Striking the Spark – The History of Oil Lamps

This post introduces oil lamps. The two posts after this will be step-by-step tutorials of how to make your own version of two different styles. The final post will discuss how to use the lamp you’ve made.

One of my favorite stories is the Greek myth about how humans first got fire.

Prometheus was a Titan who created mankind (and all the other species of the earth) from mud. Athena breathed life into the mud figures Prometheus made, and Epimetheus (another Titan) was tasked with gifting all the creatures of the earth with their various qualities and skills, like cunning and speed and fur and talons and scales.

That all worked beautifully, except that by the time Epimetheus got around to gifting mankind there were no more gifts to give. So Prometheus decided that man should walk upright like the Gods and have fire to boot.

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Prometheus Creating Man in the Presence of Athena (Detail), by Jean-Simon Berthelemy and Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse.

His work for mankind didn’t stop there, though. As the Titan god of forethought and cunning he was pretty damn clever. Clever enough to trick Zeus into accepting bones and fat as the portion of sacrifices meant for the gods, leaving the meat for man. Zeus was not amused by this, however, and He was a sore loser. So he punished mankind by taking fire away from them.

Prometheus couldn’t bear to see man so cold and helpless without fire. He stole some from the Hall of the Gods/the sun in response (sources differ as to location), and used that to replace the fire Zeus had taken away. In retaliation for the theft Zeus gave mankind Pandora with her jar, and Prometheus got eternal torture.

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“Torture” in this case referring to Zeus chaining Prometheus down and having an eagle eat his liver. Which was bad enough, but HIS liver kept regenerating. So the eagle ate it EVERY DAY. No wonder Prometheus is known as the Helper of Mankind! He was eventually rescued by Herakles, so at least the torture eventually ended.

There’s so much to love in this story, what with the layers and the ethical questions and the perspectives, even in the bare-bones version I give above. Disregarding all of that, however, we can see that fire itself has long been recognized as essential and necessary for the development of mankind and the growth of civilization.

We see the same idea – albeit in a less engaging form – in modern times when we check out current scientific research. Not only did fire allow early humans to cook food and create weapons, cognitive evolution studies now suggest that fire itself physically “altered our brains, helping endow us with capabilities such as long-term memory and problem-solving”.

According to the theory, having a fire that kept predators at bay allowed humans to sleep deeply enough at night to enter REM sleep, improving our ability to learn multi-step tasks like tool manufacturing.

Even more exciting, fire could have directly changed the way our brains work. Focusing on fire allowed early humans to reach meditative states, and the regions of the brain affected by those states overlap quite a bit with the brain regions that govern working memory. It’s working memory that allows us to think about multiple things at once and relate concepts to each other, and “it’s an essential trait for imagining and executing complicated plans”. People would have first experienced this without trying, just by sitting around a campfire.

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Like this one. Sadly, there were no s’mores for early man.

Whether we approach it from a mythic viewpoint or a scientific one, it can easily be said that fire is what allowed humans to become human. From a community campfire to the hearth of every home, from torches to oil lamps, fire has been our first and greatest tool in our struggle to survive and thrive in our world.

Is it really a surprise, then, that fire is still considered sacred in so many ways by so many faiths?

Oil lamps in particular hold a special place in religious practices all around the world. Beyond the advantages of a portable flame, the flame from an oil lamp burns with less flickering than a campfire. That steady burn amplifies the tendency of the human mind to enter meditative states when focusing on it. Meditating in front of flames is a practice that has extended in an unbroken line from the earliest humans to the present day.

There is absolutely no reason why modern-day polytheists can’t join our ancestors and experience flame the same way, with oil lamps of our very own.

Oil Lamp Symbolism

The uses of lamps for meditation are fairly universal. Additionally, there have been quite a few symbolic uses/meanings layered on to them too. These vary according to spiritual tradition, of course, but there are some interesting similarities between cultures.

Lamps are often used as symbols of “lighting the way to the Divine”, and can represent the soul rising to meet the gods. In Orthodox Christian churches the sanctuary lamp is first lit when the church is consecrated and burns olive oil perpetually thereafter. The sanctuary lamp thus honors the presence of Christ within the church. Hinduism links lamps with Truth and Wisdom, as well as burning them in honor of various deities, and lamps either burn perpetually or are lit at sunset and extinguished at dawn.

Incense offerings are lit from the lamp flame in a wide variety of traditions.

Fuel Choices

Pretty much any burnable liquid has been used in oil lamps throughout history. Most modern-day lamps burn a petroleum-based fuel, but historically fuels have been whatever burnable could be locally produced. Traditional Indian lamps use clarified ghee as a fuel, for instance, and coconut and castor oils are popular for the oil lamps used in Santeria. Olive oil was the easiest source for people living around the Mediterranean, and olive oil is what I prefer to use in my lamps.

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A working olive oil press in Nazareth Village, a historical and archaeological re-enactment of a first century Jewish village in modern-day Israel.

Safety-wise, olive oil is at the top of the list for liquid fuels. The amount of heat required to make it actually catch fire is the highest of any vegetable oil and much higher than petroleum products – it will not flame without a wick, and the wick must be exposed to air to burn. Submerging the wick in the oil will put it out. This helps prevent accidents. Olive oil also produces less soot and scent, so even those with sensitivities to lamp oil fumes should be able to use olive oil.

Olive oil is cost effective too. Most surviving historical examples of olive oil lamps are small, often just a couple of inches across. A liter of olive oil will provide 250-300 hours of light, so a small vessel will contain enough oil to burn as long or longer than a much larger petroleum-based lamp.

Later pressings of oil are actually more traditional for lamp fuel and tend to burn better (fewer solid bits are present in later pressings), so feel free to get the cheapest pressing of pure olive oil you can. I usually pick it up in at ethnic food stores. Olive oil also keeps for longer than any other edible oil – up to 15 months if stored in a tightly sealed container in a cool location. Refrigeration will extend the life of the oil.

Correspondence-wise olive oil is associated with health, purification, and peace. It has traditionally been used to bless, anoint, or draw beneficial things towards the user. Also, if additional correspondences are desired olive oil can easily be blended with other oils. Just remember that significantly changing the composition of the oil will change the way it burns. A drop or two of any additional oils should be fine for magickal use.

And yes, if desired you can absolutely use the oil in the lamp for anointing and blessing purposes in ritual. How’s that for multi-purpose?

Types of Oil Lamps

Olive oil lamps are constructed in a wide variety of ways, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to limit discussion to my two favorites – the standing wick lamp and the floating wick lamp. Not only are they beautiful and easy to maintain, but they’re also incredibly simple to make and customize.

The Standing Wick Lamp

This style is made from any water-tight dish/saucer/bowl/tray that can take the heat (sturdy ceramic is just fine), a wick, and a length of thick wire. The wire is twisted into a short spiral that holds the wick, spiraled around a few times to form a base that will keep the wick upright, and then bent to form a decorative handle from which charms or beads may be hung. This can of course be more complicated if you like – I’ve seen some gorgeous version with one wire being wrapped in such a way that it supports multiple wicks. This lamp needs to be tended very regularly to monitor fuel and heat levels, and as such is not the best choice for a perpetual flame.

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A simple version of this lamp, with a copper wire wick holder in a shallow bowl.

The Floating Wick Lamp

The floating wick lamp gets its name from the way the wick floats inside the oil, unlike the supported type where it lays on the bottom of the vessel.

The vessel for this lamp can be any water-tight container, including glass as well as ceramic or metal. Ideally, this type of lamp needs something narrower than it is tall to allow the water and oil to level out. Cylindrical shapes are perfect – most of the purchased styles have cylindrical glass liners inside the perhaps fancifully-shaped metal sheath.

The container is filled about half-way with water (and sometimes a few pinches of blessed salt), and then filled the rest of the way with oil. The wick is either threaded through a floating cork topped by a metal shield or suspended by a metal wick holder braced on either side of the vessel (often called an “Old Believer” holder – see third picture below). The metal wick holder can be purchased or can be made from twisted wire, ceramic, or metal. You can even make one out of wood if you cover the top in a layer of foil.

Floating wick lamps are very safe as the water prevents the lamp from overheating and puts out the wick should the lamp be accidentally tipped or run out of fuel. It’s also the best choice for lamps that will burn for long periods of time – with the right kind of wick it can burn 12-18 hours before it requires tending.

If you want to buy a ready-made lamp you can get ones that stand on tables or hang from walls and ceilings. You can also get a peg-type container that is designed to fit inside of a taper holder, which makes it look more like a goblet and gives more height.

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Various styles of floating wick lamps.

Wicks

All of these lamps use loosely woven cotton or hemp wicks – standard woven round wicks will do very well, or you can make your own from cotton mop heads. Fiberglass wicks are too tight to allow the thick olive oil to penetrate. Wicks must be saturated with the oil before they will burn properly. Occasionally trimming the charred part from the end of the burning wick will ensure that the wick continues to burn evenly. My favorite source for wicking caters to Eastern Orthodox Christians and charges less than $5 for over a year’s worth of wicking. (I’ve been experimenting with making my own wicking, but I’ve not come up with anything superior.)

To maintain a perpetual flame, the lamp flame can be used to light a candle or other lamp. The wick in the primary lamp can then be trimmed or whatever, and the lit candle can then “return” the flame to the lamp.

Making Your Own Oil Lamps

As I mentioned above, both lamp styles are incredibly simple to make and require a minimum of specialized tools.

The next post in this series will be a step-by-step tutorial (with pictures!) of how to make a standing wick lamp. The post after that will be the same type of thing for floating wick lamps. The final post of this four post series will discuss tips and techniques for using the lamp you’ve made.

So stay tuned!

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4 thoughts on “Striking the Spark – The History of Oil Lamps

  1. […] Here is part 1: Striking the Spark-The History of Oil Lamps […]

  2. […] Here is part 1: Striking the Spark-The History of Oil Lamps […]

  3. […] Part 1 History of Oil Lamps– symbolism, fuel options, types of oil lamps […]

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