On Using an Oil Lamp

Not that long ago, someone gifted me with something rather nice and unique: an old fashioned terra cotta oil lamp. Bless her heart, she didn’t know what it was for and had been using it as an incense burner for years. She had been cleaning out her house one day and found this old thing, then decided to give it to me. I practically jolted out of my body with excitement over it.

Once I got it and finished cleaning it out from the old incense remains, I decorated it a bit, writing on certain prayers and symbols and…well, kinda left it unused. I mean, who the hell uses oil lamps anymore? They’ve been out of vogue generally in the Western world since the eletrification of both urban and rural areas, and the really old style of oil lamp like this one is best known to be used in the antique and classical Mediterranean and Middle East. I’ve never seen references to oil lamps being used outside of the Greek Magical Papyri, if that gives you any indication of how old these things are, but I know that lamps hold a special significance in many religious and spiritual communities beyond simply acting as a source of light or a spot of remembrance. To that end, I did some research, experimented with the use of oil lamps, and now I find it to be an invaluable addition to my ritual toolset. Here are some guidelines and suggestions I’ve found out and read on for using an oil lamp like this, both generally and for ritual use.

On the lamp:

  • There’s usually at least two holes on the lamp: one for the wick at the spout or nozzle of the lamp, and one on the main chamber to fill the oil. Don’t get the two confused.
  • Some oil lamps can be suspended with chains. Be careful when you suspend them that they’re held in a stable position, won’t be bumped into, and won’t set the ceiling or its support on fire.
  • When setting the lamp down on a surface, be sure that it’s heat-proof or has something to insulate the lamp. Although the lamp itself shouldn’t get hot, try to use precautionary measures whenever you can.
  • Many traditional oil lamps from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East have religious designs on them, usually a Chi-Rho logogram or a Hebrew seven-branched menorah. Pick one that suits your faith, or find one that has a generic design if you don’t want an overly religious lamp.
  • If you’re using an old lamp, make sure it’s clean by washing it with rock salt and rubbing alcohol, shaking the salt around inside. Rinse well with clean water.
  • Newer lamps, such as those from the Victorian and 1900s, often have a glass chimney to keep the flame safe from wind as well as to keep it contained, as well as to collect soot. Some chimneys are decorative and have shaded or frosted glass; try to use clear glass chimneys so you can see the flame clearly, if at all. I recommend not using chimneys, personally, or lamps that use them.
  • Feel free to embellish and decorate your lamp! Write spells, words of power, prayers, or characters of particular entities on the lamp using heat-safe paint or permanent marker. I suggest the Orphic Hymn to Fire (Aither) in Greek, personally, but it’s up to you.
  • Many of these lamps are made of terra cotta or ceramic. Be careful with them, since they can break fairly easily. Bronze and metal lamps are more resistant to damage, but not by much.
  • Old oil lamps are meant to be low and shallow, not the long and large ones known from more recent centuries which use fast-moving oil. Oil lamps with long, elaborately curved nozzles aren’t really meant to be used and are likely to be merely decorative.

On the wick:

  • Unless you have a wick holder that can be inserted into the lamp, just push the wick into the nozzle while twisting it. It’ll go in easily enough either way, insert or no.
  • You don’t need fancy wicks from a craft store for the lamp; cotton balls work fine. Most cotton balls are actually rolled up, so if you unroll them you get a large fluffy “sheet” of cotton. Roll this between your hands into a thick strand of cotton. You have a wick! One large cotton ball can be rolled into a long enough strand to produce two wicks easily, maybe three if you’re being stingy.
  • For a brighter flame, soak the wicks in strong salt water thoroughly, then let dry. The sodium makes the flame burn a brighter yellow. Try experimenting with other mineral or metal salts to get the wick to burn different colors, such as green, red, blue, or white, but be careful of any noxious fumes these might produce.
  • Instead of using cotton balls, use low thread count natural fabric. The plus of this is that you can write incantations or signs on the fabric which will burn with the lamp as the oil flows through it.
  • The purer and cleaner the wick, the less soot it’ll produce. Try to use 100% clean cotton, linen, or hemp whenever possible, and never use synthetic fabrics.
  • Put the wick in before the oil, and let the wick sit in the oil for at least five minutes before burning. The wick needs to soak up enough oil so that it can start burning the oil immediately instead of burning down the wick.
  • Clip the most burnt part of the wick off with scissors before igniting the oil lamp again.
  • If the wick is too long and too far away from the oil reservoir, it won’t be able to draw oil up fast enough to burn at the edge of the wick. Be sure the wick is close enough to the nozzle spout to prevent overburn of the wick.

On the oil:

  • Be sure to not overfill the lamp with oil. Fill the lamp until it’s between 3/4 and 5/6 full; you may need to test out proper measures by filling it up with water and seeing how much water you put in with a measuring glass.
  • You can use olive oil, vegetable oil, sesame oil, or even liquified ghee for the lamp if you want, but I prefer pure olive oil. You don’t need to burn extra virgin olive oil unless you’re rich and insist on basically burning your money away. Mineral oil might also be good to use (and is just about mandatory in Victorian era oil lamps), but olive oil is traditional. Vegetable oil tends to smell bad and leaves residues that need to be cleaned out, but can be used in a pinch.
  • The purer the oil, the less soot it’ll produce. Try to use clean oil whenever possible, and keep the flame away from walls or pictures so that soot doesn’t build up on them. Unless, of course, you want to collect lampblack for making other things, which is totally doable and preferred from an oil lamp.
  • The purer the oil, the less residue it’ll produce on your walls and the room you use the lamp in. A small amount of residue is unavoidable, but using cheap and dirty oil will leave a distinctly greasy feeling in the air and on the walls. Either keep the windows open or expect to have to repaint the room in a few years when your rent is up.

On the flame:

  • Although the flame burns the oil, it also slowly burns away the wick, too. Use tongs or tweezers to pull the wick up and down to manage both the size of the flame as well as how big the flame becomes; the more wick is out, the bigger the flame gets.
  • The smaller the flame is, the longer the fuel will last. Big flames not only use more oil, but also burn more of the wick up.
  • The bigger the flame is, the faster it’ll produce soot. Burn the wick at a low flame to prevent a notable trail of soot from rising from the flame.
  • Never leave an open flame unattended. Obvi.
  • Keep the flame away from flammable substances and surfaces. Duh.
  • When putting out the flame, use a candle snuffer or a clamp that can close around the burning part of the wick completely. Do not blow the flame out, since this can blow parts of the wick away onto the surrounding area (which themselves might have enough oil in them to still be on fire).

On ritual use:

  • Before making use of the oil lamp in rituals, figure out how much oil you need to last for a certain amount of time. Fill the lamp appropriately with a measured amount of oil, let the wick soak, light the wick, and adjust the flame to get a decent height, then time how long it takes for the oil to be used up completely. Small amounts of oil are okay for short rituals, so long as as the wick is soaked in oil enough to be lit. In my experience, a 1.5″ flame using 3 tablespoons of oil takes about three hours to burn up.
  • Most Renaissance magic calls for the use of candles and not oil lamps; consequently, I can’t find any Renaissance or Hermetic consecrations for an oil lamp or a flame burning upon one. A Catholic blessing of fire might be used when lighting the lamp if you want to go a Christian devotional route. For the more magically inclined, the conjuration of the fire from the Heptameron or the Trithemius conjuration ritual, both of which use variants of the conjuration of fire for incense from the Key of Solomon (book II, chapter 10), can be used as well if not better. You might also adapt the consecration of candles from the Key of Solomon (book II, chapter 12) for consecrating the lamp itself as well as the oil and wick to be burned. One of these days, I might experiment with writing up my own and sharing it.
  • Many parts of the PGM specify a lamp “that has not been colored red” (PGM I.262, inter alia). This is because one of the colors of Set or Seth-Typhon is red, and many parts of the PGM didn’t particularly want to call on him through the use of his colors or symbols. When painting a lamp, be sure to use only red ink or paint when working with this destructive god; otherwise, use black or any other color if possible.
  • For rituals, experiment by adding in magical oils into the fuel. You don’t need much; if you normally use 2 tablespoons of olive oil, use 1 3/4 tablespoons olive oil and 1/4 tablespoon magical oil. This can be useful for specific rituals, or you can just mix olive oil with holy oil and use that as a general consecrated light. Be careful when burning magical oils; not all magical oils are made from natural ingredients, and some oils may not burn well or may produce noxious fumes when burned. Experiment outside first using a small amount of oil.
  • Although oil lamps are referenced throughout the PGM, few consecration rituals are described for one. PGM I.262 says that the wick should be made of cotton and have the ABERAMENTHO formula written on it (ΑΒΕΡΑΜΕΝΘΩΟΥΘΛΕΡΘΕΞΑΝΑΞΕΘΡΕΛΘΥΟΩΘΕΝΕΜΑΡΕΒΑ) for the purposes of lamp divination with Apollo. PGM II.1 says that “a lump of frankincense” should be put into the wick of the lamp before going to bed for the purposes of a dream divination before saying a particular prayer; in the same section, the lamp should be set on a lampstand made from virgin oil with a bit of the oil poured onto the stand itself. Other parts of the PGM say that the wick should be taken from the corpse of one who has died violently or be made of a particular type of reed.

One particular ritual involving an oil lamp from the Greek Magical Papyri is PGM VII.359, which induces a dream oracle or prophetic dreams. One is to take a strip of clean linen and write on it ΑΡΜΙΟΥΘ ΛΑΙΛΑΜ ΧΩΟΥΧ ΑΡΣΕΝΟΦΡΗ ΦΡΗΥ ΦΘΑ ΑΡΧΕΝΤΕΧΘΑ (an Egyptian or Coptic phrase, no doubt, involving some sort of darkness or “khōūkh”). Roll up the linen to make a wick, set it in a lamp, and light it with pure olive oil. In the evening just before going to sleep, while “being pure in every respect”, light the lamp using the linen wick and say the following prayer:

ΣΑΧΜΟΥΝΕ ΠΑΗΜΑΛΙΓΟΤΗΡΗΗΝΧ, the one who shakes, who thunders, who has swallowed the serpent, surrounds the moon, and hour by hour raises the disk of the sun, ΧΘΕΘΩΝΙ is your name. I ask you, lord of the gods, ΣΗΘ ΧΡΗΨ, reveal to me concerning the things I wish: …

Then go to sleep and you will be given answers in your dream. The PGM is full of these types of rituals, including ones that involve Eros (PGM VII.478), Anubis (PGM VII.540), Hermes (PGM VII.664), and others. Others, like PGM XXIIb.27, make use of repeating a particular incantation to a lamp until it is extinguished just before bed to get a yes or no answer in sleep; they ask for a particular image (“water and a grove”, “rivers and trees”, etc.) for an affirmative answer and another image (“water and a stone”, “fire and iron”, etc.) for a negative answer. Some Demotic spells use lamp divination in conjunction with a virgin boy to act as a seer, while many other spells use lamps to constrain or compel someone to act in a particular manner. Generally speaking, and with many exceptions, the use of a lamplight gave the power of one to see what cannot normally be seen, either by our own eyes in daylight or by our mind in the subconscious world of sleep; on occasion, the lamp was considered a connection to divine entities by which one could converse or cause to act and cause change in the world.

Personally, I’m switching out the use of consecrated candles for my rituals with the use of an oil lamp with consecrated oil for the same purpose. In any given conjuration ritual, for instance, I might have several candles burning, but there will always be one specific candle that I consecrate to shine forth the light of the Infinite. It’s that candle that I’d like to replace, since that’s the one candle I need at a minimum; everything else is decoration. Plus, given the adjustability of the flame, I can get more light out of an oil lamp than I can a candle. This is especially nice given the preponderance of biblical and Hermetic references to the use and symbolism of lamps; plus, the sheer use of an oil lamp gives a ritual a much different feel and charm that brings things closer to how the ancients did. I use pure olive oil for the fuel mixed with a bit of holy oil for general rituals, though for small amounts I like to mix in vision oils or planetary oils in a clean lamp for rituals that could really use the kick. If I ever start up a collection of oil lamps, I plan on using one just for conjuration rituals, and using another to burn for my ancestors with a specific oil blend burning as an eternal flame offering for them to elevate, pacify, and appease them; other oil lamps can be used for similar purposes with other spirits quite easily.

Given the affordability and availability of old-style oil lamps, both modern replicas and old-world antiquities, it’s not hard to get a good oil lamp for yourself in your own Work. I strongly consider the use of them, especially given how easy they are to maintain.

7 responses

  1. If you don’t have a traditional lamp, you can also use small canning jars to make a lamp or a shallow bowl. There is quite a bit of lamp work done in some Afro-caribbean groups (I’ve seen quite a few pics of vodouisants making use of bowls items and then covered in oil which has a wick that burns on it)
    I have two oil lamps, one for wealth that is made from mason jar, and another one that I give to the Hestia, offering the flame as an offering to her.

  2. Ah this is an awesome post! I love doing lamp divinations, even if I use a different type of lamp. (the one you received is beautiful by the way). The ritual purity requirements can tend to be quite high though.
    A bit of a coincidence maybe: I was at the Petrie Museum earlier today and saw the lamps on display and I photographed them immediately. And now I get online and get to read your post about lamps :)

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