Using the basic process for learning a new thing that I described in the article on first steps, let’s start by looking at something relatively simple – candles. I picked candles because they are relatively simple to talk about, but they also offer some choices (in material) and some safety considerations, so they make a good first example of how this process works.
For this example, I’ll provide a lot of information. For the other examples, I’ll point out some specific questions and resources, but not include all the details.
Step 1: Learn about the new thing:
Where does the practice comes from? Many traditions and paths use candles. It’s probably impossible to tell exactly when they became common practice in religious witchcraft.
What are the candles supposed to do?
- You can use them for light in ritual.
- You can use them for magic.
- You can use them to provide a place for the spirits, elemental powers, or Gods you invite to reside (a place just for them in the circle.) This is why many traditions light a candle when they call the quarters.
- They can represent fire in a ritual.
- They can burn small things (slips of paper, dried leaves) if in a suitable container to catch ash and cinders.
What do you need to know to use a candle?
- How to pick a good candle for the thing I’m using it for.
- How to light it (start using it)
- How to put it out (stop using it)
- Any safety information.
There are different sizes and shapes – some shapes are specific for magical uses. Some, like votives, tea lights, and tapers, are pretty standard.
You can get candles at many home and art/craft stores (usually these are of paraffin wax, which is okay, but not my first choice.) Co-ops, higher-end grocery stores, and farmer’s markets will often have some beeswax options. You can order candles online from a wide range of sources, or even order wax and wicks to make your own.
Different waxes burn differently – some leave more smoke. Some, like beeswax, have a slight scent that many people enjoy.
What tools do I need to use a candle?
- The candle
- Something to light it with (matches, lighter, etc.)
- Maybe something to put it out with (snuffer)
- Something to put it on (to avoid wax drips or burns on your furniture). If using tapers, you definitely need a candle holder that’s nice and sturdy and stable. Make sure the candle fits snugly.
- Fire safety – sand, water, fire extinguisher.
- Anything else needed (thread, oils, tool to scratch symbols into the candle, etc. for candle magic.)
How do you know when it’s working?
- For light: is it burning and giving off light?
- For ritual: does it anchor the energy? Does it stay lit?
- For magic: like any other magic: look at the results.
Things to be careful of:
- Make sure it’s well away from anything that might catch on fire or blow into the path of the flame. (That includes wandering cats, dogs, and other pets with fur as well as things like curtains.)
- Wax getting on things you don’t want it to be on. (Wax on carpet or fabric is a pain in the neck.)
- Burning yourself (either with the flame, the lighter, or hot wax).
- While they’re mostly off the market, some candles have lead in their wicks: if you’re using an old candle, check to make sure the wick doesn’t have metal in it.
- Some people may have allergic reactions to a particular wax, or to a scent in the candle.
- There are different kinds of waxes and wicks. Learning more might be useful before picking one.
- LED candles exist, for places where a lit candle is not safe or appropriate. (dorms, when you’re not sure you’ll remember it’s lit, active pets or small children, or when you want something lit overnight.)
- If you’re looking to represent fire, there are other options – glass is made in fire, as are some kinds of stones and minerals. You might have an image, coiled ribbon, or other things in fire colors to represent fire instead.
Step 2: Figure out the most basic version
Here, if you’re just getting started, you might figure out which of the uses of a candle you care about, and then figure out which form/wax/etc. makes sense for that.
Buy a small number. When you’re first getting started, I wouldn’t start by making your own: it takes some experience and equipment that you may decide you don’t need in your life.
Good candles to try first include a thin/short taper (4-6 inches), or a votive candle (the short squat ones that are about 2-3 inches high with sloping sides.) Tea lights are hard to inscribe, and pillar candles or other shapes can take a long time to burn.
Remember that you’ll need candleholders that suit the kind of candle you’re using.
Step 3: Try a simple version:
Practice lighting your candles using the method you’ve decided on a few times. Lighters can be unusually tricky sometimes, and your ritual work will be happier if you are not frustrated with the lighter or burning your fingers.
(In ritual, I light the first candle with a lighter, and then light everything else from that one candle using a small taper candle. This looks nifty, but is largely because I hate fussing with lighters and find the noise they make when lighting particularly distracting.)
Decide how you feel about putting candles out. Some people feel strongly that you shouldn’t burn them out, because it offends the fire elemental. Some people feel that blowing it out sends the energy out into the world. Some people use a snuffer or lick their fingers and pinch them to snuff the candle that way. (I blow mine out.)
Try casting your circle using candles for the quarters and deities. (Tea lights do work really well for this.)
Step 4: Practice this skill until it feels comfortable to you.
Practice. Try different things out. Consider trying different kinds of candles, or different shapes. Pay attention to what works for you.
Step 5: Expand your understanding:
Try charging a candle for a particular goal using appropriate symbols carved into the wax and your intention. Burn down the candle to release the intention, focusing on it as it burns. If you want a candle that burns very quickly for a magical intention, birthday cake candles do really well.
This is a good time to do some further research into various options. If you’ve been blowing out your candles, try snuffing. If you’ve been trying one kind of candle, try others. See what the difference between a spell with a small candle and a big seven-day candle is. Look at what other people do, and research different kinds of candle magic.
This would also be a time to consider making your own – or at least thinking about it. What would you do if you were making a candle for a particular Sabbat? A particular magical goal?
Step 6: Develop an ongoing practice:
After all this experimentation, you can settle in to your regular practice: figure out the options that work best for you (and anyone you’re working with), and get comfortable with using the tools. Just remember that if your circumstances change, you might want to come back and revisit some of your choices.
This would also be a good time to start collecting candleholders or other items that particularly suit your style. (Don’t forget about options like buying plain glass and using glass paints to create a perfect holder, either!)
You might find the following articles of interest:
- Getting started with ritual
- A possible first year of learning and practice
- Safety tips and notes
- How do we do ritual?
[last edited on January 3, 2011]