Lamps, Magic
Stories of magic lamps are of great antiquity. According to
G. Panciroli (1523–1599), the sepulcher of Tullia, daughter of
the Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), had a lamp that
burned for over 1,550 years. St. Augustine described a lamp
placed by the seashore that was not extinguished by wind or
rain. Monsignor Guerin, the chamberlain of Pope Leo XIII,
told of a lamp before the shrine of St. Genevieve in the Church
of St. Denis whose oil was always consumed but never diminished
in quantity.
Another lamp legend concerned Rabbi Jachiel of Paris, who
was regarded by the Jews as one of their saints and by the Parisians
as a sorcerer. During the night when everyone was asleep,
he was believed to work by the light of a magic lamp that illuminated
his chamber like the sun itself. The rabbi never replenished
this lamp with oil, nor otherwise attended to it, and folks
began to hint that he had acquired it through diabolic agencies.
If anyone knocked at his door during the night, they reported
seeing the lamp throw out sparks of light of various colors, but
if they continued to rap, the lamp failed, and the rabbi would
touch a large nail in the middle of his table that connected
magically with the knocker on his door, giving the person who
rapped on it something of the nature of an electric shock (see
One of the best-known stories is the one about Aladdin and
his lamp from the Arabian Nights Entertainment, or Book of a
Thousand and One Nights, in which the lamp is a magic wishfulfilling
talisman. Although versions of the stories in the Arabian
Nights are of some antiquity, some of the tales, like that of
Aladdin, are from late Egyptian sources.
Another well-known legend is that of the tomb of Christian
Rosenkreutz, founder of the Order of the Rosy Cross, or Rosicrucians.
According to the Rosicrucian manifesto Fama Fraternitatis
(first printed in 1614), translated together with the
manifesto Confessio Fraternitatis (1615) by ‘‘Eugenius Philalethes’’
(the pseudonym used by alchemist Thomas Vaughan) in
London, 1652, the tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz was opened
many years after his death, and a secret vault was discovered
with an ever-burning lamp, together with magical mirrors, sacred
books, bells, more ever-burning lamps, and ‘‘artificial
songs,’’ which sounded like precursors of the phonograph record.
For an attempt to separate history from legend and symbolism
in this story, see Arthur E. Waite’s The Brotherhood of the
Rosy Cross (1924). Many stories of ever-burning lamps stem
from phosphorescent phenomena or from spontaneous combustion
caused by the sudden influx of air into a gaseous vault.
Waite, Arthur E. The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. 1924. Reprint,
New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books, 1961.