Disclaimer: Any of the tools or implements featured in this series of blogs are not my personally consecrated tools. They are either tools I have previously used which are no longer in service or pictures kindly donated. I have made the personal choice not to photograph my own working tools to protect their sacredness and integrity. This is my choice and a matter of personal opinion.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The knife or blade (I use these terms interchangeably) is probably one of the most widely owned and used tools of the craft and probably one of the most complex. Many books such as ‘Witchcraft; A Tradition Renewed’ by E J Jones and Doreen Valiente dedicate more space to this tool than any other (perhaps with the exception of the Stang) in their discussions on ceremonial regalia. I have never heard of anyone or any tradition for that matter that does not make use of a knife as part of their ritual paraphernalia (that’s not to say of course you MUST have one!) and each individual and each tradition has their own set of correspondences for the blade.
I remember my first blade many, many years ago back when I was still discovering the craft in its many guises. I made it out of a section of old broom handle painted black and a small kitchen knife with the pre attached handle removed. It was cheap and not the most attractive piece going but for a time it served me well. As I grew older and had a few more pounds and pence coming in every month I ‘upgraded’ to other more attractive knives. I still have one of my double edged blades which I attached to a gorgeous piece of antler which is by far my favourite Athame (Wiccan-ese for knife) until I moved into more traditional practises several years later and out grew the glitz and finery. I keep it purely because I worked very hard on making it and you never know…one day I might find use for it again.
I have no problem admitting I am no blacksmith or metal worker… it’s a magical skill far beyond my grasp and one I hold in very high esteem. However, forging your own blade is by far the best option but if like me you don’t possess such skills, buying a blade (or grovelling at the door of a local blacksmith) and attaching it to a handle you have at least found / carved yourself is the next best (and perfectly adequate) solution. All the blades I have owned have been made by someone else; the finished knife however has always had some input from me, even if it’s just making and attaching a new handle. The knife is an extension of one’s self so the more of your ‘self’ you put into the finished article the better.
My current knife is made from a simple single edged copper blade which was made bespoke for me and I attached the handle (again made of antler) myself. I use copper because it suits my personality (i.e. my –self) plus I like to be a little different. There are reasons for using steel because of its Iron content and therefore its association with the forge, the fire, the smith etc. Copper is however still hewn from earth of course and has its own associations as do other metals including silver, bronze and pewter.
Ritual knives should be sharp; I cannot impress my opinion on this enough! This strange requirement in modern neo-pagan circles for dull blades makes no sense to me whatsoever for a knife is useless if it can’t cut. You wouldn’t use a dull knife in the kitchen so why on earth would you want a dull knife in the Craft?! Metaphorically, the knife is an extension of inner Self and Will…far better to have that self and that will as keen and sharply focused as possible, far better than dull and useless! Or as Gemma Gary says in her book ‘Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways’ “If you make good practical use of your knife in the mundane world, your faith in its ability to aid you in magical matters will be all the greater”. Sharpen one’s blade upon the cornerstone of faith and truth and you can’t go far wrong! (Hmmmm sword and stone…sound familiar?) Owning a copper blade presents its problems as it is a soft metal which dulls easily and I have to sharpen it a lot but I have been assured in time it will harden and require sharpening less often, this is where steel does have a clear advantage!
I use my blade to cut and harvest herbs and dig out roots (another reason I use copper; I don’t like using iron in the green world too much.) I use my knife to cut skin and bone, I use it to cut circle perimeters in the earth, I use it to cut cords and trim candlewicks, I use it to cut through veils and unseen subtle energy …one’s working knife is and should be the Witches’ equivalent of the Swiss army knife; practical, functional and useful. I carry mine with me virtually all the time (although do be mindful of legal restrictions on carrying stabby things upon your personage!)
Now of course the blade is a practical tool, but that doesn’t mean we just use any old knife that’s easily to hand, at least not before its exorcised and consecrated. For the most part we only have one blade which is special, set aside and consecrated to our spirits and our faith. Our knife may even be named (think about King Arthur’s sword ‘Excalibur’ (originally ‘Caliburn’ from the welsh Caledfwlch) or Gandalf’s sword ‘Glamdring’. Many famous swords have names, they do after all have personalities and often have a special power or ability which is conferred upon its owner which its name often reflects (apparently Excalibur means ‘cut steel’?!)) Some people engrave their knives with sigils and runes and such. I personally am just not into that, there is nothing obvious about me which stands out in the crowd, therefore there is nothing seemingly special about my knife and that’s the way I like it…simple, subtle, discrete. No bells and whistles here, I don’t spend a fortune on tools…they inevitably get scratched up and dirty during their lifetime…who doesn’t?! As far as I’m concerned they look and work all the better for it. There are, however in various grimoires specific sigils prescribed for the knife, the Alexandrian and Gardenarian Wiccan BoS are very specific around some of these and ceremonial magic (Golden Dawn, Key of Solomon and so on) has undoubtedly had input into many of these requirements.
Some traditions do make use of more than one knife in their arsenal (I use that word quite deliberately.) Wiccans and ceremonial magicians especially have their black handled Athame and white handled boline. The black handled tends to be dull and purely for directing energy, the white handled is for practical purposes such as cutting and engraving, which in my opinion is complete overkill when one knife will do both jobs perfectly. Again it’s personal choice and very much dependent on which way you lean in terms of tradition. In a covine setting it is common for each member to bear their own knife whilst collectively making use of a more formal, centrally owned covine sword or blade.
In my craft the knife represents the masculine mysteries and sits to the right of the altar opposite the cup. Together these two are the twin pillars of the tree of life, the white or positive / male side is named the pillar of mercy so the blade is often attributed to justice, for that reason oaths are often sworn upon the blade (“To live by the sword, is to die by the sword”.) There are however other parallels with the cup beside apparent gender or position on the tree. The cup may be seen as both Life (womb) and Death (tomb) so it stands to reason that the blade should be equally attributed to both life and death also because blades do cut afterall (I’ll leave you to ponder on that!) When these two tools are conjoined they form a symbolic marriage, the sacred covenant which is most profound. The result of the ‘mating’ of these two forces is of course the third, the child….truth. The purpose of this symbolic act in one’s sacraments is worth far deeper consideration although it has been suggested by some that a lone individual cannot successfully bring forth this third force, this ‘child’ without a member of the opposite sex in tandem (i.e. a working partner) for polarity and balance between these polarities is necessary. Me…I say that’s a load of Tosh! Indeed, to witness the union of knife and cup as carried out my Maid and Magister is of course sacred and worthy of utmost reverence but the sacrament itself is to be shared by all and I say we all carry both male and female inside us, we are all Adam and Eve.
In some respects however, the knife may be seen as representing the third way, the middle path across the great divide which is the proverbial ‘knife edge’ which is oh too easy to stray or fall from. The crooked path is not an easy one and the blade reminds me of this every time I use it. It’s worth reading Chrétien de Troyes ‘Lancelot’ for a better understanding of my point here with specific reference to the sword bridge.
Commonly the knife or sword is attributed to fire (the knife being obviously masculine and fire being the only element ‘possessed’ exclusively by the male) however there are arguments which attribute the blade to the element of Air (due to its affiliation with a keen or sharp intellect and such like but again I believe the air association is more of a ‘Ceremonial Magic / Wiccan’ correspondence). However, meditation with any metal implement soon reveals the importance of all 4 elements, for without earth there can be no ore, without fire that ore can never be extracted from earth and smelted and moulded into metal, without water that metal can never be tempered and without air the metal will never cool and harden and the flames within the forge will never burn. So in a sense the blade represents the harmonious, alchemical coming together of all elements…all beautifully orchestrated by one magical metalworker or smith, thus the blade becomes a connection to our own Tutelary deity who was “an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron:” (Genesis 4:22. KJB.) In conjunction with this, keep in mind that the knife may be considered an expression or an extension of one’s deepest, inner most self and you will begin to see just how very significant this tool can be as a meditational device and ritual implement.
After all, all tools are, as Robert Cochrane himself says, “meditational devices” and what one can do ceremonially with a knife in theory one should be able to do without!
Image 1, 5 and 6 generously donated by Matt Baldwin-Ives @Milescross