The athame, a knife, is one of the primary tools employed by modern Wiccans (or Witches) in their rituals. It has a black handle and double-edged blade. The blade is never used for cutting and no attempt is made to keep it sharp, though often great care is taken to make it artistic. The athame is normally used to cast the circle at the beginning of rituals, thus establishing the magical space within which rituals are performed. It is also used for summoning and banishing the spirit entities who are called to be present as guardians of the ceremony. At the climax of the ritual at which wine is shared, the athame is often plunged into the chalice of wine (symbolic of the sex act).
Although occasional pieces of art show figures identified as Pagans or Witches holding a knife, knives were conspicuous by their absence in European Witchcraft texts. They appear to be one of the several elements introduced by Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964), who was largely responsible for creating modern Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. Gardner had spent most of his life as a British civil servant in Asia. While in Malaysia, he became familiar with the local ritual weapon known as the kris. This wavy dagger was a well-known object, but almost nothing had been written about its use and significance. He learned of the kris majapahit, the magical instrument that was reputed to work wonders. It was believed to be possessed of a hantu, a spirit. Owning such a weapon was said to bring good fortune, providing protection for those fortunate enough to have one. Gardner's work on the kris is still the standard reference source.
By the time Gardner returned to England in the 1930s, he had hopes of creating a new magical religion built around the worship of a female deity. He drew from a multitude of sources, but added the ritual knife from his knowledge of the kris. The athame is one of the most distinctive contributions of Gardner to modern magical practice.
Bracelin, Jack L. Gerald Gardner: Witch. London: Octagon Press, 1960.
Valiente, Doreen. The ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.