Candles have been used for thousands of years as a source of light. Since the dawning of electricity, the purpose of candles seems to have shifted to the aesthetic. We now use them to create mood, ambiance, atmosphere, whether by the way they look, or the way they smell.
But what if I told you that candles have meant so much more?
Symbolism is a device used by artists and authors to connect meaning to an image. A typical example would be a country’s flag. To nationalists, that flag may represent patriotism, freedom, and a sense of pride. Candles have embodied great symbolism since the dawn of the first writings of Homer in Ancient Greece.
Prometheus, the great Titan, whose power included foresight, was notably punished by Zeus for giving humans fire. Prometheus had a great love for humanity, and after his brother, Epimethius (after-thought), gave all of the animals distinct qualities, such as speed and agility, there was nothing left for humans. So, Prometheus went up to the top of Mount Olympus, took fire, and gave it to humans. The use of fire completely changed civilization: Blacksmiths and Iron workers were born, food was cooked, predators were now prey. Zeus was so displeased at the likeness humans now had to the gods that he punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and commanding an eagle to eat Prometheus’ liver every day for eternity. About 11 generations later, Prometheus was saved by Hercules, but the power of fire remained with the humans. Humans now had light even during times of great darkness.
Since the great feat of Prometheus, the candle has embodied all the gifts he gave humanity; candles were the light in the vast array of darkness, a symbol of life, truth, and goodness. Light was used as the beginning of life and vitality in the Old Testament and these ideas have permeated into our daily language, as you’ve probably heard the metaphors “shedding the light” or “the light of my life.”
But even before common metaphors, Shakespeare often used light to symbolize the dawning of truth. He has Lady Macbeth sleepwalking aimlessly with a taper (a candle) as she begs, “Out damn spot, out I say,” seeking to wash away her sins and bring in the light of the darkness she’s been holding in. He has poor Desdemona light a candle before her fateful and final meeting with Othello, who proceeds to “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” as he extinguishes the candle foreshadowing the end of Desdemona, and thus, the end of goodness and life. Macbeth’s final, and most powerful soliloquy, refers to life as “Out, out brief candle” as candles have served as the extension of the symbolism of light, into the impermanence of life.
A modern example of the candle being used as a symbol of life include Elton John’s famous tribute song to the late Marilyn Monroe, “Candle in the Wind,” as he refers to her life as a candle trying to be ignited against a world of troubles, taking the form of the wind. He follows with “your candle burned out long before, your legend never did,” again showing how candles are the light of life, brief, but beautiful and enchanting while they burn.
While the use of candles has transitioned throughout time, their silent power to remind us about the brevity of life still transcends.