Witch Tools

Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente 1993

Witch Tools

The typical weapon of Witchcraft is the athame, or ritual knife (pronounced ath-ay-me). Old books of magic give several variations of this word, such as ’arthany’, ’arthame’, and so on. Clark Ashton Smith introduces it as a tool of magic, with the spelling ’arthame’, into one of his eerie fantasies, ’The Master of the Crabs’, first published in 1947 in that classic source of such genre, the American magazine Weird Tales.

The origin of the word is at present unknown, though some present-day exponents of the near-eastern cult of Sufism have attributed it to the Arabic adh-dhame, meaning ’blood-letter’, in the sense of it being a shedder of blood, which is just what the witches’ athame is not. Hence this derivation does not seem very convincing.

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.

The famous medieval grimoire, The Key of Solomon, gives directions for making both the black-hilted knife and another with a white hilt, as well as a whole armoury of other magical weapons. The knife with the white hilt is to ’perform all the necessary operations of the art, except the circles’, whereas the knife with the black hilt is specifically ’for making the circle, wherewith to strike terror and fear into the spirits’. Various unexplained sigils are given for engraving upon the handles of both knives. One of these sigils, upon the black-hilted knife, is certainly the symbol of the Eight Ritual Occasions, although this grimoire is not a treatise on witchcraft, but on ceremonial magic.

The idea of using a magical knife to banish evil is actually as old as the Roman writer Pliny. Lewis Spence, in his Encyclopaedia of Occultism, quotes Holland’s translation in its quaint old-fashioned English: ’As touching the use of Yron and steele in Physicke, it serveth otherwise than for to launce, cut, and dismember withal; for take the knife or dagger, and make an ymaginerie circle two or three times round with the point thereof upon a young child or an elder bodie, and then goe round withall about the partie as often, it is a singular preservative against all poysons, sorceries, or enchantments.’ This is very reminiscent of the use of the athame by witches.

Like the Hand of Glory, the athame sometimes appears in old paintings of witchcraft scenes by such masters as Francken and Teniers. In David Teniers’ picture, The Departure for the Sabbat, the black-hilted knife may be seen stuck upright in the floor at the edge of the magical circle, while an old witch and a demon confer over the preparation of a magic brew, and a young witch is being anointed ready to fly up the capacious chimney on the broomstick.

Gerald Gardner has been accused by various superficial critics of taking the idea of the witches’ athame straight from The Key of Solomon. However, the reverse argument has at least as much evidence to sustain it, and probably more; namely, that it was The Key of Solomon, and similar books, which were written by ceremonial magicians who borrowed the primitive practices of witches and presented them in more elaborate and sophisticated form.

A magical weapon is, after all, an expression of someone’s will and their capacity to carry out that will. A conductor’s baton, a bishop’s crozier, a chairman’s gavel, are in a sense magical implements. In ancient times, we had processions of Bacchantes or religious revellers carrying the thyrsus, or ivy-wreathed wand. Today, we have processions of demonstrators carrying placards and banners as emblematic expressions of their will and purpose. At the solemnities of the Queen’s coronation, magnificent symbolic swords were part of the ceremony, as well as the royal sceptre itself, the magical wand of empire. The Mace which lies on the Speaker’s table in the Houses of Parliament has a purely symbolic significance; and, in spite of Cromwell’s command to ’take away that bauble’, it still remains. What Cromwell and his Puritans did not understand was that such ’baubles’ have a significance which speaks to the unconscious mind of humanity, which naturally thinks in symbols.

When man became a maker and user of tools, he lifted himself up from the beasts. He made himself an edged tool to cut, a staff to walk with and to defend himself, a platter to eat from, a horn or cup for his drink, and a length of twine or rawhide to bind with. Today, witches use these elemental weapons or implements: the wand, the knife, the cup and the disk or pentacle, together with the cord called the witches’ garter. They are called elemental weapons because they are attributed to the four elements of life: the wand for fire, the cup for water, the knife or dagger for air and the disk or pentacle for earth. The cord typifies that unseen quintessence or spirit which binds all together.

The elemental weapons appear also in the emblems of the Tarot cards, of great antiquity and unknown provenance: the wands, cups, swords and pentacles of the pack of seventy-eight cards, the forerunners of our playing-card pack, about which so much has been written in speculation and fantasy. The fact that the suit signs are shown in the hands of The Juggler, the first of the Tarot trumps, and are displayed upon his table, is an indication that they were realized to be the tools of magic.

In divination, the wands indicate energy and creative will, the cups relate to the emotions, the swords presage danger and the need to be on guard, while the pentacles (which are sometimes shown as coins) are the emblems of material wealth and property. The trump cards with their mysterious pictures are related to the forces of destiny, spiritual matters and occult powers.

These ideas can evidently be correlated with the magical uses of the weapons and implements. The wand is the expression of the magician’s will and is used for invocations. It is an obvious phallic symbol, as the cup is a yonic or feminine one. The cup serves for magic brews or draughts of Sabbat wine, which affect the feelings and emotions. The sword or knife defends from hostile forces, drawing the magic circle for this purpose. The pentacle, with its engraved signs and sigils, is the materialization of certain cosmic powers and their expression in a material object.

There is no doubt that the Tarot is a magical book without words, a mutus liber or ’dumb book’ like those used by the alchemists, full of strange and significant images. Most witches today own a pack of Tarot cards and use them not only for divination, but for meditation, as they were likewise used by the initiates of the Order of the Golden Dawn.

The wand is the magical weapon of invocation; but among witches it sometimes took the form of the riding-pole, upon which they performed the traditional jumping dance to make the crops grow tall. This dance was probably the origin of the idea that witches used broomsticks or staffs to fly through the air upon. We see a version of the spring jumping dance in the traditional skipping that used to be performed by adults as well as children in Sussex villages on Good Friday, in the belief that this helped to make the crops grow. The idea behind it was what the anthropologists call ’sympathetic magic’, though witches describe it as ’showing the thing what to do’, a concept which is basic to many witch rites.

Among Scottish witches, the riding pole was called a ’bune wand’, the wand upon which they went ’abune’ or above. It often took the form of a forked stick, perhaps as a reminiscence of the old god’s horns.

To dance over the ground with a pole or staff between the legs is an obvious phallic gesture of the old fertility rites. Hence the end of the riding pole was often carved in the shape of a phallus. This, however, marked the staff as an obvious magical object, an adjunct of the Old Religion that it was dangerous to have leaning against one’s cottage wall in the times of persecution. So the phallic riding pole had its carved end disguised with a bunch of twigs and became the witch’s broomstick.

In the same way, the magical sword was not a safe thing to have in one’s house, because in the old times a sword was a badge of rank. Only a ’gentleman’ carried a sword, or a soldier in the service of the king or a feudal lord. The peasant’s weapon was a quarterstaff. For a woman to have possessed a sword would have looked particularly suspicious. So the magical sword was replaced in general use by the athame, which was simply the old-fashioned kitchen knife, with a black wooden hilt; though; of course, the witch would have kept her athame separate and not used it for anything but magic. She would have written the magical signs on it in ink at the time of its consecration and then washed them off again, perhaps putting some small private mark on the knife that only she would recognize. (See further remarks on the magical weapons in Liber Umbrarum).

Why, however, was a sword or a knife considered to have a magical potency? The answer lies in the belief in the universal borderline energy, to which reference has already been made in the previous chapter. Call it ’astral light’ or what you will, the old practitioners of magic aver that concentrations of it can be repelled and dispersed by the sharp point of an iron or steel implement. The wand directs the magical current; but because it lacks a sharp point and is generally made of wood, it cannot so effectively serve for defence and banishing. Hence to draw the circle the witch uses the athame.

Sometimes, of course, the master of a coven would have been a person of rank who was entitled to own a sword. In that case, he may well have been custodian of the coven sword, which would have been lent to the priestess to use on solemn occasions. Legend and romance have many stories of famous swords, which were given names, as in the case of King Arthur’s sword Excalibur, as if they possessed a kind of personality and life of their own. For instance, the favourite sword of El Cid was called Tizona; while the sword of Roland had a splendid name: Durandane. The idea of putting magical signs upon weapons is at least as old as the Northmen, who engraved their weapons with runes to make them more powerful:

Runes of victory shalt thou know,

If thou wilt have the victory,

And cut them on thy sword-hilt.

Some on the hilt rings,

Some on the plates of the handle,

And twice name the name of Tyr.

It took a good smith to forge a good sword, and the smith himself has been regarded all over the world as a natural magician. Many interesting details of this subject are given by Frederick W. Robins in his book The Smith: The Traditions and Lore of an Ancient Craft, which also quotes the lines from the old Norse poem, The Edda, as given above.

The idea of the ritual knife as a magical weapon of defence may go back to ancient Egypt. Among the magnificent treasures of King Tutankhamen’s tomb were two daggers, one of which seems to have been intended for display rather than use, as its blade was made of gold. Perhaps it was a symbolic weapon, like the dress sword of army and naval officers. The other dagger, however, had a blade of iron so finely wrought that after thousands of years in the darkness of the tomb only a few spots of rust discoloured it. This would certainly have made a splendid magical weapon. Such may, indeed, have been the intention when it was buried with the young Pharaoh, because the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead has many vignettes showing the soul of the deceased person defending himself against various hostile entities of the other world, which are pictured as huge serpents, crocodiles, etc., by holding up knives against them.

There seems to have been a very prevalent idea in ancient times, when grave-goods of all kinds were buried with the deceased, that a double or astral counterpart of the buried article went with the dead person into the other world. This was the primary object of the furnishings all over the world of those splendid tombs which have yielded such wonderful things to the spade of the archaeologist and, unfortunately, to the grave-robber also. Even today, people sometimes ask that a cherished possession shall be buried with them, though they must be aware that the actual material object cannot accompany them into the beyond.

The magical dagger is known in far-off Tibet, as well as in the western world. Among the Tibetans, such a weapon is called a phurba. It is used in very much the same way as the witches’ athame, to serve as a magical means of defence and to command spirits and exorcize demons. The phurba has a curious triangular blade, while the hilt bears representations of divine beings. Another magical weapon of Tibet is the dorje, or sceptre, sometimes regarded as representing a thunderbolt, which serves a similar purpose to the magic wand of the west. Tibetan divinities are often pictured holding a dorje in one hand, symbolizing the male element, while the other hand holds a bell, which has a female significance.

Sometimes a particularly large and potent phurba is retained as the property of a monastery. Such a weapon may be centuries old, much revered and even feared for its demon-controlling powers. Although Tibet itself has now passed under the rule of Communist China, very similar traditions to those of Tibetan magic and religion are still to be found in the neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. Here the magic of the phurba is still in demand for its power over demons.

The invasion of Tibet has resulted in many Tibetan refugees bringing their beliefs and practices within reach of the western world, often for the first time. Not long ago, I met a young Englishman who was a student of the occult, and who was using in his magical practice a present-day replica of a Tibetan phurba, cast in bronze. He claimed that it was very effective.

Cauldrons, too, have been given a magical significance in the east as well as the west. They were used by shamans to prepare magical brews, just as the witches did. Sometimes a shaman of the Altai regions of Siberia and Mongolia would have his favourite cauldron buried with him when he died. Such cauldrons were quite small, just big enough to heat over a small bonfire, like the ’gipsy-pots’ which are the favourite cauldron of the present-day witch, much more practical than the huge cooking-pot usually depicted by artists painting witch scenes. I am sure the makers of such pictures can never have tried to get one of these enormous pots actually to boil over a bonfire!

The cauldron is a feminine symbol, as the broomstick is a masculine one. Moreover, it is reminiscent of the triple goddess of the moon, because of the three legs it usually stands on. It also involves the powers of the four elements, because it needs water to fill it, fire to heat it, the green herbs or other products of earth to cook in it, while the steam arises from it and spreads its aroma into the air.

In the case of the cauldron brew containing narcotic herbs, such steam may well have produced visions, as in the famous witch scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The wavering clouds of steam, upon which the flickering fire-light shone, would have served as a kind of glass of vision, with forms appearing and disappearing in them. Such an attempted breakthrough into the psychic world would have been dangerous for a person to essay alone, however, as they might fall into trance and be either burnt or scalded. The more experienced witches would keep their distance from the steaming brew, being less affected by the fumes than a newcomer.

Alternatively, the cauldron was used for simply decocting herbal remedies, the great stand-by of the white witch in olden times and often quite effective. They were certainly less dangerous than the orthodox medical practices of their day, which went in for bleeding, sticking on leeches and similar drastic things, while modern ideas of hygiene and antiseptics were unknown.

It will be noticed that the cauldron, the broomstick and the black-hilted knife are all things that might be found in any woman’s kitchen in olden days. It was the magical imagination that turned them into witches’ weapons. Similarly, the witches’ garter was simply a piece of twine or cord, which was tied round the leg to support the hose that were worn by both men and women. Wealthy people might wear more elaborate garters, of course. It is supposed to be the loss of her garter while dancing that put a beautiful court lady into confusion, until the chivalrous King Edward III came to her assistance, picking up the lost garter and binding it round his own leg. Upon this circumstance the Most Noble Order of the Garter, still the senior order of chivalry in Britain, is supposed to be founded.

Margaret Murray’s speculation that it was a witch garter that was thus revealed and that the King was a sympathizer with the Old Religion, is now well-known. She gives a number of curious particulars about the significance of the garter in her book The God of the Witches. The garters depicted as being worn by the man in the Stone Age witch-rite of the Cogul cave-painting have been already noted in Chapter 5.

Less well-known is the significance of the cord or rope in the practices and beliefs of the shamans of Siberia and the remoter parts of Asia generally. Here the cord represents the passage between heaven and earth, in the sense of being a kind of ladder by means of which the gods and spirits can descend to earth and the shaman can climb up to heaven. It is the emblem of the ecstatic journey, in which, although the shaman’s entranced body remains upon earth, his soul penetrates into realms unseen; or as occultists would call it, he goes out upon the astral plane. It is this ability to explore the realms of the beyond and bring back knowledge from them that is the very essence of Shamanism.

As we have already seen, there is a good deal of similarity between the shaman and the witch. Once again, we come back to a kind of fundamental unity which seems to underlie the practice of magic all over the world and to go back to prehistoric times. Considering again the Cogul cave painting, we have to remember that the so-called ’garters’ that the man in it is wearing can hardly have been actually and literally garters in the sense of being needed to keep up stockings, because people of those days had none. Probably it was simply a convenient way of carrying one’s magic cords or thongs around, to have them tied upon one’s body. Thus, the tradition of the cord and what it symbolized, judging from what we know of primitive Shamanism, continued through countless years.

Eventually, the time came when the witches had to disguise the cord, even as the athame was to outward seeming a kitchen knife and the magical staff a broomstick. So the cord became a garter; but it was a very special kind of garter. Some garters were badges of rank in the witch cult, like the one that the lady lost in the romantic story of King Edward III and the founding of the Order of the Garter, referred to above.

The tying or binding of a cord or garter is also connected with the ’binding’ of a spell, the ’binding’ of spirits and so on. Witches who cast spells by making knots and breathing upon them are referred to in the Koran; but the subject of magical knots is a vast one, from the elaborate knots of eastern talismans to the children’s game of ’Cat’s Cradle’ which is found all over the world and sometimes has magical affinities.