Many thousands of years ago, flame allowed cave dwellers to see, provided warmth and frightened off animals. Small wonder, then, that flame is still a potent image. Candlelight or lamplight can be comforting or romantic. Candles are often used in peace gatherings or other protests. The very fact that flame is often referred to as "living" shows its importance. Candles are very flexible as tools, symbols or tokens.
As with all tools, we should be able to do without them. Sometimes candles are just not appropriate. They damage the interiors of caves and cairns and no matter what the temptation, using them in these circumstances is wrong. They can set tents and clothes on fire - or even set off heat sensors at embarrassing moments on cross-channel ferries. In such circumstances, either put aside finer feelings and use artificial light, or don't work at all.
Right Place, Right Time
In the right place at the right time, though, candles are a great aid. With artificial light, there are a few potential symbols missing - making, lighting, extinguishing and re-melting. Ignore the whole books devoted to "anoint a pink candle with such-and-such oil" and instead look at the symbolism and let your brain do the work. At its simplest, lighting a candle is a conscious act that brings a point of concentration. Applications include meditation, scrying and so on. Lighting one candle from another can symbolise sharing, or passing power.
You can use a candle in one context, use it again in another and inherit some of the energy from the first. If you have a sigil or intention written on something flammable, you can burn it, letting the energy absorb the intention. Sure, all these are things the trained mind is doing, not the candle, but the candle is a focus: it makes life easier.
Give some thought to the way the candle will be extinguished, as well. Some people see blowing the candle out as being disrespectful, preferring either to snuff it or let it burn out. Snuffing the candle is a conscious act of closure, whereas it's possible to see letting it burn out as carrying the intention forward.
The other thing to consider about a candle is how and where you're going to burn it. For full ceremonies, elaborate candelabra may be appropriate, but clearly that's yet more paraphernalia to lug around, not always easy. At the opposite extreme, you may want just to hold the candle as it burns - fine provided you don't drop wax somewhere unwanted, don't fall asleep and have a way of extinguishing it before it burns you. A halfway house is to use dishes of sand or water to support the candle or float it. This prevents damage to the surface underneath - grass at your selected outdoor site being just as worthy of respect as Aunty Mabel's antique water-veneered sideboard. In sex magic, the candle floating in water can be a symbol all of itself, but in practical terms the fact that it's safely em water is one less distraction when you're concentrating on something else.
Starting to think about candles in this way imposes real constraints on the type of candle (which is fine - you should always think carefully about every part of a ceremony, ritual or working). Since most commercial candles are sold on the basis of burning for hours and hours, letting them burn out may not be possible for anything short of an all-night vigil. If you're going to stand them up in sand, you can always use thin pillar candles and cut them to length, but if you want to float them in water, which is safer, then it's difficult to buy short duration candles.
For my purposes, I needed a standard floating candle that would burn for about thirty minutes, float happily in a wine-glass without destroying it, and drown with just enough wax left to allow re-melting to make new candles. This may not be your forte, but including some wax from an earlier candle, or from one someone else has sent me, is an integral part of what I do. As well as tools and symbols, candles make a useful token. If you visit somewhere, maybe you keep a scrapbook with postcards, tickets and restaurant receipts. Similarly, in a series of workings, it can be useful to collect (and potentially to share with others) "tokens" of each stage. Re-melting candles is a great way to do that.
I spent a long time designing a short-burn floating candle. Pattern-making is one of the few hereditary crafts in my family, so I calculated precise curves, made rubber candle moulds (from Gelflex®, from Alex Tiranti of Reading, UK) and experimented with precise mixes of wax and stearin to control the burn length. They're nice and I got a kick out of perfecting the manufacturing process. As always, the tool works better if there's something of you in it.
The Floating World
As with tools themselves, however, we should be able to do without complex manufacturing processes. Here's a sneaky simple way of making small floating candles. Start with a box of fine damp sand, which should be damp enough to stick together but dry enough to keep its shape. You will also need an egg, wax, candle-wick, some needles, home-made mayonnaise and a bread roll. Wax melts at below the boiling point of water, but is very flammable. Be careful, but accidents do happen so be prepared as well. Have a fire-blanket handy and ensure that you know how to use it before you start.
Smooth the sand into the box. Hard boil the egg (prevents accidents), and make indentations into the sand with the small end. Experiment until you get the burn length you want, but start with maybe half an inch deep. Keep starting again until there are enough indentations of the same size for the candles you need. Now stick the needles down the centre of lengths of wick, with the points sticking out, and poke one into the bottom of each indentation so that it stands upright. Melt the wax (use a tin in a pan of boiling water to prevent accidents) and pour it carefully into the moulds. Let it set properly (no need to top up because this is the top of the candle).
To prevent impatience, now peel the boiled egg, mash with the mayonnaise, spread on the roll and eat. By this time the candles should be cool - wait longer if you can, though. Knock the candles out of the mould, pull the needles out of the wicks and voila, floating candles. Candles with part of you in them, more fully attuned to what you want to do with them. With that much thought put into them, you're off to a flying start.
When I make a statement like “either use artificial light or simply don't work there at all”, I try to put my money where my mouth is. I fiddled around trying to design an LED-based candle for ritual use but it was always too complex. It took a joker to remind me of the “KISS” principle. The story is here. [back to top]