The Candle

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out.


 The candle lights the darkness of life but appears to be easily extinguished. It is like a life in the midst of a pressing darkness, too abruptly blown out or stifled by lack of air. And yet, one candle can light a thousand, and this mode of transmission may continue indefinitely, long after the original candle has gone out. But one fears for a solitary candle flickering in the gloom, guttering in the moment of neglect. It must have been something like this sort of apprehension that was felt by Marcadio on that dreamy afternoon in the hills of Mexico when he saw his candle about to go out. The tale is often told but the mystery remains. All that is really known is that this poor and simple peasant told his young wife that he was going to get, in whatever way he could, a turkey to eat. Exhausted with the futility of eking out a living from the rocky soil, he suddenly seized upon the unlikely notion that all would be well if he could satisfy his hunger for a princely meal -just once. That he managed to spirit away a large bird from a rich townsman's estate is relevant only in that it enabled him to realize his longed-for feast and, rendered immobile by its intoxicating effects, caused him to fall into a deep afternoon sleep.

 There on that lonely hillside, far away from prying eyes, he dreamt in the warm Sierra sunlight. He beheld before him, around the brow of the hill, the entrance to a cave, whose intriguing appearance drew him forward to its threshold. In the darkness within he could see what appeared to be thousands of flickering lights, alive with the motion of their own combustion. It took him a moment to realize that they danced upon the wicks of countless candles arrayed in rows and on stacks of shelves about the floor of the cavern. His eye was so fixed upon this wondrous sight that he scarcely observed the entrance from a side chamber of an ancient attendant who approached him genially, hobbling slowly with the aid of a staff. Startled by his sudden presence before him, Marcadio abruptly asked the meaning of the candles. "What are they doing here and why?" The old caretaker readily told him that the candles represented the individual lives of men and that each life on earth lasted as long as its candle burnt in the cloistered rooms of the cave. He led the young dreamer along a narrow path which threaded through vast fields of small candles. Each was in a tiny dish, and the old man's pointed finger drew his attention to a particularly bright flame or to one that was sputtering and in danger of going out. He began to perceive that there were many which did go out, leaving a small darkened gap in the stellar display which filled him with melancholy and sent his eyes eagerly seeking the brighter clusters.

 His guide advanced along the rows with seeming purpose, and Marcadio began to wonder where his own candle blazed and if he were being directed in order to witness its glow. Even as he considered this, they approached an alcove filled with masses of burning candles. He watched, fascinated, as one of them began to spurt and gutter, its flame shying wildly as the liquid wax escaped down a channel into a useless pool at its base. He did not need to be told that this was happening to his candle. The fear that seized his heart told him all and he slumped down in despondency before the terrible sight. "Stay!" he cried, "oh, stay on, light. Do not be swallowed up!" His anguished voice sought to exhort the flickering flame but it rapidly diminished and seemed on the point of failing altogether. He begged the old caretaker to save it and was told that if he wished to experiment with an elixir of life, he might prolong his sojourn in the world for yet a while. Eagerly he agreed and was given a vial of the wonderful stuff which he carried with him on a strange adventure, during which he saved many people from the very jaws of death and gained great notoriety among the wealthy townsmen whose oracle he became. But he incurred the suspicion and jealousy of others and soon found himself imprisoned on false charges and faced, once again, with death.

 The peasants of the Sierras would never know of these remarkable events nor would his sweet wife come to understand just what had happened. She only knew that Marcadio had left at morn on his dubious mission and late afternoon had not seen him home. Leaving their tiny adobe, she wandered the evening hills calling his name and fretted with a growing anxiety as she rounded the brow of the loneliest one. There before her, close by the entrance of a cave, lay her beloved Marcadio sleeping, she thought, near the feathers and bones of a well-eaten bird. So peaceful and contented he looked that she smiled as she approached. It took her some time to realize that his was the sleep of death and that alone on that hillside, with no witness to bear, his candle had guttered and gone out.

 "O lamented lost light!" the world mourns. For Marcadio and for myriads of human beings, candles are burnt at death. People gather on behalf of the soul and hope to illumine its passage even while dreading the darkness created by the loss of life. They stare into the void and tremble for the vulnerability of their own feeble light. But some light candles and rejoice for the soul's release. They place them around the deceased to show the way to the soul and protect the body from any evil drawn to its lifeless form. Many believe that the soul should leave the body through the mouth or the fontanelle, and they place candles in an avenue leading away from the head in the direction to which it should travel. The candle here is symbolic of the soul itself and attracts it through the law of sympathy that exists between like things. It is symbolic of the individual soul and burns in accordance with its individual karma, which is why the genii of fate in so many traditions are depicted carrying burning candles. In their white glowing robes they appear unrelated to the ancient caretaker in the cave but they are cousins to him. Both are caretakers and dispensers of destiny, and many candles pass symbolically through their hands but do not belong to them. For the candle's light is a blazing spark of the one cosmic fire and signifies an individual expression of evolving Intelligence.

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 

 The burning candle suggests the presence of spirit in an individuated sense but also in the loftiest sense of a spiritual source manifesting in the world. Thus, in Christian ritual the paschal taper is kept burning during the forty days from Easter to Ascension to symbolize Christ's presence amongst his disciples. Its extinction on Ascension Day marks the removal of Christ from the earth, whilst in the Eastern Orthodox tradition its flame was used to light the candles of the faithful, who celebrated His rising from the dead on Easter. This symbolic ritual derives from a deeper occult awareness that the Christos within each human being must somehow be lit up in order to activate self-consciously the spiritual potential. The merging of the identification of the candle's light with spirit or spirits and the tendency to look outside oneself for this light of spiritual assistance have had a long history. Pagans as well as Christians have looked to the candle to evoke the spirits of saints, images, trees and rocks, as well as their ancestors, for the purpose of gaining help and guidance. In medieval times the church in Europe sustained an active campaign against such practices. A tenth century penitential ('corrector') decree asked: "Hast thou gone to any place other than the church to pray to springs, stones, trees or crossroads, and there burnt a candle in reverence to such a place?" Those who persisted in this were excommunicated from the church and subjected to penance or a fine, even while candles were lit before images on behalf of saints and for the dead within the ecclesiastical establishments.

And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same. And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches out of the other side:

Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick....

And thou shalt make the seven lamps thereof; and they shall light the lamps thereof, that they may give light over against it...

And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount.

 The lights of the Jewish menorah have been produced by oil as well as candles since the earliest times. There is, however, much evidence that candles of fat were sacred to Jahveh, and the almond bowls of the menorah's branches were actually candle holders. These bowls represent the blossoms and fruit of the Tree of Life, whose spiritual source manifests through the flames at the end of its seven branches. Originally, the menorah was eighteen hand-breadths high (corresponding to the numerical value of the letters forming the Hebrew word for 'living') and it was placed so as to face the seat of God in th north (the top of the universe cosmically). Thus, as described in Revelations, the "seven torches of fire" burnt before God's throne. This seven-branched tree can be traced back in antiquity to a date of 3000 B.C. in Sumeria and seems to have been a highly evolved idea even then. The menorah evolved from this symbolic form, taking on additional significance through its tapered and lighted branches. In the fifth vision of the prophet Zachariah these candle-lights were seen as the seven eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole world. They are here symbolic of the sun and its planets, the seven days of the week, the Pleiades and the seven cycles or forces in the world. Philo depicted the menorah as symbolizing the operation of grace for all things celestial, whilst Josephus focussed attention upon the temple of God as the cosmos in which there are seven lights representing a septenary division of all manifestation. These shone as the Law's divine light reflected back from the menorah. In the Jewish tradition it was asserted that, "since Israel keeps the light burning before God, their souls will be preserved from all evil things, for the spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord".

 The central candle of the menorah represents the sun, the source of light for all the rest. Thus this light symbolizes the Logos, or what the Zohar likens to the light of Ain Soph. It is the Logoic light of spiritual wisdom manifested sevenfold in the world. In the Christian tradition the ritual of Candlemas marks a similar theme having to do with the old Jewish law, which directed that any male child born in Judaea should be brought forty days after birth to be purified in the holy city of Jerusalem. It is said that when Mary brought the infant Jesus into the temple, there they met the aged Simeon, who took the babe in his arms and exulted that he would be the light of the world. During Candlemas beeswax candles are blest (purified), distributed to the congregation and lit. They are then carried in procession to commemorate the entrance of the Christ-child into the temple (the coming of Light into the world). At various points on the Christian calendar candles continue to have a special ritual function, but during much of the year they are routinely lighted during services at the altar and in various chantries. In medieval times provision for these lights was the most costly item of all church charges and was met by special guilds or endowments supplied for this purpose. At Cowford in the fifteenth century four cows sustained (financially, of course!) the supply of tapers for Our Lady, St. (Catherine and St. Anthony. A great deal of the expense was due to the fact that only beeswax could be used for ecclesiastical candles, the lowly tallow light of the common people being considered unclean.)

 The distinction between wax and tallow candles gave rise to many sayings which still convey a wealth of meaning to us today. To "hold their farthing candle to the sun" was a picturesque way of showing that someone was attempting to effect something which was inherently beyond his means, talents or station in life. The farthing candle was, of course, the homemade tallow taper and the sun the source of a higher light, symbolized by the beeswax candle which was affordable only by the church or the very wealthy. Thus, the dearness of the wax candle gave birth to the saying that "the game is not worth the candle", which simply means that the result of something does not justify the expense or trouble. The comparison of wax and tallow candles also inspired many colourful barbs handed down to us, including the glibly humorous eighteenth century contribution of John Byrom, who wrote of the feud between two composers:

Some say, that Signer Bononcini,
Compar'd to Handel's a mere ninny;
Others aver, to him, that Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle.

 Technically, the candle can be characterized as a cylinder of wax or animal fat enclosing a wick for giving light. Its origin seems to lie in the funeral torches of ancient Egypt and Thebes. Five thousand years ago the Minoans used dish-like holders with sockets supposedly designed for candles of some sort. But in India light, both sacred and profane, has long been provided by tiny oil lamps, and the candle only came to play a limited role much later as a European import. The Chinese and Japanese fashioned candlesticks in the form of mythic or immediate ancestors to be used in ritual observances, and candles were burnt in lanterns for more general use. The Latin term candela, from which the English word is taken, can easily be traced through such terms as candere ('to shine'), canditatus (a candidate for office, always clothed in white) and candescere ('to begin to glow with heat'). To the early Romans only an individual of pure soul could expect to be recognized as a candidate for an office wherein he was presumed to act as a light unto others. One can readily see in the etymological relationship of such words just how occult the ancient view of glamour, charisma and political power was. Only one capable of beginning 'to glow with heat' would be able to attract the recognition and support necessary to fulfilling his public responsibilities. It is difficult to see the candle in candidates for political office today. For the most part, one must look for such lights in other arenas.

 In considering the composition of the candle, one might begin with the wick, which originally was fashioned from rushes, the coarse part of flax or hemp or the silk from milkweed. Wicks were first twisted, until it was found that by plaiting them they would burn off regularly at their tip and not droop down into the liquid at the candle top where their flame could be drowned. The perfection of this permitted the candle-makers to focus upon the substance surrounding the wick. Many experiments were made with various mixtures of tallow, spermaceti from the sperm whale's head, bayberries, birch bark, oily seeds from the candleberry tree and the tallow tree. In the nineteenth century stearin was manufactured from tallow and paraffin wax from petroleum, bringing the art of candle-making into the age of mass production. But even as the candle began to be eclipsed by gas lamps and electric lights, the beeswax taper continued to hold its place on the altar of ritual and artistic decor. From the papal bull which excluded the use of animal fats near the ecclesiastical altar to the notion of romantic dinner by candle-light, the costliness of the wax candle has failed to dampen enthusiasm for its symbolic meaning and the beauty of its light.

 The various modes of waxcraft developed in the Middle Ages involved dipping the wick or drawing it through the melted substance; building the wax up around the wick by hand; pouring the wax on the wick; or suspending the wick in wax-filled moulds. The latter method does not work well for beeswax candles, which are better made by dipping or pouring, and where the critical thing is being sure that one layer of substance is thoroughly cool before dipping or pouring on the next. The advantages of wax over tallow may not be experienced in the making, but the wax candle, properly manufactured, has a higher melting-point and is therefore less prone to bending or burning itself out too quickly, as is common with its tallow cousin. It holds its shape well, in an upright stance, and yet burns brightly, leaving no residue of malodorous smoke in the air.

 It was of such substance that King Alfred the Great ordained six candles be made, each of equal length, and each having twelve divisions marked across it so that, when burnt in succession, they would mark each third of an hour for a full day and night. In addition to measuring time, the spermaceti candle came to be used as a measure of artificial light (candle power) based on the amount shed by a pure candle weighing one-sixth of a pound and burning at the rate of one hundred and twenty grains per hour. Candle power (the term is still used) thus measures luminous intensity, the rate of radial flow (flux) of luminous energy from any source of light. In thinking of a source of light, the mind naturally fastens upon the image of the candle's flame, which is actually a body of gas in different stages of combustion. The part nearest the wick is a core of unignited gas which is surrounded by an area wherein the carbon in the fuel causes the flame to radiate the most heat and light. In the third part of the flame surrounding this, the carbon is being completely oxidized, causing it to vanish. To the eye the flame is clearly divisible into these three parts, its brilliant golden yellow glow emanating quite clearly from the second area. But even while pondering the possible symbolic significance of this, one is entranced by the light itself and drawn to its softly beaming radiance. Even in an age of omnipresent electricity it continues to remain important, for "while many attempts have been made to simulate it, there is still no substitute for the kind of light given by a burning candle".

I have lost more than a friend, I have lost an inspiration. She would rather light candles than curse the darkness and her glow has warmed the world.

Adlai E. Stevenson
(In memory of Eleanor Roosevelt)

 The candle's is a special kind of light which can be perceived as lighting the way spiritually for others. Thus one may be like a candle shining from afar, or one may, like Mrs. Roosevelt, use the candle's flame to light up and inspire others. This was surely the effect of the courageous example of Hugh Latimer, who was burnt alive for heresy at Oxford in 1555. As the flames leapt around them, he turned to his fellow martyr, Nicholas Ridley, and exclaimed: "Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England, as (I trust) shall never be put out." With unwavering spiritual conviction as well as mental and physical courage, the aged Protestant made of himself a candle for others in every way, even to the wax of his incinerated flesh. Human efforts can also light inspirational candles in more impersonal ways, as when the Mayflower Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Plantation and their leader, William Bradford, claimed that "as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort of our whole nation".

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.


 Candle holders may be spiked or socketed; stand, be carried, placed on the wall as a sconce or suspended as a chandelier, but they all perform the function of holding upright the source of light so that it can radiate fully and burn without danger of fire. Sconces are often provided with curved reflecting surfaces to maximize the light, and it is easy to identify this quality analogously in human beings as the acquired ability to communicate inspiration through speech or learning or the habits of one's daily life. Simple tin wall-holders like those used on the American frontier threw off less of the candle's light, but they were easily portable and brightened up many a lonely and humble room. So also do the more humble qualities of goodwill emanating from unassumimg people inconspicuously inspire others. Special candle holders like the ingenious nautical furnishings used on the British man-of-war ships in 1812 suggest a different analogue. The socketed column was free to swing between curved arms extending down to a firm, heavy base. Such a holder was flexible and could ensure a constant light even while the ship tossed in a storm. Individuals with this sort of gyroscopically adapted candle holder are well suited to carry the light along the difficult paths of life, inspiring others even in the most unstabilizing circumstances. Those whose lights burn from far above in chandeliered proliferation are rare, and under their glow large numbers of people can gather. Their candle multiplies into many, becoming a diffused source of light capable of illuminating great halls and temples which are the microcosm of the world.

There are two ways of spreading light: to be
The candle or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton

 At their best most human beings strive to reflect the light and few there are who become candles in their entire nature. Those who do are true mystics, who are guided by a candle-light of vision so centrally dominant in their being that the ordinary world experienced by others is to them completely unreal. In his writings the Irish mystic, George William Russell (A.E.), asserted that imagination was central to the mystical experience and that it was quite different from the crude concepts of 'psychic projection' and wish-fulfilment bandied about by modern science. He thought that few psychologists experienced real imagination but had, instead, merely busy brains. He asserted from his experience that such people "see too feebly to make what they see a wonder to themselves. They discuss the mode of imagination as people might discuss art, who had never seen painting or sculpture," A.E.'s visions were just as vivid and clear to him years afterward as they were when he initially experienced them. The candle-light within him illuminated realities unlimited by ordinary time and space. It illuminated things that always exist and are not seen by the shrouded eyes of earthly man. He encouraged others to trust the presence of this light within them and to do their best to realize it and nurture it. He said: "The darkness in you will begin to glow, and you will see clearly, and you will know that what you thought was but a mosaic of memories is rather the froth of a gigantic ocean of life, breaking on the shores of matter, casting up its own flotsam to mingle with the life of the shores it breaks on."

 To see with the candle of vision is to see with the spiritual soul within that which lies in the bosom of the ocean, whose archetypal forms bear testimony to the timelessly true nature of things. Using the symbol of the candle, one can be instructed that in order to achieve the mystic's visionary perspective, one should realize something of the nature and tendencies of the wick within: the egoic thread coming into the present moment from past lives. It has been gradually formed of lasting fibres and should be carefully plaited through the ins and outs of circumstances rather than twisted by them in such a way as to burn unevenly and bend. To avoid drowning the flame of vision in the waxy liquid of human affairs, the plaiting must be balanced and measured with each fibre carefully integrated. But the waxy liquid must be present for the wick to burn. Drained away, the candle becomes like an isolated promontory, divorced from the testing ground of incarnated existence, and the guttered light will go out.

 To ensure that the candle's light may burn more brightly, the novice must become unafraid of making journeys in the darkness and learn to trust that he will find its glow. These are inward journeys and analogous to the careful dipping of wax over the candle's wick. Each layer signifies an attempt to unlock the secret doors within which open unto the blazing sun of universal truth. Each attempt in the direction of this goal heats up the inner nature of the aspirant, and he should pause to let the lessons seep in and cool as he slowly shapes the cylinder of meditative experience that will become his candle of vision. With alternate heating and cooling, following the world's eternal ways, it will begin to take shape. He should be mindful to use the finest substance of experience to fashion it analogously to the nectar-receiving wax of the faithful worker bee. Thus will the candle remain upright and provide a smokeless glimpse into the mystic's realm. Some candidates for higher initiation, having shaped such a candle, may fabricate out of their desire to serve others a lovely candelabrum or chandelier, enabling them to cast greater light upon those who still struggle in darkness.

 These are the rare mystics who have integrated the world of spiritual vision into their life and thought so completely that everything they do becomes an example of wisdom in action to others. They have been able to tap consciously the unignited gas nearest the wick of the immortal Ego and release it into the carbonaceous realm of their own lower quaternary nature. They have turned away from the feeble lights of earthly life that cluster in the outer rooms of Marcadio's cave. They do not gaze in fear that their own may falter and go out, but have ventured further within to discover their soul's own candle and released its hidden glow. Thus, they emanate a light which inspires on all levels of being and persists in conveying the essential quality of the soul's cosmic vision. The spirit evoked by them is their own flaming link with the light of the One Universal Spirit which can then shed its radiance upon manifested existence. Theirs is the true measure of light in the world, the standard by which we can compare and realize the nature of Truth's omnipotent light.

My candle burns throughout the night
And let it light the day;
For I have witnessed such a sight
As cannot slip away.
The hungry peasant on the hill,
All those who fear life's end,
Will slumber near the cavern still
Until they comprehend.
Let them enter in the waiting cave
And brave its darkest core;
Until they find the candle's nave,
Unlatch its secret door.
Their candle's light will blind their eyes
Until they feel at home;
And then the glow will softly reveal
The rare treasures bravely won.