Types (i.e. pillars, tea lights, seven day, four inch, etc.)
Candles are fairly central to any Wiccan’s practice. They’re used to symbolize fire, the four elements (the wax is earth, the flame is fire, the melting wax is water, and the smoke is air), spirit (the sum of all the elements), people, events, things, the Gods, and anything else you can think of. Their use in our practice is both extremely simple and very complex. They are simple to use in spellwork because they do not create the problem of disposal that a talisman or poppet does, stimulate the senses, and can be tailored to suit each purpose by working the color, scent, engraving, and other additions. They are also used merely for lighting in ritual to enhance the atmosphere, creating a more relaxed and intimate setting for our religious services. Because they play such a large role, a website about ritual would be incomplete without an article devoted to these seemingly essential tools.
If you walk down any candle aisle in a supermarket or speciality supply store, you’ll soon begin to comprehend the extreme variety of options you have available to you when it comes to candles. There are large, small, pillars, tapers, tea lights, votives, round, square, pyramid, paraffin, soy, beeswax, scented, unscented, and they come in every color of the rainbow! How can one decide which to use in their ritual? Many practitioners operate under the conclusion that whichever candle (or stone, tool, herb, incense, clothing, etc.) calls to them is the one they should use. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see witches picking up, mulling over, and discarding several candles (or what have you) before finding one that is suitable to them or deciding there isn’t one in the store that works for them and their purpose. There is nothing wrong with this behavior, but if one wishes to examine the use of candles further, we’ve provided ample information.
The first thing that you might wish to consider is the material the candle is made of. Some practitioners wish to use only natural materials in their circles (for more information, see our article on Modern Technology) so beeswax, soy, bayberry, or palm might be more appealing to them. Beeswax does have an importance that has been noted throughout history with taxes sometimes being paid in pounds of beeswax, a place in mythology (Icarus), and so on. Candles made from this material tend to burn more brightly, cleanly, and for longer periods of time than most other candles. They also are said to emit negative ions (much the same as sage) that are said to purify a space, clean the air, and invigorate the body (possibly enhancing intuition, creativity, and dream activity). Candles made from beeswax also emit a slight honey scent. Soy candles also burn cleanly and for a longer period of time than paraffin candles. They, like beeswax candles are non-toxic, environmentally friendly, produce no soot, and are made from a vegetable by-product produced in the USA. Palm wax is also a renewable resource that is obtained from the oil palm of Southeast Asia and has many of the same benefits of the other two natural wax options. These options are all more ecologically smart and healthier than using paraffin candles, but they can also cost more to buy (though they last longer than paraffin and end up being around the same price or just a bit more) and can be harder to find than paraffin. They also have specific care instructions that some people find to be a pain (i.e. trimming the wick before each use, making sure the pool of wax reaches a certain point before extinguishing the candle, snuffing the candle instead of just blowing it out, etc.).
Paraffin candles are pretty much the only candles you’ll find in most supermarkets, scent stores (like Bath and Body Works or Yankee Candle), and home stores. Thus they tend to be easy to acquire as well as cheap. There are some serious problems with paraffin to consider before use, though. The most innocent of these is that these candles are cheaply made and often show it. Wicks may be defective or not included at all, they may not burn evenly, and so on. You’ll have to check the candle before each use (though this is a good rule anyway). Now for the real bad news: paraffin wax contains up to eleven known toxins (at least two of which are carcinogenic or cancer-causing compounds) and its use contributes to our dependency on foreign fuel because it is a by-product of petroleum. It releases soot and it is difficult to remove from material.
Now that we’ve decided on what type of material we’d prefer, the next step may be to consider fragrance. If you’re buying from a supermarket or scent store, you might have no choice but to use a scented candle as unscented is sometimes difficult to find (particularly in colored candles). Some witches prefer to have unscented candles because it helps them concentrate if their nostrils aren’t met with the wafting scent of sugar cookies or pumpkin pie in the middle of ritual (particularly if they’ve fasted all day). They might also have problems with certain scents; remember, scent is the sense that is most tied with emotion. It might also be distracting if the scent of the candle doesn’t match the incense you’re using. Other practitioners prefer scented candles because, as I said, scent is the sense most tied to memory and emotion. If you’re doing a requiem ritual for a departed friend and have found (or made) a candle that smells exactly like the perfume she used to wear, that might be an excellent addition and it could draw her to your working.
Now that we know what we want our candle to be made of and smell like, we must decide how we want it to look. What shape do you want your candle to be? Some practitioners will use candles in the shape of humans, cats, skulls, hearts, stars, moons, or other shapes to best symbolize the intent of a spell. Some use knobbed candles as a form of measurement of time in ritual or spellwork. To go into all the reasons behind these shapes would take at least ten other articles, so I will assume you can infer for yourselves what those might mean to the practitioner using them and move on to other shapes like round, square, cone, and pyramid. Because we’ve already examined the meaning of the sphere in our article on Casting a Circle, we won’t go into that again. The square candle is used to emphasize the elements (much like the calling of the quarters creates a squared circle), seasons, or four archangels, and it is a very stable work tool. It creates a good foundation for your spell. The square also represents safety, security, limitation, endurance, strength, and permanence. The pyramid is similar since its base is a square, but it also represents the cone of power in addition to a plethora of other options you might wish to work with. According to Wikipedia, the pyramid represents the descending rays of the sun and, possibly, the primordial mound from which the ancient Egyptians believed the world was created. The cone is an obvious representation of the cone of power a witch raises to put into a spell. It also has solar connotations for the same reasons as the pyramid, has been linked to rebirth, and so on.
There are still decisions to be made on the type of candle you might choose to use. By that, I mean, are you going to use a pillar, taper, tea light, votive, seven-day candle (also called prayer candles), stick candle, a four-inch candle that many practitioners are fond of, or something else? Let’s examine each of these for a moment.
- Pillars are tall, thick candles that tend to last for a very long time, anywhere from a few weeks to a few years depending on how often and how long it is burned. They are often used for slow-acting spells, Deity candles, spirit candles, quarter candles, and lamps of art.
- Tapers are tall, thin candles that tend to last a few hours to a few weeks depending on how often and how long they are burned. They are often used for fast-acting spells, Deity candles that are replaced frequently, utility candles, quarter candles, and lamps of art.
- Tea Lights are small, round candles that last only a few hours. They are often used for fast-acting spells, quarter candles, and lamps of art.
- Votives are short, round candles that tend to last a few hours to a day. They are often used for fast-acting spells, quarter candles, and lamps of art.
- Seven Day Candles or Prayer Candles are jarred candles that are tall and about three to four inches in diameter. They last a week or more depending on how often and how long they are burned. They are used for medium-length spells, quarter candles, Deity candles, spirit candles, and lamps of art.
- Stick candles are much the same as seven-day candles but without a jar. They might last more or less than a week depending on the size and how often and how long they are burned. They are often used for medium-length spells, quarter candles, Deity candles, spirit candles, and lamps of art.
- Four Inch Candles are the type often found in metaphysical stores and are four inches in height and less than an inch in diameter. They last an hour or two at most. They are often used for fast-acting spells and utility candles.
So you can see that how long you wish to use the candle is a very important point to consider when choosing what type of candle you will work with. Also consider whether you’d prefer a jarred candle or one without a jar. If you’re working without a jar, you will probably need a candle holder or something to catch the wax. Think about what you’re using it for. If you’re doing a spell to help a friend through a difficult labor (that she’s currently struggling through), you probably don’t need a large pillar candle unless that is all you have available.
Color is often thought to be the single most important attribute of a candle. Because color is psychologically linked to so much within us, it is easy to see why. Think about it; when you’re having a bad day, can’t putting on a shirt in your favorite color lift your mood? It’s been psychologically proven that colors affect the mood. Naturally, we make use of this in ritual and magic to set the mood for our work by putting out a pink altar cloth for a love ritual, a red candle for a sex spell, or what have you. We’ve seen there’s much more to consider aside from color, though. So, now it’s time to examine color a bit. We won’t get into color correspondences here because we cover that topic in-depth in this article, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be covered here at all. Let’s talk about the different types of candles in ritual aside from spell candles for a moment since that will largely be covered in the color correspondence section.
- Deity Candles are often thought to be gold and silver for the God and Goddess respectively. That isn’t always the case. The reasoning behind those color choices is that in many Wiccans’ minds the God is a solar deity and the Goddess is a lunar deity, thus gold and silver were chosen because of the colors of those bodies. If you do not work with a solar God and a lunar Goddess, you might make other color selections. Personally, I work with a red candle for my Goddess (Brighid is traditionally associated with fire, among other things) and a blue candle for my God (Manannan mac Lir is associated with the sea). I’ve seen white and black to play on the idea of yin and yang. I’ve seen purple and yellow, orange and green, and any other color combination you can think of. Your choice will depend on your research into and experience with your patron deities, should you have them. If you do not, you may choose gold and silver, white and black, or plain white or purple. Some might choose to change out their deity candles for the seasons to go with the theme of their altar like red or white for Imbolc, pastels for Ostara, fire colors for Mabon, etc. It is entirely up to you and what is appropriate for your deity, if you even choose to use deity candles since many practitioners do not (that will be covered more below).
- Quarter Candles are simply candles used to mark each direction in the circle. I’ll leave the real discussion about them until a bit further along in the article, but know that color might matter. Does one choose to stress the gathering and union of the elements in the circle by having all the candles the same color (perhaps adding a charm, engraving, or ribbon) that designates which element the candle is supposed to represent? Or is it their individuality that you choose to focus on here by giving them each a color (traditionally yellow for air, blue for water, green for earth, and red for fire)? A practical note would be that by coloring them or giving them a differentiating mark that can be seen from far away and in low light you can help the ritual participants figure out where the directions are, which will obviously help with calling quarters and casting the circle.
- Lamps of Art/Circle Candles/Altar Candles have been mentioned a bit above but I didn’t go into a lot of detail about what they were or why they were needed. I’m going to forego the real discussion about them until a bit further along in this article. Know that their purpose is only to provide extra light in the circle so that one can read and move around safely. Because of this, they do not need to be consecrated or purified nor do they need to be on the altar or even in the circle at all. Their color is dependent on your own preference. Do you have a stash of extra candles in assorted colors? This might be a way to use them. Some prefer to have a color scheme for each ritual (as discussed a bit under deity candles above). For Mabon they might have reds, oranges, and yellows, while they might have pastels for Ostara. They might wish to extend that theme to their lamps of art to make sure their emotions aren’t altered by catching a glimpse of a bright red candle in the middle of a calming ritual or something. They might also choose to use all white lamps of art for this purpose so that they are suited to whatever work they are doing. Again, this is if you even choose to use lamps of art in your ritual.
WithWith all the choices in the land of candles, it might not be surprising that many witches choose to make their own. Through this process they know exactly what materials go into the candle itself and can exclude harmful toxins, they can shape and color it how they wish and add a scent if they’d like. It’s also easy to add herbs, resins, crystals, oils, and any other magical ingredients they would have otherwise had to dress or load the candle with to the wax itself before it hardens. Many practitioners also view this as an excellent way to put their energy into the candle that will be such a powerful symbol in their work. Additionally, if one wants to use a red, moon shaped, lavender-scented candle, it will be quite difficult (if not impossible) to find for sale. Candle-making isn’t that difficult either, though it can be pricey. For more information, see this website, pgs. 155-165 in Candlemas: Feast of Flames by Amber K and Azrael Arynn K, or one of the many other resources available.
Now that we’ve covered all the mundane specifics that could influence our candle choices, let’s move onto their ritual uses and whether or not they suit our practice.
Many practitioners choose not to use candles to represent their deities, since many choose to just use statues or other representations like seashells, coins, a bow, etc. If you do choose to use deity candles, understand why. Is it because it is easier to procure than a statue? Is it to symbolize the eternal spark of deity? Is it to set the mood for ritual by lighting and extinguishing it to signify the beginning and end? Why do you do it? If the answer has deep spiritual and mystical meaning to you, place those candles right up there on your altar. If it’s out of laziness, keep trying to find what would produce an emotional and psychological reaction in your ritual. There are also other reasons behind using a statue which will be covered in our ritual tools section coming soon and are touched upon in our article on Invoking Deity.
Another central candle to the ritual experience that some ritualitsts choose to use is the spirit candle. According to Thuri Calafia in Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire, this custom came from Dianic Witchcraft. The spirit candle represents the soul of the ritualist in solitary work and the coming together of those of a group into a unified entity in group work. It is often decorated with one’s personal symbols, monogram, or other symbols with great personal meaning, anointed with oils, decorated with stones or colors, and placed in a place or holder, all of personal significance. It is lit during every ritual around the time of grounding and centering and is often kept for a longer period of time than most other ritual candles. Alternately, it could be used to signify the union of the God and Goddess into one as a unity candle is used in a wedding. Other practitioners find it repetitive to use a spirit candle when the ritualist is already present in circle. The symbols on the altar are used to represent things that are present but not physically so; why is a symbol needed for someone already in the circle? One answer might be that the spirit candle represents the union of the Younger, Middle, and Higher Selves or the ritual persona of the ritualist. If done correctly, it can be a very meaningful part of ritual and it can be deeply moving to create and use a spirit candle, but, as usual, it is up to you to find what is meaningful, useful, and important to you in your personal practice.
It is quite common to represent each quarter with a candle. These could be placed on a separate elemental altar for each quarter, on sconces, on the altar, or on the floor. We have already discussed above why this could be done in group ritual (to make sure everyone knows the orientation of the circle), but there is a lot more to quarter candles than mere orientation. Some practitioners choose to use only an appropriately colored candle to represent each element in lieu of the usual representations (water, salt, incense, and a candle or other choices). It could be argued that this is mere laziness or a lack of creativity. If one were to examine this, they could conclude that water isn’t best represented by fire. However, it was discussed earlier that a candle can act as a symbol of the four elements together (wax/wick=earth, flame=fire, melted wax=water, smoke=air). If this is taken into account, it doesn’t seem to be as problematic. Other markers for each quarter can be used as well, such as stones or works of art symbolizing the elemental energy or symbol. Many practitioners, though, who choose to use quarter candles add the normal representations of the element to their quarter candle so that each element is appropriately shown, and the quarter candles merely act as guides for orientation purposes and to show when the elemental energies of that quarter are present by lighting and extinguishing the candle (or torch if weather permits) when the quarter is called and released.
Quarter candles also include using only a candle for fire. While there are other representations for fire in the circle (i.e. lava rock, most red stones, ash, incense, etc.) the candle is the most often used. This is probably because the energy of the other representation is different than having a live flame present in the circle to represent fire. It is much the same as trying to harness the energy of the earth in a glass box fifty feet in the air. Without anything tying you to the earth, it would be more difficult, whereas if you had a potted plant in your glass box, it would be easier to feel the earth’s energy. Having a flame present makes it easier, though it’s not impossible to harness the energies of fire with the other representations. The fire candle is usually red or another fire tone.
Lamps of art are a useful tool to help with some of the common problems in ritual performance like reading or moving in low light. They are often used because of this, but they are by no means necessary. If you have several candles already and find that you have enough light or you are performing a daytime ritual, you can easily skip these.
By now the number of uses of candles in ritual may have shocked you. How does someone even light all those, particularly if they are using matches? This is where utility candles (or tapers) come in. The taper is lit and then the flame is passed around to all the candles in the circle. It helps add a nice touch when one is reading an invocation to a deity and can just pick up the utility candle and light the deity candle rather than fumbling with a matchbook during the invocation or waiting five minutes while someone tries to light a stubborn match after the invocation is read. Obviously these aren’t necessary either.
After all this, I’m hoping the sheer amount of information I’ve provided on candles has helped you examine their use in ritual and find meaning in your own use of them because I frankly don’t want to look at another candle for a few days after writing all that! I’m kidding, of course! To close, I’d like to say that we haven’t even covered all the uses of candles. Because the celebration of ritual varies so much and it is largely dependent on the ritualist’s imagination, there will always be new, symbolic uses of candles in ritual. Just think about candle use in celebrations, like the Yule log, the candle wreath from Imbolc, and so on. There’s also the fact that some practitioners use them to mark the perimeter of the circle by lining up votives on the floor (after everyone is in place and far enough away so they don’t catch robes or skirts on fire). Covering all of their uses is impossible, but I hope I’ve provided enough information for you to find your own unique uses!
Beeswax Facts –http://www.beeswaxco.com/beeswaxFacts.htm
Soy Candles v. Paraffin Candles –http://www.angelscentedcandles.com/soyfacts.htm
Egyptian Pyramids –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_pyramids
National Candle Association — http://www.candles.org/safety_rules.html
Pgs. 26, 36-7 in Elements of Ritual by Deborah Lipp
Pg. 47 in Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire by Thuri Calafia