Oil lamps have been used for ages to provide light.
Oil lamps have been made by men since 4,500 B.C. By the time of the Bronze Age, oil lamps developed into a simple, wheel shape with a four-cornered pinch on one side used to hold a wick. Over time, lamps evolved from bowl to deep, triangular shapes. Greeks and Romans used oil lamps extensively, and the Romans mass-produced them across their empire. Throughout history, oil lamps have served both practical and religious purposes.
While oil lamps have ranged in form and style throughout history, with some being quite decorative and others being very plain, they all have the same basic elements. Oil lamps have a wick, shoulder, pouring mole which provides an access point into the lamp’s fuel chamber, a nozzle which collects oozing oil from the wick and handle (optional). Manufacturers could make wicks of linen, papyrus, tow and rush. Fuels for oil lamps have included olive oil, whale oil, fish oil, ghee, castor oil, coal oil, paraffin, peanut oil and kerosene.
The most basic purpose of an oil lamp is to provide light for a long period of time. Most oil lamps were indoors devices to light households, public buildings and religious temples. Oil lamps can do this cleanly and offer a transportable light source less messy and dangerous than lit wood torches. Ancients commonly used oil lamps as an alternative to candles. They were quite extensive, including being used to light lighthouses in America, before the invention of electric lights in the 20th century. Today, oil lamps are generally gas-based, and used for ambiance or as an emergency backup to electric lights.
Oil lamps had special value in Judaism, where they are mentioned throughout the Torah as being a part of religious rituals. In Exodus 27:20, Israel’s God commands his people in to place an oil lamp before him continually. Numbers 8:1-4 mentions oil lamps placed in front of a menorah to give continual light. Oil lamps also had metaphorical significance and were often used as a point of comparison for God’s law, direction and guidance (Psalm 132:16; Proverbs 6:23).
Hindu temples and shrines throughout India use oil lamps. They are often made of metal and devotees use them in religious ceremonies. The presence of an oil lamp is a critical aspect of the shodashopachar puja offered to a deity and meant to symbolize a person’s journey from darkness and ignorance to light and the knowledge of ultimate reality. Homes across India commonly use lighted oil lamps every night.