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Symbology of Altar Decorations
Article ID: 15576
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Mama Ti
Posted: December 22nd. 2013
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Altars for Pagan faiths of many types will reflect the tastes of its creator. They can range from Minimalist simplicity to elaborate, expensive equipment and statuary. For Esbats this generally does not change. But for Sabbats extra items are often added as decoration to make the Altar more special. Ritualists’ apparent need to do something more reflects their desire to set the Altar apart from its other working uses; to show that this particular time, whenever that may be, is an important occasion. A closer look at the symbology of Altar decorations may be helpful to newer practitioners when they are called upon to contribute their share. My suggestions here are by no means written in stone. Some people might have different associations and/or different species of plants that are in season in their area so any changes they want to make would be fine. It is, after all, their Altar.
Sabbat times are excellent for that extra touch; with Yule coming up I will begin there.
A Yule Altar would reflect not just Winter but an awareness of life in the midst of Nature’s death. Putting pine and cedar branches—they don’t have to be large ones—on the Altar along with pine cones, antlers or horns, holly, ivy, and mistletoe give a traditional festive air to the setup but it does more: it provides visual, visceral reminders about the God, the Underworld, and life in the midst of death. Antlers, of course, represent the Hornéd One, the male aspect who rules Winter as Lord of Death. His presence is further represented with the cedar and pine, which are evergreens, and so prove to us that life does continue even in the harshest of conditions. Pinecones are the seed. They carry life forward, as all seed does. Both holly and ivy are plants of the Underworld, holly being attributed to the male and ivy the female.
Mistletoe’s connection to Druids and the Yuletide oak is well-known; but mistletoe was considered the outward “heart” of the oak, containing the tree’s life and so when gathered, the tree could be cut down without offending or hurting it, since it was already “dead”. Mistletoe’s blessing of life comes from its association with the great tree but it also contains death in its poisonous white berries.
At Imbolc/Oimelc, the time of the Goddess’ purification after giving birth has completed. The Altar can symbolize this with decorations of small white flowers such as baby’s breath, snowdrops or white crocuses if available, pinecones for the still-dormant potential of the God, and ivy for the Goddess (for She has yet to waken) . If preferred these flowers may be placed in a lead crystal or silver-plate bowl with some water so they float on the surface. Also, those traditions that prefer a stronger awareness of the God might like to include antlers or horns.
Ostara strengthens the burgeoning life energy; to acknowledge this, the Altar is made festive with hard-boiled decorated eggs around the Cauldron, which is placed at the center of the Altar. Red eggs in particular would be a good choice as these are especially sacred to Eostara, the fertility Goddess for Whom the Sabbat is named. Yellow flowers, young green leaves or thin branches with budding green leaves on them, forsythia, white cyclamen or saxifrage (cut from their plants rather than putting the entire pot on the Altar) and/or pussywillows make a bright display on the Altar as well. Hares are also sacred to Eostara so an ideal addition would be a small to medium-sized stone or wood hand-carved sculpture of a hare to include with the eggs. Such a sculpture is not mandatory, of course, but it may help Ritualists make an even better connection to the Spring Goddess by including it. If you choose to make your own hare sculpture it is easily done from a soft wood such as pine, or from soapstone, which can be carved with a butter knife.
Beltaine is the day the young Goddess and God wed so antlers and flowers are excellent decorations. Pink roses are a good addition, especially wild roses if you can find them. They are a lovely symbol of the young Maiden Goddess. Tulips in various colors, with their cup shaping, help bring to mind the Goddess as well since they have an affinity for the Chalice. Try surrounding the center Cauldron on the Altar with flowers to strengthen the association in participants’ minds.
Since Lítha is a Fire festival to give energy primarily to the Mother Goddess and to increase fertility, red and gold colors rule the decorative/symbolic aspects for the Altar. Red roses this time, to honor and bring forth the more mature, sexual Mother Goddess. At least one sunflower, of course, ought to be included, and these can be from the wild; if red-and-gold (or even just the golden yellow) marigolds are available they should be part of the decorations as well. These two flower species are obviously Sun-related, perfect for bringing in the mature Sun God energy to your Sabbat and aid in focusing on the Fire aspect of the celebration.
With Lughnassadh or Lammas comes the first grain harvest. The Lord of the Grain, that is, the Corn King is sacrificed symbolically by the harvest and His spirit captured in the last sheaf. A Corn Dolly is made from stems out of this sheaf to hold His life within it; it is kept until Ostara when it is burned to release Him and the ashes scattered in the fields to return His life to the Earth and bless the fields again. Such a Corn Dolly may be made by the High Priestess or a covener to include on the Altar for blessing and later put away to use in Spring. I don’t have access to wheat so I use a couple of green corn leaves and shape a doll form with them, tied with red cotton yarn to hold it together (red being the color of life blood) . Those who grow corn in their gardens are fortunate in that they can use it for this part of the decorating, and in Spring scatter the Dolly’s ashes in the garden plot.
If you wish, you may even go so far as to grow a small amount of wheat, rye, or barley to use for your Corn Dolly. Grain stems are very appropriate as Altar decorations along with a couple of ears of corn—I like to pull off some of the leaves to expose several rows of kernels—along with marigolds and sunflowers. In fact, the High Priest can twine marigolds around the band of his Crown, the High Priestess some grain stems around hers. Dark red roses may be included on the Altar to symbolize the Mother Goddess transforming to Her darker aspect. Many Altars also include a small loaf of grainy bread on the Altar as a symbol of the food made from the first grain.
With Mabon comes the second sacrifice, the second harvest when fruits and nuts are brought in. This Sabbat occurs in September, the time when hunting season is under way so the Altar should definitely have antlers and/or horns on it. Apples, unshelled nuts, small branches with Fall leaves on them, grapes, dark red roses, henbane, nightshade, or datura flowers (careful with these!) for the Crone Goddess if you can get them, also a pomegranate and a few poppies if available to represent the Underworld. On my own Altar I have included vegetables I harvested from my garden and I encourage you to do the same if you like to grow things. It makes the symbolic connection even stronger.
Samhain is our final Sabbat to look at; this one is the darkest since it represents the Lord of the Dead and Winter, the time when He takes up his reign for the coming season of rest and quiet, of the hunt and of animal slaughter on the farms to provide meat for the cold months ahead. The Lady is the Crone, giving up Her place as ruler of the season. The Altar may be decorated with antlers, horns, bones, bare branches with berries or other small fruit such as crabapples or chokecherries, ivy, and black roses if they can be had. The last two suggestions are, of course, representative of the Dark Goddess.
Pagan rose gardeners who live in mild climates might consider adding one or two black rose bushes to their collection if they don’t already have them.
Not all of the plants I’ve mentioned grow in all areas. Go with what you have available to you and especially use flowers and grains which you can find in the wild, for this is where the gods are and by bringing in plant life that has not been grown in the city you add even more of Their unfettered spirit to your holiday celebrations and so be brought closer to your deities.
1 Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, pp. 295-96, Avenel Books, New York, NY 1991.
Copyright: (c) Ti Birchrose 2013. All rights reserved.
Location: In, Colorado
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Lady Eva Michenet lives in Colorado with a princely cat and some houseplants. Besides writing she likes to hike, read, and make jewelry. Lady Eva’s articles have been published in various Pagan venues; she has recently become a columnist for Wildwood Forest magazine.
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