Candles have been used since ancient times in humankind’s most important rituals and rites of passage, including those pertaining to the dead and ghosts of the dead.
The actual origin of candles is unknown, but they were in use as early as 3000 B.C.E. in Egypt and Crete, providing light to repel evil spirits in religious ceremonies. Old Jewish customs, adopted by Christians, call for lighting candles for the dying and dead: a lit candle by the bedside of a dying person frightens away Demons, and it must remain lit for a week after death, perhaps to keep the air purified. Another custom calls for burning candles in all rooms of the house until the corpse is buried.
A similar custom from Ireland calls for burning 12 candles in a circle around a corpse until it is buried, for the circle of fire will prevent evil spirits from carrying off the dead one’s soul. Three candles are burned at Irish wakes, and the candle ends are then used to treat burns. Because of the association with wakes, three burning candles are considered an ill omen and harbinger of death; in the superstitions of the theatre, three candles are never to be lit in dressing rooms.
In the Scottish Lowlands, a washed and laid out corpse is given a “saining” (blessing) by the oldest woman present, who lights a candle and passes it three times over the body. The candle is kept burning throughout the night. The candle must be obtained from an “unlucky” person (hence the opposite, or lucky) such as a witch, wizard, seer, or one who has flat feet or is “ringlet-eyed” or “langlipit” (probably hare-lipped).
A guttering candle generally presages a death in the family, while in American folklore, a candle left burning in an empty room will cause a death in the family. In Suffolk lore, a burning candle accidentally shut in a pantry is an omen of the same. A superstition common to the British Isles holds that candles whose wax drips not straight down but around the candle, thus giving the appearance of a winding sheet, is also a Death Omen; whoever is in the direction of the drip is the doomed one. In German lore, a candlewick that divides in two and burns in twin flames presages a death (interestingly, the same phenomenon in Austrian lore merely foretells the arrival of a letter).
A candle that burns dim means that a ghost is nearby; so does a candle that burns blue. Shakespeare used this latter superstition in Richard the Third, in which the Ghost of Buckingham enters to blue candlelight at dead midnight. In some beliefs, the death omen can be nullified by extinguishing the candle under running water or by blowing it out. In the late 18th century, the concept of blue candle flames as ghost calling cards was “so universally acknowledged, that many eminent philosophers have busied themselves in accounting for it, without once doubting the truth of it,” according to Francis Grose’s Provincial Glossary; with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (1787; 1790). However, in 1726, Daniel Defoe, writing in History of the Devil, maintained that blue candle flames were not supernatural but were merely produced by “any extraordinary emission of sulphurous or of nitrous particles” in close quarters.
Seventeenth-century lore advised treasure hunters to carry lanterns containing consecrated candles in order to conjure the ghosts of dead men who were said to guard buried treasure. These ghostly guards were stationed by Captain Kidd and other pirates of the time, who reputedly killed a man at every site where they buried their loot. The spirits were to be summoned in the name of God and promised anything in order to help them find “a place of untroubled rest.” According to lore, if the ghost caused a treasure hunter to speak or scream—as they invariably did—the treasure vanished. In one Nova Scotia tale, four men who discovered the site of buried treasure were digging silently when one of them noticed that suddenly a fifth man had joined them. He shouted. The fifth man vanished, and the treasure sank beyond reach.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. New York: Facts On File, 1999.
- Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.