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Let There be Light: A History of Candles

The history of candles is a long, if slightly obscure, one. In the initial instance, humans first utilised fire approximately 1 million years ago, if not earlier, and were intentionally harnessing it from about 400,000 to 300,000 years ago from evidence at Qesem Cave in Israel.

One of the earliest extant indication of candles comes to us by way of ancient Egypt and through the absence of the candle itself, but rather, a clay candle holder dating back to the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2575-2130 BCE). In the tomb of Pharaoh Amenemhat I (ca. 1962 BCE), a relief depicts a boat with a lit lamp or candle in front of a white cabin; at the front of the boat is a kneeling priest. The scenes around it reflect rites or rituals associated with the procession of the pharaoh’s coffin. The full extent of candle, or lamp, usage in this period may not entirely survive, but scenes like this one, alongside scant mentions in religious texts like the Book of the Dead, reflect its religious and symbolic importance outside of the practical use.

Similar stylistic examples of candle holders survive from Bronze Age Crete which are contemporary, or near-contemporary, to their Egyptian counterparts. Later examples from Cyprus resemble these simple clay designs.

The candles which would have been used during this time don’t resemble candles as they look today. Instead, the first candles tended to be made from plant material which was often dipped in animal fat. The plant material, such as flax (which is where we get linen from) would have either been bound together, or used as a single piece if the stalk of the plant species was larger, and then dipped to create a longer burning ‘wick’.

These types of candles only recently went out of use, but were used for thousands of years, with the novel Jane Eyre making reference to the usage of ‘rushlights’, ‘rush’ being the plant used.

Adjacent to these is the quintessential oil lamp. Still not technically a ‘candle’, oil lamps in their earliest forms were small dishes filled with oil, usually olive oil (which was readily available and inexpensive) and held a ‘wick’ - a piece of plant material or linen. Over time, the rim became first pinched then then steadily closed over. This design saw oil lamps become more intricately detailed, with scenes or even prayers on the external side and also mass produced through the use of moulds. Eventually, metal versions came about.

Copper lamp on lamp stand with reflector in the shape of a sea shell, 5th-6th c.

Not only were oil lamps used in the practical sense to provide light, but they were also used to set scenes in ancient theatre, to light the way to events like gladiator fights, and in religious settings. They were given as offerings to temples as light was considered a blessing and were buried with the dead.

It is these oil lamps that are mentioned in the early Abrahamic traditions. In the Jewish Torah, oil lamps are said to light the way for the righteous. The Jewish menorah, a seven lamp lamp stand, burned olive oil to light it and symbolised human knowledge guided by the light of God, the central lamp. In Christianity, they’re mentioned in the New Testament, and in the Orthodox Church, they continue to be used on the alter and to illuminate icons. Byzantine era examples were highly decorated.

Candles in their recognisable form today came to be by way of the Romans, who brought forward tallow candles (beef or mutton fat) and by the Middle Ages, they were in widespread use. Beeswax candles had also been around for some time, but their cost was exorbitant and thus only available to the upper classes. The flame of a beeswax candles however burns the warmest and the cleanest, emitting no dark smoke as they burned and is the preferred candle in churches today. Animal fats did take a while to leave candle, however, with spermaceti used even in modern history for fine candles. What’s spermaceti? Well, it’s wax from inside the head of a sperm whale. Today, oil lamps are still used in the Byzantine Rites (Orthodox Church), and candles continue to play a large part of celebrations and commemorations, both solemn and otherwise. From weekly church service, to larger events like Easter Sunday, they continue to symbolise prayer and the light of God.

Light, both literal and figurative, has been and continues to be important elements philosophically, religiously and spiritually. The ancient Egyptians had their sun god Ra, for the Zoroastrians, who believed in the ultimate conquest of good over evil, their highest deity was Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) whose physical expression was fire. The ancient Greeks held their lampadephoria, a torch race or relay which saw the sacred flame transported to the altar of Hera during the Panathenaic Games. The race was held during a moonless night and symbolised light, renewal and creation. In the Bible, Jesus refers to himself as the “light of this world” while Hannukah and Diwali are both literal “festivals of light”, to name just a few more well known examples.


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