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Oil Lamp-ing 101

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Oil Lamp-ing 101

Post  Erodius on Fri Jul 19, 2013 11:00 pm

I've been meaning to write something like this for a while, because I think it's probably something newcomers may need help with, or even avoid due to uncertainty of even how to work it.

Although candles would have been available in later Antiquity, most artificial lighting, even through the Middle Ages, would have been from oil lamps. Temples and shrines were illuminated by means of oil-burning lamps of various sizes, with temples often utilizing large oil-candelabras akin to a traditional Jewish menorah; temples typically had no windows, and without such lamps it would have been innavigably dark inside — though, even with lamps, it would still have been dim by modern standards.

Though they've fallen out of use in favor of cheap paraffin candles and, later, incandescent bulbs, oil lamps are still easily available and a joy to have in the home — as long as one knows what one is doing. They put off more light than candles, and somewhat like beeswax candles, natural-oil lit lamps put off a very warm orange-gold light very different from the harsher white flame of burning paraffin.

What you'll need:

1. Useable oil lamp/s:
These are available in various sizes from places like Amazon. This is where mine come from (Amazon Brass Oil Lamps). In my experience, and from what I have heard from my mystagogue, who also uses oil lamps often, a large majority of the clay oil lamp reproductions that are sold from museum-store and replica-type websites are not meant to be actually used and are not internally sealed. As such, aside from issues of questionable safety, they will leak oil profusely and make an awful mess. Also, if it is a decorated clay lamp, as some are, it will become an oil-soaked disaster very quickly.
Instead, I recommend using metal lamps. The ones I use are made of cast brass, and do not leak at all whatsoever.

2. Wicks
Honestly, I have had people ask me what they are doing wrong when they fill a lamp with oil and try to light it and nothing happens. This is because natural oils used for lamp fuel (grapeseed oil, olive oil, almond oil etc) will not burn unless they have a wick. There are two kinds of wick: natural fiber and fiberglass. Natural fiber wicks are available from most craft stores in the candlemaking aisle, and gradually disintegrate as they burn away. This type of wick needs to be pulled out as it burns away to keep the lamp lit, and, of course, will need to be replaced often. In a pinch, a cotton ball pinched and rolled into a long wick-shape will function quite easily as a wick, as will pieces of rag or old cotton clothing.

Fiberglass wicks are usually sold for use in outdoor tiki-torches. They do not burn away, and shouldn't ever need to be replaced. However, they do gradually build up an accumulation of soot and black char that needs to be cleaned off occasionally. If a fiberglass wick will not light, it is often because it is simply dirty. They can be cleaned with a dry towel or paper towel.

3. Oil
Any natural oil will burn in a lamp. However, there are some things to take into consideration. Most lamps in the Græco-Roman world, for instance, would have been lit with olive oil. While olive oil works as a lamp fuel, it burns, especially as extra-virgin olive oil, with a very smoky flame; enough to probably make it inadvisable to burn virgin olive oil indoors. My recommendation is grapeseed oil, which is what I use, or very refined/light olive oil. As a general guideline, the lighter in color the oil is, the less smoky it is. Darker oils contain more biological matter, which is what causes them to smoke.


Lighting the Lamp:

You'll need to fill the lamp base with oil, but do not overdo it. Soak the wick first in the oil, then squeeze/towel off the tip to remove the excess (if there is too much oil, the wick will not light).

An average-sized lamp should equate to about an hour or two (plus or minus) of burn time per fill of oil.

A lit brass lamp (my photo):


A lit clay lamp (also my photo):


Last edited by Erodius on Sat Jul 20, 2013 3:07 pm; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : Added photo)

_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: Oil Lamp-ing 101

Post  Andromeda Amethyst on Thu Jul 25, 2013 2:13 am

How do you feel about the modern "lamp oil" for use in modern oil lights being used in ritual if "natural" oils are unavailable?  I have a glass oil lamp given to me one year.  It's very pretty but also very fragile so I don't use it often. As a consequence I have a large bottle of lamp oil sitting around with no use! Otherwise I use candles on my altar since I have dozens of those sitting around begging to be used.
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Re: Oil Lamp-ing 101

Post  Erodius on Thu Jul 25, 2013 11:45 am

Andromeda Amethyst wrote:How do you feel about the modern "lamp oil" for use in modern oil lights being used in ritual if "natural" oils are unavailable?  I have a glass oil lamp given to me one year.  It's very pretty but also very fragile so I don't use it often. As a consequence I have a large bottle of lamp oil sitting around with no use! Otherwise I use candles on my altar since I have dozens of those sitting around begging to be used.


I would not advise it, for two reasons.

First, the 18th-19th century style oil lamps that I imagine you are discussing are typically very gaudy — hence, a distraction from the purpose of the fire in worship. The fire is what matters, it's vessel is not a focus of worship. Items for religious use should not, of course, be 'ugly' — that is also a distraction — but too much the other way is also problematic. God is the central focus, not pretty knickknacks.

The other reason is in terms of health concerns. Modern lamp oil is a by-product of crude oil/gasoline refinement. It is extremely toxic (the bottles are usually covered with numerous such warnings), and in its burning process produces harmful, cancer-causing fumes. It also smells sour and unpleasant when burned. Really, I strongly advise against burning commercial 'lamp oil' indoors. There is also a safety issue. Commercial lamp oil is extremely flammable and can flash ignite — this means that, unlike natural oils, it can burn without a wick. If the oil were to get on the outside of the lamp, or leak on a surface, or something like that, it could cause a serious fire.

Commercial lamp oil should not be used in classical oil lamps. It burns too hot, and classical lamps, especially clay ones, are not meant to handle it. The fact that, in classical lamps, the fire can come into direct contact with the oil well would likely cause a fire if the lamp were filled with commercial oil. Since natural oils do not flash-ignite, this is not an issue for those. If you drop a lit match into commercial lamp oil, you'll get a blaze — if you drop a lit match into olive oil, the match will simply go out.

Conversely, however, 18-19th century style lamps will not work very well with natural oils. This is because natural oils are much heavier than the mineral oil, whale oil, or petroleum oil with which they would be usually lit. Since the wicks in these lamps are vertical above the oil well, rather than set horizontally to the side, as in classical lamps, the heavier natural oils will not 'wick' up the wick very well, and the lamp will extinguish itself rather quickly (I have tried doing this.)

_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: Oil Lamp-ing 101

Post  Andromeda Amethyst on Wed Jul 31, 2013 12:32 am

The one I have is in the style of the kind of oil-lamps you find in modern stores like Wicks and Sticks and stuff. In this case a glass "well" in the shape of a candle with the base shaped like a open rose bud. The wick hangs down from the top of the "candle" into the oil inside.

I actually do have a hurricane lamp as well but since that was my late father-in-laws it would be off limits for ANY kind of use.

I still have this bottle of lamp oil because I bought it for the rose lamp but was very reluctant to use it as I didn't want it broken by a careless nudge. Hmmm...I wonder if I could use it like a liquid scent difuser? Replace the oil with some kind of scented liquid. scratch 
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Re: Oil Lamp-ing 101

Post  Erodius on Wed Jul 31, 2013 1:04 am

That would depend on the structure of the item. If it does not have a wide enough opening in the top to insert something to wick the fluid into the open air, there will not be much effect.

You can find brass oil lamps online at places like Amazon for less than $10:

http://www.amazon.com/Solid-Brass-Aladdin-Magic-Genie/dp/B004HWVNF8/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1375243275&sr=8-3&keywords=genie+lamp

_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: Oil Lamp-ing 101

Post  J_Agathokles on Fri Aug 09, 2013 2:19 pm

You can also get oil lamps in clay - some with faces of certain Gods on the top - at greekshops.com, for example this one with an image of Zeus: http://greekshops.com/detail.aspx?ProdID=01LA2

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Re: Oil Lamp-ing 101

Post  Erodius on Fri Aug 09, 2013 5:45 pm

J_Agathokles wrote:You can also get oil lamps in clay - some with faces of certain Gods on the top - at greekshops.com, for example this one with an image of Zeus: http://greekshops.com/detail.aspx?ProdID=01LA2
Yes, but as I think I mentioned (if not, forgive my repetition), although they look very nice and are indeed the sort of lamps that would have been available to most average people in Antiquity, clay lamps have two common flaws. First, many lamps that are sold are not meant to be actually used (I don't know if this is the case for GreekShops' products), and sometimes are not completely fired or glazed, and may simply start to fall apart if you put oil in them. The other practical issue is that, because clay lamps are usually made from low-firing terracotta clay, they are very porous, and are only mildly fluid-resistant. In other words, they will leak oil all over the surface you put them on.

I have a clay lamp (it's in one of the pictures) that is from the old AncientLamps site before they, to my knowledge, stopped producing their lamps for whatever reason. It has an internal glaze and is intended to be used. However, even still, it leaks *terribly* — badly enough that it cannot be left lit for more than a minute or two without resulting in a pool of oil on the table. For some reason that I do not fully understand (probably has something to do with the heat though), it only leaks when it's lit.

_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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The Orphic Way: www.hellenicgods.org
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