Witches’ Sabbats, Fairies and Black Handled Knives
The flow of magic from Ireland to modern Wicca
By Sorita d’Este (www.sorita.co.uk), 2010
Although the practices and ceremonies of Wicca today is clearly a continuation of that found in the grimoires of medieval and renaissance Europe, there is also most certainly a Celtic flavour running through it. When we put our gaze on the literature, folk magic and witchcraft practices of Ireland we find some clear clues to guide us towards a history which is largely ignored by modern writers on Wicca, perhaps because so much of the written history of Wicca has been based on the people who have shaped the tradition in the last few decades since it emerged at the hands of the retired civil servant Gerald Gardner; and on that of the Witch Trials of Europe. Yet, on the contrary the tradition which we now name as Wicca has a history which stretches back through the centuries, from the writings of numerous Victorian occultists to those of the Renaissance Hermetic writers and infamous grimoires of the Middle Ages, through Byzantium to Ancient Greece and Egypt, and maybe even earlier. Along the way it intermingled with local customs and folklore, old and new Gods and Goddesses, a process which is still ongoing today.
As a named tradition Wicca may owe its origins to Gerald Gardner and his colleagues in the 1950’s, but there is no doubt that the practices, beliefs and ceremonies used in Wicca all have their origins in earlier times. It is a syncretic system of magic, mysticism and spirituality and draws from a multitude of sources. In the research I did with my husband David Rankine, some of which resulted in our book Wicca Magickal Beginnings, we explored the origins of the tradition by looking at the antecedents of the practices and ceremonies of the traditional Book of Shadows. Our research for other projects such as The Guises of the Morrigan and Visions of the Cailleach, led us to delve quite deeply into the folklore and mythology of Ireland. This yielded interesting results when we considered some of what we found in light of our quest for the possible origins of the practices in Wicca. In this essay I will highlight some of the most interesting parallels between Irish folk magic and the practices of Wicca, as well as sources which are distinctly Irish which may have influenced the tradition.
The seasonal celebrations, known as Sabbats in Wicca, are arguably amongst the most important practices of the tradition. Collectively today there are eight festivals, four Greater Sabbats (the fire festivals) and four Lesser Sabbats (the equinoxes and solstices), however in the earliest known texts of the Book of Shadows presented by Gerald Gardner there were only five festivals, these were the four fire festivals (Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnadadh/Lammas and Samhain) and Yule, the Winter Solstice. The names given to the four fire festivals are all drawn directly from the Irish names for the folk festivals corresponding to the time of the year, which effectively means that the four most important ceremonies celebrated by Wiccans each year bear names which are Irish.
The four fire festivals are now thought of by many as being the original witches’ celebrations, however this seems to be in error as their origins can instead by found with the Druids. In Robert and William Chambers’ 1842 work, Chambers Information for the People we find an interesting reference to the four festivals:
“Cormac, bishop of Cashel in the tenth century, records that in his time four great fires were lighted up on the four great festivals of the druids – namely in February, May, August, and November: probably Beltane and Lammas were two of these.”
This highly significant reference, from more than a hundred years prior to the public emergence of Wicca, seems to have been overlooked by writers on Wiccan history. It refers to the ninth century Irish Psalter of Cashel, which provides us with clear precedents for the four fire festivals as being celebrated by Druids more than a thousand years ago!
Just as the four fire festivals are the most important dates in the Wiccan calendar, the black-handled knife or the ‘athame’ is undoubtedly the most important tool. It is referred to as the ‘true witch’s weapon’ and is generally the one tool which all members of a coven will own and use for themselves, regardless of rank or of their level of experience and it is used to cast, conjure and consecrate, to invoke and banish. The explanation ordinarily given amongst those in the tradition is that it was ‘obviously’ borrowed by Gardner from well known grimoire, The Key of Solomon. This is true in part, as Gardner was indeed familiar with a simplistic version of the Key of Solomon and did draw from it in his writings, however it does not account for the use of black handled knives in the folk magic traditions, especially those associated with faeries, in Ireland.
I have decided to draw from a couple of examples to illustrate this use, both from non-occult publications. The first example employs the use not only of the black handled knife, but also of a number of other items and practices which would be very familiar to Wiccans today. It is from a news story published a Dublin University Magazine of 1849 and reports the story of a lady named as Betty Sullivan who died in childbirth. As was the custom, her body was laid out for the wake and mourners cried over it for two days and nights. At this point her husband dreams that his wife was not dead at all, but rather that she had been carried off to nurse the child of the fairy king, Donn Firinne. Her husband was given precise instructions by an unnamed agency on how he could rescue her if he still cared for her. He had to go to the crossroads at Ballinatray at midnight:
“and there performing certain incantations, as precisely at that hour she was to pass by with a grand cavalcade of fairy ladies and gentlemen. He was to know her by seeing her mounted on a white horse at the rear of the whole party. First of all he was to provide himself with some holy water and a prayer-book, as well as some sprigs of yarrow, which should be cut by moonlight with a black-handled knife, certain mystic words having been first pronounced on the herb…”
In preparation he had to sprinkle the ground with the holy water using the yarrow and then draw a magic circle on the road around himself, large enough for the procession to pass through. With the hazel wand he had to draw a cross in the circle, starting in the east and ending in the West. He then had to say certain prayers facing the Moon and fix his eye on the white horse bearing his wife and pull her off without leaving the circle. The story ends well, and Betty’s husband succeeds in rescuing her.
Praying to the Moon, using a Magic Circle, sprinkling the ground with specially prepared holy water and using a wand to mark the Circle are all familiar ideas found in the Wiccan tradition. Hazel is a traditional wood for a wand and in Wicca there is a tradition of using the wand to draw the circle at times when it is not appropriate to use the more traditional sword or athame to do so, specifically this is deemed to be so when working with local spirits and fairy, due to the belief that iron is capable of hurting spiritual beings. So here we have an account which again predates the public emergence of Wicca by more than one hundred years, which employs a number of elements which would later become part of the tradition publicised by Gardner. Likewise, these elements are all also present in the much earlier fourteenth century, Heptameron, a grimoire which provided much of the material which would be used in later grimoires, including Yarrow which is often used to sprinkle the holy water.
Another significant aspect of this story is that the editors who published it, decided to display their own knowledge of the material contained in the story in a footnote, linking the practices to All Hallows Eve, an alternative name for Samhain, illustrating also that knowledge of these practices was widely discussed:
“A black-handled knife is an indispensable instrument in performing certain rites, and we shall have occasion to describe its virtues by-and-by. It is employed in the ceremonial of Hallow-Eve, and also in the mystic ceremonies performed at the rising of the new moon, as well as in certain diabolic mysteries made use of to include love etc.” (1849)
The black-handled knife turns up repeatedly in folklore and actual news events of the nineteenth century. We find it in the fictional story of The Man who killed a Spirit recorded by Florence M’Carthy (1843) published in The United States Democratic Review where a wise old woman called Ould Molly gave instructions to a young lady called Mary on how to use a black-handled knife to free her love, Tom Malloy, from possession by an evil spirit. The couple succeed and are able to marry and live happily ever after. In a more gloomy account of 1895 published in the London Spectator newspaper, we see the story of Mrs Cleary in the County of Tipperary, who was burnt to death by her husband who had convinced himself that she was in fact a fairy changeling who had been substituted for his wife. He was aided by his neighbours who believed that they could rescue the real Mrs Cleary from the fairy folk, much in the same way as Betty Sullivan a few decades earlier. They failed, as it would seem it was the real Mrs Cleary, not a changeling, they had burnt.
“Again, after the burning, many of the men of the locality sat up all night in a ‘fort’ (earth embankment of ancient Irish village,) armed with black-handled knives. These poor people thought that a fairy procession would pass by; that in its midst would be Mrs Cleary riding on a gray horse, and that if anyone rushed forward and cut her bonds with a black-handled knife, (a potent weapon against all evil spirits,) she would at once be restored to the world.” 
From these examples it seems clear that even with its grimoire roots, the Wiccan tradition has in its evolution incorporated ideas and tools which are derived either directly from Irish practices, or which mirror those found in Ireland and other Celtic countries. As W.B. Yeats commented with regard to those dreams which draw from the symbols and myths of our minds and our pasts:
“He alone that has passed the rose-strewn threshold can catch the far glimmer of the Gate of Horn.”
Chambers, Robert & William; Chambers Information for the People, 1842, W. S. Orr, London
D’Este, Sorita, & Rankine, David; Wicca Magickal Beginnings, 2008 (second edition), Avalonia, London
Dublin University Magazine, 1849, Oxford University Collection
The London Spectator, April 22nd 1895, London
Yeats, W.B.; The Celtic Twilight: Myth, Fantasy and Folklore, 1990, Prism, USA