Candles for Rituals

Candles have apparently formed a part of ceremony and ritual for around 5000 years. A ritual without a candle (or a fire) burning, no matter what other offerings or symbols are on an altar or equivalent, to me is just a meditation. It might be very meaningful in itself, but there is no uplift. No Fire in its pure elemental form to create a transformation in my subconscious.

Now that M is at school, I find I have time and space to do more full rituals again – and having not managed much for a few years it is a good opportunity for me to re-examine what I do and why. (Oh the joy, and effort, of being a solitary!) However, I have been encountering two problems. Paraffin wax, which the majority of candles are made from, smells awful to me and gives me breathing difficulties even without any scents being added. Alternatively beeswax candles, a beautiful smelling natural product, are expensive especially as easily available nightlights don’t burn properly in the time a solo ritual generally takes. Unless a candle burns to its edges before being blown out, it will form a hole in the centre, making it difficult to relight. So for my typical 30 minute or so burn time, 2cm is probably the largest candle size to use. (Several years ago I bought some beeswax “birthday candles” for which I was kindly made a wooden pentacle holder, but these only burn 10-15 minutes each. Great for a spell or focused meditation, but simply too short for a ritual.)

Pagans luckily have an answer to this problem, I have recently discovered, in the form of Spell Candles. Usually around 1-1.5cm across and 10cm tall, many are made of beeswax and come in a variety of colours. Burn time varies from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on size and if they are rolled or solid. Prices vary with some people charging a premium, while others charge in proportion to the amount of wax required to make each candle. (Yes there are now many electronic effect nightlight candles around, and yes it does take fire elementals to create electricity so they would be present, but this isn’t my first choice if there is a natural and sustainable alternative available.)

So having finally established that there are suitable candles for me to buy, I then start considering candle holders. Not many are this small, and they will need to be sized fairly specifically to which candles I choose to buy. Sticking one in melted wax on a plate is basic but tempting! But there is also the question of how many candles to have, given candle holders often come in pairs.

One candle seems to me to be adequate for a ceremony, to be lit at the start, before any circle is cast, and extinguished at the end. It can represent anything and everything, and ultimately symbolises that all is one. Connected through the centre which is everywhere. However, many witches have candles for the God and Goddess, possibly in addition to a central or carried candle (which may also be used represent Fire on the altar), making two or three candles per ceremony. Some witches also like to light candles in each quarter, coloured for each element, giving a possibility of seven candles. (I am assuming any candles lit as part of a spell or a working are extras.)

At this point I spent some time in meditation. I asked, what does my ideal altar look like for use indoors?

The picture that came into my mind was this one:

Two candles at the back. That was a surprise because it isn’t what I usually do. They are equal, yet apart. Goddess and God, Mother Earth and Father Sky, female and male, dark and light, above and below, within and without, manifested and unmanifested. I realised we live in a world of duality and what I seek is balance. Then on the right side of my altar, an apple Wand (I wonder why apple? I’ll come back to this when I know… ), ready to pick up and use, while on the left, a silver (pewter) cup bearing water. In the centre at the front, my working area where I can place anything specific to that ritual, ideally on a pentagram disk of some kind, completing the five-pointed arrangement. Underneath is my portable table covered by a bright green cotton cloth. Behind on the wall is a beautiful fabric picture of a tree.

I share this because it is considerably more basic and simple than most witches use – and in fact than I normally use! Yet although I was then shown how it could be added to, the athame next to the wand, a bowl for salt next to the cup, Goddess and God statues behind the two candles, other items specific to the ritual such as gemstones, flowers, amulets, pictures, carvings etc, I realised it is perfection in its simplicity, with each item being hand made and beautiful in itself. Both male and female are present, as are all four elements, as is an ancestor connection. If my altar represents me in the higher planes, then I seem to be calm, peaceful, simple and uncluttered inside.

A permanent altar with lots of things on it is not something that feels right to me because I live with non-Pagans who would have no use for such a thing and not treat my tools as sacred; when I am not using them, they (bell, athame, swan feather, cups, offering plates, etc) are safe inside my desk, along with all the other sacred objects, talismans, divination aids, space clearing tools etc that I possess. Our ‘seasonal displays’ on the mantleshelf act as a permanent focus with the various quilt tops I have made changing for each sabbat – they are based around the pagan year, which is of course the solar year so easily understood by all including visitors to the house. Our two dining candles live there when not in use, creating a parallel with my altar. I also have various locations in the house where there are power items that are left out all the time, and a place where I leave offerings in the garden. So after a bit of thought and experimentation, I find a really simple altar inside gives me the freedom to set it up quickly and easily when I want it (and dismantle it again before collecting M from school), and I have the flexibility to add any statues or symbols or flowers etc that are befitting to the ritual.

The loss of some tools does, however, feel like I am breaking a lot of rules! I clear space before casting a circle, so these tools are kept nearby, but I won’t now be putting them on my alter after use. My wooden athame I made has not seen much use, and it was interesting while exploring altars and candles to read other people’s comments that they don’t use an athame outside for fear of upsetting elementals – any blade is objectionable, not just an iron one. (I wondered if some witches used knives originally so that they had one to hand in case protection is needed. Also I suspect only rich witches in times past would have had a spare knife for magical purposes! Another area to come back to…) Incense I don’t use because I can’t cope with smoke – but I do sometimes use natural sprays while cleansing the space so I’ll have to find a way to work these in. Also my apple wand will need consecrating when I have made it, so I’ll have to find a way of doing this that doesn’t involve smoke!

I am amused that I started out just trying to work out what candles to buy, and have ended up redesigning my altar, and probably the whole way I celebrate. Sometimes all it takes is a small thing for us to make the big changes that we simply couldn’t see before.

Yule Quilt

Yule Quilt

This is now the fifth quilt I have made in the series of 8 for each sabbat display, and the first where the colours had a small amount of planning in their arrangement – rather than just the total random, ‘scrappy quilt’ look. I did not have many suitable fabrics for Yule, 3 golds, 3 greens, and 4 reds although one was in very short supply. Had I started with this quilt, I would have probably made it far more definite in its design by using some colours for the stars and different colours for the borders, yet this interests me precisely because it wasn’t done that way. It draws me in more.

The stars made me think of spiky holly with its bright berries, as well as poinsettia plants sold everywhere but needing more warmth than our house generally offers on a winter’s night. There is also the coming of the light, directly from the sun as we celebrate its return – and for two months of the year I have an unobstructed view of the sunrise through trees from my bedroom window. Most years (but no longer guaranteed) there is also light reflected by snow, bringing a wonderfully uplifting feel at what is generally a dark time.

Making a series of quilts that are supposed to be an exact size has also been a learning experience. My sewing accuracy wasn’t bad before, but sew each 1/4inch seam just 1/2mm out, and over 25 seams you have gained or lost a whole inch, 25mm. That is assuming my cutting was accurate to within the same tolerances! So it took me to quilt 4 to get almost the right finished size, and this one is just slightly long. Given they are all made slightly wide, long looks good. The other good thing I have finally learned is how to work methodically when picking up each pair of pieces to sew, in order to keep them in the same position and rotation. It has taken me a long time to master this basic skill!

Normally I change the display about a week before a sabbat, but it felt appropriate to get this out last weekend. Not because lights and decorations are up everywhere else and M enjoys them being up in our house as well, but because winter arrived with the last leaves falling off the trees, two dustings of snow and ice on the pond. Autumn has passed, it is dark outside, and I feel ready to close the curtains and be looking within. Enjoying candlelight, being cosy in the long dark evenings, and preparing for what is to come. In my case, a completely crazy, exciting, holiday season with so much packed into about 3 weeks that I have had to write down what I need to do when.

Getting Back Into Glass (At Last!)

'Fire' Candle Holder

‘Fire’ Candle Holder

It’s been a while since I did any stained glass work, apart from sketching out design ideas. I’ve missed it. The last window I made was when pregnant with M – the Oak Sunrise window, which was pictured here in December last year when it finally got fitted. As M is the sort of child who still has to experience everything in a physical way, ‘no touching’ remaining an alien concept to her, I simply haven’t felt safe getting glass out around her yet. This simple candle holder was made for a friend, in a single day whilst M was elsewhere.

It reminded me just how much I love everything about glass. The light coming through it, the colours, the feel of a large piece in my hand, the act of cutting it and listening for the sound all the time. Lifting the cutter out of holes where there are faults in the glass. The careful snap, or easing a cut, or occasionally tapping the back of a sharp curve to control the line of cracking. Glass may be man-made, yet it shares many properties with crystals and gemstones – and each colour seems to have its own cutting character influenced by the specific minerals which make the colour. Red, made with gold, tin or selenium, is always really nice to work with! The opposite of green, made from iron or chromium, which can be one of the flakiest and always the most likely to give me nicks. Amber is harder, iron plus sulphur, good bottle glass.

Copper foiling isn’t my preferred technique, but appropriate here so I dutifully wrapped each piece in the required sticky copper tape before the joy of soldering. The acid tang and spicy smell of the flux, so different from the tallow I use on lead. And the way molten solder behaves is just so fascinating. Sometimes it melts cleanly, other times it feels more solid depending on the exact temperatures. Most of the time it flows beautifully into a joint, making a raised silver bead, but occasionally it reminds me of my lack of practice recently when it hisses and spits gently where there is an air pocket, or even runs straight through when it gets too hot. And when it runs out it makes a beautiful silver puddle, ready to be gathered up again with the iron tip and reused. And the final stage is so simple – a bath in warm soapy water. No mess.

Autumn Equinox

This week was the Equinox, when day and night equalise briefly as the sun passes over the equator. Here in the Northern hemisphere we have now entered the ‘dark’ time of the year. M and I held a ceremony at the time of the equinox, conveniently 9.22 on Wednesday morning when we were at home, so we lit candles, rang bells, and I sang some songs celebrating the turning of the Earth. At the moment of the equinox we paused, and then had the rather awe inspiring sight of the candle flames dipping down very small for several seconds, before growing back to full size again. Her delight that something had actually happened was very touching.

For me the equinox was time to call in a new way of being. I could feel many cycles coming to an end in the month preceding the equinox, but nothing new really happening yet. Impatient as ever, I have been finding this frustrating. There are things I want to do, to achieve, and I need to look after me a bit more since I am down to one pair of trousers that fits, the other having worn out last week. (M now has a full autumn wardrobe…)

However I also have to remember what autumn is all about. Getting the harvest in for the winter, making sure it is safely stored away so that we will not starve in the months ahead. Animals retreat into hibernation, plants retreat below ground. They are busy resting, building, growing in ways that we cannot see but that will bear fruit in the light half of the year. I need to look after myself more, sleep more, keep warmer and eat more sustaining or starchy foods than I do in summer – root vegetables instead of salads. This should be a time for dreams. Dreams need time, and even dark to grow, before they can manifest in their full glory.

Luckily there is one cycle I began during the summer months which has reached the active stage this week – that of my garden redesign. As the grass ceases its growth, it is time to mark out the new paths so that digging may commence. That will be a great job to do in winter!

Imbolc

Snowdrops in the garden on Imbolc

Snowdrops in the garden on Imbolc


Last Sunday was Imbolc, the first festival of Spring marking the transition into the active time of the year. The word means Ewe’s milk, because in days of old the first lambs were born and there would be milk to drink again. New life emerges, even as winter temperatures continue.

Celebrating the Sabbats has become a large part of the modern pagan tradition. I have written before here how, besides giving me something to celebrate every few weeks, I enjoy their connecting me to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world and to the gods and goddesses of the land. However I sometimes wonder whether they are relevant to me as a witch (rather than just as a pagan) since if I want to make changes in my life the moon is the celestial body I am more likely to work with. So this Imbolc I was pleased to have reason for a special ceremony in the garden.

Imbolc celebrates the reigniting of the divine spark, bringing our intuitive, unconscious energies into a manifest conscious reality that may grow as the sun’s power grows. This is all on a much bigger scale than the 29-day moon cycles. Candles are lit to symbolise the divine spark of the returning light – and act as a focus for our inspiration, creativity and intuition. Some years I have needed to symbolically relight my own internal fire from this candle, if I have been struggling through a long, dark winter, although I’m glad to say I didn’t feel such a need on this occasion. I made a cross for Brigid, the keeper of the light, because Imbolc is really her festival. We lit three beeswax candles to stand by her cross in the evening, representing her three aspects of inspiration, healing and smithcraft. Then the next day I took the cross into the garden and had a small ceremony to announce my intentions for each of the three main areas of the garden and ask for the help of the nature spirits to work in partnership with me. It was then placed under the Rowan tree, an area I have promised to leave as undisturbed as possible.

This marks the start of my co-operative gardening experiment and while I don’t anticipate a Findhorn or Perelandra here (my communication skills have a long way to go) I hope to grow a richer and more healthful, harmonious, balanced garden that will develop over the next few years. Time, and M’s growing capabilities and interests being the main factors in the speed and direction of development. Successes and / or lessons learned will no doubt be reported here…

Solstice Preparations

Celebrating the sabbats gives a focus to the seasons for me, and I like to mark them all in some way because they add meaning to my life. They are always high points, coming at random mid-week and interrupting routines. Yule is the biggest and the only one with significant preparations well in advance of the day. However, this year even more than previously I have been asking myself what preparations do I want to do as a pagan? What will add meaning for me, rather than just going along with what everyone else does?

The Winter Solstice does of course celebrate the return of the light. This can be interpreted in many ways, including the birth of the sun god. Mithras, Sol Invictus, or Jesus, whichever sun god you prefer to celebrate. So I have been making a gold star for the top of our tree (not finished yet!), and hung many gold decorations. Dried orange slices, or clove oranges are also great decorations that I would love to do in a future year. The tree being evergreen represents everlasting life, and brings warmth and protection to the household through the darkest days. I will keep the decorated tree until the mornings finally start getting lighter around 5th January, long after the shortest afternoon.

December Candle

December Candle

We have had a “December candle” for the first time this year, burning for 45 minutes each dinner. This provoked an interesting discussion with a friend who is an Anthroposophist, who after some thought said she felt everything should be building up to the birth of Christ, not decreasing. She liked the Advent wreaths in which an increasing number of candles are lit each week. However I feel that our candle represents the diminishing sunlight, which then returns when we reach the big event on the Solstice. (Our celebrations involve getting up to see the sunrise, and then sharing gifts after that. Yes we open ours a few days before everyone else…) The candle is surrounded by an ivy ring, which fits with Yule meaning wheel. The year is at its turning point, and is a time of rebirth and transformation. The light returns, and all is renewed to grow again.

Feasting is a major part of Yule, because when it is dark and cold outside we need suitably warming and sustaining food, for our spirits as well as our physical bodies. We have lost the natural rhythms to our lives over the past century or so; before the electronic age most people would have spent Winter evenings around a fireside, entertaining each other by whatever means they felt suited to and generally resting instead of working outdoors until late at night. Storytelling and singing was popular, as well as other forms of communal entertainment. Today illness frequently forces us to rest. But the return of the sun gives an extra reason to celebrate and have a bigger or fancier meal than every day, with decorations and joyous feasts to welcome it back. The winter may be far from over, but the light is increasing again each day.

However there is one aspect which has puzzled me for a while now. There are various chambered cairns in the rocky parts of our islands, thought by some to have been used for shamanic practices such as initiations or retreats or communications with ancestors, since most contain very few actual remains. Some are carefully aligned to the Winter Solstice, so that the sun enters only on a few days each year in midwinter – bringing light to what is otherwise a perpetually dark space. A famous example is Newgrange in Ireland. But Maeshowe in Orkney, or Clava Cairns near Nairn are both aligned to the setting sun, rather than to the rebirth in the morning. So what exactly were our ancestors celebrating, and what form did these celebrations take?