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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 is continued to this day, although not commonly anymore. Often associated with stories about genies, rubbing the lamp in which a genie would live was said to summon it.
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 were, in turn, replaced by the kerosene lamp in about 1850. In small towns and rural areas these continued in use well into the 20th century, until such areas were finally electrified, and light bulbs could be used for lighting.
Most modern lamps (such as fueled lanterns) have been replaced with gas-based or petroleum-based fuels to operate when emergency non-electric light is required. As such, oil lamps of today are primarily used for the particular ambience they produce, or in rituals and religious ceremonies.
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 six major categories:
Wheel made: This category includes Greek and Egyptian lamps that date before the 3rd century BCE. They are characterized by simple, little or no decoration, and a wide pour hole, a lack of handles, and a pierced or unpierced lug. Pierced lugs occurred briefly between 4th and 3rd century BCE. Unpierced lugs continued until 1st century BCE.
Volute, Early Imperial: With volutes extending from their nozzles, these lamps were predominately produced in Italy during the Early Roman period. They have a wide discus, a narrow shoulder and no handle, elaborate imagery and artistic finishing, and a wide range of patterns of decoration.
High Imperial: These are late Roman. The shoulder is wider and the discus is smaller with fewer decorations. These lamps have handles and short plain nozzles, and less artistic finishing.
African Red Slip lamps were made in North Africa, but widely exported, and decorated in a red slip. They date from the 2nd to the 7th century CE and comprise a wide variety of shapes including a flat, heavily decorated shoulder with a small and relatively shallow discus. Their decoration is either non-religious, Christian or Jewish. Grooves run from the nozzle back to the pouring hole and it is hypothesized that this is to take back spilled oil. These lamps often have more than one pour-hole.
Slipper lamps are oval shaped and found mainly in the Levant. They were produced between the 3rd to 9th centuries CE. Decorations include vine scrolls, palm wreaths, and Greek letters.
Factory lamps: Also called Firmalampen (from German), these are universal in distribution and simple in appearance. They have a channeled nozzle, plain discus, and 2 or 3 bumps on the shoulder. Initially made in factories in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE, they were exported to all Roman provinces. The vast majority have been stamped on the bottom to identify the manufacturer.
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 its religion.
The Temple Menorah, a ritual seven branched oil lamp used in the Second Temple, forms the centre of the Chanukah story and centers on the miracle that during the cleansing of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem after its looting, the lamp was supposed to burn continuously, forever, but there was only oil enough for one day, and no more oil would be available for 8 days; miraculously the oil expected to last for only one day instead burnt for 8 full days.
There are several references to oil lamps in the New Testament:
This story was told by Jesus: “At that time God’s kingdom will be like ten bridesmaids who went to wait for the bridegroom. They took their lamps with them. Five of the bridesmaids were foolish, and five were wise. The foolish bridesmaids took their lamps with them, but they did not take extra oil for the lamps. The wise bridesmaids took their lamps and more oil in jars. When the bridegroom was very late, the bridesmaids could not keep their eyes open, and they all fell asleep. At midnight someone announced, ‘The bridegroom is coming! Come and meet him!’ Then all the bridesmaids woke up. They made their lamps ready. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise girls, ‘Give us some of your oil. The oil in our lamps is all gone.’ The wise bridesmaids answered, ‘No! The oil we have might not be enough for all of us. But go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ So the foolish bridesmaids went to buy oil. While they were gone, the bridegroom came. The bridesmaids who were ready went in with the bridegroom to the wedding feast. Then the door was closed and locked. Later, the other bridesmaids came. They said, ‘Sir, sir! Open the door to let us in.’ But the bridegroom answered, ‘Certainly not! I don’t even know you.’ So always be ready. You don’t know the day or the time when the Son of Man will come." (Matthew 25:1-13)
In the Orthodox Church and many Eastern Catholic Churches oil lamps (Greek: kandili, 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.
In Greece and Cyprus, lampáda (Greek: λαμπάδα) is the special name for the candle held by the faithful on the Easter service celebrating the Resurrection. Although any regular paraffin or beeswax candle can be used, a lampáda is usually a large, white candle or, in the case of children, a multicolored candle decorated with ribbons, beads, toys, dried flowers etc. The lampáda is lit at midnight, with the holy light from the priest's candle, and then carried home. The sign of the cross is often made with soot from this flame on the lintel above the home's main door, and the flame is transferred to the icon corner oil lamp; only then can the lampáda be extinguished. The cross over the door and the flame before the icons are believed to confer the Risen Lord's protection on the household.
"God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp; the lamp is [enclosed] in glass, the glass [shining] like a radiant star: [a lamp] lit from a blessed tree - an olive-tree that is neither of the east nor of the west the oil whereof [is so bright that it] would well-nigh give light [of itself] even though fire had not touched it: light upon light! God guides unto His light him that wills [to be guided]; and [to this end] God propounds parables unto men, since God [alone] has full knowledge of all things". 24:35
"Mankind errs here
By folly, darkening knowledge. But, for whom
That darkness of the soul is chased by Light (of the Lord),
Splendid and clear shines manifest the Truth
As if a Sun of Wisdom sprang to shed
Its beams of dawn. Him mediating still,
Him seeking, with Him blended, stayed on Him,
The souls illuminated take that road
Which hath no turning back—their sins flung off
By strength of faith. Who will, may have this Light;
Who hath it, sees."—Bhagavad-Gita, Ch: V, Lines 50-60.
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 (they look similar 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.
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It is very difficult to say when and where the first oil lamp was used. This is partly because it is difficult to draw a line detailing when the primitive forms of creating a continuous source of light from fire can be termed a lamp. The first lamps were made of naturally occurring objects, coconuts, sea shells, egg shells and hollow stones. Some believe that the first proper lamps were carved from stones. Curved stone lamps were found in places dated to the 10th millennium BC. (Mesolithic, Middle Stone Age Period, circa 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 were in existence 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 2,600 BC were imitations of real shell-lamps that were used for a long time. (Early Bronze, 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. These were of the round bowl type.
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.
The earliest lamps known from Intermediate Bronze Age lamps (EBIV/MBI) With the four wick lamps. These lamps are made from large bowls with four shallow pinches for wicks.
The four-wick oil lamps persist into this period, most of the lamps now have one wick. Early in this period the pinch is shallow, while later on it becomes more prominent and the mouth protrudes from the lamp's body. The bases are simple and flat. The crude potter’s wheel is introduced, transforming the handmade bowls to a more uniform container. The saucer style evolves into a single spout shape.
A more pronounced, deeper single spout is developed, and it is almost closed on the sides. The shape is evolving to be more triangular, deeper and larger. All lamps are now wheel-made. The base is simple, usually flat.
The rim becomes 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. We still find lamps similar to 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, we encounter variant forms. 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.
These large lamps have thin sides and a deep pinch, which flattens the mouth and makes it protrude outward.
Lamps are more closed to avoid spilling. They are smaller and more refined. Most are handleless. Some are with a lug, pierced and not pierced. The nozzle is elongated. The rim is folded over to make the nozzle, so it overlaps and is then pinched to make the wick hole.
They are round in shape, wheel-made.
The earliest Chinese oil lamps are dated from the Warring States period (481-221 BC). 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. Molds used. All lamps are closed in type. Lamps produced in large scale in factories. 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. It was round with nozzles of different forms (volute, semi-volute, U shaped), with a closed body and with a central disk decorated with reliefs and its filling hole.
The High Imperial Type. More decorations. Produced locally or imported in large scale. The multiple-nozzled lamps appear. Different varieties.
In this period we find the frog type lamps. These are kidney or heart shaped or oval. With the motif of a frog or its abstraction, and sometimes with geometrical motifs. They were produced around 100 AD. They are so variant that it is seldom that two identical ones are found.
Slipper shaped. Very decorative. The multiple nozzles continue. Most with handles. Some are complex in external anatomy.
There is a transition period from Byzantine to Islamic lamps. Lamps of this transition period changed from being decorated with crosses, animals, human likenesses, birds, fish, etc., to being decorated with plain linear, geometric, and raised dot patterns.
The early Islamic lamps are a continuation of Byzantine lamps. Decorations were initially a stylized form of bird, grain, tree, plant or flower. Then they became entirely geometric or linear with raised dots.
In the transition period some lamps had Arabic writing. Then, writing disappears until the Mamluk period (13th - 15th centuries CE).
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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 (no moon) 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 (boar) and other incarnations of god Vishnu and also in the shape of the many emblems of gods like conch shells, lotuses and so on. The birds like swans, peacocks, 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 lamp towers called Kamba Vilakku made of brass can be seen. For adapting the design to households and smaller spaces, the deepavriksha (tree of light) was formed. As the name suggests, it is a metal lamp container with aesthetically curvi-linear lines branching out from the base each holding a lamp. The Deepalakshmi is another favorite design where goddess Lakshmi holds the lamp in her hands. Kuthuvilakku is another typical lamp traditionally used for household purposes in South India.
Oil lamps also became proverbial. 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 (and indeed, a lamp's container casts a strong shadow).
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