The suggestion that black-handled knives were a late addition to witchcraft is clearly inaccurate, as can be seen from the examples we have quoted. The black-handled knife has also been used for folk spells in Greece, including protection from nightmares. This was recorded comparatively by Robert Lawrence in The Magic of the Horseshoe:
“In Morocco it is customary to place a dagger under the patient's pillow, and in Greece a black-handled knife is similarly used to keep away the nightmare.”
Another example detailed by Lawrence was a charm using the black-handled knife to get rid of insects:
“The following charm against insects is in vogue in Lesbos: In the evening a black-handled knife is stuck in some spot where the insects congregate, and certain Greek verses are repeated, of which the following is a translation:--
I got three naughty bairns together,
One a wasp, one caterpillar,
And a swarming ant the other.
Whate'er ye eat, whate'er ye drink,
Hence, hence avaunt,
To the hills and mountains flee,
And unto each fruitless tree.
The knife is to remain in the same spot until the next morning, and is then to be removed. This completes the charm, and the insects are expected to depart at once.”
An early and particularly interesting source for the use of the black-handled knife is in connection with the ’princes of the thumb’, a name given to specific demons summoned to stand on the palm of a young virgin boy within a magick circle to answer divinatory questions in sixteenth and seventeenth century Jewish magickal texts. This practice is referred to in Codex Gaster 315, where it describes tracing a circle in the earth with a black-handled knife and placing the young boy in the circle. His thumbnail and forehead are anointed with pure olive oil, and a conjuration whispered into his ear whilst he gazes at his thumbnail. This practice has much earlier antecedents than all the other sources, going back to the eleventh century, as described by Trachtenberg in his work Jewish Magic and Superstition.
“Rashi, in the eleventh century (San 67b), mentions that a black-handled knife is required in invoking the ‘princes of the thumbnail’; three MSS from Spain, Tunis and the Orient, dating from the 16th to 18th centuries (Daiches 54, 18, 22), do not fail to include the black-handled knife!”
So far from being a contemporary inclusion by Gardner in the Wiccan tradition, we can clearly see that the black-handled knife has a well documented history of magickal use in a number of traditions in a range of countries which dates back at least a thousand years. We also see that many of these uses involve the creation of magick circles or protection from spiritual creatures, functions which are still seen with the Wiccan athame. These include the grimoires and Irish and Welsh folk magick, showing that the use of the black-handled knife was a well-known practice in the British Isles long before the emergence of Wicca. So although the name athame may be a more recent usage, nevertheless the black handled knife as a magickal tool is definitely not.
Extract from: Wicca: Magical Beginnings written by d’Este & Rankine, 2008 (Avalonia.) PB / Kindle @ https://amzn.to/3Ay4HJr. Shared here with the intention to inspire and inform the now and future generations interested in Wicca and other Pagan traditions inspired by it.