Throughout history, candles have undergone remarkable changes in composition, from tallow and beeswax to spermaceti, paraffin wax, and more recent innovations.
Origins: Ancient Uses and Traditions
In ancient times, candles were fashioned from materials like tallow, beeswax, and spermaceti. The early Greeks honored the goddess Artemis with candles placed on moon-shaped “cakes” during her birth celebration every sixth day of the lunar month. This ritual might have influenced the tradition of placing candles on birthday cakes. However, cakes resembling modern Western birthday cakes only emerged around 1600 in Europe.
Roman Contributions: Dipped Candles and Traditions
Around 1000 BC, Romans introduced dipped candles crafted from tallow. Although oil lamps were more prevalent in Roman Italy, candles were commonly exchanged as gifts during Saturnalia festivities.
Early Chinese and Indian Practices
In ancient China, candles made from materials like beeswax were hinted at in historical texts. The Han Dynasty’s Jizhupian dictionary alludes to beeswax candles, while the Book of Jin refers to their use by statesman Zhou Yi. Additionally, excavations have uncovered ancient earthenware bowls with traces of wax from the 4th century AD. In India, temple candles were crafted from boiled cinnamon wax, and Tibetans used yak butter for their candles.
Ancient American Practices
In the 1st century AD, Native Americans from the region of Oregon to Alaska utilized oil from the eulachon or “candlefish” for illumination. A simple candle was fashioned by placing the dried fish on a forked stick and lighting it.
Medieval Progression: From Collapse to Emergence
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, olive oil, commonly used for lamps, became scarce in much of Europe, making candles more prevalent. However, in North Africa and the Middle East, candles were not widely known due to the continued availability of olive oil.
Medieval European Candle Making
Candles became commonplace in medieval Europe. Chandlers, also known as “smeremongere,” produced candles using fats saved from kitchens or sold them from their shops. Tallow, extracted from cows or sheep, became the standard material for candles, though it emitted an unpleasant smell due to its glycerine content. Beeswax, despite its excellent candle-making qualities and lack of odor, remained restricted to the rich and for church and royal events due to its high cost.
Guild Craft and Candle Innovation
By the 13th century, candle making had evolved into a guild craft in England and France. Guilds like the Tallow Chandlers Company in London and the Wax Chandlers Company in England marked significant progress. By 1415, tallow candles were even employed in street lighting. Paris introduced the first candle molds in the 15th century, advancing candle production methods.
Global Candle Practices: The Middle East and Beyond
In the Middle East, beeswax was prominent in candle making during the Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates. This material was imported from distant regions and was costly, leading most commoners to use oil lamps instead. Elites, however, spared no expense on expensive candles, as evidenced by the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil’s annual spending on candles for his palaces.
In early modern Syria, candles were crucial in marriage ceremonies, and candle makers’ guilds existed in the Safavid capital of Isfahan. Despite this, candle makers held a relatively low social status in Safavid Iran, akin to various other professions.
Tracing the Candle’s Progression: A Tapestry of Materials and Traditions
The history of candles depicts a fascinating evolution in materials and cultural practices. From ancient rituals and diverse materials to guild craft and societal nuances, candles have journeyed through time, illuminating stories of innovation and cultural significance across civilizations.