When most people involved in Paganism, or a similar magickal path, think of a magickal knife the first thing that comes to mind is the Witches’ Athame. This is a black handled knife with a blunt blade used for directing energy and most often seen used casting a circle. It is usually not used for cutting tasks, or used for anything other than the purposes outlined. However, the Athame is a relatively new addition to the arsenal of magical blades many of which were – and are – used for a variety of purposes other than energy projection.
In Ritual Magick there are two knives, the Boline or white handled knife, and the black handled knife. The Boline is used for preparing herbs, incising script and symbols into candles and all the other tasks of an ordinary knife but within the magickal sphere. The black handled knife, the direct ancestor of the Athame, is used to direct energy and ‘facilitate’ communication with summoned entities and similar energy based tasks. It is not used for any of the tasks done by the Boline.
Depending on the style of magick practiced the knife is either a tool of the Element of Air, or a tool of the Element of Fire. This is carried over to the Tarot where the suit of Swords is considered Air or Fire depending on the precepts of the system being used. Swords are usually considered just a larger form of knife in most systems of magick, and tend to attract the beginner and ‘flashy’ practitioner because of the glamour associated with them.
This can lead to problems as happened in my home town of Portsmouth in 2004. A member of a local Druid grove took his sword with him in plain sight into a local shop- appropriately called ‘Wilkinsons’ – and was arrested and the sword confiscated. After a lot of publicity and the case being dropped he got the sword back as the judge said
"It is accepted by the Crown this (sword) was sheathed and there was no offensive action by the defendant.” Mainly because the sword was not only sheathed, but strapped to a shield too. There was some discussion as to whether a ceremonial sword constituted an offensive weapon under law per se, but no definite conclusion was reached. This group also fell foul of the law in another incident when their Arch Druidess, the equivalent of a Wiccan Priestess, was caught carrying her Athame when her bag was checked as she went into a court to support a family member.
In addition to the legal side of things Swords are a lot harder to handle than a knife, particularly if using one to cast a circle in a confined space. Also, if you are fond of rituals you can find your arm tires very quickly, trying to hold a heavy sword at arms length, while reciting a complex conjuration. With the rise in popularity of the Pagan Way, shops that sell swords are becoming more aware of what makes a good ritual sword and are stocking lighter and more balanced blades.
In addition to the Athame most Pagans have at least one working knife for tasks similar to the Boline. Usually this is a steel or iron blade, but some traditionalists, and those who follow or work with the Faerie path prefer to use a bronze blade, or one made from crystal, ceramic, or even of worked flint. Their point of view is that the iron and steel affect the bio- electrical field of any plants gathered with the blade, and can wound the entities with which they work by interacting negatively with their magnetic fields. Many practitioners of these styles cite the Druids gathering the mistletoe with a “golden” sickle or blade -which was actually bronze – to avoid this
This is why iron, particularly forged or handmade blades are considered to be so effective as protection against the ‘wee folk’. At a pinch even a horseshoe nail will do as, in addition to being sacred to various Deities, worked iron or steel which has been heated and cooled will have its’ own magnetic field. This magnetic field is considered by some Mages to make it easier to transmit their own personal power through the blade that is why they either magnetise the blade of their Athame or, if particularly ‘hardcore’, make one from scratch.
Many years ago there used to be an annual fair on the common near where I lived. Amongst the stalls was a traditional Blacksmith who not only sold handmade blades but had two sessions a day where you could have a go at making your own letter opener from an iron bar. Basically you heated it red hot and hammered most of it flat under supervision of the blacksmith. Needless to say most of the ‘general public’ participating were actually practitioners of various magickal paths. The smithy put their prices up on this activity several times over time as a way of limiting numbers as well as increasing profits. All this did was increase the number of Pagans taking part, as they were the only ones willing to pay the required amount.
Many Pagans, particularly those fresh to the Path, feel that you always need a knife to carry out tasks such as casting a circle. As we saw earlier this can get you in trouble with the law. What seems to have slipped from general Pagan culture is that most of the energy based things you do with an Athame you can do equally well or better with a pointed index finger. This is ideal in situations that make possession of a ceremonial knife difficult or impossible, such as living in an institution, or with people not empathetic to Paganism.