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.

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What’s in a name…

I have spent some time this week creating a ‘gravatar’ for myself, the one you now see on my profile, based on a Sorrel leaf.

Before creating my blog, in fact at intervals over the past few years, I have had reasons to consider what name I should use publicly. I could simply use my own name – but that might not be fair to others who share my surname but not my beliefs. I could have used my ‘spirit’ name, my ‘magickal’ name as some would term it, but it is too personal and too easily abused, given the power that lies in a name. I save it for conscious communications of the spirit kind. So I needed a new name, one to use for writing. And if it was to be a public name, it needed to say something about me, and to have the right kind of energies associated with it that I could use to help me with my writing.

I explored several ideas, and was surprised how many potential names were already in use by other pagans. But then as so often happens on this path, everything just came together one day and felt right – the blog name and a writing name, and neither were in use by others as far as search engines could reveal. The simple meanings are given in my profile, the deeper meanings will become apparent over time as they gradually reveal themselves.

Just to be sure, I checked the names using Chaldean Numerology, my preferred system. Sorrel = 22, the same as my own name, and the same as Dragon. Creator and Doer. Pen adds 18, or 9, the Spiritual number. 22 + 18 + 22 = 62 / 8. Theme of Balance. Under a rowan tree = 60 / 6. Theme of Love. As a group of numbers they expressed very well what I wished to create with my blog and I felt these energies should serve me well.

So I had a name, but I didn’t yet have a symbol or image to use.

Having considered and rejected various ideas, I read an interesting passage in ‘Summer with the Leprechauns’ by Tanis Helliwell, where she learns about various spiritual symbols or insignias. The leprechaun for example has a four leaf clover, symbolising control of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water. (What we sometimes interpret as luck, they see as manifesting what is wanted.) Her symbol is a rose, a seeker or keeper of spiritual truths; enlightenment. The elements each have their own symbols. What was my symbol I wondered, and could I use it for my blog?

The easiest way for me to find out would be to journey. (I say easiest, but nothing is easy when you have a small child as a constant companion. The journey was done with a drumming CD and M sleeping half on top of me. No wonder most traditional shamans are male or over fifty!) As is my usual way, I started at a familiar hollow oak tree, about half a mile from here, found my cloak and staff where I had left them, and stated my question to the guardian of the doorway. Oak likes to challenge me with my question before I journey to otherworlds, knowing that I am wont to set off without having properly considered first, just because I have a rare opportunity to do so.

Knowing my question, I thought I was well away today; I knew what I wanted to find out, and I hoped I would find a simple answer. But Oak stopped me in my tracks (not for the first time) by telling me to be sure I knew what it was I was asking, as I would have to look deep within myself for the answer. Also that when I add more names, I was adding more layers of secrecy, confusion, conflict, and potential. Make sure I do it consciously and by choice.

He was not wrong! The experience of having my symbol shown to me was both revealing and unsettling, and I learned more about myself and who I was and where I was going than I could ever have anticipated. Like having a deep truth brought out into the open, one that just felt right and comfortable, but was formidable at the same time given the expectation contained within the truth. However when I asked if this was an appropriate symbol to use, the answer was no. Sorry folks – I won’t be sharing any details just yet! I asked what I should use, and was told I needed to look within myself for something appropriate for the blog. What kind of an answer was that?

So the symbol I have chosen to use, as I said above, is a Sorrel leaf. The heart shape is very like an alder leaf, that of a watery nature with the drop bouncing back up, but tripled like a trefoil or a triskele which I generally interpret as being of three worlds. Very green, so it is aligned with the heart chakra in colour as well as shape. Celtic knotwork is not something I have done much of recently, but it felt appropriate here – one line, connecting all. Following it as I drew and coloured became a meditation of its own, much like walking a labyrinth, considering what it meant and what I hoped it would bring. The fact that it took three attempts to before I was satisfied only deepened my connections. And so my ‘gravatar’ brings alive the craft part of this blog at the same time.

I knew I had got it right. And I also know that had I simply been told what to do it would not have been half as rewarding as working it out for myself.