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.