An oil lamp is an object used to produce light continuously for a period of time using an oil-based fuel source. The use of oil lamps began thousands of years ago and continues to this day, although their use is less common in modern times. They work in the same way as a candle but with fuel that is liquid at room temperature, so that a container for the oil is required. A textile wick drops down into the oil, and is lit at the end, burning the oil as it is drawn up the wick.
Oil lamps are a form of lighting, and were used as an alternative to candles before the use of electric lights. Starting in 1780, the Argand lamp quickly replaced other oil lamps still in their basic ancient form. These in turn were replaced by the kerosene lamp in about 1850. In small towns and rural areas the latter continued in use well into the 20th century, until such areas were finally electrified and light bulbs could be used.
Sources of fuel for oil lamps include a wide variety of plants such as nuts (walnuts, almonds, and kukui) and seeds (sesame, olive, castor, or flax). Also widely used were animal fats (butter, ghee, fish oil, shark liver, whale blubber, or seal). Camphine, a blend of turpentine and ethanol, was the first "burning fluid" fuel for lamps after whale oil supplies were depleted. It was replaced by kerosene after the US Congress enacted excise taxes on alcohol to pay for the American Civil War.
Most modern lamps (such as fueled lanterns) have been replaced by gas-based or petroleum-based fuels to operate when emergency non-electric light is required. Therefore, oil lamps of today are primarily used for the particular ambience they produce.
The following are the main external parts of a terra-cotta lamp:
Lamps can be categorized based on different criteria, including material (clay, silver, bronze, gold, stone, slip), shape, structure, design, and imagery (e.g. symbolic, religious, mythological, erotic, battles, hunting).
Typologically, lamps of the Ancient Mediterranean can be divided into seven major categories:
Lamps appear in the Torah and other Jewish sources as a symbol of "lighting" the way for the righteous, the wise, and for love and other positive values. While fire was often described as being destructive, light was given a positive spiritual meaning. The oil lamp and its light were important household items, and this may explain their symbolism. Oil lamps were used for many spiritual rituals. The oil lamp and its light also became important ritualistic articles with the further development of Jewish culture and religion. The Temple Menorah, a ritual seven-branched oil lamp used in the Second Temple, forms the centre of the Chanukah story.
There are several references to oil lamps in the New Testament, In the Orthodox Church and many Eastern Catholic Churches oil lamps (Greek: kandili, Slavonic: Church Slavonic: lampada) are still used both on the Holy Table (altar) and to illuminate icons on the iconostasis and around the temple (church building). Orthodox Christians will also use oil lamps in their homes to illuminate their icon corner. Traditionally, the sanctuary lamp in an Orthodox church is an oil lamp. It is lit by the bishop when the church is consecrated, and ideally it should burn perpetually thereafter. The oil burned in all of these lamps is traditionally olive oil. Oil lamps are also referenced as a symbol throughout the New Testament, including in the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
Oil lamps are commonly used in Hindu temples as well as in home shrines. Generally the lamps used in temples are circular with places for five wicks. They are made of metal and either suspended on a chain or screwed onto a pedestal. There will usually be at least one lamp in each shrine, and the main shrine may contain several. Usually only one wick is lit, with all five burning only on festive occasions. The oil lamp is used in the Hindu ritual of Aarti.
In the home shrine, the style of lamp is usually different, containing only one wick. There is usually a piece of metal that forms the back of the lamp, which has a picture of a Hindu deity embossed on it. In many houses, the lamp burns all day, but in other homes, it is lit at sundown. The lamp in the home shrine is supposed to be lit before any other lights are turned on at night.
A hand-held oil lamp or incense sticks (lit from the lamp) are also used during the Hindu puja ceremony. In the North of India, a five-wick lamp is used, usually fueled with ghee. On special occasions, various other lamps may be used for puja, the most elaborate having several tiers of wicks.
In South India, there are a few types of oil lamps that are common in temples and traditional rituals. Some of the smaller ones are used for offerings as well.
Oil lamps are lit at traditional Chinese shrines before either an image of a deity or a plaque with Classical Chinese characters giving the name of the deity. Such lamps are usually made from clear glass (giving them a similar appearance to normal drinking glasses) and are filled with oil, sometimes with water underneath. A cork or plastic floater containing a wick is placed on top of the oil with the bottom of the wick submerged in the oil.
Such lamps are kept burning in shrines, whether private or public, and incense sticks or joss sticks are lit from the lamp.
Curved stone lamps were found in places dated to the 10th millennium BC (Mesolithic, Middle Stone Age Period, c. 10,300–8000 BC). The oldest stone-oil lamp was found in Lascaux in 1940 in a cave that was inhabited 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
Some archaeologists claim that the first shell-lamps existed more than 6,000 years ago (Neolithic, Later Stone Age, c. 8500–4500 BC). They believe that the alabaster shell-shaped lamps dug up in Sumerian sites dating to 2600 BC were imitations of real shell-lamps that had been used for a long time (Early Bronze Age, Canaanite/Bronze I–IV, c. 3300–2000 BC).
It is generally agreed that the evolution of handmade lamps moved from bowl-shaped to saucer-shaped, then from saucer with a nozzle, to a closed bowl with a spout.
The first manufactured red pottery oil lamps appeared in the Chalcolithic. These were of the round bowl type.
Bronze Age lamps were simple wheel-made bowls with a slight pinch on four sides for the wick. Later lamps had only one pinch. These lamps vary in the shape of the rim, the general shape of the bowl and the shape of the base.
During the Iron Age, lamp rims become wider and flatter, with a deeper and higher spout. The tip of the spout is more upright in contrast to the rest of the rim. The lamps are becoming variable in shape and distribution, although some remain similar to lamps from the Late Bronze period. In addition, other forms evolve, such as small lamps with a flat base and larger lamps with a round base. The later form continues into the Iron Age II.
In the later Iron Age, variant forms appear. One common type is small, with a wide rim and a wide base. Another type is a small, shallow bowl with a thick and high discus base.
The qulliq (seal-oil lamp) provided warmth and light in the harsh Arctic environment where there was no wood and where the sparse population relied almost entirely on seal oil. This lamp was the most important article of furniture for the Inuit, Yupik and other Eskimo peoples.
The lamps were made of stone and their sizes and shapes of lamps could be different, but mostly were elliptical or half-moon shaped. The wicks were mostly made of dried moss or cottongrass and were lit along the edge of the lamp. A slab of seal blubber could be left to melt over the lamp feeding it with more fat.
Persian lamps were large, with thin sides and a deep pinch that flattens the mouth and makes it protrude outward.
Greek lamps are more closed to avoid spilling. They are smaller and more refined. Most are handle-less. Some are with a lug, which may be pierced or not pierced. The nozzle is elongated. The rim is folded over so it overlaps in order to make the nozzle, and is then pinched to make the wick hole.
They are round in shape and wheel-made.
The earliest Chinese oil lamps are dated from the Warring States period (481–221 BC). The ancient Chinese created oil lamps with a refillable reservoir and a fibrous wick, giving the lamp a controlled flame. Lamps were constructed from jade, bronze, ceramic, wood, stone, and other materials. The largest oil lamp excavated so far is one discovered in a 4th-century tomb located in modern Pingshan, Hebei.
Production of oil lamps shifted to Italy as the main source of supply in the Early Roman era. Molds began to be used, and lamps were produced in large scale in factories. All lamps are closed in type. The lamp is produced in two parts, the upper part with the spout and the lower part with the fuel chamber. Most are of the characteristic "Imperial Type"—round, with nozzles of different forms (volute, semi-volute, U-shaped), a closed body, a central disk decorated with reliefs and a filling hole.
Late Roman lamps were of the "High Imperial" type. They included more decorations, and were produced locally or imported in large scale. The multiple-nozzled lamps appeared during this period. Many different varieties were created.
Frog type lamps also appeared during this period. These are kidney-shaped, heart-shaped or oval, and feature the motif of a frog or its abstraction, and sometimes geometrical motifs. They were produced around 100 AD. They are so variant that two identical lamps are seldom found.
Early Christian and late antique oil lamps were diverse. One of the most notable ones were Mediterranean sigillata (“African”) lamps. The motifs were largely geometric, vegetative and graphic (monograms), with figural depiction of animals and human figures, often Christ.
Oil lanterns of the Byzantine were slipper-shaped and highly decorative. The multiple-nozzle design continued and most lamps bore handles. Some have complex exteriors.
There is a transition period from Byzantine to Islamic lamps. The decoration on lamps of this transition period changed from crosses, animals, human likenesses, birds, or fish to plain linear, geometric, and raised-dot patterns.
The early Islamic lamps continued the traditions of Byzantine lamps. Decorations were initially a stylized form of a bird, grain, tree, plant, or flower. Later, they became entirely geometric or linear with raised dots.
In the transition period, some lamps had Arabic writing. Writing later disappears until the Mamluk period (13th to 15th century AD).
In Vedic times, fire was kept alive in every household in some form and carried with oneself while migrating to new locations. Later, the presence of fire in the household or a religious building was ensured by an oil lamp. Over the years various rituals and customs were woven around an oil lamp.
For Deep Daan, the gift of a lamp was and still is believed to be the best daan ('donation'). During marriages, spinsters of the household stand behind the bride and groom, holding an oil lamp to ward off evil. The presence of an oil lamp is an important aspect of ritual worship (the Shodashopachar Puja) offered to a deity. Moreover, a day is kept aside for the worship of the lamp in the busy festival calendar, on one amavasya (moonless) day in the month of Shravan. This reverence for the deep is based on the symbolism of the journey from darkness and ignorance to light and the knowledge of the ultimate reality – "tamaso ma jyotirgamaya".
Earlier lamps were made out of stone or seashells. The shape was like a circular bowl with a protruding beak. Later, they were replaced by earthen and metal lamps. In the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are references to gold and silver lamps as well. The simple shape evolved and the lamps were created in the shapes of the matsya ('fish'), kurma ('tortoise') and other incarnations of god Vishnu. Lamps were also created in the shape of the many emblems of gods, like conch shells or lotuses. Birds such as swans, peacocks, or parrots, and animals like snakes, lions, elephants and horses were also favorites when decorating a lamp. For lighting multiple lamps, wooden and stone deepastambhas ('towers of light') were created.
Erecting a deepastambha in front of a temple is still a general practice in western and southern India. In some of the South Indian temples, raised brass lamp towers called Kamba Vilakku can be seen. To adapt the design to households and smaller spaces, the deepavriksha ('tree of light') was created. As the name suggests, it is a metal lamp container with curvi-linear[vague] lines branching out from the base, each holding a lamp. The Deepalakshmi is another common design, where the goddess Lakshmi holds the lamp in her hands. Kuthuvilakku is another typical lamp traditionally used for household purposes in South India.
Oil lamps also were included in proverbs. For example, a Bradj (pre-Hindi) proverb says, "Chiraag tale andhera", 'the [utmost] darkness is under the oil-lamp (chiraag)', meaning that what you seek could be close but unnoticed (right under your nose or feet), in various senses (a lamp's container casts a strong shadow).
When the Big Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, was built 1010 AD, there were elaborate measures taken to provide lighting for the temple. Lands were donated to or conquered for the temple for this sole objective. The income from these lands would go towards providing the oil for the lights.
The first bicycle lamps from the 1860s were based on oil-burning carriage lanterns.
Media related to Oil lamps at Wikimedia Commons