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She's having a go at the candles now!

By Rowan

Published Lughnasa 1995

Pick up virtually any book on wicca or neo-paganism and you will find any number of sacred cows which are regarded as an intrinsic part of the teachings and whose truth is, to all intents and purposes, beyond question. Think of crystals, reincarnation, chakras, karma, the threefold return. No doubt you can add a few to the list.

Burning candle One particular sacred cow to which I have given much thought in recent months is the question of candles. Candles, we are told, are an absolutely essential feature of magick and ritual. A whole field of magick, generally (and originally) known as candle magick, has grown up around the subjects such that it now features extensively in almost any book on practical paganism or magick you could care to pick up and flick through. The received wisdom has it that you should choose the colour of your candles to "correspond" with the nature of the magick or rite you plan to undertake. Red for bonking rituals, yellow for magick designed to aid study and intellectual pursuits, silver for "Goddess rituals", black for cursing (er - do wiccans and other neo-pagans do curses??) and so on. Or you choose your candle colours to match the quarters when you cast your circle - the standard being red for south, blue for west, yellow for east and green (or sometimes black) for north. All of this, we are assured, goes back to the year dot and is an intrinsic part of the Old Craft. It seems immaterial whether the candles in question should be of a solid colour or merely have a coloured veneer coating an otherwise white one.

The sacredness of fire

Something is wrong here, methinks. Surely what is important here is the presence of a living flame. Fire is probably the oldest object of human worship (though apparently ritual activity may go back much further still) of which we have evidence and its continued worship amongst tribal peoples around the world testifies to its power over the human psyche. Some 400,000 years ago the caves of what is now China were inhabited by a long-extinct ancestor of ours known to palaeontology as homo erectus (the local sub-species also being known as homo pekinensis). In those caves evidence has been round of hearths which appear to have been the focal centre of live of those early people. But archaeology reports an interesting thing in that (according to all my reading on this subject) there is no evidence at all so far of the cooking of any foodstuffs before about 30,000 bce when charred and splintered remains of animal bones start to appear in human settlements during the last Ice Age. In other words, for some 370,000 years our ancestors knew about fire but apparently failed to discover one particularly important use for it. No doubt it was discovered early on that the presence of fire in a small community deterred predators from attacking and it would therefore be wrong to say that homo erectus did not have any practical use for fire.

However, can it not be argued that a practical use based on safety and protection is itself evidence for a ritual, spiritual or religious dimension in this placing of fire at the heart(h) of the community? After all, most pagans (as indeed do the followers of most religions) would regard themselves as being under the protection of the particular God or Goddess whom they worship and/or serve; the need for protection may be against hostile forces or elements, whether supernatural or "real". With Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for example, the promise given is of protection against devils, demons and hostile neighbouring tribes - so long as their adherents do all the necessary things first to protect themselves from the hostility and petulance of their protector.

But I digress. Fire pure and simple, however, clearly served some very real and important purpose in the lives of these early folks. If not for cooking it must have been spiritual or social - and it is not difficult (or perhaps too wide of the mark) to imagine our little band of pre-humans sitting around their fire and struggling to give expression to their shared experiences in a way that may have contributed to the development of complex language. If not at this early date then surely at some point in the endless millennia which follow. Is this the ultimate source of myth and storytelling?

The sacredness of fire in ancient societies is not in doubt, for the world over we find an ancient heritage of the worship of the living flame or of fire which is believed to be a literal embodiment of the divine. Amaterasu, Pele, Brighid and Vesta, to name but a few, are still regarded as actually present in the flames which burn(ed) in their shrines. In such cases the lighting of the sacred fire of striking of the spark must have been akin to invocation. In our own industrialised society, we find that most nations maintain an Eternal Flame which is not only sacred to the memory of those who have fallen in various wars but which is maintained in an almost religious manner lest it should be extinguished through neglect and the sacred spirits of our ancestors depart with it, brining disaster down upon the nation. So may we not regard as religious offerings the garlands and wreaths which, on the appointed Holy Day, are placed around this flame by those who understand what it represents?

What the expert told me

What the expert told me

Armed with these thoughts, and getting back to my starting point ("Hurrah!" I hear you cry), I undertook some research into the history and use of candles, including talking to Dr Andy Coupland, the immensely helpful Technical Manager of Price's Patent Candle Company Ltd which was formed in 1831. This is what I found.

The vast majority of candles on the market today, including those made in small workshops by independent craftsmen, are made from paraffin wax, which, as most folks know, is an oil-derivative. So to go out and buy your candles as most folks do, including most pagans, you are almost inevitably supporting the international oil industry with its exploitation of a non-renewable and finite natural resource; its transport of a toxic substance halfway round the world and in the process (since most oil tankers clean their tanks out at sea) probably contributing in no insignificant manner to marine pollution - dead dolphins for the sake of a few candles); to the creation of more pollution once it is cracked and refined at its destination - to say nothing of the bloody eyesores created by mega oil refineries in remote coastal areas. The Shell refinery near Southampton can be seen from parts of the New Forest and the ones at Milford Haven can be seen from many parts of Pembrokeshire.

Coloured candles such as we are so used to seeing today appear to be a remarkably modern invention. It should first be borne in mind that once gas and (later) electric lighting become common-place, candles were relegated to a box kept in the cupboard under the sink in case of emergency such as a power cut. Although what we now call "decorative" candles have been produced for many years, candles other than the utility variety were uncommon until some 30 years ago. And utility candles were always white. After all, in an emergency who is going to worry about what colour the damned things are so long as you can remember where you put them?

To dye candles interesting colours requires dyes which are able to bond to the sort of molecules which are found in various waxes. There are two sources of such dyes. Moulded candles are usually coloured using oil-soluble dyes, some of which are plant-based but most are based on aniline dyes, derived from oil and coal, which became available in the late 19th century. Plant dyes capable of colouring wax generally produce colours in the red, yellow and orange part of the spectrum but not generally blues, greens or purples. Overdipped candles, ie those with a white core and a coloured shell, tend to be coloured with pigments, usually of mineral origin, such as copper carbonate to produce blue or green colouring.

However the mineral compounds which can be used to colour wax blue or green must be ground extremely fine so that the particles hand suspended in the molten wax long enough for the candle to solidify. And here we hit a problem. Until fairly recently (say the early 19th century) it was not possible to grind minerals fine enough so that they did not sink before the candle hardened, so such mineral-based colouring agents were not suitable for use in solid coloured candles. In other words, while the colouring agents were available well back into the Middle Ages for colouring candles blue or green on the outside, the technology was not available to actually use them.

Satanic black

Perhaps the only colour which could have been reliable produced in a usable form was - black. Yes - the good old black candle so beloved of Hollywood films on satanism. Carbon was readily available in the form of lampblack or soot, which consists of particles so fine that there would have been no problem in using it in dispersion in molten wax (without it sinking to the bottom) to colour a candle black.

So perhaps until 150 years ago it was technically not possible to reliably produce pretty coloured candles - and certainly not at a price that you average village witch could have afforded. In fact, coloured candles, although manufactured in small quantities since the 1920s, did not become widely available until the mid 1960s. So much for the "age old" credentials of the magickal use of coloured candles in ritual! Apart from anything else, if coloured candles were an essential item of magick (though there is no mention of them in contemporary records) they would have been rather a give-away at time of persecution, given that there would have been no other possible explanation for something so inessential as a coloured candle when a plain uncoloured one would have been perfectly adequate for most purposes. I somewhat doubt that our ancestors would have been so bloody stupid!

If we look back far enough all of us have pagan ancestors somewhere back in history. Even in more recent centuries most folks lived simple lives. Let us for a moment try to put ourselves into the shoes of these ancestors of ours.

If you were poor, as most folks were, you main source of artificial light (other than the fire in the hearth) was a tallow candle - tallow, of course, being an animal product derived from a blend of rendered down beef and mutton fat. In one of the excellent museums in York you will find a reconstruction of an early 19th century street, one of whose shops is a candle-maker's workshop and in one corner is a vat of solidified tallow. On racks around the shop hang pairs of tapers made in much the same way as tapers are made today - a folded length of waxed wicking was dipped into the tallow and then hung up to dry. This process was repeated as often as necessary to produce a candle of the required thickness. Although the tallow in this vat is old, cold and solid, there is only one way to describe it - it stinks. Go too close and you start to feel sick. So try to imagine what it would have been like living in a dark cottage where one or more fresh tallow candles were burning. Tallow also burns with a lot of black smoke and soot.

If you were better off you would have chosen to burn beeswax candles (though in more recent centuries other oils such as coconut also came into use). Although we tend to regard beeswax as something of a luxury today, we forget that in past centuries, before the mass cultivation and importation of cane sugar which came from the colonies, the main sweetener used throughout Europe was honey. So bee-keeping was a widespread practice wherever bees could have found suitable foraging plants, with the surplus wax being an inevitable by-product.

The thing that both tallow and beeswax have in common is that their colour rage is decidedly restricted. Tallow candles tend to be a creamy or sickly yellow colour, while those made from beeswax may range in colour from almost white through cream and honey to quite a dark golden brown. It all depends on the amount and type of the foreign matter contaminating the wax. I have yet to see, however, naturally occurring blue tallow or red or silver beeswax!

Affordable beeswax candles

Given the above, it seems to me that one of the small ways in which modern pagans can make contact with the lives of their ancestors is by making their own beeswax candles for ritual use. It is neither vastly difficult nor even expensive. There are essentially two approaches you can adopt.

Firstly you can befriend a local beekeeper and beg (or even buy) the slightly sticky mass of wax which remains after the honey has been pressed or spun from the comb. Some beekeepers sell it back to the companies which make the wax sheets, others turn it into furniture polish, though you may be able to acquire enough for your needs quite cheaply. This wax can then be melted down in a double boiler on the cooker and then poured into moulds into which primed wicks have been suspended. (if you get really carried away you could even take up beekeeping!)

Alternatively (and the easy way) you can buy sheets of virgin wax from a beekeepers' supplier. The sheets of wax come with the shape of the honeycomb already moulded into them, partly so that the bees have a framework to give them a start when they build up the comb and partly to ensure that they create an even comb which makes best use of the space within the hive. Some sheets have wire added to reinforce the wax (the comb will eventually carry a considerable weight of honey) but others do not. It is the latter you are interested in, for if it is gently softened it can be wrapped carefully around a length of wick to form a very useful home-made candle. Once cooled, it will hold its shape without unwinding. A single sheet can be cut up so that it provides more than one candle and you can therefore make them to your own specification. It really is that simple!

If you want to give it a try, beekeeping supplies are not difficult to find - try your local Yellow Pages. But here's a very nice lady who was very helpful. She tells me she sells a lot of wax sheets for candle making.

The Honeypot, 305 Old Birmingham Road, Marlbrook, Birmingham, B60. Tel: 0121 445 2580. Open during the week and on Saturday mornings.

Sheets of wax cost in the order of approximately 33p for 5" x 13.5" for extra thin to 72p for 7.75" x 13.5" extra thick and wicking is about 65p per 5 yards.