The Path and the Craft
The Tools of Witchcraft (Part 1)
When it comes to the tools of the craft, witches generally start out with a list of things they “have to have.” As the years go by, one of two things is likely to happen:
1) They end up with a room (or home) full of crafty things, or
2) They end up with hardly any crafty things at all.
I have managed to find a semi-happy medium.
These days, I very rarely gather a ton of things together before casting a spell. I might grab my go-bag or an armload of items for a ritual that I am performing by myself or with my nearest and dearest. I don’t live surrounded by crystal balls and magic wands and various arcanely shaped candle holders.
Most of that is in storage. In my own backyard. Where I can get to it if I feel the need. Any time, day or night. And I am laughing at myself as I write this.
I get attached to things. I know that’s not very Zen of me, but it’s me. I’m a witch. I have my own path. I leave the Zen mastery to others.
I also like pretty things. And let’s face it, half the fun of discovering any new interest is the shopping.
I do have a small wicker chest in my bedroom with a few items that I grab several times a year, and a few others that I use more often. So, to give any beginners a peek into the life of a practicing witch (and for the nosy Parkers out there) here’s a list of some things always in my witchy chest, along with their uses.
The pentagram, a five-pointed star, is the most frequently-used sacred symbol in the Craft. The five points of the star symbolize a balance between the five elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. A pentacle is simply that star with a circle around it. Most witches will have a pentacle altar tile. It's usually about 7 inches across, it can be simple or ornate. For some, it remains in its proper place at all times, usually a dedicated altar. For others, such as myself, it is much more portable.
My pentacle is very plain. It is simple silvery metal. I suppose it's cast from iron or stainless steel, but I’ve never really checked. It’s heavy. It has held down parchment printed with complicated spell instructions in high winds at the seaside. It has kept pride of place on my altar. It has traveled over half the world with me. It is sturdy and damned near indestructible.
When I take that pentacle somewhere and set it down, that table top or rock or patch of ground becomes, to me and many others, immediately sacred. My altar pentacle is practically an extension of my will. Placing it is like saying, “Boom! Here it is! My witchy self is present, and I mean business.”
The athame is used the way many people imagine a wand is used: to direct energy. It is rarely if ever used to cut anything physical. I’ve heard the pronunciation of this word slaughtered in many ways, but the most commonly accepted pronunciation is ah-thah-may.
My athame’s handle is a rainbow of multicolored wood. It is a two-sided blade. It has a nice cozy leather case to keep it safe. It, like my pentacle, has travelled the world with me.*
The most important thing in choosing an athame is that it speaks to you. You want it to feel comfy in your hand, not unwieldy. You also want it to feel solid, to make its presence known to you. If it has fancy symbols on it, make sure those symbols mean something to you personally. If a knife no one ever intended for use as an athame is calling out to you as you read this, that’s fine. One very talented witch I knew studied textile design and her athame was a slim, stainless steel exacto knife.
A boline is most often described as a white-handled knife with a single-sided blade. In America I have usually heard it pronounced as bow-leen. In the UK I have more often heard the emphasis on the second syllable. This knife is used to cut things, usually herbs. When I first began studying the craft, a boline was not an easy thing to find. I swiped a white-handled kitchen knife from my mother and kept it safely tucked away with my other witchy things. (After cleansing and blessing, of course!)
Options have improved dramatically since then. At least nowadays, when you walk into a witchy store and ask to see a boline, they usually know what you’re talking about. Believe me, it was not always like that.
I currently have two bolines. One is a curved, multipurpose, somewhat unwieldy tool that is great for harvesting things from the garden or woods that I intend to use for ritual. It can even take on some fairly thick woody branches. The other is a traditional Scottish sgian dhub, It is small and easy to take along as a “just in case” harvesting blade.
I have rarely used a wand, but many prefer it to the athame for directing energy. Trained the way I was, acquiring a wand meant a spooky midnight adventure, alone and barefoot in a cotton nighty with my long hair clean and down, through dark woods, to find just the right straight branch from a fruit-bearing tree that has never born fruit.
That wand has been snuggled in silk at the bottom of my witchy chest for decades.
You, new witchy person, have it a lot easier. Wands are all over the place, made of wood and crystals and with all kinds of decorative designs. Chakra wants, crystal wands, wooden wands. Wands carved from selenite or malachite. Wands for every occasion!
When I worked with a coven or other groups, people rarely showed up for ritual carrying a wand. But then we got HarryPotter. I strongly suspect there area a lot ore wands running around these days, and many witches probably have quite a collection
Whenever you are casting a spell or doing any sort of witchy ritual, you should first cast a circle. Don’t worry, I’ll be giving you instructions on that soon. What you need to know for witchy shopping is that something to represent the quarters or “corners” of the circle is very nice to have. Each quarter is in a cardinal direction: North, South, East, West.
Most people will use candles of specific colors. In many Wicca traditions, the candle colors are, in order: brown or green (North/Earth), yellow (East/Air), red (South/Fire), and blue (West/Water). Many witches also like to have a purple candle in the center, representing that elusive but important fifth element, Spirit or Love.
In my training and practices, I prefer black for north, white for south, red for east, and grey for west. It’s an unusual tradition, but the representations of the elements remain the same.
The candles may have company or just be replaced altogether. For many years I had a quarter garden in my backyard. There was a large flat rock in the North that I used for my altar, a tall wrought-iron birdcage frame with stephanotis vines tumbling over it in the East, a fireplace grate under a very thorny rosebush for burning embers to the South, and a small lily pond with pretty guppies in the West.
That was the height of me going all fancy about it. I have just as readily cast a circle with a rock, a feather, a stick of burning incense, and a pretty teacup filled with water. It was a bit of an emergency, but by then I was confident enough in my circle casting that it worked out fine.
In my witchy chest now, I have a special rock with deep personal meaning to me for North. I have an interesting sort of ball made of just a frame of brass, in graceful loops barely shaping the sphere, to represent Air. I have a three-legged, shallow bowl of hammered brass passed down from my grandmother in which I burn coals in the South. For the West, I have a dark blue cut glass chalice that I fill with blessed water.
Whether you acquire the perfect set of quarter candles or thoughtfully collect items that represent the elements to you, you will want quarter representations when casting your circle. As with almost every tool in the craft, none of these things are necessary, but they are helpful for focus and an outline of your ritual space.
*A note on witchy travel
If you plan to do any mass-transit travel, especially by air, with your athame and/or boline or anything else that the airlines get twitchy about, please pack them safely in your luggage or even mail them to your destination ahead of time. Check the current airline regulations to be on the safe side. When security was tightened after 9/11, many witches I know had their treasured tools confiscated at security, and some were never returned.
Blessings now and always,
Silver Ravenwolf’s series beginning with To Ride a Silver Broomstick covers a lot of this information. I still refer to those books from time to time when I need my memory refreshed. I have begun sifting through Witch School First Degree by Donald Lewis-Highcorell. It centers on a very specific tradition, but so far seems to cover the same general knowledge in a defined “lesson” format. Some may enjoy that structure.
I recently ran into Witch's Athame by Jason Mankey. It’s next on my witchy reading list. It seems to offer all kinds of fun and interesting insights into the history and use of the athame.