Most of us use candles regularly in our practice, that much is true. But do you really know where your candles come from? What about who made the first candle? As always, I am intrigued by where my tools and supplies come from, the history behind their use, and how that applies to our modern practice. So, I decided to dig a bit into the history behind candle making and even tried to find out where my local chime candles come from!
We know fire was discovered by man a long time ago but it has existed at least as long as Earth has had plants, oxygen, and combustion. According to a Time Magazine article, the evidence we have of fire in the fossil record is generally based on how often charcoal is found. “The oldest fire ever recorded on Earth has been identified from charcoal in rocks formed during the late Silurian Period, around 420 million years ago.” It is possible that humans were opportunistic with the wildfires of the savannas of Africa, but the first clear evidence of habitual use of fire comes from caves in Israel dating back more than 300,000 years.
We know, of course, that the first candles were not invented that long ago because we as a species did not have the technology for such an invention. However, it is amazing for me to think that homo sapiens as we are now were sitting in caves around hearth fires more than 300,000 years ago. In any case, candles did not come around until much, much later.
But what about candles? We know that ancient peoples used fires for cooking. We know they used them for warmth. We have evidence of their hearth fires all over the world, but evidence of candle use and creation is harder to pinpoint. Why? Because places all over the world created candles throughout history. Candles may even be one of the earliest inventions of the ancient world. Britannica Encyclopedia says that candlesticks dated back to at least 3,000 BCE have been found both in Egypt and Crete.
Candles from ancient times would have been made from some type of fat, usually the fat of an animal. They would have been dipped rather than rolled, as we see with some beeswax candles today. There is some evidence that ancient Egyptians used something called a rushlight which, when researching a bit more, looks more like a torch than a candle. However, I could not find a picture of this for comparison nor could I found a source that told me this was completely accurate.
In the 19th century, a French chemist named Michel-Eugène Chevreul figured out how to separate the fatty acid from the glycerin fat to create something called stearic acid. This allowed for higher quality candles to be made rather than candles simply dipped in tallow or animal fat. Once this was discovered, many more processes for creating candles were discovered. In addition to stearic acid, two other important sources were found, one which is still used today.
The first is spermaceti. This may sound like a strange word but it is actually a wax that is liquid at body temperature that is obtained from the head of the sperm or bottlenose whale. It was used in ointments, cosmetics, and most importantly, candles. It is unclear to me if this fatty wax from whales is still in use anywhere today. I would like to imagine that it is not, since whaling has been outlawed in most countries, but I could not find a definitive answer.
The second candle-making ingredient, the one still in use today, is paraffin wax. Paraffin wax is usually colorless or white, sometimes translucent. It’s a hard wax obtained by dewaxing light lubricating oil stocks (whatever that means lol). It was favored over tallow and other previous methods of candle making because it is cheaper and easier to produce.
Today, we (probably) no longer have to worry about our candles being made from the fat of animals or other animal oils. Our most common type of candle is made from paraffin wax, an easy-to-obtain byproduct of petroleum-based products. There is, of course, some concern over the burning of paraffin wax in the home. Some people have claimed that burning paraffin-based candles can lead to toxins building up in the home, eventually leading to health concerns in the people that live there. However, the one study I could find about this subject may be biased considering the major funder of the study would benefit from the replacement of paraffin candles with soy candles. Source
Speaking of soy, that is another wax that we now have available to us. This type of wax is created from the hydrogenation of the oils extracted from the soybean. One of the reasons people may prefer soy wax over paraffin wax is that soybeans are renewable and paraffin wax is not. The soybean byproduct from gathering the wax ends up being used as animal feed. Sustainability issues aside with water use, carbon emissions of animals, and soil integrity, it does appear that soy wax is renewable while paraffin is not. Source
Beeswax is another common candle material we have at our disposal today. Beeswax, of course, comes from bees. It is made by worker bees to produce cells for honey storage and bee babies. The downside to beeswax candles is that they generally have to be mixed with other waxes if not rolled because it has a higher melting point. The candle must burn very hot in order for the wax to melt properly. On the plus side, this usually means that beeswax candles burn slower and therefore last longer.
Upon researching different types of wax, it appears that beeswax is cheaper than soy wax, yet soy wax is more expensive to obtain than paraffin wax… One pound of beeswax (from Bulk Apothecary) is roughly $9. One pound of of their Akosoy wax is roughly $11. They don’t sell paraffin wax so I had a look on the internet for a substitute. I found a store called Candle Science that sells paraffin wax in bulk. A 23 pound bag is roughly $61 which equates to about $3 per pound.
Candle Magic 101 - Spells8
Since we no longer have to rely on dipping candles, we have an ever-increasing selection of candle shapes to choose from. We have tapers, votives, tealights, human shapes, and so much more. This is the perfect opportunity for the witch because it allows us to add more sympathetic magic and symbolism to our magical work. If you need to separate a couple, you can usually find candles in the shape of the sexes (and some androgynous!) to work a spell on the couple. The same can be said for bringing people together. If you need to work some money magic, I am sure you can find a candle in the shape of a dollar sign or even coins! Here is a quick rundown of the different types of candle shapes.
Taper candles are usually tall and slim. They can range from an inch tall to several inches tall and have a burn time of several seconds (think birthday candle) to several hours.
Pillar candles are more chunky and thick. They can be short or tall, though I find that they tend to be about six inches tall and roughly three inches in diameter. They have very long burn times.
Seven day glass candles are a pillar candle encased in glass. These can come with either blank glass or with a picture on the outside of the glass. You may see these in the store with Saints and other Catholic figures on the outside. They have very long burn times as well, hence the name Seven Day candle.
Votive candles are smaller than pillar candles yet not as small as tealights. They are generally no more than two inches tall and one inch in diameter. They may or may not come in a glass candle holder and only have a burn time of a few hours.
Chime candles are small taper candles but I put them in a category of their own. They are generally all the same size and they are one of the preferred candles of candle magic. This is because they have a relatively short burn time for being a taper candle and can be made dripless for easy wax cleanup. They are also easy to dress and easy to use.
Tealight candles are short and round candles usually enclosed in an aluminum candle holder. They are hardly ever bigger than an inch tall and an inch in diameter. They have short burn times, usually only one to two hours.
Since I am digging into candles and their history (and honestly, there wasn’t a lot for me to dig into lol) I wanted to try and figure out where my local shop gets their chime candles from. So, on to an adventure! Of course, I am not going to give away my exact location or the name of my local shop because that’s not safe. However, I can say that it is fairly popular among my local witchcraft community.
But this adventure turned out to be a bust. I do not feel comfortable asking them where they get their candles. They are a local business and I do not want them to feel like I am trying to take money out of their pockets. I am sure I could ask them what country their candles come from or something like that, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where they come from or who makes them without asking directly. I did a quick internet search for wholesale chime candles and whew, there are a lot! Many of them actually come from China and are dirt cheap which is concerning because of human rights issues in China. However, there is not really much I can do about that from where I am sitting.
I am really wanting to start making my own candle supplies from locally sourced material. However, that involves finding a local beekeeper and pricing beeswax. I know it isn’t impossible but it does take effort. Honestly, the effort is worth it in my opinion but sometimes I don’t feel like I have the time. Maybe one day I will be sitting here with pictures of my own handcrafted beeswax candles. One day…
Continuing the discussion from Weekly Witchy CHALLENGE - Light 'Em Up!