Striking the Spark – Using Oil Lamps

This is the final post of a four part series. Posts one, two, and three need to be read before reading this entry for clarity.

Now that we’ve made (or are thinking about making) an oil lamp, what do we do with it?

Like most things you’re pretty much limited only by your creativity. They’re so easy to customize that there are more options than I can possibly list. Think of them as having the flexibility of candle magick with a bit more permanence. LOTS of options!

I’ll hit a few of the uses here to get you started.

One thing to keep in mind? Oil lamps have two usable parts – the flame, and the fuel. That expands the techniques quite a bit.

Meditation and Dreamwork

This is perhaps the most widespread use of the oil lamp in spiritual practice, especially those that burn olive oil. The flame is incredibly steady, making it ideal for use as a meditative focus. It’s also dimmer than petroleum flames so it’s easier on the eyes (important to me, since I’m photosensitive).

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A simple Buddhist altar, with an oil lamp for meditation.

Oil lamps give some flexibility to meditation beyond what candles can offer. For instance, it’s incredibly simple to mix a few drops of essential oil into the olive oil, offering a light scent and a way to boost the correspondences of the oil used.

One of my favorite techniques is to anoint my third eye with oil from the lamp as a boost to my meditation, especially when I’m trying to deal with a specific issue. I’ll say a short prayer prior to lighting the lamp to ask for clarity, light the lamp, and then anoint with the oil before I settle in to my meditation session. This can also be done before sleep to enhance dreamwork.

Divination

Simply use the flame to illuminate the divination surface/tool. This is especially useful during crystal or mirror work. The steady flame that’s so useful for meditation is a natural fit here. And again, just like with meditation the oil can be customized with essential oils and used to anoint both the reader and the tools.

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For this lamp the base of the crystal ball also helps support multiple wicks.

It is also good for fire scrying. The steady flame doesn’t offer the shapes some people look for when scrying in things like campfires, which can take some adjustment. However, the flame itself plus the meditative headspace it creates, when focused on a topic, can provide a wonderful divination method.

Cleansing and Blessing Work

Back in the day the Greeks didn’t have soap (soap was a Celtic thing). The Greeks cleaned themselves by covering themselves liberally in olive oil and then scraping it off. Olive oil still has that association with cleansing, and with olive oil being the primary fuel for these kinds of lamps cleansing uses seem to be a no-brainer. Especially since the flame itself of course brings in all the transformational and purifying qualities associated with fire.

Add a little rosemary or sage oil to the olive oil already being used and you’ve got something that literally “burns away” destructive energy in a given space. It’s similar to a smudge stick, without all the smoke that is difficult to breathe and the bits of sage falling away that can start unintended fires. It can even (carefully) be carried around to “shine its light everywhere” if that’s desired.

I greatly prefer this to candles. For one, adding a few drops of sage oil to the olive oil is much neater than rubbing oil all over a candle and then having to carry it around. *shrug* That matters. The lack of smoke from this kind of lamp is also a huge bonus, especially when cleansing a sickroom. A dedicated lamp used for cleansing also carries that cleansing intent between workings, which is a bit harder to get from anointed and carved candles.

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The blessing of St. Jude Oil at a shrine in NYC. St. Jude Oil is used as a protection against evil and healing for both mind and body.

Another technique – one I use every time I do any altar work at all – is to incorporate a lamp into personal cleansing work. I light the lamp, use the flame to help calm and center myself, and then “breathe in” the flame. I visualize the flame burning away any impurity inside of me before I address myself to the Powers. Visualize the flame radiating through you to your immediate environment and you can cleanse that too.

And of course the oil can be used to anoint people and objects for cleansing.

Shielding

Light the flame of the lamp. Everywhere illuminated by the lamp is shielded, either by the flame itself or by the Presence it signifies (discussed below).

Honoring, Offering, and Presence Lamps

Oil lamps are foundational tools used around the world for shrines and temples. The lit lamp symbolizes the presence of a given Power. The maintenance of the lamp – trimming the wick, filling the lamp, meditation time before it – is also often seen as an offering to that Power.

A related use is providing a definite start/stop time for a specific presence. There are some Powers that you really don’t want lurking around. If Their presence is tied to a lamp, so They are only present when it’s lit and are not present when it’s not, you’ve essentially got a switch. It’s not foolproof, of course, and it needs to be set up, but I find it works rather well.

Using the same lamp over and over again, and simply topping it off as needed, keeps that “setting” going strong. And, as always, the oil can be used for anointing. In this case it can connect you to a given Power and convey blessings.

Spellworkings

Just as a lamp can provide an on/off switch for a given Presence, so too can it provide the same type of service for a given working.

Set up any working you like, especially if you plan on repeating the same working. (I find this particularly applicable to shielding and other defensive work, but that’s how I’m wired. YMMV.) Incorporate the creation of a dedicated lamp into whatever spellcraft you’re doing. When you want to “activate” the working, light the lamp. When you’re done with it, extinguish the lamp.

Memorials

Oil lamps are often lit to honor those who have passed during tragic circumstances, especially after disasters, battles, or terrorist attacks. This is a wonderful tradition to add to Veteran’s Day and Samhain observances, as well as working well for specific memorials throughout the year.

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A girl lights oil lamps at a Buddhist temple to honor those killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Uniting Groups

If a group is working in separate physical locations, individuals lighting oil lamps similar to those lit by others in the group can help unite them, especially if the lighting and extinguishing follow a set liturgy/ritual. It doesn’t have to be long – a sentence and gesture might be all that’s needed – but it works. One person can purchase wicking, hack off pieces, and send them to the other members, so the wicking is all in common. Another way to unify the lamps is to have one person bless and add essential oils to a gallon of olive oil, and then mail smaller bottles containing that oil to everyone else. Remember, one one-liter bottle can burn for 250-300 hours, so a little goes a long way!

Signifying Initiation

Let’s say a group uses oil lamps on their personal altars. If someone new comes into that group, lighting their brand new lamp from the flame of an established member is a way to make them part of the group – they’re sharing the same flame.

Signifying Graduation

This is similar to the above. When someone has graduated their teaching and is qualified to teach others, their oil lamp is lit from their teacher’s to show that the knowledge has been passed on and the new student now has authorization to share that knowledge with others, eventually lighting other lamps themselves.

Passing the Torch

When one person takes over the roles/duties of another in a group setting, lighting the incoming person’s lamp with the outgoing person’s lamp is a highly visible way to “pass the torch”. If done with a perpetual flame, the same flame might burn through terms of office, regardless of who fills the role.

Etc, etc, etc

There are even more uses than these, of course. Feel free to experiment and come up with something that uniquely fits your practice. I’d love to hear what you come up with!

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!