Back through the fog of time our ancestors had mysteries that even now we can only begin to guess at. In many cases these mysteries take the form of strange, almost mythical advancements, technology, or discoveries that these ancients may have taken for granted, but for which we are left striving for answers. Surely one such bizarre anomaly upon the pages of history is that of the supposed flames that never go out, which cannot be extinguished by earthly means, and the secrets of which remain lost in the past.
The existence of mysterious lamps that can supposedly burn for centuries, millennia or more, perhaps even eternally without any human intervention, has been mentioned since far back in history from many parts of the world, with such tales particularly prevalent from Egypt. It was believed by the Egyptians that the dead required some source of light to guide them to the underworld, as well as to keep away evil spirits that would try and hinder their journey or harm them, and to this end the ancient Egyptians were said to have routinely sealed some sort of lamp or light source within tombs, but archeologists and Egyptologists agree that there is no evidence for open flame sources, as no residue or scorch marks have been found within these darkened chambers that would point to traditional torches. So how did they do it? How did they provide this illumination in the dark?
One theory says that these ancient people found a way to harness the technology to produce eternal lights that could burn indefinitely without any discernible fuel source, which was said to be the realm of the power of the gods and which they managed to learn the secrets to. What have come to be collectively known as “ever-burning lamps” have been described since ancient times, and have been written of by many writers and explorers throughout the ages. In 100 BC there is an account scrawled upon papyrus and later described by the Arab philosopher Iamblichus, which tells of an expedition of explorers who sought access to the underground chambers under Giza and during their adventure came across these eternal flames. According to Iamblichus, the report read:
We came to a chamber. When we entered, it became automatically illuminated by light from a tube being the height of one man's hand [approx. 6 inches or 15.24 cm] and thin, standing vertically in the corner. As we approached the tube, it shone brighter... the slaves were scared and ran away in the direction from which we had come!
When I touched it, it went out. We made every effort to get the tube to glow again, but it would no longer provide light. In some chambers the light tubes worked and in others they did not. We broke open one of the tubes and it bled beads of silver-colored liquid that ran fastly around the floor until they disappeared between the cracks (mercury?).
As time went on, the light tubes gradually began to fail and the priests removed them and stored them in an underground vault they specially built southeast of the plateau. It was their belief that the light tubes were created by their beloved Imhotep, who would some day return to make them work once again.
Such tales of these eternal lamps continued throughout the ages, from various disparate places. The Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch (26 - 120 AD) once wrote of an ever-burning lamp situated over the entrance to the temple of Jupiter Ammon in Egypt, which he claimed was unable to be extinguished by wind, rain, or any other force, and which the priests of the temple had claimed had burned steadily for centuries, since time unremembered. The Temple of Apollo Carneus, at Cyrene, and the great Temple of Aderbain, in Armenia, were said to have similar ever-burning eternal lamps. The classical Greek writer Pausanias also wrote of a lamp kept at the temple of Minerva Polias, in Athen, that could remain burning for years without refueling.
During Roman times there were many accounts of such ever-burning lamps as well. The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, supposedly created a light source that could burn forever, which he had sealed within a temple dedicated to an elemental spirit. Interestingly, Numa has long been rumored to have found a way to use electricity long before that was even a thing, although what truth this has no one knows. There was also a lamp found at the tomb of Pallas, son of King Evander in 140 AD, which had according to legend burned for more than 2,000 years on a mysterious mix of gel-like material within it, and was apparently unable to be extinguished by any normal means. In 527 AD there was also a discovery made by Roman soldiers loyal to emperor Justinian as they were in Edessa, Syria. According to their account, they found the lamp situated over an ancient gateway, and that it bore an inscription saying that it had been lit 500 years before.
Another early Roman account of the ever-burning lamps was given by early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine, who mentioned such a light in an Egyptian temple dedicated to Venus, which he believed to have been fashioned by the Devil himself. According to St. Augustine this flame could not be put out by any means ordinary man possessed, and he was convinced it was fueled by dark, ancient magic. Indeed, this was a common go-to explanation for such oddities back in those times.
Later centuries would bring numerous other account of these seemingly impossible lamps, and in the 16th century there were several such discoveries. During the Papacy of Paul III, in 1540, there was found the tomb of the daughter of the great Cicero, Tulliola, which had been sealed in 44 BC, but which was found to contain a light which had burned for 1,550 years but which quickly went out when it was hit by the air. In 1534 King Henry VIII plundered the alleged tomb of Constantius Chlorus, father of the Great Emperor Constantine, which supposedly held a flame that had been constantly burning for 1,200 years, and in 1580 the Spanish scholar Juan Luis Vives March wrote of an ever-burning lamp that had been burning for 1,500 years and which disintegrated into pieces and dust when touched.
In the 17th century there is also the tale of a young Swiss soldier named Du Praz, who stumbled across a tomb in Grenoble, France, which supposedly had one of these perpetual lamps burning bright within. The soldier then allegedly took the lamp and brought it to a remote monastery, where baffled monks examined it and deemed it to be a marvel. It was then kept there burning away as it always had been, before one monk purportedly accidentally broke it before its secrets could be revealed.
Interestingly there were many other reports of these lamps being sealed within tombs all over the world, including India, China, South America, North America, Egypt, Greece, Italy, United Kingdom, Ireland, France and others, which were still illuminating the murk when the tombs were opened, keeping the blackness at bay, but many of which were seemingly extinguished with exposure to air. In many cases the mysterious fuel within the lamps was found to be perfectly preserved and usable even after so much time had passed, and that these lamps were almost always ensconced within circular vessels seemingly designed to protect the everlasting light within. This habit of going out upon being found could have been due to some unknown chemical reaction or may have even been a way for the ancient architects of these devices to keep the formula secret.
This would have made sense, since the ability to craft a lamp and fuel that could burn indefinitely without any maintenance would have been a jealously guarded secret. They may have gone through great lengths to make sure the formulae never fell into enemy hands by basically engineering it to self-destruct under the right conditions or through other measures. There is one very harrowing account from the 17th century in England, which apparently had some sort of ancient robot guarding the lamp’s secrets. In this bizarre account the supposed tomb of Rosicrucian founder Christian Rosenkreuz was opened to find an ever-burning light suspended from the ceiling shining bright as day after over a millennium since the tomb had been sealed. According to the report, one of the explorers purportedly stepped on a stone which brought to life a massive suit of armor, which lurched forward to not attack the one who triggered the trap, but rather to mechanically demolish the lamp with an iron sword.
The idea of an eternally burning fuel source was much discussed in past ages, especially in medieval times, and it was controversial to say the least. For some this was clearly the work of the Devil, or of some dark mystic arts, but others were more willing to try and get to the bottom of the mystery. It has been thought by some that these were perhaps very early instances of the use of electricity, and although there is little evidence to support this there are some stories. One was written of by the occultist Eliphas Levi in his work Historie de la Magie, who wrote of a 13th century French rabbi and advisor to the court of Louis IX named Jechiele. This mysterious Jechiele supposedly had an enigmatic device in his possession which looked to be a glass globe which could go on burning without any source of fuel and used no wick. He also had apparently rigged up some sort of electrical current to his door knocker, as it was written:
When he (Jechiele) touched a nail driven into the wall of his study, a crackling bluish spark immediately leapt forth. Woe to anyone who touched the iron knocker at that moment; he would bend double, scream as if he had been burned, then he would run away as fast as his legs could carry him.
There is also the idea that there is really some ancient formula for an ever-burning fuel source that has been lost to time. If this were the case it is uncertain how it would work but there are ideas. For instance it is thought that they might have utilized wicks manufactured of some special material such as asbestos and other ingredients, which was a pursuit of alchemists at the time and was called “salamander’s wool,” and there were also several alchemical recipes published for ever-burning fuel, such as the formulae written of in in H. P. Blavatsky's work, Isis Unveiled, or it could have been some other equally clever and innovative ancient technology that we have lost, some ingenuity of the ancients that has been buried in time.
In the end, in modern terms the idea of a flame that can burn forever without a constant fuel source is seen as scientifically impossible and perhaps not a little ridiculous. In out current knowledge it is just not possible, fires are not infinite, as we cannot constantly and indefinitely provide the heat, fuel and oxidizing agent fire requires, and yet these cases span back far into time. Not helping matters at all is that there is no physical evidence whatsoever of the various supposed ever-burning lamps that have been found throughout history, leaving us without anything concrete to prove any of it. It seems more plausible that these are mere myths and legends, but maybe there was something our ancestors knew that we don’t, some secret knowledge hidden out there which we may never find. In the meantime, it is a fascinating thing to ponder all the same.