Long before Thomas Edison, someone had another bright idea. Why not take a dead, oily bird, slip a string through its dried carcass, and use it as a candle?
It worked. Up till nearly a century ago, the seafaring communities of Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland Islands used thousands of these feathered torches (1, 2, 3). Aside from possible fire-hazard risks and odor, the idea was practical enough. No oil for a lamp? Too little wax for making a candle? No problem. The stormy petrel (or storm petrel), the so-called “devil bird” used for these candles, was a familiar sight to Scottish sailors in the subarctic.
These birds are still found in these parts during the spring and summer, but the candles are relics of the past. If you click here, a photograph of an old stormy petrel candle is available from the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Twitter account. A tarred wick protrudes from the specimen’s head.
Devil, Saint, or Something Else?
Though most petrels produce stomach oils (4), the bird’s name actually is not directly connected to petrol or petroleum. The latter is a combination of the Latin words for “rock” and “oil.” On the other hand, the word petrel is thought to be an alternate or mangled form of “pitteral,” an old English expression no longer in usage today (5). The linguistic variation of the word we have probably relates to the way the bird appears to amble across the ocean’s surface (6).
In fact, the petrel’s ability to “walk on water” has been long tied to another source for its name—St. Peter, whom Matthew 14:29 reports as having performed this miraculous feat with Jesus. Thus, an enduring explanation for the origin of petrel has been that it stems from French and Italian renderings of the apostle’s name (7, 8). However, this does not seem to be the case (9). Interestingly, though, Peter is the English derivative of the Latin (Petrus) and Greek (Petros) words for “rock,” both related to the petr- prefix of petroleum (10).
While the linguistics of petrel may be murky, the rationale behind the bird’s first name is clear. The “stormy” moniker originated from an age-old belief in the petrel’s ability to predict tempestuous weather. A congregation of these creatures flocking near ships was taken as a sign by sailors that a storm was on its way (11, 12). Unfortunately, that ominous reputation is what earned the birds nicknames like “Waterwitch,” Satanique, and Oiseau du diable (literally “devil bird”) (13).
Many seafarers harbored negative attitudes towards stormy petrels, yet such contempt was not universal. Some sailors saw in the birds’ appearance a sort of blessing, a warning that enabled them to anticipate and prepare best they could for oncoming gales and thrashing waves. Thus, one nickname, “Mother Carey’s Chicken,” supposedly derives from Mater cara, a Latin epithet for the Virgin Mary. But just as notions connecting the bird’s name to St. Peter are disputed, so too is this idea (14). What we’re left with is a bit of a mystery.
Even if no etymological links exist to those Biblical figures, stormy petrels are no more feathered demons than many other supposed devil birds. In fact, petrels are not the only avian creatures to have been used as feathered torches. Penguins (15) and the extinct great auks (16) have also served the same purpose. I do wonder, though, if the use of petrels as candles is related somehow to how strongly Orkney and Shetland denizens of the past felt towards these birds. Perhaps more light will be shed eventually on this subject.
- Brox, J. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. p. 21.
- Rossotti, H. Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993. p. 51.
- O’Dea, WT. “Artificial Lighting Prior to 1800 and its Social Effects”. Folklore. Vol. 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1951). p. 315. (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.)
- Place, AR, et al. “Physiological Basis of Stomach Oil Formation in Leach’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma Leucorhoa)” The Auk. Vol. 106, No. 4 (Oct., 1989). pp. 687–699.
- “Petrel”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petrel.
- Fraser, I, Gray, J. Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 2013. p. 44.
- Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
- Swainson, C. The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds. London: Elliot Stock, 1886. p. 211.
- Fraser, I, Gray, J. p. 44.
- “Peter”, “Petroleum”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peter, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum.
- Newell, V. p. 56.
- Swainson, C. p. 211.
- Swainson, C. p. 211.
- Swainson, C. pp. 211–212.
- Rossotti, H. p. 51.
- O’Dea, WT. p. 315.