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In the „western world” the habitat of the honey bee is in tight symbiosis with humans and it is domesticated in beehives. In times of the honey gatherers from Stone Age, the honey bee used to be holy – as shown in petroglyphs, Egyptian wall frescoes, jewellery from Minoan times and many other evidences. The fascinating social life of the bees only recently unravelled was in the centre of interest of ancient philosophers and religions. In ancient times wax used to be a magic material. Various authors like Varro, Vergil, Columella and Plinius were concerned with the bee in detail.

The mysteries of Isis, Dyonisus as well as the cult of Mithras took burning light for the presence of God and a way to enlightenment.

At Buddhist and Hindi rites light offerings are not to be omitted.

The Hellenes believed that the fading wax was a symbol for the vanishing existence and therefore only burnt wax in temples. Due to this fact wax offerings seemed to be essential to the Romans in mortuary practices.

Wax tapers were also part of the so-called Saturnalia taking place in Rome between the 17th and 23rd December, already introduced in the 5th century before Christ. These parties were exuberant and gifts were exchanged among each other. The slaves offered their lords “cerei”, a bulrush dipped into wax which was wrapped in rushes and papyrus. Early Christianity used to dislike light offerings for its relation to ancient forms of deisms. It was only Konstantin (265-339 after Christ) who introduced light offerings in Roman style to the customs of the church.

The ancient Egyptians considered the tears of king Re as the origin of honey and wax, their bees were kept as pets in pipes made of clay. There were beekeepers keeping thousands of bee colonies. Etruscans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Mesopotamians and the ancient Greeks had a tradition of beekeeping too.

In the Christian cult the „chaste bee” turns out to be the symbol of Maria. The holy, virgin beeswax becomes an essential light source.
The church charged interest on wax and the use of wax reached unforeseen dimensions. It was determined in the 11th century that altar candles had to be made of pure and bleached beeswax. Nowadays the percentage of beeswax in altar candles is in most cases not higher than 25%, in no case higher than 55% (the exception proves the rule).
In ancient times, especially in the Middle Ages an expanded foreign trade with wax among continents already existed. Candles were rare in daily life, reserved for ritual use, for the aristocracy and rich bourgeois.

In the 11th century flourishing cities paved the way for the business of candle makers. As from 1450 their own guild was established. In foreign trade the return freight was often paid by wax, as a means of payment it was even more popular than cash.
So-called wax fines were quite common. Penalties were imposed even for minor offences, e.g. a person in Greifenstein who worked in the vineyards on a Saturday after the ringing of the church bells had to give 1 pound of wax to the church.

The light offering, the burning of candles played an exceptional role and was often precisely regulated.
In 1483 in Aarau beside the stretcher of a provost, mayor or knight 4 candles 10 pounds each had to be burnt. With other aristocrats 2 candles 10 pounds each. The downgrading to the ordinary citizen is considerable. In case someone wanted to donate more than the prescribed number of candles as a sign of his or her appreciation, 3 “Reichstaler“ had to be paid for each candle.

When important persons died thousands of candles were burnt in some cases. On the occasion of Maria Antonia’s wedding the interiors of the castle Belvedere were enlightened by 7,000 candles. At the time of Martin Luther the castle church of Wittenberg used up to 35,750 pounds of wax yearly. A carpenter earned 24 pfennig a day. The price of 1 pound of wax was 40 pfennig, 1 pound of meat 4 pfennig.

In many cases the candle served as an oracle for love and marriage, its fast or slow burning, dripping or even going out was interpreted.

The beeswax taper

Between the 16th and 19th century the beeswax taper was very popular. The small flame not giving off carbon black allowed a very economic way of burning the expensive material. It was a popular means of lighting and its small, handy shape permitted its transport in every bag and its use without any holder. Correspondingly handy shapes are called “pocket shapes” (like “pocket torches”). Among all the features the beeswax taper represented over the years in cultic life, it was especially used at the “Engelamt” (high Mass on the first Sunday of Advent) and at festivals for the Virgin Mary.

The red beeswax taper which was consecrated for women on the occasion of Candlemas was considered particularly effective. In Upper Bavaria the so-called “Klag” was also burnt during the funeral service helping the poor soul in purgatory.

In case such a beeswax taper was consecrated on a day of Candlemas which coincided with a Sunday it was attributed a very special effect: a piece of it was kept on the family altar with the aim of permanent protection.

Between the 12th and 18th century there were beeswax tapers in France in the considerable length of city walls and were sacrificed against siege and epidemics.

During the siege in 1183 Limoges sacrificed a candle 3,300 m in length, in 1480 Bethune a candle of 3,240 m. In 1635 the citizens of Riom got engaged with the Black Madonna of Marsat with a candle whose length corresponded to the distance of their town to the place of pilgrimage. Yearly on Sundays after the Assumption of Mary, the festival celebrating the beeswax taper took place in Nove Mesto (former Czechoslovakia) until 1930 which corresponded with the French light offerings of the Middle Ages.

Beeswax tapers of a certain length were also sacrificed by individuals. People got engaged with a candle around their body, with a triple wreath around their neck, with a wreath around their head or according to the extent of their house.

In the 18th and 19th century the beeswax taper - abundantly decorated und beautifully shaped - became a votive candle in Austria and Southern Bavaria. It was brought along from places of pilgrimage and was often kept in a glass case.

Particularly at Candlemas the beeswax taper was used as a symbol of love or as a gift for choristers. Servants gave it to maids for bed-making, employers as an extra to the annual wage...

Hands and feet of women in childbed were often wrapped round by strings of beeswax in order to protect their newborn from bewitchment.

In the ancient popular tradition the beeswax taper is the most important candle at Candlemas. In the area of Berchtesgaden at Sebastiani (20th January), the day where women were not allowed to clean or sew, beeswax tapers in the length of their hands and feet were produced.

Across large parts of Europe the beeswax taper was a supplement to the wedding apparel. Depending on her wealth the bride’s mother gave away a certain weight of beeswax tapers as the most precious bridal gift. Around 1900 it was still an important best man’s task to follow the bride’s every step and to place the beeswax taper - which was often decorated and already inflamed - in front of her on the pew. It was taken as an outrageous offence if someone else hat enlightened his or her own candle at this burning candle. Since the wedding day the beeswax taper accompanied its owner as a fetish mostly her entire life.

So-called „Feuersprecher“ (speakers of fire) buried among other utensils a beeswax taper at the four edges of a building into the foundation walls. If the following three months the Saint John’s gospel was prayed every night, the building was protected from every fire forever. People with less sophistication used to fix a piece of a red consecrated beeswax taper above the doorframe as a means of fire protection.

For defence against witches a red consecrated beeswax taper was shaped into witch’s feet. Some women even placed a witch’s foot made of beeswax on their breast while breast-feeding.

In Carinthia a so-called “Totenkranzl” (wreath) was pressed into the dead woman’s hair. A part of her beeswax taper was bent into a ring.

In Mühlviertel a cross made from the beeswax taper the dead woman used during her life was placed in her hands. In some places the beeswax taper of the dead woman was cut into pieces, bent into crosses and placed around her stretcher.

In other places the pieces of the beeswax taper were distributed to the mourners at church.

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