A character in my world has the ability to greatly control flames. He can even amplify a small fire to a large inferno if necessary. However, there is one problem: He can't create fire out of nothing. He needs an already existent flame to begin using his powers. Thus, he needs some device, like a modern lighter, that provides a ready source of flames. With pre-gunpowder tech, is there any such substance or contraption?


Note: An answer need not satisfy all these conditions. However, the ones marked with an exclamation mark must be satisfied. A good answer will satisfy as many of these conditions as possible.

  • (!) The world is pre-Industrial, pre-gunpowder. The substance that should be used, though not necessarily be known in those times, should be able to be created using the available technology. This means, if a chemical wasn't known in the middle ages, but can be readily created using the technology available in the era, it is allowed. Note: Gunpowder is not allowed.

  • (!) The device should be able to be made by a group of skilled craftsmen at most, and should not require materials only readily available after Industrialisation.

  • The substance should be long lasting. The mage shouldn't have to go secure a supply every time he uses it to start a flame.

  • (!) A spark isn't enough. It should be a proper flame.

  • It should remain usable in as many conditions as possible, such as times of high moisture, etc.

  • (!) The device, that is, the substance + the mechanism to combust it, should be small enough to be carried by a person

  • It should be quick to combust

  • It should be reliable, i.e., once activated, the combusting mechanism should always make the substance combust, and it should not present harm to the mage.

Note on the abilities of the Mage

While not having access to flames, the mage can still create a small amount of heat. However, this is rather minuscule and not nearly enough to, say, boil water. It can, however, set off substances at a low ignition point.

Is there any substance that has the given properties? Or at least, as many of them as possible?

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    $\begingroup$ Zippo on alcoholic fluid $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Mar 26, 2021 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ They were actually able to light fires in the pre-industrial world. Everybody knew how to use a fire striker and kindling (usually dried moss, a charred cloth, or a dried fungus such as Phellinus igniarius. Not to mention that phosphorus was discovered in the 17th century, that is, quite some time before the industrial age. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26, 2021 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ If you are looking for a specific method geographical location would be helpful since there are plenty of ways to make a fire-making kit and many of them depend on available materials. You can read this (primitiveways.com/bamboo-strike-a-light2.html) to get some idea of why geography matters. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Mar 26, 2021 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ So your mages are essentially Roy Mustang. He already solved the spark problem with his gloves! $\endgroup$
    – Blindy
    Mar 27, 2021 at 0:10

8 Answers 8


The straightforward answer is "carry some fire with you".

Wikipedia calls the devices uses for this purpose "fire pots". More ritualistically-inclined versions of the device are found in the form of censers and thuribles, which would seem to be ideal for the use of magically-inclined folk, but the underlying principle is prehistoric.

Basically you have a reasonably well insulated container into which you stick some suitable embers (or indeed, incense), and keep it fed with fresh fuel and a little bit of air from time to time so that it doesn't go out. The contents of the pot can be used to ignite tinder to create a proper fire when required.

The speed of combustion depends on the tinder you use, and there's a very wide range of highly flammable materials out there that I can't reasonably enumerate here. Char cloth might be one example, and once a flame starts you can use it to light some kind of oil lamp (examples of which have been used by people pre-bronze age).

You could almost imagine a system whereby a censer is engineered with two compartments, one with the embers and the other with some tinder and resinous fuel. The fire mage would pull the appropriate tab to mix the burnable bits with the hot bits, and then whizz the whole ensemble around their head in a fast circle to drive air into the combustion chamber to kindle some flames, at which point they can start generating proper fireballs.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ for scale a good oil lamp will burn about half a ounce of oil per hour, so you don't need much oil to just carry a lit oil lamp around. A simple candle lantern is even lighter. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 27, 2021 at 14:00

For maximum style, and potentially reliability?

Firepistons - essentially if you rapidly compress air, it will heat up, and a sealed piston, suddenly compressed can set suitable kindling on fire. Considering working designs were made with bamboo and other materials, and there's nothing fancy other than needing to fit it tightly, its a good bet for getting fire going.

This pretty much solves everything, assuming the fire from the small volume of charcloth in the piston is enough. Its simple pre industrial tech - and you wouldn't need anything other than a range of common natural materials (these have been made from horn, bamboo or metal) and the knowledge that it works.

Our mage can build it into his staff, so he can dramatically slam it down, get the charcloth going, then getting to work.

Good magic is showmanship, and going YOU SHALL NOT PASS and slamming down a staff before using the smouldering and glowing bottom of his staff for fire magic is going to be impressive.

Your mage will love having charcloth (as an easy and reliable source of fuel to get things going around), and a firepiston is pretty much something that a skilled artisian could have built, pre-gun powder



According to Wikipedia, sulfur matches date back to at least 577 A.D. and one ancient source described them as follows:

If there occurs an emergency at night it may take some time to make a light to light a lamp. But an ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulfur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire, they burst into flame. One gets a little flame like an ear of corn.

I don't know whether your fire mage's small amount of heat is sufficient to set off this match (that's something for you to decide), but it's definitely something to consider.

  • $\begingroup$ Some Googling gives the auto-ignition point of sulfur to be around 250 degrees Celsius, give or take. This is at least a hundred degrees lower than charcloth, which is good. $\endgroup$
    – BBeast
    Mar 28, 2021 at 11:01

Wheellock Flamethrower:

I think you're looking for a big flame, not just an ignition source. The wheellock was developed to ignite gunpowder, but it creates a shower of sparks that can be used to light any readily ignitable fuel source (I'd say in this case the wick of a flame source). There are later iterations of this basic ignition source, but the wheellock is fun and was invented by Leonardo da Vinci. If you wanted something made by craftsmen, this is perfect.

To this, we add naphtha in the ancient Greek version (better known as Greek fire). Crude oil, partly processed, fueled Greek fire projectors and flamethrowers in Greece and China. While some of these were quite large (cart mounted), there were some that were readily man-portable like the cheirosiphon.

A simpler version of this, even more man-portable, would be a pot of naphtha that had a built-on igniter. The device could be activated and would light the naphtha, either at the point of the user (so fire would be close by to manipulate) or activated and thrown (since the wheellock is a spring-loaded sparker and would hopefully light the pot at the destination). You'd need to experiment with the best configuration for such a device, but the lower-end size might not be much bigger than a pistol (incendiary hand grenade?).

flamethrower cool flamer dude


A carbide lamp is a potential solution. In the lamp water drips on Calcium Carbide, causing a reaction that continuously releases acetylene gas that can be burned and acts like a Bunsen burner. Carbide lamps have been used for exploring caves, coal mining, bicycle lamps, and indoor lighting.

Calcium carbide is made with lime and coke, both of which fit into your timeline. The only issue is the production requires high temperatures. That is something that can be over come by having your fire mage use his abilities.


Flint and steel.

flint and steel


Flint and steel is usually used to make a fire big enough to get warm or cook food, or maybe to ignite the powder in your flintlock musket. But in the OP there is no stated limit on how big the flame must be for the mage to use it. The spark from the steel by itself could be enough. Here is a little flame, produced by a red hot and oxidizing steel splinter.

I like the vision of the shower of sparks from the struck steel. One spark does not go out, but gets brighter. It gains size and momentum as it flies through the air.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Though the question does say "a spark isn't enough", clearly it was enough for people lighting fires, back in the day. I will say though that actually lighting fires with an authentic flint and steel is a right faff, requiring decent tinder and a good bit of practise. $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2021 at 13:22

Your run of the mill Zippo (tm) lighter.

It is small enough to be carried easily, even if you have to oversize it somewhat. The mechanism is incredibly simple. A simple steel wheel, a spring, a flint, a wick, and a fuel reservoir. All encased is a small shell with a spring loaded lid.

It meets the needs you lay out. Portable. Safe. Reliable. The fuel reservoir is small, but since it doesn't use a lot of fuel, a refill lasts a while. It can be fueled by naptha, a widely known substance from the middle ages. Your firemage could easily carry several refills worth in a small flask

The mechanism can be readily built by a skilled artisan. It may end up a bit larger than the current models of zippo, but it shouldn't be too difficult.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The mechanics of a zippo lighter are actually quite similar to a wheel lock mechanism, but a zippo requires exotic metals, and the wheel lock is bulkier but more achievable with medieval technology. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheellock $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Mar 27, 2021 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus Exotic Metals? Brass, Iron, Steel, and flint. Yes I know modern zippo lighter flints are ferrocerium which wasn't invented until 1903. the framework still holds. Flint and a hardened steel wheel. Ferrocerium is a an alloy that could conceivably been invented by a medieval alchemist. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Mar 29, 2021 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ I think you're missing my point. I'm essentially agreeing that the wheel lock is a bigger glorified lighter, and that the technology existed in the time period. The alloys maybe could have been invented, but that's beside the point. Easier to go with what we knew existed. Lighter fluid would need to be a little more robust, which is one of the reasons why I went with a simple design and Greek fire (although I'm sure alternatives were available, like ethanol or other distillates). The second part of my answer is an incendiary device not unlike a glorified lighter. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Mar 29, 2021 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ I would upvote your answer, but I don't usually upvote answers on a question I've given an answer to until the OP picks an answer. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Mar 29, 2021 at 18:57

Sodium Metal

Sodium metal burns in contact with water, so it you could have small Sodium metal balls and either spray water or drop one in a bowl with a few mL of water.

Sodium Lantern:
A flame mage could have some kind of lantern with a sodium metal ball dispenser and a small water container underneath, dropping the sodium in the water every time he needs fire.


  • It has to be kept in oil to prevent it reacting slowly with the water vapor in the air.
  • It is not the safest way to get fire since it can explode if it is put in too much water.


  • It can be stored in a small vial, and not much material is needed every time.
  • No complex mechanism is needed, it doesn't a spark to ignite.
  • It can be ignited anywhere : moisture will just make it burn faster.
  • It ignites instantly.

Sodium metal can be produced through carbothermal reduction of sodium carbonate. So heating sodium carbonate along with charcoal to the melting point, the equivalent of iron smelting for sodium. Also, Sodium Carbonate's melting point is lower than iron (851°C vs 1535°C).
Sodium carbonate (Washing soda) can be extracted from the ashes of soda plants (or maybe other plants growing in sodium-rich soil). You dissolve the ashes into water and let them crystallize.


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