Saturday, May 5, 2012

Light the altar.

A typical fire pot
This post is about illumination; namely, other ways to light your altar or sacred space besides using candles or ordinary light fixtures. I often use daylight, but most Witches I know prefer to work at night.  And as awesome as it is to cast a circle under the light of the moon, it is unfortunately not very practical and is much harder than it sounds.  Consider that the moon waxes and wanes, moves across the sky, often disappears behind things like trees, buildings, rooftops, hills, etc. AND, of course, you can't always count on the weather to cooperate.  Or your schedule, for that matter, even when conditions are ideal.

I've got nothing against candles.  They are the perfect economical, space-saving, visually pleasing, historically connected, and commonly accepted way to light sacred space (among pretty much ALL religions.)  HOWEVER...

Some people simply can't do candles.  They have little kids, clumsy or curious pets, allergies, tight spaces (I accidentally set off the smoke alarm a bunch of times at my old apartment), or are not allowed to burn candles, like in dorm rooms, hotels, offices, shared living arrangements, etc.  Safety, health, and other restrictions aside,  I'm also starting to see candles in a different light (ha ha... no pun intended!)  I use them so much for magic, they're starting to feel a bit like spell components to me, and I think that it might be a good idea for me to light the altar with something else in these situations.

So, in the quest for something different, I've come up with some handy alternatives for the modern Witch to light his/her altar!  Please note that with any open flame, the safety requirements are similar to the ones used when burning candles, but not necessarily the same!  If in any doubt about what these might be, you should not mess with open flame light sources until you have done some research and understand how to use them safely!  Here are some methods of illumination I've seen used or have tried myself:

1.  Fire pit:  the chances are, if you aren't lighting candles inside, you are probably not burning fires in a fireplace, either.  (However, a fireplace makes a great source of light for any ritual!)  So why not go outside, and use a patio fire pit?  You can even make a charcoal grill work as a fire pit, in a pinch.  Plus you get that lovely camping/beach bonfire feel without having to leave your property.

2.  Fire pot:  this is the smaller, portable, tabletop answer if you can't have a fire pit (see pic). I see these a lot at hardware and import stores in the spring and summer months.  A fire pot is a small, vase-like container made out of a heat-proof material (usually ceramic) that has a metal well in it for  adding fuel.  The fuel is set on fire, and burns with a tall, visible flame. They are designed for outdoor use, but I suppose that they could be burned indoors as long as they were used in a well-ventilated area and kept far away from smoke alarms and anything flammable, like drapes.  A fire pot should also be put on a trivet if being burned inside, and make sure to keep the included snuffer handy just in case you need to put the fire out before the fuel has been exhausted.  And NEVER add fuel while it is burning!  (Follow the included instructions.)

3.  Cauldron fire:  Some people use their cauldrons as candle holders, but that's not what I'm talking about.  This is an actual fire built inside the cauldron, where you use it like a fire pot. Fuels used for this vary; wood, herbs, charcoal, briquettes, gel or liquid fuel, or even Sterno cans can be used, but in every case, I recommend that you only use an actual cast iron cauldron to make a fire in, since the fire tends to get very hot. Again, this is probably better suited for outdoor use, but I have seen some pretty impressive cauldron fires done indoors with no problems.  If you decide to go this route, do some extensive research first, and use common sense - NEVER add fuel while the fire is burning, use a trivet or slab of stone or concrete to set the cauldron on, have a lid or pile of sand to snuff the fire out with (DO NOT USE WATER), etc.  Better yet, get someone who has some experience with this sort of thing to show you how it's done.

4.  Tiki torches:  You can treat these the same as the above portable fire sources.  The best thing about them, in fact, is that they are portable; just stick them in wherever you have grass, dirt, or sand.  They are also pretty inexpensive, and tend to be sold in sets so you have plenty of light to go around.  Plus, they have that groovy retro party vibe!  Unfortunately, these are strictly for outdoor use only.

5.  Oil lamps:  Admittedly, these are a lot like candles, but they are just different enough to make them worth considering.  For starters, they burn cleaner and there's no dripping wax to worry about.  They also last a lot longer than candles and can be used over and over again.  I've also seen kits where you can make a pretty wine bottle or other decorative container (perhaps one with sentimental value?) into an oil lamp yourself.  This opportunity to personalize the lamp makes it a more attractive choice to many people.

6.  Light Strings:  this is one of my favorite non-fire sources of illumination.  No one objects to the use of these, as long as you're not overpowering an outlet with connected strings.  For all-purpose use, I suggest good ole plain white.  In the dark, they give you that "starlight" effect, and they are common enough that it won't look like you left your holiday decorations up too long.  On the other hand, you can get different colors for different occasions, since basic strings are pretty cheap, too. (Although certain colors might only be available seasonally.)  By far the best feature of a light string is that they are safe for use anywhere.

Photo by Saltmiser, from Wikipedia
7.  Lava lamps:  Ok, you can stop laughing now!  Seriously, this is my number one choice for a non-fire light on my altar.  There are two reasons for this:  1.  I know I'm going to sound like a drug-addled hippie if I say this, but I feel like it's a great meditation exercise to stare at a lava lamp, and 2.  I love the fact that a lava lamp combines the elements of fire (electricity) and water together, because you don't see this combo that often.  Hell, you could even throw earth (the wax) and air (the bubbling pattern) in there if you really want to, which makes the lava lamp an awesome all-around elemental light source!  They are also very safe and fairly inexpensive.

8.  Night lights:  I know these are bordering on the ordinary, but think about it:  how often do you really use a night light, anyway?  They're perfect for lighting a small room when casting a circle, as the light is low and provides good ambiance, they're perfectly safe, and they are also small enough to be tucked away in a drawer when not being used.  Plus, there are some really gorgeous stained glass, stone, porcelain, and laser-cut wood night lights available, some of them with magical patterns like fairies, mermaids, moons, and even pentacles.  Do a few searches online and you'll be surprised how many cool night lights are out there.

9.  Star projector:  this is stretching it a bit, but I know there are a lot of Pagans out there that long to be outdoors as much as possible for their rituals.  So why not bring the outdoors in, and pretend you are outside with a star projector?  Granted, a good one is going to cost you, but I've seen a good one in use and I have to say, it's quite the sight.  This is probably the most fun of all the options, and I highly recommend it if you want to include kids in your indoor rituals because it's safe and educational, too!

I'm sure there are many other ways you can think up to illuminate your altar or sacred space besides the ones I've listed.  I refrained from mentioning a few, such as battery-powered candles and lights, black lights, glow sticks, and lanterns.  Some of these don't have such great effects in my opinion, and some (like the glow sticks) I don't feel are environmentally responsible.  However, as with any other spiritual practice, you need to use whatever feels right and resonates with you personally.  And of course it has to be a safe and practical choice as well!  I would love to hear if anyone has ever tried any of these alternative light sources personally, what you thought of them, and what you would do differently (if anything).  Please, by all means, illuminate me!


  1. These are fantastic ideas! I remember when I was originally planning on going away for college and I was so sad about not having use of candles. Candles are my ideal truthfully. I wish I would have had this list then.

  2. Thanks for the praise. :) I myself used either a lava lamp or strings of lights indoors for years because I had really rambunctious cats that would howl or scratch if you locked them out of a room! So candles were really not an option, and I had to get creative. I have also lived in a lot of houses that didn't have fireplaces... I guess they're not that common in California, and so I had to make due with outside fire sources. That's how I came up with this list.

  3. I absolutely love the lava lamp idea!!! In fact I'm searching for one right now :P Thanks for sharing.