From decorative scented votives in the living room to colorful birthday candles on a cake, candles have become a common, ubiquitous item in our modern lives. But their origin isn’t quite so ordinary. Understanding their history can bring more meaning to your own life, from your spiritual practice to your home décor.
Early History of Candles
Some of the earliest known candles were sacred artifacts, discovered tucked within the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. These ancient candles were made of natural beeswax, a renewable and non-toxic wax produced by honeybees. Burning much longer than other waxes, such as plant-based soy wax, paraffin (a non-renewable by-product of petroleum, coal or oil) or gels made from polymer and mineral oil, beeswax candles are also natural air fresheners. They emit purifying negative ions along with the subtle scent of honey and floral nectar while burning, thus improving surrounding air quality for centuries.
Candles: From the Practical to the Symbolic
While candles always served a practical purpose—to provide light—their spiritual significance grew when they were used for ceremonies during daylight hours. Early Christians used candles during the dark hours of their evening services, but as their service times shifted toward daylight hours, the inclusion of candles held steadfast and evolved into a sacred way of honoring martyrs and representing the divine light of God. For Catholics, the candle became symbolic for Christ: the flame his divinity, the wick his soul, and the wax his body.
A modern example of candle symbolism is the unity candle ceremony in a marriage: The lighting of two taper candles represents the two individuals, and a tall pillar candle denotes the divine union. Candles are also used in color therapy as physical embodiments of each color. For instance, individuals wanting more courage and passion in life will illuminate a red candle, while a black candle will help those seeking support in letting go and forgiveness.
Candles as a Guiding Light
“In many cultures and religions, there is a direct connection made between a candle and the human body,” says Lithuanian candle producer and runologist Vilius Malinauskas. His Smells Like Spells candles channel the magical powers of Norse runic symbols, which are carved into each of their handmade soy wax candles. “It is widely believed that cleansing a home with a candle’s flame makes living more pleasant and healthy,” Malinauskas adds. “The flame cleanses our energy fields. There are no rituals that could be done without the energy of a candle because every ritual typically invokes four energies: fire, wind, earth and water.”
When lighting a candle, we don’t often stop to recount its rich ceremonial and cultural history and then relate it back to our own lives. But it’s helpful to remember that a candle’s flame and flicker can work as a symbolic guiding light in our increasingly busy lives. Whether we simply enjoy a candle’s fragrance as it fills a room, or we light a colored candle on a home altar to manifest certain energies, we can mindfully check in with its power while it’s transforming our space into one of tranquility and reflection.