DIY: Olive Oil Lamps

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Now why on earth would you make a homemade olive oil lamp, you ask? Because it is a surprisingly delightful and easy project that adds beauty to an otherwise normal and uneventful day.  At least that was my reason.

Several of us in my household are chemically sensitive to fragrance and perfume, but we love to light candles on our porch for special gatherings.  We made our own beeswax candles for fun last fall that turned out great and made lovely holiday gifts (still need to create that blog post!).

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So having another DIY option of creating a clean-burning, fire-lit glow to turn an otherwise seemingly normal hour into an enchanted occasion was appreciated by both me and my kids today.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been experimenting with projects from Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutzen.  Included in the book was a simple DIY olive oil lamp.  Before I outline the steps for how to make your own, let’s first look at how oil lamps historically came to be a vital addition to our ancestors’ daily lives.

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History of Oil Lamps: 

The first lamps used by early humans were made from shells, hollow rocks and other materials to hold mosses soaked in animal fat, which they would ignite.  This allowed them to extend and better control the length of time a fire burned.  Oil lamps later used in Egypt, Greece and Rome are considered some of the first mass produced manmade products in history.  Lamp fuel was created with olive oil, sesame oil, fish oil, whale oil and beeswax, and this design remained until the 18th century.  These basic lamps were used for practical purposes in the home, as well as for religious rituals and ceremonies. “Ancient Egyptians lit thousands of oil lamps in temples, their homes and public places during the ceremony called Liknokaia in honor of goddess Naiff. They used oil lamps to illuminate statues of the gods, as did the Greeks. Romans lit the oil lamps before prayers to symbolize Vesta, goddess of home. In Judaism, burning an oil lamp symbolized lighting the way for the righteous and the wise. In Christianity it symbolized eternal life and God himself. Lamps were lit when a church was constructed and, ideally, would burn from that moment forever. In Islam, the oil lamp was used as a parable for God. Hinduism also used oil lamps in rituals as methods of illumination and symbols.” [1]

Why does fire remain alluring to us today?

Today, despite electricity in every home, we continue to use fires with candles to make an occasion, meal or gathering feel sacred.  This is something that seems intuitive to all humans, whether we’ve consciously considered why or not.

Try this experiment. Without a word of explanation, add an oil lamp or candle to your next dinner.  Whether you are alone, joined by your children, friends or significant others, I predict there will be an unspoken understanding that you have created space for something special to take place within the time the candle burns until it is extinguished.  And that you and others will be a little less likely to check your phones during the meal.  I speculate that all of this will occur because of the simple act of lighting a match and keeping a flame present for a set length of time.

I have seen this happen in my own home.  My children are homeschooled, and each week on Tuesdays we hold our Poetry Tea Time.  The weekly hour consists of hot tea, snacks, reading poetry together, and always lighting a candle before we begin.  Poetry Tea Time, introduced to us by the brilliant Julie Bogart of the literary program Brave Writer, is hands down my kids’ favorite ritual that we honor each week.  It is the only scheduled activity that I have never heard a word of protest over (and we do a lot of cool stuff that does get protested from time to time).  I am guessing neither the poetry, nor the snacks, nor the tea are individually the reason why this time together is so mutually enjoyed. My hunch is that what we all enjoy is the fact that we have made this one hour feel important and exceptional, and that a large part of why we all understand and cherish it as honored time together is because of the very simple flame we include at the middle of our table.

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What you will need for your DIY Oil Lamp:

A Shallow Container: I used a small oven-safe dish, but others have used shells, jar lids, china saucers.

A Wick: I happened to have leftover candle wicks from our beeswax candle project, but you can use anything from twine to shoelaces to fabric from an old piece of clothing.

The Fuel: Authors Coyne and Knutzen recommend olive oil for the fuel, and that is what we used because we always have it on hand for soap-making.  It is a good choice because it burns slowly without smoke or odor.

Fill the dish and submerge your wick with a small 1/2 inch piece remaining above the oil.  A dish the size of mine at the top of this post can easily last through a meal – ours looked just as it had upon lighting it at the end of an hour.  You can always add oil to the container though if you notice it running low.

Light and enjoy.  (And of course use common fire safety sense.)

 

 

 

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