also use these tools.
The Athame is the ritual knife of Wicca and is never used to cut anything in a physical sense. Athames are traditionally made out of metal and carry a double edge blade, resembling a dagger. For this reason they are sometimes replaced by swords and by extension are a symbol of authority within the circle and the spirit realms. As a miniaturised ritual sword it is associated with the tarot suit of Swords and represents the south and the element of fire, although in some cases this is interchangeable with the Wand (suit of Wands or Staves in tarot) and comes to represent the element of Air and the East. This largely depends on the deck being used and the tradition being practiced.
The traditional athame has a black handle and this is pretty consistent with metal athame’s even in cases where the blade only carries a single edge.
As already mentioned the athame is not used to cut anything, it serves a purely ceremonial function however most metal athames will still carry a sharp edge. The athame is used to define magical spaces, in the same way the wand is used, as well as to inscribe seals, sigils and symbols into the air as part of magical operations. Most often they are used in the casting and closing of circles as well as opening temporary doorways in the sacred space should you need to leave for any reason.
They are a symbol of authority, particularly in ceremonial magic, and are used to reinforce authority over spirits. The athame represents masculine energies, partnered by the chalice which is representative of feminine energies. By dipping the athame into the chalice not only are you empowering and blessing the liquid within the vessel but you are also symbolically joining the essence of male and female energies in a phallic/sexual gesture.
Sometimes athames are used to symbolically cut things, for example emotional and spiritual bonds between people but they are not used to draw blood of any kind. Often it is stated that if an athame is used to physically cut something then it should be destroyed or discarded. This might be a little exaggeration and you could probably just carefully cleanse the blade physically and spiritually before rededicating it.
There is some debate in the community about the validity of athame’s made from materials other than metal. There are many reasons you might choose to have an athame made of wood, bone, flint or another metal, both practical and magical. Those who support the use of alternative materials cite that most spirits react adversely to iron and its tempered form steel. Particular for those who work with elemental spirits and the fey steel would inhibit communication with these creatures, who have a toxic relationship with iron and steel. For these practitioner wood if often the preferred material, although flint and copper are also cited as being preferred. On the practical side some do not feel comfortable having a ceremonial bladed weapon in the house for one or more of the many reasons possible. Others feel uncomfortable waving a bladed weapon around and decide to replace the athame with the wand or un-edged medium.
Purists however dismiss alternative as pretty but not athames. They point to Gardener’s Book of Shadows which is explicit in its description of the athame. Further more they point to his 1936 work “Keris and other Malay Weapons” suggesting that the Keris, or Kris as it is more commonly known, was the original inspiration for Gardeners athame.
Regardless there is a vast array of athames on the market from medieval/gothic masterpieces to plain black handled utilitarian types. Type athame into Google and hit the shopping option and you will absolutely inundated. Obviously the decision is up to you, if you don’t feel that a mental knife carrying a sharp edge is right for you then explore other options, if you want to remain true to Wicca the choose accordingly.
By and large I no longer use an athame because I do not cast ceremonial circles on a regular basis (due to space restrictions). I do still have my first athame which has a plastic blade, though in my own defence I was 15 years old when I bought it. I love it because it was my first and will nicely go into my luggage without tripping any alarms at the airport. If I was ever to be back in a position where I was to use an athame on a regular basis I would replace it with a metal blade.
I do have a white handled flint blade which so far has only been used for ceremonial actions, particularly the action of symbolically cutting energy. Having a white antler handle it is not a traditional athame, and one of the main reasons I have not used it as a cutting blade is because I lack the skills to retouch the blade should it blunt though one day I might try acquire flint knapping skills. I bought it specifically on the instructions of Pan, with the motive being that he felt more comfortable with this older blade material that my more traditional boline of Scottish steel. It wasn’t bought with the intention of being ceremonial or as an athame, that function has simply evolved.
The boline, also spelt bolline, is the practical knife in the witches arsenal. Always a metal blade carrying a sharpened edge the boline is used for work both in and out of the magical circle. It is with this blade that the real work of preparing those spell components that need chopping or shaping is done. Boline’s either carry an single edged straight blade or a double edged curved scythe blade more familiar as a gardening and harvesting tool, though what style you chose is either down to tradition, purpose or personal preference. Traditionally the boline has a white handle, such as bone, wood and antler, and are therefore distinct from their sister blade the black handled athame.
As a practical blade the boline can be carried and used at all times both outside and inside the circle although like most magical tools it should be stored between use with reverence and respect. Used for herb gathering and the taking of wood for tools and equipment, the boline can also be used to shape tools of wood for example. Just as the athame can be used to inscribe intangible sings and sigils the boline is used to carve physical examples in to objects such as candles. They are also used to cut physical cords as well as spiritual ones. Often a boline will be dedicated to its purpose and/or a deity in a special ritual however this is not entirely necessary.
If you Google Boline the number of shopping results you get back will be fewer than with athame but they are just as beautiful. Personally the blade most accurately described as my boline (though I don’t use the term myself) that I own is my deer antler handled steel blade which I purchased in York a number of years ago. It is my practical blade and the one that I do all my carving and cutting with during ritual, although I’m not above using my kitchen knives if I am downstairs in the kitchen.
York Armoury is the online shop for the Armoury in York.