What is an Athame?
In Witchcraft, an Athame or ritual dagger is used to represent the element of Fire. Typically the Athame is a dagger or short blade with a black handle. The Athame is one of the sacred ritual tools used by some Witches in the process of casting their ritual circle.
The use of the Athame that is familiar to Witches today probably began with the Golden Dawn in the early 20th century. The Golden Dawn and Gerald Gardner made use of various sources including grimoires and Medieval manuscripts that included the Key of Solomon. This last has many illustrations of magical tools, including some of ritual blades.1
There are other Pagans who use an Athame as well, but who have come to the use outside of Wicca. For some the Athame resonates because of the connection to the Fire element, but it is important to state that this is a tool primarily introduced as part of Wiccan Witchcraft.
Why do some Witches have an Athame?
The use of the Athame is primarily associated with Wicca, although I have seen it referenced in writings about Satanism too. Many traditions do not include this symbolic tool in their ritual tool kit. Some of what differentiates different schools of Paganism is their use of different tools, and their differing ideas of magic space. For example Druids believe that they are firmly in the present and on Earth when in circle, while Wiccan's have a belief that they are "between the worlds" or on another plane when in circle.
The Witches who DO have an Athame generally have it for ritual use only, and keep it safely stored, if not under lock and key to protect it from casual use or viewing by curious guests. Remember, this is a sacred tool, used in the practice of ritual. You would no more see a Witch use an Athame for daily kitchen use for example, than you would see a Catholic priest use the sacramental chalice to drink water with his supper. These are religious tools that are kept safe and protected for religious use.
One important note is that the Athame is never used for actual cutting. Again, this is a ceremonial tool, used to move energy and to direct that energy. It is not used as a knife.
What can be used in place of an actual dagger as an Athame?
Wiccans sometimes use a sword or other blade as a substitute for an Athame, but there are other options out there.
If you follow a specific tradition such as Wicca, the following may not apply. The following is gathered from my experience and discussions with solitary practitioners over many years.
The Athame is used to represent the element of Fire. Fire is about creativity, heat, action, inspiration and passion. So one thing to keep in mind when thinking of a substitute for an Athame, is to work with items that have an affinity to Fire.
I have been known to make Athame's from stone/crystal on occasion. The picture above left is one I made from Rose Quartz and Clear Quartz, then had it plated in Gold.
The Athame pictured was made during a waxing moon in Leo (a Fire sign). I did the prep and actual soldering during the Sagittarius moon, then had it plated during a Leo Full Moon a couple of months later.
In the interim, I kept the Athame on my altar, cleared it, blessed it and charged it with the intent of being a perfect tool for the inspiration of healing and love. These are perfectly suited to the materials of Rose Quartz and Clear Quartz, and they make this tool well suited to a Witch who does a lot of healing magic. The method used here was stained glass solder technique, using silver solder that was lead free. The solder was then plated in 14 Kt gold. Both the method and the plating reinforce the affinity with the Fire element.
Another idea for an Athame that is not an actual dagger might be to use something made from metal that is forged. I have seen people use forged metal from a blacksmith or items they picked up in antique shops. If you do the latter, please pay special attention to clearing any items purchased second hand as you have no way to tell what energies from the previous owner linger with a second hand item. Having said that, I have items from second hand shops that I love and value greatly - just clear them first!
The bottom line:
The Athame is representative of the Fire element. Whatever you use should be linked in some way with fire.
The use of an actual "dagger" or knife is not required (in my opinion), but the idea of something that can "cut" and redirect energy is one to bear in mind.
Whatever you use, whether you make it yourself, or buy it in part or complete, you should clear and consecrate it before use in ritual. This will clear it of residual energies it may be carrying from other people handling the parts or the the finished piece, and will charge it with your intent.
While it isn't "required" that you charge your Athame during a Fire Moon, it sure is nice! The energy of the element in question is always most available during a waxing moon in that element. So choosing a waxing moon in Aries, Leo or Sagittarius can really add a lot to your creation and/or consecration of an Athame. To see more on how to find out what sign the moon is in, and on what the elements mean, see the blog post linked below.
The Key of Solomon, from Wikipedia
How to Find the Moon Sign and What is Means