Stones, Moons, & Lies: Lamps & Other Subversions

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


My mother was talking about her hurricane lamp collection the other day. I forget how it came up in conversation, but it got me to wondering what the significance of lamps and other light sources was at different points in history and in different cultures. I did a little digging and found a bunch of great inspiration for fleshing out the worldbuilding for the short story I'm working on:

Quick Facts

  • Early lamps were stones with depressions filled with animal fat to burn.
  • The first clay lamps were basically saucers with floating wicks, similar to those used to celebrate Diwali today.
  • A pinched or folded rim on an open saucer — almost like a pour spout — were eventually added to hold the wick in place.
  • Most Bronze Age lamps were designed to hold four wicks because the available fuels didn't burn as bright as later oils.
  • Chinese Lanterns use silk or paper shades to keep the lantern from going out with the breeze. Some are made to float at festivals.

Roman Factories

Although we generally associated factories with the Industrial Revolution, Roman oil lamps were produced on a massive, commercial scale and exported throughout the Empire. They were stamped with maker's marks and fueled with olive oil. [Read More]

Snowmelt Moon

The Inuit lamp known as the Qulliq is carved from soapstone and shaped like a half-moon. It is traditionally made by a husband for his wife and has symbolizes her central role in the home. Historically, it was fueled with seal blubber, and performed multiple functions, such as melting snow for drinking water and drying clothes. [Read More]

Aladdin's Lamp

The story of Aladdin is probably not Arabic in origin, despite frequently inclusion in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. Its history is, however, fascinating— apparently Galland's tale is very credibly part of a wave of "subversive" French salon fairy tales produced by "radicalized" writers. [Read More]

The first "lighthouses" were probably big fire beacons located on prominent headlands. St. Dubhan is credited with the establishment of warning beacons for ships in Ireland; allegedly it consisted of a iron basket that hung from a big mast near the edge of a cliff. [Read More]


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