An Athame, or black handled knife, is one of the more common tools for Wiccans and present day Witches. It has a history spanning many thousand years and through those years has had many different purposes. Today, the Athame, isn't generally used for physical cutting. It's primary use is to direct energies and can be interchangeable with a wand within many traditions.
Since the Athame is an instrument of command and power it's not usually used for invocation. This is because it's better to ask for the divine to be present than it is to command it to be so.
The double-edged blade of an Athame is usually dulled, as it is not needed to cut. While some say the handle must be black it's not a requirement. However, the black handle does have some advantages to it. Because black is used to absorb power, some of the energy directed with the blade is absorbed in to the handle. However, many believe that if your connection to the athame isn't strong enough this small amount of energy will be lost anyways. It's this reason that many choose an Athame which they are drawn to over another simply for handle color. As with any other tool, what matters more than how it looks is how YOU connect with it and how it makes YOU feel. Now, that said, SOME traditions do require a blade of particular color and style, should this be the case for your path, be sure to take that in to account when shopping!
Some prefer to engrave their Athames with magickal symbols, sigils, runes or lettering. However, like all magickal tools, the Athame gains power through usage more than through anything else. If you should choose to engrave your Athame, kits are sold to help you, or you can simply free hand it, but it's not necessary to do unless your specific tradition requires it.
Most practitioners see the Athame as connected to both the element of Air and the direction of East. The blade is often seen as representing intelligence and learning. Others connect it to the Warrior of the South. As with the wand, and other tools, the correspondence which speaks to you is what you should go with. Either way, it's always connected to or meant to represent the Male aspect of the divine because of it's phallic nature.
Sometimes you'll find different traditions use a Sword in place of an Athame. When this happens, or should it be your preference, the sword is ascribed with the same associations and alignments as the Athame. But the sheer size of a sword makes transportation an issue for many and indoor usage becomes rather impracticable for the same reason. You may find that a coven will invest in a sword, but most individuals prefer the Athame, simply for convenience.
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