A is for Athame

Athame: A knife, selected to personal taste, used in ritual. It represents the male, and is related to the Tarot’s Sword of Reason. Some people have several athames, which they switch between whenever they feel like it; others just have one special knife. My parents gave me my first athame when I was eight: it was made of rosewood. It had an unfortunate hole carved in the base of the blade, shaped like a heart, and just as easy to break.

Nobody agrees on how to pronounce this word. I say ‘ath-uh-may,’ but you can’t trust me.

Book of Shadows: This is supposed to be part of the basic membership kit for Wicca: a personal diary, filled with handwritten notes of rituals and lore and personal insights. I’ve tried to keep one three or four times, but I always lose track of my notebooks. I once used a pastel notebook with a picture of a panda on the front for this purpose, which sorely stressed the term “shadows.” While my Books of Shadows have never been very good, I do have a decent Portable Hard Drive of Shadows.

Circle: The basic unit of ritual, though it’s usually more like a clumsy rectangle, or perhaps an oval. Here’s a way to think about it: where the ritual space in a church is shaped by the building’s architecture, the ritual space in a Wiccan ritual is shaped by the people holding hands around it. In my family, the priestess—throughout my childhood, that would have been my mother—casts the circle with this verse:

This is the circle; this is the space between the worlds. Here be magick; here be love; so mote it be.

Let this circle be as a still and silent pool, its love radiating outward in ever widening circles. So mote it be.

Let this circle be like the constellation Pleiades, each of us shining out with our own individual lights. So mote it be.

Draw Down the Moon: A ritual process where the priestess invokes the Goddess’s lunar aspect and speaks with Her voice. Although this practice is apparently extremely common—Margot Adler named her famous survey of modern paganism Drawing Down the Moon because of it—I have little experience with it personally, because it’s not usually part of my coven’s rituals.

Esbat: There’s this moment in Rosemary’s Baby where Rosemary, having discovered that her eccentric neighbors are actually witches (and therefore Satanists, of course) runs into her doctor’s office and starts screaming: “All that chanting through the wall! That’s called an esbat!”

I still don’t know how I feel about that scene. My coven has held an esbat every month for my entire life; it’s the full moon ritual, the closest we have to a regular church service. I loved esbats—it was the one night a month that I got to see my whole family of weirdo aunts and uncles, and my friends, their children. I laugh, yes, at how wrong Polanski got it; at the same time it hurts to see something so full of love equated with something so moronically evil.

Family Tradition: Some pagans claim their practices come from an ancient, inherited family secret. Invariably the story involves a grandmother who learned from a grandmother in the Old Country. Theoretically, this gives the practice greater legitimacy, because unlike the rest of us, who are just making it up as we go, a family tradition has the authenticity of age.

Not surprisingly, these claims are often pure bullshit.

Great Rite: Sex.

What? That’s what it is.

Alright, fine. More details: the Great Rite occurs, at least by proxy, in every Wiccan ritual. Just before communion, an athame (representing the male) is dipped into a chalice full of wine (representing the female), and the combination of phallic and yonic energies consecrates the wine, which is then passed around the circle. Yes, there are certain implications here, if you think about them long enough.

Of course, the priest and priestess could forego all this symbolic business and just perform the Great Rite themselves, but for reasons of privacy this rarely happens in a group ritual.

Hail and Farewell: A traditional way to dismiss the elemental spirits that are called into a ritual circle. It’s a polite way to thank them for their time. My coven usually phrases it like this: “Go if you must, stay if you will; hail, and farewell.” If you must say goodbye—to a spirit, to a time of life, to a friend who has left you behind—this is a decent way to say it.

Initiation: Traditional Wicca, derived from either Gerald Gardner, his mercurial rival Alex Saunders, or any of the many who took inspiration from them, is an initiatory religion. By definition, each coven has its own initiatory practices, and the details of those practices are trade secrets—you’re not supposed to tell the details to outsiders. Typically there seem to be three degrees, a result of Masonic influence.

Initiation can be a divisive topic. There’s always the argument about whether or not initiated Wiccans are more “authentic” than non-initiated ones, and in return, whether the tradition-bound initiates are perpetually behind the times.

I was initiated into my family coven several years ago—we’re Alexandrians, sort of. While I can’t tell you much about the ceremony, I can say that I was naked and blindfolded. So there’s that to look forward to.

J—I’m going to be honest with you: I can’t think of any terms for this glossary that start with J.

K-Mart Pagan: A term of derision, handy for quickly identifying anyone who doesn’t live up to the speaker’s standards. This usually refers to a pagan who seems to only be in it for the toys: every time you see them they’re talking up some new crystal, or wand, or crystal wand. Related terms: “paperback pagan” (one who reads but does not practice), “fluffy bunny” (pretty much anyone the speaker doesn’t like).

Left-Hand Path: A magickal philosophy associated with flouting taboo and conventional morality; essentially, Nietzchean occultism. This is contrasted with the “Right-Hand Path,” which works within established ethical guidelines. (Get it? The Left-Hand Path is sinister.) This is not strictly Wiccan terminology; these terms apply to occultism in general, and Left-Handedness is often associated with Satanism, the Church of Set, and Chaos Magick. (They’re all nice folks once you get to know them.)

I remember glancing through a book by Stephen Flowers called Lords of the Left-Hand Path. If there isn’t already a metal band with that name, I’m starting one.

Magick: Some insist you need to spell it with a K, because otherwise people are going to expect you to pull a rabbit from a hat or something. Others don’t care. In Wicca, a lot of things are like that.

Neopaganism: I had never heard of this term until I went to college. In my house, we were just pagans. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual, practicing pagan call themselves “neo” anything. I understand the reasoning—particularly in the academy, it helps to differentiate modern religions, like Wicca and Asatru, from ancient polytheistic religions. But still, this is not what we call ourselves. It bothers me, like a tick I can’t reach.

Offerings: A little bread, a little wine, a little incense, a little time. That’s all.

Pentagram: The five-pointed star. As the cross is to Christians and the Star of David is to Jews, the pentagram is to Wiccans. When circumscribed, it is called a pentacle, especially if it’s been fashioned into a piece of jewelry or a talisman. The five points represent the four classical elements and the “fifth element,” spirit, which unites them.

Quarters: After the circle is cast in a ritual, four people “call the quarters” by facing in the appropriate direction and inviting the elements in. Which direction corresponds to which element? Good question. For me, it’s air in the east, fire in the south, water in the west, and earth in the north, but friendships have ended over this.

My dad tells me that when he was young, two Icelanders came to one of his rituals. When they heard the elements being invoked, they got scared and left. Dad suggests that invoking “fire” and “earth” doesn’t make as much sense when you live on top of a volcano.

Ritual: You know what a ritual is. I don’t think it would do much for me to walk you through one and point out all the steps—and besides, the steps would be different every time. The real question is, “what’s the point?”

Because my rituals—by this point you should understand that the only thing I can say for all of Wicca is that nothing can be said for all of Wicca—are wholly mine, like a story: something I sit down to write with nothing but a stack of books and a vague sense of beginning, middle, and end. Because my rituals belong entirely to my family, who taught me the structure and the language. Because ritual is like jazz (and jazz is like a ritual), a familiar tune exploding into unfamiliar notes.

Because ritual is the same as Wicca: it is old and new. It is the same, yet different than before.

Samhain: Wicca has eight major holidays, known as “sabbats.” Of these, Samhain is the most important, and the most holy. It takes place on October 31st. (That’s Halloween to the rest of you.)

For the most part, we celebrate the same as anyone else: we have costume parties, we eat too much candy, we cackle like the Wicked Witch of the West. But most Halloween parties don’t have a ritual commemorating the dead; most people, I suspect, have never seen a man in a gorilla mask weep for a lost grandmother. Samhain tends to be the most somber sabbat, carried out in the most frivolous clothes: a ceremony made of equal parts tragedy and comedy.

Sadly, one of the most memorable Samhain rituals in my life came when a group of out-of-towners called in the elements. “Spirits of fire, we welcome you to our festival of Sam Hane!” I still cringe. (It’s pronounced “Sow-when.” Don’t let this happen to you.)

Triple Goddess: The Maiden, Mother, and Crone, the three aspects of the Goddess. Although “crone” probably seems like a rude thing to call a woman, it’s not a denigrating term in Wicca, though it’s probably best to be sure the woman in question is post-menopausal beforehand.

UPG: Unverified Personal Gnosis.

I realize that probably doesn’t clear things up much.

UPG refers to any knowledge of deity that comes as a personal revelation, as opposed to knowledge that comes from myths or archeology. “Thor’s chariot is pulled by goats, which he can slaughter, eat, and bring back to life so long as the bones are intact,” is knowledge gained from reading the myths. “Last night, Thor told me he really digs Jägermeister,” would be UPG.

Veil: The veil between the worlds, between the physical and the rest. Beyond it lie spirits who haven’t yet found the entrance and those who have already found the exit. We say it grows thin on May 1st and October 31st, the festivals of Beltane and Samhain. At Beltane, life enters the world, which probably explains why so many of my friends were born in January. At Samhain, the veil is thin enough that the afterlife—whatever that is—can be touched, for better or for worse.

Wicca: Everything is born and everything dies, you and me and the corn and the cows and the sun and the moon. Everything has already happened, will happen again, is happening right now. The world is not an illusion, the world is not a dress rehearsal, the world is not a test. You and I and everything else: we are all together, parts of cycles within circles; the moon waxes and wanes, the sun shines bright in the summer, diminishes in the winter. Twenty holy days, twelve for the moon and eight for the sun, mark time’s passing, but never its end.

We’ll argue the finer points forever, but in the end, this is all it means: We are the air, the fire, the wind, the water, we are the squirrels and the monkeys and the cockroaches, we are God, we are Goddess, we are Everything.

Eric Scott was raised by the Saint Louis coven Pleiades, a Wiccan family based in the Alexandrian tradition. His fiction and memoir explore the joys and doubts of being a second-generation pagan in the modern world. He recently completed his MFA at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ashé! Journal, Killing the Buddha, Kerouac's Dog, and Witches & Pagans. In his spare time, he draws elaborate metaphysical diagrams on his bedroom wall and sings for a Taoist glam rock band.