Candles have a unique place in our society today, and are also an incredible link with our past. Unlike anything else, candles convey messages of romance, warmth, spirituality, secret wishes and brightness, all with the simple construct of wax and wick. Embraced by almost every faith, creed and nationality, there is something special about a solitary flame and the energy exchange that it puts forth. It touches our souls. Who among us has not been be touched by the commonality of candles in our religions? People of all faiths and walks of life, and many different creeds, can join together in a candlelight vigil to grieve, or come together in prayer. Candles are unique tools indeed to link mankind to the Divine.
Few people in modern civilization haven't had contact with candles. In fact, most of us encounter them every year blazing forth upon a birthday cake, ready for us to blow out and "make a wish." Our enchantment with birthday candles as children predisposes us to the belief that magic and candles naturally go together. Not only "birthday wishing" but any religion we were likely exposed to as children was surrounded with the symbolism of candles. Many older church sanctuaries even have a special place to light a votive for remembering a departed loved one or to send special prayers for the living who are in need. Candles "connect" like a conduit between people, to the Divine, and to the deceased. In our everyday homes, they are special reminders when we need a lovely "romantic" candle light supper, a "relaxing" candle light soak in the tub or even just "warmth" to look at on a frosty winter night. They set the tone and focus us.
The popularity of candles has skyrocketed in our world of electric lighting. There are now more colors, better production methods and much nicer scents than our ancestors could ever have wished for. Due to the popularity of aromatherapy, essential oils are also more widely available for home use. Properly anointed, our energies become focused on what exactly is our "will" and "intent" each and every time we glance at the dancing flame.
The History of Candles
Illuminating the darkness was one of early man's first concerns, along with finding a source for heat on cold dark nights. Gaining control of fire solved both the illumination and heat problems. Archeologic records reveal that Paleolithic humans began to the creation and use of fire. It is speculated that by this period in history, early man had begun to use fire for cooking. Cooked foods, particularly meats, improved the diet of early humans, because fire released proteins in food. While fire was being used for cooking, our ancestors would have discovered the unique ability of animal fat to burn as a fuel. How often have we in modern times had to run out and douse a barbecue grill because grease has caught fire? Those who have ever cooked with grease in the kitchen are well aware of the quick ability of fat to burn. The precursor to candles would have been a torch or lamp. A portable source of flame such as a greasy torch, in addition to a fire pit, would have provided a much more efficient method of lighting a cave. The candles of early man were plants, like reeds or grasses, in animal fat. Some have speculated that the soot caking the walls of the famous Paleolithic caves of France and Spain may have been caused by torchlight while the artists were creating the cave paintings. Others have hypothesized that the indentations in the cave walls were used as sconces to hold the torches. Soot was a common drawback to the use of of animal fat for lighting. Things would not improve until the modern era.
The Egyptians have been credited for both the inventive use of soaking pithy reeds in animal fats for "rushlights", and the early use of beeswax. As early as 3000 BC, beeswax candles looking pretty much the same as our beeswax candles do today--cone shaped and with a reed as a wick, have been found placed in tombs of rulers. Romans quickly adopted and improved the methods of candle making, adding a "wick" of woven fibers. Romans used these "candles" to illuminate their homes and places of worship. Although many ancient cultures also used clay type oil lamps for illumination, the principles were the same, a "wick" usually made of flax to hold the flame and "fuel" of animal fat, plant oils (such as olive oil) or beeswax. The word "candle" comes to us from the Latin candere, meaning "to shine."
Although there is more information readily available for the Mediterranean civilizations, people all over the world had a history of illumination. The Chinese extracted oils from the seeds of the tallow tree for this purpose. Also in Asia, wax was derived from insects called "Cocus" as well as plant oils, and molded into paper tubes. As ancient man became aware of the uses for, and methods of, deriving oils from animals and plants, he was also learning about herbs, spices and fragrance, all of which was later to develop into the spice and oil trade. In India,wax was made from boiling cinnamon and skimming the remaining wax to make candles for temple use. In India, there was a ban on the use of animal fat candles in temples. On the other side of the world, native people were also using things like Jojoba nuts for oil, and learning how to use shrubs like the wax myrtle, bayberries. Animals were also discovered to have an oily wax content, and Native Americans made use of "candlefish" (a very oily species of fish) which could be threaded with a wick impaled on forked stick and used as a torch.
With the archeological finds of Egypt and the Mediterranean countries of early candle and oil lamp use, illumination took on a whole new religious significance. A light in the darkness became hope for the ancients. Light symbolism of many of the ancient pagan religions included that of the Ancient Hebrews. In the Temple of Jerusalem, God occupied the Holy of Holies as a cloud of light. Oil and light figure heavily in the Chanukah story of "everlasting flames" on the sacred menorah. When Hellenistic Greeks seized control of the Temple, the defending Jews regained control and rededicated their Temple. There was but ONE vial of precious oil to keep the sacred flame lit,which would have burned for only one day. Instead of only one day, however, it lasted a miraculous eight days...long enough to allow the Jews to make more oil. Modern celebrations of Chanukah have replaced the ancient oil menorah with candles, in celebration of the miracle of those eight days. The menorah of nine branches holds a candle for each day, with a ninth branch for the shamash or "servant" light.
Early Christianity shunned the use of lights, because of the popularity of honoring the divine with light was viewed as pagan. Indeed, the Greek funeral custom was to accompany the dead with torchlight or candlelight so that the soul of the dying could not be seized by demons. Many church leaders in the first three centuries of Christianity spoke openly about the disdain they had for candles and lights. At this time Rome also had a competing salvation religion that centered on the Egyptian goddess, Isis. The followers of Isis kept her temple lamps lit at all hours, both day and night, to symbolize constant hope. Despite the fact that Christ called himself the "Light of the World," the early Christians resisted adopting anything obliquely seen as pagan into their religion. At the turn of the third century, Tertullian is credited with saying "on days of rejoicing, we do not…encroach upon the daylight with lamps." However, those who converted still celebrated with lights. They simply adapted their pagan ways and lit the darkness in celebration of the new religion. When the frustrated church leaders met at the Spanish council, the Synod of Elvira in 305, Lactanius, scoffed, "They kindle lights," he said of the pagans, "as though to one who is in darkness. Can he be thought sane who offers the light of lamps and candles to the Author and Giver of all light?"
The early Christian leaders were upset about the multitude of candles being used, and condemned it as an abuse of superstition to burn them during the daytime in cemeteries. Evidently, the new Christians were lighting candles in memory of their dead loved ones. The people loved candle lighting so much they did not want to give it up. They continued to do what was labeled as a "folk custom" by church leaders - lighting candles for the dead at funerals and, of course, in the catacombs of Rome. Vigilantius made it a reproach against the orthodox to light candles while the sun was still shining. Finally, due to the efforts of Saint Jerome and Constantine (who reportedly changed day into night with "pillars of wax"), cooler heads prevailed towards the end of the third century, and candle lighting became an integral part of the church. Although Saint Jerome thought it wrong for the pagans to light candles for their gods, he saw nothing wrong with people using candles to celebrate joy. As long as believers were lighting their candles for the presence of God, everlasting life and hope, Saint Jerome was supportive, and finally candles and lights became part of the early Roman church. In fact, the church became quite stringent about candle usage by the time of the fourth century, putting forth guidelines on candles and their functions for the various services provided by the church. New symbolism of candles and flames emerged to coincide with the church beliefs. Primarily the focus was on beeswax symbolizing the virgin mother, the wick symbolizing the soul of Jesus Christ, and the flame representing the Divinity which absorbs and dominates both. By the twelfth century candles had become the norm in churches, rather than oil lamps. The word ceremony comes from the Latin word cermonius, meaning "the person who carries a wax candle at public rituals".
Pope Gelasius in the fifth century established a feast day called Candlemas, during which all of the church's candles were blessed, though the blessing of the candles did not come into common use until the eleventh century. In Dorsetshire England, the custom of giving the poorer tradesmen a large candle at Candlemas continued up until this century.
Feel like being labeled a heretic or a witch? Book, Bell, and Candle refers to the excommunication ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. While we may scoff at the implications now, during the Middle Ages this could mean social shunning and dire consequences to one's standing in the community. The phrase, "Bell, Book and Candle" may bring you fond memories of a cute comedy film from 1958 starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, but during the Middle Ages, this was a curse.
From "The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce.
This "excommunication" is a word
In speech ecclesiastical oft heard,
And means the damning, with bell, book and candle,
Some sinner whose opinions are a scandal --
A rite permitting Satan to enslave him
Forever, and forbidding Christ to save him.
This very serious form of excommunication was called "anathema" and found ("apostasy, heresy, or schism,") in the Roman Pontifical canon of 1364. So what was Bell, Book and Candle? It's unclear if the church still does this, but a bishop performs the rite with a bell, holy book and candle upon the altar. Twelve priests with lighted candles attend and the following is said:
'We separate him, together with his accomplices and abettors, from the precious body and blood of the Lord and from the society of all Christians; we exclude him from our holy mother the church in heaven and on earth; we declare him excommunicate and anathema; we judge him damned, with the devil and his angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire until he shall recover himself from the toils of the devil and return to amendment and to penitence."
The priests answer, "So be it!" The bell is rung to symbolize a death toll, the book is shut, and the candles are blown out and dashed to the ground to indicate the sinners soul being cast out of the church and away from the sight of God. Who says there is no magic in the church?
The next major rift in the history of candles came when Protestants gained a position of power, particularly in England. As with other trappings of High Mass, the Protestant faith banished candle burning as a "idolatry." Ceremonial lighting was banished by law. When it was discovered that Queen Elizabeth I had two lit candles in her private chapel, it was enough for scandalous attention. She was, after all, the reigning Protestant "virgin" queen of England. The Catholic faith and all that went with it was viewed as superstition. There is a documented case of gentlemen being arrested for "use of wax lights and tapers" in the Durham Cathedral. Protestants scoffed at the Catholic ceremonies and called it "Candle Religion". One would think that Protestants were fearful of the Bell, Book and Candle rite mentioned above!
During medieval times most people could not afford the beeswax candles. Candle making became a registered tradeguild of craftspeople, remembered in the old nursery rhyme about "the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker." The art of making candles was called "chandlering," and the Guilds themselves were sometimes differentiated by two separate types of Chandlers. Wax Chandlers primarily made the higher-end candles of the nicer smelling beeswax and the Tallow Chandlers made candles out of mutton fat. For the most part, common folks could only afford the tallow candles as the beeswax tapers were costly. The types of rendered animal fat most frequently used for tallow were from cattle, pigs and sheep. The tallow acquired from sheep, or mutton tallow, was preferable as it burned longer, and the smoke and smell was not as bad. Either way, tallow candles had a distinct acrid odor and nasty sputtering. Up until this century, many women looked forward to spring cleaning as a ritual as the time to get the soot and grime out of her house from the long winter months. Though we detest spring cleaning in the present time (if we even do actually DO it) it was an entirely different story before the coming of electricity. In my own family history, my great aunt can still recall how her grandmother would scour the house from top to bottom just to get rid of the dirt. It wasn't just dirt. It was greasy dirt.
We have great choices in our modern world of colored candles, but prior to this century, colored candles were not commonplace. In fact it would have seemed odd if you actually had colored candles in your home in the days of old. The dyes used today weren't readily available. Most candles were the natural color of the ingredients that went into their making. You might not know what color a mutton fat candle was, but you can be reasonably sure it wasn't a nice mauve pink with a tea rose scent attached to it! To put it quite simply, the technology to produce oil soluble (remember, we are dealing with oils and mutton fat) dyes was not in place until recent history. It's possible that alchemists, ceremonial magicians and perhaps even a few witches were able to make individual candles with natural pigments from plants, but they would only have been able to color the wax to the warmer shades of the color spectrum. There was, of course, always the possibility of adding herbs and other special ingredients if you were making your own candles for occult purposes, but the vivid colors we see in candles today were just not possible.
During the settlement of America, Colonial women discovered the use of bayberries, and bayberry oil. This addition to the history of candle making is completely American, as bayberries (from the plant known as Wax Myrtle, Myrica, Candle Berry, Arbre à suif, Myricae Cortex, Tallow Shrub, Wachsgagle) got their common name from what the early colonists called them when the berries were first found growing near Cape Cod Bay. It's no wonder we think of the East Coast when we see or smell bayberry candles, which are highly aromatic and have wax more brittle than beeswax. Not only could the colonists make candles with this bayberry wax, it has also been documented that the oil could be used in a shallow dish, with a string serving as a wick. It was a vast improvement over tallow, because the bayberry oils were richly scented and smokeless after snuffing. The popularity of extracting bayberry oil for candle making did not last long because of the arduous process used to collect the bayberry oil. It takes one and a half quarts of bayberries to make enough oil for a taper. Settlers also used "pine knots" made from pitch pine trees to light their homes.
Because there were no chandler guilds set up for the new settlers in America, it usually fell to the lady of the house to create the illumination for the family. This involved saving every scrap of household grease, gathering tallow from the slaughtered farm animals, and knitting her own wicks from cotton thread. When it came time to make candles, she would generally make a large quantity of them at a time, saving enough tallow and grease to make the family's soap supply as well. Colonial and pioneer kitchen often came equipped with wooden racks for dipping tapers and candle molds.
June 10, 1861
My wife said I should write down how to make candles since I was writing down how to do stuff. I'd a', had her write it down, but she don't write so good as me.When ye kill a beef or a sheep, ye gather all the fat ye can from inside the hide and around the guts and save it. After ye've got a passable bunch of it, ye put it in a big pot and build a fire under it. Not a big fire, mind ye, else the stuff may catch on fire its ownself. Ye let that come to a boil and then boil it right easy for two or three hours. They ye strain it through a crocus or burlap sack and throw out the chunks that are left.The liquid that's left is called tallow except us poor people call it "taller" (pronounced like gal). Ye keep that warm enough to stay liquid, cause if it gets cold, it gets hard like soap.Ye take a stick and tie about 6 flax threads onto it about 2 inches apart. Let one end of the threads hang down about 6 or 8 inches. These are the wicks for yer candles, so make 'em as long as ye want.Hold the stick over the pot of tallow, with the strings hanging down and then dip the strings into the tallow. When they're all good and wet, pull them out and make sure they're all hanging down straight. Gotta get 'em straight quick a'fore the tallow gets hard. This is called dippin', the wick. After the tallow hardens, dip 'em into the pot again and pull 'em out quick. Do it quick a'fore the tallow on the strings melts off. Let that harden and then keep doin', it.Every time ye dip it into the pot, it puts on a layer of tallow. Keep doin', it until the candle gets as big as ye want it to be. Then cut the strings off the stick and ye've got six candles.The rich people have got candle molds that look like a hollow candle. Ye open it up, put a flax string through it, close it and then pour it full of tallow or bees wax. When it hardens ye've got a candle. It's quicker but molds cost money.Ye might guess that since candles take a lot of time to make, we don't waste 'em. If we set up much past dark, we usually set by the fireplace for the light it gives off. We save candles for company or if my wife has to sew something at night and can't see by the firelight.
Part of the problem with candles in the old days was that they were too soft. They quite often drooped in hot weather. The first major change in candle making since medieval times was the discovery of spermaceti (solidified oil from the Cachalot or Sperm Whale). When a Nantucket fisherman caught a sperm whale in 1712, the whaling industry was born (which later led to the over hunting of whales). The whale oil burned cleaner than other oils, and became used as a fuel. Spermaceti wax hardened the usual tallow or beeswax candles so they were no longer soft when temperatures were hot during the summer months. The popularity of whale oil waned in the United States soon after the Civil War. With the discovery of better ingredients, whale oil is no longer used in candle production. An interesting historical note is that when it came time to measure the intensity of a lightbulb, a spermaceti candle was used as the basis for calibration. The Standard International Candle is the intensity of light emitted from a 1/6-pound spermaceti candle, burning at a rate of 120 grams per hour, duplicated in an incandescent lamp.
Several changes came about in the past two centuries to make vast improvements in candles as we know them. Stearin and stearic acid refined tallow with alkali and sulfuric acid, removing the odor and hardening the animal proteins. These additives also increased the burning time of candles. Several inventors were involved in the mass production of candles. In 1825, patents were issued for M. E. Chevreul and J. L. Gay-Lussac for candles made of stearin. Stearin can still be found in candles today. It is a compound of palmatic acids (palm oil) mixed with stearic acid (a byproduct of the slaughter industry, which increased the burning time and the melting point, making for stronger sturdier candles. Joseph Morgan is credited with the 1834 invention of a piston-cylinder machine that allowed the non-stop production of candles. Shortly after stearin use had become prominent, in 1850 paraffin was discovered as a by-product of the oil industry. Paraffin was made by distilling the residues left behind in crude petroleum production. Today, paraffin has been further refined so that it burns even more cleanly, and with no unpleasant odor. If you think about it, burning candles is a way to recycle. Two byproducts of very messy industries (slaughter and petroleum) keep our flames burning better than those of our ancestors. With the introduction of paraffin, candles became more economical. Paraffin became the most widely available and easily obtainable ingredient in centuries of candle making.
Vast improvements were made to wicks as well when in 1834 "mordanting" was discovered. It causes the wick outside the flame to curl and turn to ash. Mordanting is also sometimes referred to as "pickling" the wicks. Today wick manufacturers plait the wicks by machine, and they emerge as flat thin strips. The wicks are dipped into a solution which may contain ammonium phosphate, ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, borax, boric acid and potassium nitrate. If a wick is not mordanted, it remains straight and does not curl outside the flame. At one time every pioneer home had a "wick trimmer" which was used to trim the wicks on the burning candles. There were even men called "candlesnuffers" who went around with snuffing scissors to cut the carbonaceous matter off of wicks. Mordanting solved this problem. The burning tip of the wick now drops outside of the flame zone, and is reduced to a bead of glowing ash which automatically decomposes as the candle burns.
Anointing with Oils
Oil plays an integral part of candle production from its basic stages to the mixtures of scents blended with the wax. Many religions including and starting with pagans believed in the powers and properties of oils. In candle magick, anointing with oils is an integral part of the process. While some authors stress that "dressing" a candle with oil isn't always necessary, they pretty much agree that anointing a candle with corresponding oil is indeed preferable. The action of "anointing" has long been a part of sacred religions and belief systems. As soon as processes were developed to process plants into essential oils by ancient civilizations, trade routes became established for the spices, incense, essential oils and cooking oils, such as olive, dates and palm. Most interesting yet is the sacredness of olive oil, which began cultivation in Greece around 2500 BC. "Liquid gold" are the words that Homer used to describe olive oil. It is here that wonderful pagan mythology and religion "blended" together. Athena and Poseidon had a contest over who would claim a Greek city that they both wanted as sanctuary. Poseidon gifted the city with a spring of saltwater, however Athena touched their hearts with the gift of an olive tree. Thus the city came to be known as Athens. Olive oil connected man to the gods. Not only did people eat foods with olive oil, they used it for lamp fuel. Within the trade routes of other Mediterranean countries, essential oils from other flowers and spices began to develop. The word perfume comes from the Latin "per", meaning through, and "fumum," meaning smoke, meaning not only oil based fragrance as we know it, but it also incense (the smoke). Incense and oils began to take their places of religious significance in China, and India as well. It seemed that every region began perfecting the art of plant essences and oils.
Anointing with oils became a ritual. Thousands of years before the time of Christ, the Egyptian and Chinese were learning the arts of extracting oils, resins and spice. The Egyptians used their herbal skills not only to prepare their dead, but to leave in the tombs, which were filled with precious oils for the afterlife. This knowledge was also used to heal the sick and to anoint leaders. Kings, priests, and prophets all were anointed with oils. Manuscripts from King Khufu records the use of herbs, oils and salves for religious purposes and healing around 2700 bc. Scientists later discovered that Ramesses II had his nose stuffed with peppercorns, although it was perhaps to retain it's distinctive shape during mummification, one would think that the art of preserving bodies, masking the odors of decomposition and ceremony/ritual was all involved with the Egyptian selection of herbs for both the deceased as well as the living. Even Cleopatra's love of fragrance rekindled the interest in it in Rome during the time of Julius Caesar. With the intermingling and trade between Mediterranean countries, all became familiar with the uses of oils. This tradition permeated all the religions and regions.
As with the Hebrews in the Old Testament, the New Testament makes plenty of mentions of anointing with oil. There are 188 references to oils in the Bible. The early Hebrews were possibly well acquainted with oil use during their contact with Babylon and Mesopotamia. The early dynasties of Egypt are referred to in the Bible with the stories of King David, Joseph, King Solomon, and Moses. It is with the introduction of Moses that anointing with oils becomes very specific. "Moreover, the Lord spoke unto Moses saying: Take thou also unto thee principal spices of pure myrrh...of sweet cinnamon...of sweet calamus...of cassia...and of olive...and thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil." Exodus 30:22-25. Sources point that Biblically, anointing with oil religiously started in 1446 BC during the 18th dynasty with Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.
When Christianity arrived, anointing with oil took on a new significance. The Hebrew word for Messiah is "anointed one" and when the Christ child was born, the Bible mentions that precious substances of frankincense and myrrh are brought to him by the wise men. Christ's feet are washed and anointed with oil of spikenard by Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper, and when his body is removed from the cross, it is wrapped in linen soaked with myrrh oil to be placed in the tomb. (Myrrh is purifying and prevented decomposition). During biblical times the known oils used to heal the sick were frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, rosemary, hyssop, cassia, cinnamon and spikenard. In translations of Greek and Hebrew, anointing oil means "The Holy Spirit poured out." After his conversion, the emperor Constantine bequeathed not only aromatic precious oils, but deeded into perpetuity the farms to produce them for the church all over the Byzantine empire.
With the establishment of papal authority, royal anointing became necessary for a king to claim his crown. In the ceremony of coronation, most essential was the anointing of the new king. This was why Joan of Arc fought to regain control of Rheims so that Charles VII could be crowned and anointed with holy oil. The first record of royal anointing was Visigothic Wamba (672). It is said that when Wamba knelt and oil was poured over his head, a vapor arose that was believed by the people present to have been a supernatural portent. We may believe that the royal anointing was part of the Divine Right of Kings included in scripture: I Peter 2:13: "Submit yourselves to every human institution for the sake of the Lord, whether to the sovereign as supreme, or to the governor as his deputy...even when they are perverse." Augustine pointed out, "Obey even an evil king as long as he counsels nothing directly against God, for his tyranny is sent as a punishment for the sins of the people." Although each kingdom had a specific ceremony for crowning and anointing the king, the anointing itself usually consisted of the oil being placed on the head, hands and shoulder blades.
What was the oil recipe that went into the anointing of Kings? Well, this would generally be the same oil that was used in baptisms, the oil of catechumens. There were specifically three types of holy oil: Oil of the Catechumens, the Sacred Chrism and the Oil of the Sick. Normally these oils are blessed by a bishop on Maundy Thursday, the day of the calendar year in which the Last Supper is celebrated. For the most part oil of catechumens is olive oil, blessed by a bishop to ward off evil and to bring strength and wisdom. Almost all European royalty was anointed with the oil of catechumens (also the same oil used for baptisms), except for the French Kings. From the coronation of Clovis in 496 to Louis XVI, the kings of France were anointed with an ampula containing the Sacred Chism. Chism was more of a balm than an oil, and was used for the consecrating of bishops, chalices and altars. It is said to be one of the most powerful of the oils in the church's arsenal. The same ingredients in the biblical reference to Moses are said to be in Sacred Chism--- principal spices of pure myrrh...of sweet cinnamon...of sweet calamus...of cassia...and of olive...Unfortunately, the ampula that anointed the French kings for centuries was destroyed in the French Revolution. What remained after the destruction of the ampula was rescued and used for Charles X in 1825.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the oil and spice trade flourished along the older routes that were known as far back as 1700 bc. With the discoveries of Marco Polo, and the Crusades, the trade in oils and spices surged. When the plague broke out and black death took it's toll, some thieves were caught robbing the dead. Their secret for avoiding the sickness? They were spice traders who had rubbed themselves down with essential oils to avoid being infected. As you can see, the tradition of using oils for religious, protective, or magickal purposes is an old and varied one.