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.

Happy New Year … Again!

We have finally reached the last of the ‘New Years’ for the winter – the one generally celebrated across the country! As a pagan I normally like to work with the rhythms of nature rather than an arbitrary date, so have celebrated a new year’s cycle beginning at the start of the dark at the Autumnal Equinox, the general Pagan new year at Samhain, and the return of the light at the Winter Solstice. And yet besides being the day we turn all the calendars over, 1st January probably has one of the strongest rituals I can think of associated with it as people who share the Gregorian Calendar all around the world make resolutions for the year ahead. To be part of a collective humanity is valuable – just like any shared activity, or shared and repeated ritual, the more often it is repeated the more the power within it can grow and be used positively.

The only reason for making new resolutions or promises that I can see is to shine a light onto my path ahead and see what I need to do or what choices I need to make about my direction. Last January I had a list of various specific things I wanted to achieve – sewing projects, glass, swimming, drumming etc – most of which has been written about here over the course of the year. It was helpful in focusing my mind when I was struggling to see what was important to me independently of the rest of my family.

Now I am noticing how the different areas of my life have become more interrelated as time goes on, one influencing another and all becoming part of a whole which is me moving closer to living in harmony with everything around me. I made a list of what I wanted to do, and achieve, and then realised that every single one of them depended on me finding quiet space and time to really connect at a deep level. Being out in nature walking, swimming or gardening; taking photographs; writing; carving wood; looking after M; creating a home… So for this year, I have just one resolution – which covers just about every area of my life:

I will take more time for meditation – to include attuning myself to what I am doing, just being, and learning to stay calm.

It is not as if I don’t meditate now; I do, at least once every day, although it is often quite short. But I have been thinking a lot recently about this quote by Saint Francis de Sales, a Swiss clergyman who lived 1567-1622:

“Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”

The first time I read this I laughed, assuming either he was making a joke, or he was saying that we needed to cut back on some of what was filling the time up, that we were overdoing it. However as I looked at what changes I wanted to make in my life, I have seen that meditation is related in some way to all of them.

The first is simple. If I am too busy to meditate, I won’t get any answers from within and therefore will not move forwards – besides not reaching the still point of Just Being that is so valuable and only seem to comes when I have dealt with any pressing issues. I am finding that out of stillness arises creation.

After dwelling on this quote a little longer however, I started to see the idea of being busy and needing longer to meditate differently. There are always going to be more things I want or need to do than I can fit, because that is the way I am. If I don’t seem to be managing to do everything, meditating seems to help me focus on what is important and how to do it easier, and which things maybe I can leave out. A daily set time and place is difficult for me as it gets squeezed out too often, but when I don’t manage my ‘regular’ slot I need to make another space.

The second part is to make a more conscious effort to meditate in different places – attuning myself to the environment through meditation, either to make a connection with the environment, or as part of whatever work or craft I am doing. Outside before I begin gardening for example, if I am serious about wanting to work with the nature spirits in the garden. When working with glass to literally work with glass and be part of it, or with wood, or with anything else I wish to craft, such as I just discovered with the origami dragon and its bigger brother from red shiny wrapping paper that is now nestled in the tree. The whole process of creation changes and becomes bigger than just me.

Finally the third and fourth parts are related, as I have learned to ‘just be’ in some circumstances and not others. I know, this could take a lifetime or more to master! In the short term however, am hoping improved meditation can help me stay calm even when provoked, or that I can see alternative ways of handling difficult situations. Anger or frustration I see as emotions intended to force or inspire change so not negative in themselves, but they need channeling and directing and that, for me, starts with meditation. Or at least it will this year.

It has also been a very interesting experience having committed to writing weekly, as the writing itself has almost become a meditation exercise. While some weeks it has been clear to me exactly what I want to talk about, other times I have got to Saturday evening or even Sunday morning and still have no idea. However, in every case these have been the posts I personally have learned the most from because there always seems to be some subject hovering around the edges of my consciousness that needs bringing into the open and properly examining instead of shying away from. They are not always the stories that make me look good, and sometimes I have had to think quite hard about whether or how to share. Admittedly a few end up in my ‘unpublished blogs’ file, but the writing of them was still a valuable experience which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I have learned an awful lot in this way, and I hope that by sharing more of my own stories other people have also found them helpful. Even this one – which has strayed a very long way from my original list I started a week ago!