Seekers and Guides: Why Witches Wield Wands

Seekers and Guides: Why Witches Wield Wands May 19, 2016
I'm making custom wands at my Etsy shop! Click on this pic for the link.
I’m making custom wands at my Etsy shop! Click on this pic for the link.

In the age of the athame, a Witch might wonder why we bother putting a wand on the altar at all.  It seems almost like a backup athame to most of us, and certainly most books on Wicca and Witchcraft do not make it clear.  Whenever they give instruction about casting circles or enchanting anything, they generally tell you to use the athame.  Is the wand a mere altar decoration?  Why do we really wield wands?  Where did they come from, and what are they for?

Fire and Air

Those who have researched the origins of Wicca and Witchcraft recognize it as a holdover from the Western Mystery tradition.  Ceremonial Magicians use four Weapons, or Tools, to represent the four elements.  I’ve already discussed the pentacle and explained that it represented the element of earth; the chalice represented water and I’ll be writing about that in the future.  The wand represented fire, and the athame represented air, although some traditions (Gardnerians, for example, as Jason Mankey writes in his book) reverse the two.

So, why is that?  It actually comes from a deliberate mistake.  Arthur Edward Waite, who published the first commercially-available Tarot deck (which I’m sure you’ve seen before) was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and it was customary to hide occult secrets at the time by publishing deliberate errors in one’s books and so forth.  Waite deliberately switched the traditional associated elements with the four elements so that wands were associated with air and swords with fire in order to preserve occult knowledge from being exposed to the uninitiated.

Of course, this backfired, because the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, and variations of it, is the most popular in the world, for the reason that the pictures lend themselves to obvious meanings and interpretations that you don’t have to just memorize (unlike the Marseilles deck, which was the one that was commonly used until then; those are the ones that look more like playing cards).  This creates some lingering confusion in the Tarot symbolism of wands and swords, even when the deck you’re using switches the suits back (such as the Robin Wood Tarot, which is the one I use).  For instance, swords represent conflict, and wands represent actions and passions.  But is that because swords are fiery, spurring conflict, while wands are airy, representing movement and ideas?  Or is it because airy swords are about communication, which naturally creates conflict because all communication is about meeting needs, while fiery wands are about inspiration and passion?

But perhaps the confusion is understandable, since in many ways, swords and wands have always been interchangeable when representing air and fire.  The association with fire and wands/air and swords might be more traditional, but there are some very good theological and symbolic reasons for associating pointy things with fire, and some for associating non-pointy things with air, instead of the other way around as well; something I’ll be discussing in more detail when I write about the athame.

The Wand as Fire

Ceremonial magicians use a wand to represent fire because for them it represents lust; particularly masculine lust.  After all, the phallic shape of a wand is pretty hard to deny.  Conversely, the chalice represents feminine lust (for obvious reasons).  As a result, it also represents all the things that are represented by fire; passion, energy, action, and True Will.  The most important tool in working ceremonial magick is a wand; generally a special wand is created that displays all the colours of the rainbow, and this is the one that is used in major magickal workings.

True Will

“Directed energy” is much easier to see the purpose of, then.  But clearly Witches do not use the wand in this way.  Our tool of Will-direction is the athame.  Is it because we associate the athame with fire instead?

Some would reasonably and correctly argue yes, but there are different ways of considering the theology.  Is True Will the manifestation of the fire of spirit, or the result of focused thought made manifest?  Both are legitimate interpretations and it really all comes down to your personal preference.

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Mailice (1899). Public domain image.
William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Mailice (1899). Public domain image.

The Thyrsus

The Thyrsus was a type of wand that represented the followers of Dionysus.  It is described in some sources as being made of a giant fennel stalk, often wrapped in vines or ivy, and topped with a pine cone.  Sometimes it is said to drip honey, other times it hides a spear which is used for protection and defense.  This was intended to represent Dionysus’ holy powers of fertility, and pleasure and enjoyment in general, and could be thought of as the Greek equivalent of the lingham.  “Pine” and “penis” have the same Latin root wood.

This is one of the sources of inspiration for the Hermetic magickal orders in selecting a wand as one of the Magickal Weapons, and thus it informs the Western Mystery tradition’s image and use of the wand, and is reflected in the idea that fire wands created for ritual magick are supposed to have heads shaped like pine cones and decorated with red and yellow swirls; which gives it the overall look of a Byzantine tower.  I actually used a pine cone in paper mache as the head of my Fire Wand when I built one for my ritual magick study.

Thyrsus. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (public domain image).
Thyrsus. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (public domain image).

So in the symbolism of Wicca, this has a lot of inferred meaning.  The association with one (or maybe two, if you incorporate the lingham symbolism) of the Gods who form our image of the Horned God makes the wand a symbol of His power.  One could then infer that the application of the wand is the application of the fertilizing power of the Horned God.  A wand would subsequently make an excellent tool for spellwork that involves fertility or planting the seeds of an idea; anything involving the element of fire; or magick that involves men.  One could also infer that, like Dionysus Himself, the wand represents intoxication and the fire of holy madness, ecstasy, and divine inspiration; or, as the Celts call it, “fire in the head.”

Alexandrian Witches, who were of course more strongly influenced by their ceremonial magick roots than the Gardnerians, understand wands to be representative of fire in the way that Ceremonial Magicians do, and that’s probably the biggest difference between what might look to outsiders to be very similar traditions.

It has been pointed out that the Pope’s staff has a pine cone on it as well, but I could not find any reliable sources that could tell me if there is a historical link to the Thyrsus or not.  Many other modern occultists have linked the symbolism of the pine cone to sacred geometry and the Flower of Life and have suggested that it resembles the pineal gland, which is thought to be the “Third Eye gland” and the source of psychic abilities.

Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

Dionysus was one of the significant death-and-rebirth gods who was the focus of an initiatory mystery cult.  In the Dionyian Mysteries one tried to identify or unify with Dionysus in an ordeal of death and rebirth, or ordeal and symbolic sexual union (depending on one’s gender).  After initiation a man was called Bacchus (Dionysus’ Roman name) and given the Thyrsus wand; a woman was called Ariadne (Dionysus’ wife, united with Him in the Underworld) and she performed what we would call a Great Rite using, in the early years of the cult, a goat’s penis, and later a fig-wood phallus.  Maenids, who were women who worshiped Dionysus after the Maenids in the myth, carried Thyrsoi that were also spears.

Again we see the link to masculine lust, but there is also the chthonic death-and-rebirth element.  Dionysus was also a psychopomp.  And so a wand also has all of those associations; spirit travel, death and rebirth, resurrection, and so forth.  It would be a natural choice to use in related spellwork.

The Wand as Air

For Gardnerians, and for a lot of Witches as a result, the wand is the tool of air.  I think this is more because that’s the element that was left over after all the other ones were taken than anything, but there are also very sound theological and symbolic reasons for this choice.

Hermes with caduceus from a fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Public domain image.
Hermes with caduceus from a fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Public domain image.

The Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius

We’re familiar with the Caduceus in North America; it’s become the symbol for medicine and healing.  This is again due to a mistake.  We have confused it with the Rod of Asclepius, Greek god of healing and medicine.  The confusion is understandable, but Asclepius’ Rod has only a single serpent wrapped around it, while Hermes’ trademark has two serpents wrapped around a staff that usually has wings.

Rod of Asclepius. Original: CatherinMunro derivative work: Hazmat2 – This file was derived from: Rod of asclepius.png. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hermes Trismegistus

Some of that confusion may have come from its association with the Hermetic Orders and the study of alchemy.  Hermes Trismegistus “Thrice-Great Hermes” was the syncretic Greco-Eqyptian fusion of the Greek Hermes and the Eqyptian Thoth, both gods of the scholars, writing, learning, and the study of magick.  He was/is the patron of early chemistry and medicine through the alchemical arts.  In particular the Caduceus is used as the symbol of Azoth, the Universal Solvent.  Confusion of the symbol might also have something to do with the sycretization of the deified Egyptian physician Imhotep and Ascelpius, since Imhotep was already assimilated with Thoth by the Egyptians of the classical period.

Modern depiction of the Caduceus as a symbol of commerce. Drawing by Rama. Vectorized with Inkscape by Eliot Lash. Release to the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Other complications cited include the fact that a lot of publishers used the Caduceus in their logos near the turn of the 20th century for its association with the written word, especially some significant publishers of medical texts, and the U.S. Military adopted it as the symbol of their medical corps.  The reasoning behind the U.S. Military’s incorporation of the symbol range from simple confusion to a deliberate choice to indicate the neutrality, and non-combatant, status of the Medical Corps.  Since Hermes is a god of commerce, merchant ships in parts of the Ancient World would fly the Caduceus to indicate that they were non-combatants (or so it was said).  In modern times there is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of the Caduceus, since it is a symbol of commerce, in medicine; but I’m not the only one to suggest that perhaps that was a conscious choice rather than an accident.

So, used in this aspect, a wand may be ideal for working spells of healing and commerce; trade, diplomacy, and neutrality; or writing, language and scholarship.

The Gods of Air

Greek Hermes and Roman Mercury are often syncretized, but they had slightly different foci.  Hermes, perhaps, is less “shady”.  He is a god of trade, diplomacy, interpretive writing, breaking barriers, and travel.  Mercury shares Hermes’ associations, but He is also a god of thieves and tricksters.  Thoth, also part of the Hermes Trimegistus syncretization, is a god of magick, writing, science, settling disputes between the deities, and maintaining the Heavens.  These, of course, are mostly things that we associate with the element of air; which, of course, is why the wand is often an air tool instead of a fire one.

These deities are also great benefactors of humanity, sometimes directly opposing the rest of the gods in gifting us with knowledge and helping us out of trouble through trickery and cleverness.  They are all heralds of the gods; the Caduceus is actually a form of herald’s staff, which marks a person as a messenger so that they will not be held responsible for the message they have been asked to bring (and thus, it is also the symbol of a diplomat); and They are also psychopomps.

In this aspect, the wand is also a good choice of tool in spells that involve study, travel, breaking barriers, playing tricks, thievery, science, settling disputes, and probably even such modern niceties as air travel, cell phones, and the internet.

Guardians of the Watchtowers

In Hermetic Orders, the Archangel Raphael (or in some cases, Gabriel) who is the Guardian of the Eastern Watchtower and thus the Angel of Air, is also occasionally syncretized with Hermes Trimegistus.  Consequently he is visualized as carrying a Caduceus.  In contrast, the Archangel Michael, who is the Guardian of the Southern Watchtower and thus the Angel of Fire, carries the flaming sword that guards the Gates of Eden.

More Staffs and Snakes

Staves are just big wands, and long poles and snakes have a long association in mythology which is more concerned with the use of magick, transformation, and seeing or traveling between the worlds, though often a mingling of certain elemental qualities occurs.

Minoan Snake Goddess By C messier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38402269

Goddess Cults

This is significant to Dianic and non-binary Witches, since the serpent was often associated with the wisdom of Goddess-worshiping snake cults in the Ancient World as we transferred from pre-historic to historic times.  Thus, the wand may also be seen as a symbol of ancient feminine transformative power, and it’s sometimes associated in the practice of Goddess spirituality with the raising of kundalini.

Moses

As much as Pagans don’t like acknowledging any Abrahamic associations, the idea of the wand and its use as a magickal tool also comes out of associations with the stories of the Old Testament, particularly surrounding Moses.

In 1508 Michelangelo's image of the Israelites deliverance from the plague of serpents by the creation of the bronze serpent on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1508 Michelangelo’s image of the Israelites deliverance from the plague of serpents by the creation of the bronze serpent on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nehushtan

When the Israelites spoke out against God and Moses in the Exodus, God sent “fiery serpents” to bite and poison them.  They begged Moses to pray for relief on their behalf; God told Moses to erect a bronze serpent on a pole, the sight of which would protect the Israelites from the bites.  Historians have pointed out that this story could have originated from any number of the many and popular snake cults of the Ancient World, but since most of the Hermetics were nominally Christian, it seems clear that Moses is the source of this association.  The Nehushtan seems to bridge the air-fire gap, because it is clearly a symbol associated with fire, but also with healing and protection from harm.  According to the Old Testament King Hezekiah later destroyed it because it had become an object of worship 700 years later.

Moses Strikes the Rock with His Staff By Pieter de Grebber – http://freechristimages.org/biblebooks/Book_of_Numbers.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11740951. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Staff of Moses (and Maybe Also of Aaron?)

When God first appears to Moses as a burning bush, as as sign He turns the staff that Moses is carrying into a snake, and back into a staff.  Later, this becomes the staff that Moses uses to cause water to pour from a rock to satisfy the thirst of the dehydrated Israelites, but the fact that he struck it twice is a sign to God that he lacks sufficient faith and he is forbidden from entrance into the Promised Land.  It was also the famous staff used to part the Red Sea.  Moses also uses his staff at the battle of Rephidim against the Amalekites; when he holds it aloft, the Israelites are victorious; when he drops it the Amalekites gain the upper hand.  Aaron and Hur help him to hold it up to assure Israel’s victory.

Aaron’s Rod is also transformed into a serpent when Moses and Aaron appear before the Pharoah.  The staves of the priests of Egypt also turn into snakes but Aaron swallows them.  Aaron’s Rod is also used to turn the Nile blood red, and to initiate the plagues of Egypt.  Aaron later passed it on to his descendants as a sort of scepter; what happened to it after that point is, of course, a mystery and there are many contradicting accounts.  Biblical scholars debate whether or not the two staves might be one and the same, since they have such similar powers.

Hermetic tradition looks to Moses and Aaron as some of the first sorcerers, and so clearly the wand is intended to be used as a magickal tool and not just as a decoration for the altar.  The reason that they have similar powers is because the power comes from within the magician, and not from the object itself.  If you can accept these Biblical connections to the wand, it becomes a quite powerful Magickal Weapon that commands the forces of nature and turns the tides of battles; as long as your faith holds true!

The “libation vase of Gudea” with the dragon Mushussu, dedicated to Ningishzida (21st century BC short chronology). The caduceus is interpreted as depicting the god himself. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1610495

Ningishzida

Serpents are one of our oldest symbols of transformation and of the Underworld.  Both the Thyrsus and the Caduceus are symbols of gods who are psychopomps; travelers and guides between the worlds.  This may have originated from the Mesopotamian Underworld god Ningishzida, whose Caduceus symbol predates all other known combinations of staves and snakes by at least a millennium.  He, along with Dumuzi, was one of the two guardians of Anu’s celestial palace; so again, the wielder of the wand is a traveler between the worlds.  In some texts He is said to be female (perhaps because “nin” means lady) and this is perhaps why so many psychopomp deities seem to have ambiguous gender.  His name is said to mean “lord of the good tree.”

"Tree of Life" by Albero della Vita di Davide Tonato 2011. Released to the public domain through Wikimedia Commons.
“Tree of Life” by Albero della Vita di Davide Tonato 2011. Released to the public domain through Wikimedia Commons.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life represents the link between Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld.  It appears in numerous myths over a variety of cultures.  Celts traveled between the worlds via such a Tree; as did the Norse; as did several First Nations.  Often, such a Tree is associated in mythology with serpents; Nidhogg at the base of Yggdrasil, the Biblical serpent at the base of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil; the serpents harassing the Buddha as He meditated at the World Navel.

Kaballah

For the Magician and the Witch, mostly our interaction with the Tree of Life comes to us in the form of the Kaballah, which is a system of Jewish mysticism which posits that the Tree of Life is a map of the Macrocosm representing the structure of the Universe.  If this looks familiar, it’s because I mentioned it in my article on the pentacle.  (I sense a repeating theme here . . .)  Along its length are ten Sephiroth that represent the emanations of God, from which the Universe was formed.  Grasping each of these Sephiroth results in the ascension of the human spirit to a more exalted status which brings us closer to God and possibly assures immortality.  In some stories the Tree of the Knowledge and the Tree of Life are equated; in others, the Tree of Knowledge was representative of the Fall, which is a necessary step before Ascension, as represented by the Tree of Life.

Studying this graphic, you see the path by which God is thought to have created the Universe.  It is believed that completely understanding the Sephiroth in the reverse pattern is what facilitates Ascension.  In this we see that the Tree of Life is not a flat map; it’s a staircase that frames a spiral.  The energy moves in spirals in both directions, and this creates the balance between physical and spiritual, Earth and Heaven; just like the serpents of the Caduceus.

Kundalini

The Tree of Life is also thought to represent a map of the Microcosm in the form of the chakras and the movement of kundalini.  Kundalini energy is conceived of as a (female) serpent that lives at the base of the spine.  The goal of many mystical practices is to raise kundalini energy and cycle it up through the chakras, which turn like gears, to unify with the energy of Heaven.  Then you bring the energy of Heaven back down to re-mingle with the energy of the base chakra.  Tantric practices and the Ceremonial Magick practice of the Ritual of the Middle Pillar, which is based on the structure of the Tree of Life, both work to develop this, and I, among others, have argued that the raising of kundalini is necessary for any successful magick practice.  A map of this, when drawn, resembles a Caduceus.  Also, if you see a resemblance between this structure and the double helix of our DNA, you would not be the first to do so.  Modern mystics suggest that the coding for the Universe is contained within our DNA.

So from this point of view, the wand is used to direct kundalini energy to empower one’s magick.  More broadly, the wand is also used to symbolize the Great Mystery that all magicians know; as above, so below.  The power of the Universe, and the power to change the Universe, is within you; literally in your hand.

Spiritworker’s Staff

Let’s come back from all this esoterica to simpler, and more ancient, magick.  Magick-workers have always carried sacred staves; some decorated, some simple.  We associate them with the shamans and spiritworkers of many indigenous cultures; with Druids and storybook wizards; and wise old smiling Asian men in martial arts movies whom you don’t want to irritate.  It represents one who can travel between the worlds; a holy pilgrim and a journeyworker.

Tibetan Dorje from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art www.lacma.org; public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dorje

Tibetan bells are always sold with a small matching wand called a Dorje that we Westerners never know what to do with.  What you’re supposed to do with it is to hold it in one hand with the points facing up and down, as you ring the bell and chant Buddhist prayers.  It is a conduit between Heaven and Earth, intended to channel Heaven’s wisdom to the person who is praying.  It represents the thunderbolt of God striking and inspiring the Buddha in his Tibetan incarnation.

Alchemical Caduceus. Public domain image.
Alchemical Caduceus. Public domain image.

Thyrsus + Caduceus = Alchemical Caduceus

This image from the Egyptian Museum in Turino, Italy, is of a Thyrsus supposed to represent the Egyptian God Osiris.  Notice that now the Thyrsus and the Caduceus have been combined into a single image.  This follows the Hellenization of Osiris, and it carried into the Hermetic Orders more than a thousand years later.  This combined symbol was described as an “alchemical caduceus,” which was used specifically to describe the energetic paths on the Tree of Life, and thus the energetic paths of alchemical transformation.  Notice that it combines the symbolism of the Dionysian powers to travel to and from the Underworld; and the Hermetic powers to travel to and from the Heavens.  This is the Hermetic version of the spiritworker’s staff.  Now we have combined the powers of life, death and rebirth, and the ability to travel to all worlds is represented by the wand.

The Witch’s Wand

We have quite a bit of our own lore and symbolism associated with wands that I don’t think come from any other faith or mystical tradition.  For instance, we tend to have symbolic associations with the various types of wood that might be used in a wand.  We tend to believe that one should use the wood of fruit trees, one of the Nine Sacred Woods of the Druids, or any of a number of woods that have all been described as Trees of Life by one culture or another.  We believe that different woods have different powers (for instance, willow is best used for enchantment, while holly is best for banishing and hex-breaking).  We believe that one should, if possible, gather the wood from deadfall, ask permission before taking it, and leave an offering when one has done so.  We often sculpt our wands into unusual shapes, inscribe them with mystical symbols, or decorate them with crystals, furs and feathers, each of which is carefully chosen for its symbolism, its reputed powers, or the relationship to the animal or mineral that gave it up.  We tend not to use metals for our wands, and when we do they tend to be metals that are thought to be conductive in order to direct the magickal energy.

Stang

Traditional Witchcraft and Wiccan traditions influenced by Doreen Valiente use our own variation of the spiritworker’s staff; the stang.  The Horns of the Horned God (a.k.a. the Man in Black,) the Witch’s psychopomp, are mounted on a combination forked stick and pilgrim’s staff.  One might use the stang for this purpose in a coven setting, but just as the athame is the personal version of the coven’s sword, the wand is the personal version of the staff or stang.  Some of the lore surrounding a stang is that it should be cut from the wood of a living tree or that it should be forked before the antlers or horns are attached.

Tool for the Fair Folk

In his book Fifty Years of Wicca, Frederic Lamond, a New Forest covener who worked directly with Gerald Gardner and many of the other acknowledged founders of the Craft, pointed out that in the first degree Wiccan initiation ritual, the initiate is introduced to the Magickal Tools/Weapons and is told “the wand is for use with spirits for whom it would not be meet to use the athame.”  In his opinion the answer seemed obvious to him; the Fairy Folk have never been fans of iron, especially cold iron or steel, and so the wand is intended for use when dealing with the Fair Folk or other elemental spirits.

Conclusion

A wand is clearly a lot more than a simple decorative stick!  It might be one of the most ancient magickal tools still in use, and over the centuries it has gathered a wealth of esoteric symbolism and mystical history from cultures the world over.  It is the staff of a spiritworker, a conduit between Heaven and Earth, a map of the Macrocosm and the Microcosm, and a harness for the powers of the Universe and your own innate kundalini.  It means I have all the power of the Universe right here in my hand.


Like Between the Shadows on Facebook and never miss a post!

"I loved her Moon Magick book so much, that I ordered 3 times trying to ..."

From the Shadows: D.J. Conway and ..."
"I can't say that she is an accurate scholar, but her heart was in the ..."

From the Shadows: D.J. Conway and ..."
"I too have several of her books on my shelf - and I may re-read ..."

From the Shadows: D.J. Conway and ..."
"I agree completely, Jason. I think she deserved a lot more acknowledgement. And your article ..."

From the Shadows: D.J. Conway and ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Pagan
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment