Friday, April 4, 2008

The Candle Mystique

One day, while lighting a candle at work that we were using to provide fragrance for the Holiday Season, I stared with amazement at the curious invention that was now burning brightly before me. Who might it have been that came up with the idea for a candle? How do candles burn almost miraculously for such a long time without being consumed? I decided to investigate this beautiful, fragrant, and mysterious curiosity.

The name candle comes from the Latin candere meaning "to shine." Actually, very little is known about the origin of them. No one person is credited with their invention. Early Egyptians used "rushlights," which were torches made from reeds, peeled except on one side, with the pith soaked in molten tallow. Tallow comes from rendered cattle, horse or sheep fat. Historians credit the Romans with developing the wick candle.

How does a wick candle work? The wick is made of an absorbent material. The wick itself only burns long enough to melt the wax around it. It then absorbs the melted wax and pulls it upwards. The heat of the flame vaporizes the wax and it is the wax vapor that burns from that point on, not the wick. The vaporizing wax cools the wick and keeps it from being consumed by the fire. This process only requires a small amount of wax on the wick to keep the fire burning. The length and quality of burning depends upon the quality of the wax.

Getting the wax right was the heart of the matter down through history. Tallow worked for candles, but the acrid smell was unpleasant and it smoked. During the Middle Ages, beeswax began to be used. Beeswax candles burned clean but were so expensive only the wealthy could buy them.

Colonial Americans boiled the berries of bayberry bushes to produce a fragrant wax, but this was not practical because of the large quantity of berries required. Native Americans burned an oily fish called a "candlefish," in which they placed a wick. The candlefish was stuck on a stick.

Then in the 18th century, sperm whale oil began to be used. The first standardized candles were made from spermaceti wax. This substance was used until paraffin wax began to be produced from oil and coal shale in 1850. The discovery of the elements of tallow by Michel Eugene Chevreul led to the development of stearic acid, which was added to paraffin to make it hard and durable.

The actual development of the candle over the centuries seems quite ordinary in comparison to the reputation the candle has acquired. Not only were they the first light source mankind had, but candles also seem to radiate a message. I would venture to say that no one lights a candle without feeling something of its mystique, whether it be simply to illuminate the darkness or to promote romance or spirituality or soften one's mood. That solitary flame can stand for hope, enduring love or comfort. Magical qualities are also ascribed to candles. Wishes are made over them on birthday cakes, and they are also used for healing purposes in aromatherapy or to focus energy upon various purposes in what is known as "candle magick."

The word ceremony comes from the Latin cemonius, meaning "the person who carries a wax candle at public rituals." Due to the fact that candles were popular in various traditions and pagan worship, the early Christian church forbade the use of them in services until the third century when candles became an integral part of church ritual. Most of us have heard the phrase, "bell, book and candle." This was a church ceremony of excommunication wherein the priest rang a bell to symbolize the death toll of the person being excommunicated. Then the holy book on the altar was shut and candles were blown out to indicate casting the person out of the presence of God.

The use of particularly small candles became so common in the church that they derive their name from their usage. The name "votive" comes from the Latin "votum" meaning prayer, desire, promise or vow.

Candles are unique in that although most of us no longer need them for the purpose they were invented, we continue to use them simply because of their mystique. The candle means more to us than mere wick, wax and flame.

For more information:

Candles, Candles & More

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