Question: I’ve asked all the Wiccans I know and looked in many dictionaries but I can’t find out where the word ‘athame’ comes from. Lots of books describe what an athame is, but they have no derivation. Is it a made-up word? ( Wordfreak.)
Reply: You were probably looking in English dictionaries. Even as recently as 1989 the Webster’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary with hundreds of thousands of words didn’t have athame in it, though the word has been around since Gardner’s books came out. Now you can look on the Web and find hundreds of places that tell you it’s a black handled knife with a straight, double edged blade, used by Wiccans. Some say that it’s a double bladed knife, which is usually, I hope, an editorial oversight.
The athame word history is a fascinating smorgasbord of the history of a great deal of magickal vocabulary and practice. The language from which a great deal of magical terminology originated for both High and Low magick was mediaeval Arabic.
Spain is now considered by many people to be and educational and cultural backwater but it was not so when it was run by the Arabs. They were called Saracens, or Moors in those days. Shakespeare’s Othello was a Moor. When the Moors ran Spain it was the center of art, engineering, literature, culture, wisdom, intellectual power and of course, magick.
People came from all over the world to the Universities of Toledo and Seville, and included many famous European magicians. Many of them knew Arabic well.
It was the Arabs who translated all the Greek classics for us. Without them the Church would have ensured that the classics would have disappeared without a trace. The Arabs invented al-gebra and al-chemy, and there are any other words beginning with al because of the Arab influence in chemistry, al-cohol for example.
The Knights Templar, who began much of the European magickal tradition, including a great proportion of the Kabbalah, through their influence on Freemasonry contained many officers who spoke, read and wrote Arabic.
Many of their mysteries are not mysteries at all if you realize that they were thinking in Arabic and using the magickal terms and practices of the Moslem mystics, the Sufis. The magickal coding systems of Hebrew and Arabic are somewhat interchangeable because both are Semitic languages and closely linked.
When the Moors were defeated in Spain and the Jews thrown out in 1492 Spain went downhill intellectually under the influence of unearned mountains of gold looted from the Indians of South America.
I haven’t forgotten your question. What I have said is for the benefit of those who wish to know the direction in which to look for much more than just the origin of the word athame.
Transcribing the Arabic letters of the word we would get a word spelled a-e-h-d-h-a-m-e. The English pronunciation of athame is very close to the sound of this Arabic word which means ‘blood letter.’ This was a very sharp knife with a small blade designed for letting blood. Nowadays we would call it a lancet, which is the origin of the world famous medical publication The Lancet.
As an aside to Wiccans interested in where their basic stuff came from, the Arabic text that contains this word also talks about a Spanish group that danced the dance of the Two Horned One in their rituals.
The word used to describe their dancing contains the consonants B-R-S-H, from which we get the four magickal terms used to describe these people by the Semitic method of adding vowels to the word. When that is done we get four words that mean: thorn apple, mandrake, broom or brush and tattoo…meaning an identifying mark put on the skin.
I hope that these four magically connected terms used by Syrian dancers in the 14th century ring some bells for you.
The thorn apple and mandrake were both used by European witches to get the sensation of flying, and to make astral projection easier. The alkaloids in these two plants do that, if skillfully prepared and administered.
Mandrake too, with the man-like shape of its root was the origin of the Church invented superstition that witches sacrificed babies.
The witches’ code word for mandrake was ‘baby’, because of its shape, and an unwise one added the word unbaptized, because of the joking comment that not even an idiot priest would baptize a plant. The code words were taken literally by those who wanted to, and a lot of innocent people died because their language meant something different from the language of those in power, even when they used the same words.
We still have that problem today. Take care who is listening when you use words of double meaning.
The third word in the magickal four meant broom, and this item was used in the dances. The fourth was the tattoo mark that could be seen in sky clad work and identified one member to another.
Tattoo transmuted into ‘tat’ and then by deliberate misunderstanding into ‘teat,’ and hundreds more people died when the Church publicized nonsense about the Devil’s teats of the witches, which nonsense had to be believed because of its origin.
The magickal ancestors of many hearing this were dark skinned Arabic speakers who used a special kind of ring dance used all over the Mediterranean area.
It was this tradition that got added to the Celtic worship of the goddess because: a) it was magickally respectable, and b) it worked. From the same group came the nine foot magickal circle used by all High Magicians for invoking.
Even the staid and sober British admit that their ancient folk tradition of Morris dances, that goes back hundreds of years, was originally Moorish dances. The Arabic word used for this dance was ‘Sabat,’ which was later deliberately confused by the Church with the Hebrew Sabbat to the detriment of many of your pagan ancestors. And remember, even the most avid Christian evangelical comes from a tradition with pagan roots. EVERYONE has pagan ancestors.
The meaning of the Arabic ‘Sabat’ is ‘ force- filled occasion’ an occasion filled with power. Every correctly performed Wiccan or pagan ritual should find this term applicable to it. It could even be applied to the Latin Mass when celebrated by an old priest who knew how to do the magickal part.
It looks like Gerald Gardner introduced this word to the pagan world in his quest to bring back goddess worship to the British Isles. How did he come across it? The only foreign language that he seemed to have any knowledge of was Malayan, from his work as a civil servant in Malaya.
My guess, and it is a guess, is that he picked it up from one of the worlds really great magicians, Idries Shah. Compared with Idries most European high initiates are novices. He is descended directly from the family of the Prophet Mahomet and is a member of an Arab royal family. He is a Sheik among the Sufis and holds ultimate rank among them as a spiritually enlightened being.
Such people wander all over the world doing things that seem strange to those obsessed with status and wealth. Idries has access to any amount of wealth. He has Sheiks and oil moguls among his followers who are willing to fly their personal jets anywhere on Earth to pick up anything he ever wants. Money means nothing to them, and they crave the opportunity to be of service. But he lives simply.
In the 50’s when Gardner was doing his re-discovery of Wicca he established the Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man as soon as the Witchcraft Act was repealed. He could do this because the Islanders all know about the people of the Realm of Faerie. There are fairy bridges and groves on the Island, greatly respected by the Manx people. There are archaeological remains from the Vikings back all over the Island.
The several magickal fraternities that I belonged to simply called it The Island. It is the center of all the Celtic magic, and it feels like it to a sensitive.
Right next to Wales, it has palm trees growing in the north of the Island. Seals bask on the beaches. You can dip into the see on Christmas Day without being cold. The hedges are five feet high bushes of pink and red fuschia. I must stop. There is no end to its beauty as a place of embedded magick. Merlin’s cave is there for example.
The Island itself is named after the Norse sea god Mannon. It is a place with its own parliament, totally unconnected with the Parliament of Westminster. Why am I going on about this place?
Well, the secretary of the director of the Museum of Witchcraft on the Island, for a while, was Idries Shah. Why this spiritual ruler of thousands took this menial job is not for mere mortals like me to figure out. I can only guess that he put his power into it, and like all his projects the waves of it are still rolling up the beach. Wicca and the re-entry of the feminine divinity is happening all over the world still. Someone gave it a big push. I think it was Shah. It’s the Sufis who talk about the Eternal Beloved and give Wisdom a female face.
Read anything you can by Idries Shah. There are dozens of fascinating books by him available in many languages. I believe that he moved on to his next stage, but I always think of him in the present.
I have gone into this at some length to make clear that there are many roots that lead to the Celtic trunk that you now know. If you look up the enormous extent of the Celtic Empire, and realize that even today a good witch takes whatever works from ANY tradition, you will see how the really effective stuff you use could have a hundred widely diverse geographical and ethnic sources, but only one spiritual source.