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by Matthew LuckieshApril 15th, 2023
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Inasmuch as the symbolisms and ceremonial uses of light originated in the childhood of the human race and were nourished throughout the age of mythology, the early light-sources are associated more with this phase of artificial light than modern ones. For this reason it appears appropriate to present this discussion before entering into the later stages of the development and utilization of artificial light. Furthermore, many of the traditions of lighting at the present time are survivors of the early ages. Lighting-fixtures show the influence of this byway of lighting, and in those cases where the ceremonial use of light has survived to the present time, modern light-sources cannot be employed wisely in replacing more primitive ones without consideration of the origin and existence of the customs. In fact, candles are likely to be used for hundreds of years to come, owing to the sentiment connected with them and to the established customs founded upon centuries of traditional use.
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Artificial Light: Its Influence Upon Civilization by Matthew Luckiesh is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE CEREMONIAL USE OF LIGHT


Inasmuch as the symbolisms and ceremonial uses of light originated in the childhood of the human race and were nourished throughout the age of mythology, the early light-sources are associated more with this phase of artificial light than modern ones. For this reason it appears appropriate to present this discussion before entering into the later stages of the development and utilization of artificial light. Furthermore, many of the traditions of lighting at the present time are survivors of the early ages. Lighting-fixtures show the influence of this byway of lighting, and in those cases where the ceremonial use of light has survived to the present time, modern light-sources cannot be employed wisely in replacing more primitive ones without consideration of the origin and existence of the customs. In fact, candles are likely to be used for hundreds of years to come, owing to the sentiment connected with them and to the established customs founded upon centuries of traditional use.

Doubtless, the sun as a source of heat and light and of the blessings which these bring to earth, is responsible largely for the divine significance bestowed upon light. Darkness very deservingly acquired many uncomplimentary attributes, for danger lurked behind its veil and it was the suitable abode of evil spirits. It harbored all that was the antithesis of goodness, happiness, and security. Light naturally became sacred, life-giving, and symbolic of divine presence. Fire was to primitive beings the most impressive phenomenon over which they had any control, and it was sufficiently mysterious in its operation to warrant a connection with the supernatural. Thus it was very natural that these earlier beings worshiped it as representing divine presence. The sun, as Ra, was one of the chief gods of the ancient Egyptians; and the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, and many other early peoples gave a high place to this deity. Among simpler races the sun was often the sole object of worship, and those peoples who worship Light as the god of all, in a sense are not far afield. Fire-worshipers generally considered fire as the purest representation of heavenly fire, the origin of everything that lives.

Light was considered such a blessing that lamps were buried with the dead in order that spirits should be able to have it in the next world. This custom has prevailed widely but the fact that the lamps were unlighted indicates that only the material aspect was considered. It is interesting to note that the lamps and other light-sources in pagan temples and religious processions were not symbolical but were offerings to the gods. In later centuries a deeper symbolical meaning became attached to light and burning lamps were placed upon the tombs of important personages. The burying of lamps with the dead appears to have originated in Asia. The Phœnicians and Romans apparently continued the custom, but no traces of it have been found in Greece and Egypt.

Fire and light have been closely associated in various religious creeds and their ceremonies. The Hindu festival in honor of the goddess of prosperity is attended by the burning of many lamps in the temples and homes. The Jewish synagogues have their eternal lamps and in their rituals fire and light have played prominent rôles. The devout Brahman maintains a fire on the hearth and worships it as omniscient and divine. He expects a brand from this to be used to light his funeral pyre, whose fire and light will make his spirit fit to enter his heavenly abode. He keeps a fire burning on the altar, worships Agni, the god of fire, and makes fire sacrifices on various occasions such as betrothals and marriages. To the Mohammedans lighted lamps symbolize holy places, and the Kaaba at Mecca, which contains a black stone supposed to have been brought from heaven, is illuminated by thousands of lamps. Many of the uses to which light was put in ancient times indicate its rarity and sacred nature. Doubtless, the increasing use of artificial light at festivals and celebrations of the present time is partly the result of lingering customs of bygone centuries and partly due to a recognition of an innate appeal or attribute of light. Certainly nothing is more generally appropriate in representing joy and prosperity.

Throughout all countries ancient races had woven natural light and fire into their rites and customs, so it became a natural step to utilize artificial light and fire in the same manner. It would be tedious and monotonous to survey the vast field of ancient worship of light, for the underlying ideas are generally similar. The mythology of the Greeks is illustrative of the importance attached to fire and light by the cultivated peoples of ancient times. The myth of Prometheus emphasizes the fact that in those remote periods fire and light were regarded as of prime importance. According to this myth, fire and light were contained in heaven and great cunning and daring were necessary in order to obtain it. Prometheus stole this heavenly fire, for which act he was chained to the mountain and made to suffer. The Greeks mark this event as the beginning of human civilization. All arts are traced to Prometheus, and all earthly woe likewise. As past history is surveyed it appears natural to think of scientific men who have become martyrs to the quest of hidden secrets. They have made great sacrifices for the future benefit of civilization and not a few of them have endured persecution even in recent times. The Greeks recognized that a new era began with the acquisition of artificial light. Its divine nature was recognized and it became a phenomenon for worship and a means for representing divine presence. The origin of fire and light made them holy. The fire on the altar took its place in religious rites and there evolved many ceremonial uses of lamps, candles, and fire.

The Greeks and Romans burned sacred lamps in the temples and utilized light and fire in many ceremonies. The torch-race, in which young men ran with lighted torches, the winner being the one who reached the goal first with his torch still alight, originated in a Grecian ceremony of lighting the sacred fire. There are many references in ancient Roman and Grecian literature to sacred lamps burning day and night in sanctuaries and before statues of gods and heroes. On birthdays and festivals the houses of the Romans were specially ornamented with burning lamps. The Vestal Virgins in Rome maintained the sacred fire which had been brought by fugitives from Troy. In ancient Rome when the fire in the Temple of Vesta became extinguished, it was rekindled by the rubbing of a piece of wood upon another until fire was obtained. This was carried into the temple by the Vestal Virgin and the sacred fire was rekindled. The fire produced in this manner, for some reason, was considered holy.

The early peoples displayed many lamps on feast-days and an example of extravagance in this respect is an occasion when King Constantine commanded that the entire city of Constantinople be illuminated by wax-candles on Christmas Eve. Candelabra, of the form of the branching tree, were commonly in use in the Roman temples.

The ceremonial use of light in the Christian church evolved both from adaptations of pagan customs and of the natural symbolisms of fire and light. However, these acquired a deeper meaning in Christianity than in early times because they were primarily visible representations or manifestations of the divine presence. The Bible contains many references to the importance and symbolisms of light and fire. According to the First Book of Moses, the achievement of the Creator immediately following the creation of "the heavens and the earth" was the creation of light. The word "light" is the forty-sixth word in Genesis. Christ is "the true light" and Christians are "children of light" in war against the evil "powers of darkness." When St. Paul was converted "there shined about him a great light from heaven." The impressiveness and symbolism of fire and light are testified to in many biblical expressions. Christ stands "in the midst of seven candle-sticks" with "his eyes as a flame of fire." When the Holy Ghost appeared before the apostles "there appeared unto them cloven tongues of fire." When St. Paul was preaching the gospel of Christ at Alexandria "there were many lights" suggesting a festive illumination.

According to the Bible, the perpetual fire which came originally from heaven was to be kept burning on the altar. It was holy and those whose duty it was to keep it burning were guilty of a grave offense if they allowed it to be extinguished. If human hands were permitted to kindle it, punishment was meted out. The two sons of Aaron who "offered strange fire before the Lord" were devoured by "fire from the Lord." The seven-branched candlestick was lighted eternally and these burning light-sources were necessary accompaniments of worship.

The countless ceremonial uses of fire and light which had evolved in the past centuries were bound to influence the rites and customs of the Christian church. The festive illumination of pagan temples in honor of gods was carried over into the Christian era. The Christmas tree of to-day is incomplete without its many lights. Its illumination is a homage of light to the source of light. The celebration of Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a typical example of fire-worship retained from ancient times. At the climax of the services comes the descent of the Holy Fire. The central candelabra suddenly becomes ablaze and the worshipers, each of whom carries a wax taper, light their candles therefrom and rush through the streets. The fire is considered to be of divine origin and is a symbol of resurrection. The custom is similar in meaning to the light which in older times was maintained before gods.

During the first two or three centuries of the Christian era the ceremonial use of light does not appear to have been very extensive. Writings of the period contain statements which appear to ridicule this use to some extent. For example, one writer of the second century states that "On days of rejoicing ... we do not encroach upon daylight with lamps." Another, in the fourth century, refers with sarcasm to the "heathen practice" in this manner: "They kindle lights as though to one who is in darkness. Can he be thought sane who offers the light of lamps and candles to the Author and Giver of all light?"

That candles were lighted in cemeteries is evidenced by an edict which forbade their use during the day. Lamps of the early centuries of the Christian era have been found in the catacombs of Rome which are thought to have been ceremonial lamps, for they were not buried with the dead. They were found only in niches in the walls. During these same centuries elaborate candelabra containing hundreds of candles were kept burning before the tombs of saints. Notwithstanding the doubt that exists as to the extent of ceremonial lighting in the early centuries of the Christian era, it is certain that by the beginning of the fifth century the ceremonial use of light in the Christian church had become very extensive and firmly established. That this is true and that there were still some objections is indicated by many controversies. Some thought that lamps before tombs were ensigns of idolatry and others felt that no harm was done if religious people thus tried to honor martyrs and saints. Some early writings convey the idea that the ritualistic use of lights in the church arose from the retention of lights necessary at nocturnal services after the hours of worship had been changed to daytime.

Passing beyond the early controversial period, the ceremonial use of light is everywhere in evidence at ordinary church services. On special occasions such as funerals, baptisms, and marriages, elaborate altar-lighting was customary. The gorgeous candelabra and the eternal lamp are noted in many writings. Early in the fifth century the pope ordered that candles be blessed and provided rituals for this ceremony. Shortly after this the Feast of Purification of the Virgin was inaugurated and it became known as Candlemas because on this day the candles for the entire year were blessed. However, it appears that the blessing of candles was not carried out in all churches. Altar lights were not generally used until the thirteenth century. They were originally the seven candles carried by church officials and placed near the altar.

The custom of placing lighted lamps before the tombs of martyrs was gradually extended to the placing of such lamps before various objects of a sacred or divine relation. Finally certain light-sources themselves became objects of worship and were surrounded by other lamps, and the symbolisms of light grew apace. A bishop in the sixth century heralded the triple offering to God represented by the burning wax-candle. He pointed out that the rush-wick developed from pure water; that the wax was the product of virgin bees; and that the flame was sent from heaven. Each of these, he was certain, was an offering acceptable to God. Wax-candles became associated chiefly with religious ceremonies. The wax later became symbolic of the Blessed Virgin and of the body of Christ. The wick was symbolical of Christ's soul, the flame represented his divine character, and the burning candle thus became symbolical of his death. The lamp, lantern, and taper are frequently symbols of piety, heavenly wisdom, or spiritual light. Fire and flames are emblems of zeal and fervor or of the sufferings of martyrdom and the flaming heart symbolizes fervent piety and spiritual or divine love.

By the time the Middle Ages were reached the ceremonial uses of light became very complex, but for the Roman Catholic Church they may be divided into three general groups: (1) They were symbolical of God's presence or of the effect of his presence; of Christ or of "the children of light"; or of joy and content at festivals. (2) They may be offered in fulfillment of a religious vow; that is, as an act of worship. (3) They may possess certain divine power because of their being blessed by the church, and therefore may be helpful to soul and body. The three conceptions are indicated in the prayers offered at the blessing of the candles on Candlemas as follows: (1) "O holy Lord ... who ... by thy command didst cause this liquid to come by the labor of bees to the perfection of wax, ... we beseech thee ... to bless and sanctify these candles for the use of men, and the health of bodies and souls...." (2) "...these candles, which we thy servants desire to carry lighted to magnify thy name; that by offering them to thee, being worthily inflamed with the holy fire of thy most sweet charity, we may deserve...." (3) "O Lord Jesus Christ, the true light, ... mercifully grant, that as these lights enkindled with visible fire dispel nocturnal darkness, so our hearts illuminated by visible fire," etc.

In general, the ceremonial uses of lights in this church were originated as a forceful representation of Christ and of salvation. On the eve of Easter a new fire, emblematic of the arisen Christ, is kindled, and all candles throughout the year are lighted from this. During the service of Holy Week thirteen lighted candles are placed before the altar and as the penitential songs are sung they are extinguished one by one. When but one remains burning it is carried behind the altar, thus symbolizing the last days of Christ on earth. It is said that this ceremony has been traced to the eighth century. On Easter Eve, after the new fire is lighted and blessed, certain ceremonies of light symbolize the resurrection of Christ. From this new fire three candles are lighted and from these the Paschal Candle. The origin of the latter is uncertain, but it symbolizes a victorious Christ. From it all the ceremonial lights of the church are lighted and they thereby are emblematic of the presence of the light of Christ.

Many interesting ceremonial uses may be traced out, but space permits a glimpse of only a few. At baptismal services the paschal candle is dipped into the water so that the latter will be effective as a regenerative element. The baptized child is reborn as a child of light. Lighted candles are placed in the hands of the baptized persons or of their god-parents. Those about to take vows carry lights before the church official and the same idea is attached to the custom of carrying or of holding lights on other occasions such as weddings and first communion. Lights are placed around the bodies of the dead and are carried at the funeral. They not only protect the dead from the powers of darkness but they symbolize the dead as still living in the light of Christ. The use of lighted candles around bodies of the dead still survives to some extent among Protestants, but their significance has been lost sight of. Even in the eighteenth century funerals in England were accompanied by lighted tapers, but the carrying of lights in other processions appears to have ceased with the Reformation. In some parts of Scotland it is still the custom to place two lighted candles on a table beside a corpse on the day of the funeral.

With the importance of light in the ritual of the church it is not surprising that the extinction of lights is a part of the ceremony of excommunication. Such a ceremony is described in an early writing thus: "Twelve priests should stand about the bishop, holding in their hands lighted torches, which at the conclusion of the anathema or excommunication they should cast down and trample under foot." When the excommunicant is reinstated, a lighted candle is placed in his hands as a symbol of reconciliation. These and many other ceremonial uses of light have been and are practised, but they are not always mandatory. Furthermore, the customs have varied from time to time, but the few which have been touched upon illustrate the impressive part that light has played in religious services.

During the Reformation the ceremonial use of lights was greatly altered and was abolished in the Protestant churches as a relic of superstition and papal authority. In the Lutheran churches ceremonial lights were largely retained, in the Church of England they have been subjected to many changes largely through the edicts of the rulers. In the latter church many controversies were waged over ceremonial lights and their use has been among the indictments of a number of officials of the church in impeachment cases before the House of Commons. Many uses of light in religious ceremonies were revived in cathedrals after the Restoration and they became wide-spread in England in the nineteenth century. As late as 1889 the Archbishop of Canterbury ruled that certain ceremonial candles were lawful according to the Prayer-Book of Edward VI, but the whole question was left open and unsettled.

These byways of artificial light are complex and fascinating because their study leads into many channels and far into the obscurity of the childhood of the human race. A glimpse of them is important in a survey of the influence of artificial light upon the progress of civilization because in these usages the innate and acquired impressiveness of light is encountered. Although many ceremonial uses of light remain, it is doubtful if their significance and especially their origin are appreciated by most persons. Nevertheless, no more interesting phase of artificial light is encountered than this, which reaches to the foundation of civilization.

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This book is part of the public domain. Matthew Luckiesh (2006). Artificial Light: Its Influence upon Civilization. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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