One question I see a lot is a variant on “I can’t use candles, what can I do instead?”
There are a number of options, but it depends on what the candle is doing in your ritual or working. Let’s take them one by one.
Element of fire
Obviously, one reason to use a candle is to have the element of fire on the altar. If a candle’s not an option for you, you can represent fire in other ways:
- Stones formed from fire and molten lava such as obsidian or pumice
- Blown glass (shaped in fire)
- Images of fire or hearths.
- Ribbons or other decorative items in fire colours
One of the most common reasons to want to use a candle is to do candle magic. There are a lot of ways to do candle magic, but the most common approaches involve taking a suitable candle, carving symbols or words in it (for your intention), adding herbs and oils for your goal, and then charging the candle with energy and burning it.
Most commonly, this means burning the entire candle down, but there are also candle magic methods where you burn a little bit each day or each week. There are other techniques where you stick a pin in a larger candle, and burn the candle until the pin falls out, which can be very useful for workings where you want to renew them periodically, like an ongoing prosperity or job working.
When you can’t use a candle, you probably want to look at an alternative kind of magical working. Some alternatives that work in some similar ways (working with the goal over time) might include spell bottles (layering herbs and other materials into your working), cord magic (doing something over the time to either release or further bind the magic), or perhaps making a specific shrine or altar where you can do a working over an extended period.
If you want the effect of something burning down and being used up, I have had good luck with using a small ice cube (I use the small silicon molds in heart or star shapes for this, that are an inch or so across). Make ice cubes as desired – you can do anything food safe in there. You might add a single bead or small stone, a flower petal or small pinch of a herb, a drop or two of a skin safe oil. If you want something actually in the middle, fill the shape half-full with water, freeze it, then add the time and the rest of the water, and freeze again.
One common use of candles are on altars, for deities, guardians, or other beings. Sometimes the candle is an offering, sometimes it’s doing something else as well.
In my tradition, one of the reasons we use a candle for this is that the candle gives the deity or being a place to ‘sit’ in the ritual that is specifically for them. Lighting the candle basically is offering them a chair. When we are done with ritual, the candle is extinguished, and that’s part of how we indicate that the ritual is over. (Just like if you’re having a party at your house, and there’s a point where you start encouraging people toward the door, gently but politely, so you can go to bed.)
The good news is there are a number of other options if you can’t use a candle. One is to create a small box (or anything else you can open and close – a pouch would work too) and keep some small items appropriate to the deity or the being in there. Open the container when you’d light the candle, and close it up when you’d put the candle out.
I’ve usually done this with the small balsa wood boxes you can get from craft stores, but there are all sorts of creative ideas possible. You could get small carved stones, little figures, curls of ribbon in appropriate colours, even small statues or small images.
Another common use for candles is as an offering. Fortunately, this has an easy solution – make a diferent kind of offering! Different cultures, deities, and beings have their own preferences in what they like (just as people do) but in general, the following are a good place to start if you’re not sure or can’t find specific information.
Just make sure you remove anything that can rot before it does, and be careful you don’t leave anything out that would be dangerous for a pet or small child who could get access to your offering space. The offerings generally do not need to be a large amount: a pinch of bread, a tiny pour of liquid in a small cup are usually fine. (Bigger and more elaborate offering meals are more commonly a thing for specific festivals or needs.)
- Cool clear water
- Milk or cream (remove it before it goes sour)
- Olive oil (in cultures that used it)
- The cultural staple food – bread, grain, rice, etc.
- Alcohol, preferably something common to that culture (I use wine, beer, or mead, depending on the season and what I have in the house, sometimes also gin.)
- Seasonal fruit
- Herbs or dried flowers related to the deity or their interests.
And to be honest, while I’ve heard of a few deities who don’t care for it, very few seem to turn down a square of good chocolate. Quite a few enjoy coffee, too.
Many people use incense (air and fire) as part of a cleansing ritual, or passing something through the flame of the candle. If a flame is not an option, you can use alternate methods of cleansing.
Which one to choose will depend on the item you’re cleansing (especially what it’s made of.) Obviously, if your item is made of paper, or is delicate (as many stones can be), you may want to be careful about exposing it to water or even to direct sunlight for very long.
Some options include:
- Letting it rest on a layer of sea salt or kosher cooking salt for a period of time.
- Spritzing a light mist of water + suitable oils or infused liquid over it, or passing the object through a mist.
- Leaving the item in the moonlight or sunlight for a period of time (overnight, three days, a lunar cycle.)
- Using your energy to deliberately cleanse the item
- Some people like to use a block of selenite for cleansing objects – it works well for jewellery, divination tools, or other items you can set on something.
Some people use a candle in ritual or magic not just for the magical working itself, but so they can read the patterns of the candle wax. Obviously, you can apply another divination method of your choice instead.
Some people also prefer to divine by the candle flame itself. In this case, scrying might be the closest type of divination – you can do it with any low indirect light in a dark mirror or bowl. (Or a lighter bowl with something in the liquid to make it darker – a few drops of ink or food colouring, some red wine….)
Many people like to use a candle for a focus of meditation. You can use a different visual focus, like a mandala or object. However, you can also get LED candles with a flickering flame, if you prefer that. (Or consider pulling up a video of a candle flame or bonfire via your phone or other tech device.)
Of course, one of the main reasons candles are used in religious rituals around the world is that for hundreds – thousands – of years, candles and oil lamps were the main ways to light an indoor space you were using when it was dark out. They hold a lot of mystery and magic.
If you can’t use a flame, you can explore LED candles, or I am very fond of the LED fairy lights draped, coiled, or wound around the places I want more light.
Beeswax candles (my favourite) have an amazing scent. Many people also like having scented candles, especially just for regular use in the home. If you can’t have candles, you may well not be able to have incense either (another way to get scent).
Some people use wax warmers (usually with scented soy wax) that releases the candle without a flame. Other people might use perfume oils, diluted essential oils, or other methods of lightly scenting a room.
If you’re fine with perfume, but other people in your space are sensitive to it, sometimes a scent locket works well to keep the scent close to you.
Added September 2021.