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Posted: November 13th. 2011
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When you set out on a Pagan path--be it Witchcraft, Druidry, Reconstructionism of some sort, or yet another path--often one of the first things you will be advised to do is set up a sacred place in your home. Usually this space is called an altar or shrine. Erecting a home altar or shrine is an ancient practice in many religions, and it can be a very rewarding one for the Pagan seeker. Tending my home altars is one of my favorite personal practices. But how do you make and tend an altar? And for that matter what is an altar, and is it the same thing as a shrine?
Sadly, the widely available books on Paganism (which are usually books on Wicca) tend to be sparse on information concerning altars and shrines. To offer one example, popular Wiccan writer D. J. Conway has authored an entire book on altars, A Little Book of Altar Magick. Unfortunately, this book consists mostly of small snippets of information taken out of context. When it comes to what exactly an altar is, Conway has little to say besides noting that people have been constructing altars since time immemorial, and making a few general comments about their uses. Many other books on Witchcraft and Neopaganism do not even mention altars much at all. With any luck, this article can help fill in some of these informational gaps.
Altars and Shrines
First of all, we should turn to the question of what an altar is. Our English word “altar” most likely comes to us from a Latin verb: adolere, “to burn up.” In the ancient world, most offerings were burned or cooked in some way, and the altar was often the place where such sacrifices were performed. This is in fact still true, as candles and incense remain the most common offerings. An altar can therefore be defined as a place where offerings are made. Yet when most of us think of altars we envision niches or tables that house statues of deities, sacred symbols, and ritual tools. Aren’t these altars is as well?
In contemporary Paganism, “altar” is often conflated with “shrine”. There is much overlap between the two in fact, but altars are not synonymous with shrines. A shrine is a space or reliquary that houses a relic, icon, or sacred object. This item could be the bones of a saint or other revered person, the image of a god, or anything else considered sacred. For example, the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece placed great emphasis on the kiste, a box containing an image whose very identity was among the primary mysteries of the sect. Though most shrines are not quite so occult as this, the kiste is a perfect example of a shrine. The shrine’s function is simply to exist, so that worshipers and devotees may behold its contents and meditate upon them. It is not surprising then that the English word shrine is derived from the Latin noun scrinium, meaning “case, chest or box.”
As I said, there is often some overlap here. In the personal temples of many Pagans, you are likely to find niches or tables that serve both purposes, acting as both shrine and altar. For our present purpose, we will assume that any altar you are likely to construct will also be a shrine housing images or symbols of whatever gods/spirits/ancestors you work with. To quote Druid and noted Pagan author Ceiswr Serith: “An altar may be defined either as a place where the gods sit or as a place at which offerings are made...In a particular ritual, these two definitions may be represented by two different structures, the same structure may serve both purposes, or only one kind may be present.”
The Altar as Sacred Space
Before we delve into constructing an altar, there is a philosophical issue we should address, and it is a fairly hot-button issue. Many Pagans would describe an altar as a sacred space. For many readers, this description will not be problematic. And indeed, an altar is a sacred space. However, if we wish to understand altars thoroughly, we need to unpack this statement. What exactly is “sacred space?”
First we should tackle the ubiquitous word “sacred”. As Druid author John Michael Greer points out in his excellent work A World Full of Gods, the word “sacred” is used so frequently in contemporary religious discourse and is used to signify so many different concepts, that it is functionally meaningless unless applied within a specific context. Outside of such a context, says Greer, “sacred” means nothing more specific than “worshipped [sic] by somebody.”
In the ancient polytheistic cultures most Neopagans hearken to, sacredness was rather a fluid concept. In such a milieu, if I pointed to a tree and said, “That tree is sacred, ” the person I was addressing would likely respond by asking me, “Sacred to whom?” To illustrate my point, let’s look at an example from ancient Greece. Among the Greeks, one of the most common sacrificial animals was the pig. Many of the ancient Greek deities would have been quite honored by the offering of a pig. Yet, if a devotee wanted to gain Aphrodite’s favor, swine would be the last thing the worshiper would offer Her. This was because while swine might be considered sacred to some other deities, they were most decidedly not sacred to Aphrodite. In essence, it was common knowledge that Aphrodite did not like pigs. In our largely Christian-influenced culture, we tend to attach ultimate implications to words like “sacred” and “profane.” However, in most Paganisms, such ultimate interpretations are out of place. Whether something is sacred or not is a question of the tastes and associations of the deities being invoked.
With this in mind, we can turn to the current Neopagan controversy over the idea of sacred space. Many books on Wicca present as a given the need to “create sacred space” by casting a circle before performing a ritual. However, some trad Witches and Reconstructionists would offer a valuable objection here. If Pagans are in fact nature worshipers, as most of us claim, shouldn’t we regard all space as sacred?
As we can now see, this disagreement rests on differing assumptions of what it means to be sacred. It is assumed here that what is implied by “sacred” in a Witchcraft context is “good” or at least “not evil” in an ultimate sense. In fact, most Witches would probably agree that all space is sacred--but this does not mean that all space is suitable for the type of religious and magickal operations that Witches endeavor to perform. To return to the example of Aphrodite, if I were seeking to invoke Her in a ritual, it would be far better to perform this ritual on the beach than in the middle of a desert, as Aphrodite has always been associated with the sea. The beach is a place Aphrodite would be more likely to visit. Hence, in casting a circle a Wiccan (or any other mage) is not creating sacred space per se, but rather making a space suitable for working with the particular energies and entities that figure into Wiccan ritual. This holds true for practitioners of any tradition who prepare ritual space in some way before using it.
If erecting an altar is an act of creating sacred space (or sanctifying a space) , its purpose then is to establish a space suitable for the type of magickal/religious experience a person wishes to have. Most commonly, the experience sought is an encounter with one or more gods, so altars for this purpose will be our focus in the next section.
An Invitation to the Gods
Many seekers in Neopagan traditions (myself included) come from backgrounds in Christianity, most commonly some form of Protestantism. In part, what often draws us to Paganism is the chance to have very direct encounters with the gods, whether we conceive of the divine in an archetypal, duotheistic, or polytheistic way.
A Gardnerian high priestess friend once commented to me that those of us who were raised Protestant tend to have the most difficulty working with gods, because we come from a tradition in which the relationship between the divine and the worshiper is very one-sided. This is perhaps one of the starkest contrasts between Christianity and Paganism. A Christian worships because she must (unless she wants to be condemned) . Whether her god blesses her or gives her endless misfortune, she continues to thank and worship him. By contrast, a Pagan worships her gods because she wants to. The divine relationship in Paganism is a two-way street. The worshiper gives offerings and prayers to her gods, and her gods in turn bestow blessings upon her. This is not a form of bribery or a strict tit-for-tat arrangement, but rather a relationship much like a friendship--mutually beneficial and with some level of patience and understanding on either side. An altar may therefore also be seen as a meeting place between god and worshiper. But what does such a meeting place look like?
To answer this question, I’d like to return briefly to the remarks of Ceiswr Serith. In a blog post dated April 13, 2011, Serith explains his view that an altar is a “mesocosm” meant to link the worshiper to the macrocosm. Serith is here taking the view that the greater cosmos (macrocosm) is reflected in the being of each person (microcosm) . This concept will be familiar to many people from occult writings such as Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law (“Every man and every woman is a star”) and from the Celtic concept of the Duile. To quote Serith:
An altar is the place where the divine is manifest. It is the sacred space writ small. It is a mesocosm which mediates between the microcosm of the practitioner and the macrocosm of the sacred universe. Through being present at an altar the practitioner is present at all things. Through performing rituals at the altar, the practitioner is performing them in the microcosm, the macrocosm, or both. If the microcosm, the practitioner makes manifest in the themselves [sic] what is present in the altar; if in the macrocosm, it is by performing a ritual which manipulates the altar's mesocosm that the effect is created in the macrocosm. 
Serith is certainly correct that many altars (and in fact entire temple complexes) take this mesocosmic form. The great Hindo-Buddhist temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is an excellent example, its plan being a depiction of the world with the central tower representing Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu Devas. However, I would humbly point out that not all altars are necessarily the cosmos “writ small.” While this is a perfectly valid layout for an altar, many altars are simply offering spaces dedicated to specific deities.
This in fact leads us to yet another controversy. (You probably had no idea there would be so many, huh?) I’ve run across many contemporary Pagan authors who decry the eclecticism of Neopagan rituals and altars. Primarily, these authors are bothered by the cultural mixing that takes place on eclectic altars--where, for example, a Celtic deity might share a space with, say, a Greek or Egyptian god.
First of all, I should state that I share their concern. Too often it seems that deities are placed on the same altar without any concern for possible conflicts. After all, it should be obvious by now that it might not be a good idea to invoke Aphrodite on the same altar with a god whose sacred animal is the pig. However, most of these authors go on to say that Neopagans should invoke only gods from a single culture in a given ritual or at a given altar. If you’re going to invoke Greek gods, they say, invoke only Greek gods.
In actuality, these authors are upset over something that has been going on for thousands of years. Polytheism has almost always taken a highly permeable form, with polytheistic cultures frequently absorbing deities from neighboring peoples. An ancient Roman worshiper might invoke both Hekate (Carian/Greek) and Isis (Egyptian) at the same altar. Many ancient Greek deities were adopted from neighboring or pre-Indo-European cultures. Often the invocation of two deities from different cultures was performed because the two figures were seen as different interpretations of the same being. What we should take away from this is that if we are going to invoke multiple deities at one altar, we should do so only with a fair amount of research and forethought. And by “research” I mean actual scholarship. Go and read some respectable books on the deities you’re interested in. If they don’t seem like they would get along, it’s best to give each his or her own space.
Constructing an Altar
What should your altar be made of? Where should you put it? What should be on it? These are all important questions. My answers to them will be rather general, as the form your altar takes will be greatly affected by the god (s) to which you are dedicating it, the tradition in which you are working (if any) , and your own aesthetic.
Since Neopaganism generally includes great reverence for nature, I prefer altars made of wood or other natural materials. Side tables, bookcases, and the like are perfect for this. When researching a god, you may find that he/she is associated with a particular wood. For example, Hekate has been associated with the oak tree, and many of her ancient altars were constructed of laurel. If you were erecting a Hekate altar, a piece of furniture made of these materials would be excellent. However, if such materials can’t be found, this should not stop you. Remember that by creating an altar you are voluntarily honoring your gods. As long as this is done in an attitude of respect (and as long as nothing offensive to the deities is included in the altar) , they will most likely respond favorably to it.
As for the location of your altar, you should consider several things. First, gods often have directional associations, although they may be implied rather than stated outright in the mythology. If a god is connected to the rising sun, then placing your altar in the East might be a good idea. If a goddess’s major cult center was in the West of the country where she was worshiped, you might consider orienting your altar towards the West. Secondly, if you are working in a particular tradition, your tradition may specify an orientation for altars. But bear in mind that following these guidelines is only necessary if you are only working with your god (s) within the confines of your tradition.
Mythological and historical research should also inform what you place on your altar, the symbols, statues, and ritual items that adorn your space. However, there is also room for intuition and personal gnosis here. Personal gnosis would require another article (or even an entire book) , to discuss. For now, remember that an altar is a living space, and like all living things, it changes over time. It should change with the seasons, and with the development of the devotee who tends it.
 Conway, D.J. The Big Little Book of Magick [Omnibus]. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2010. 5-6.
 All etymologies according to merriam-webster.com
 A shrine may also be a structure marking a sacred location.
 “Proto-Indo-European Altars.” http://www.ceiswrserith.com/pier/altars.htm. Retrieved 6/25/2011.
 Greer, John Michael. A World Full of Gods: an Inquiry into Polytheism. ADF Publishing, 2005.
 Trad Witches sometimes use a Compass Round rather than a cast circle. See http://www.blue-moon-manor.com/rituals/index.html for example.
 See for example the Celtic Reconstructionist FAQ: http://paganachd.com/faq/ritual.html#sacredspace
 For those curious about such things, I happen to be very polytheistic, and I readily admit that this article is written from a polytheistic perspective. I encourage those with differing conceptions of the divine to address these issues from their own perspectives.
 This is not to say that there is no sense of reverence involved, or that gods are always warm and cuddly. See Jordan D. Paper’s The Deities are Many for a deeper look at the complexities of this relationship. See also the aforementioned title by Greer.
 http://www.ceiswrserith.com/blog.htm. Retrieved 7/3/2011.
 D’Este, Sorita and Rankine, David. Hekate: Liminal Rites [Kindle Edition]. London: Avalonia Books, 2011.
 Readers should note that elemental correspondences are NOT (in my opinion) necessarily implied by directional associations. The four element system comes from one specific strain of Greek philosophy, and it was later that the idea of correspondences between the cardinal directions and the elements developed. Of course, in many Witchcraft traditions, elemental correspondences are attached to the directions. As with the placement of an altar, the decision to include these elemental correspondences in the setup of your altar should be based on whether you are working mainly within a tradition, and whether those correspondences are appropriated for the deity.
Copyright: (c) Copyright 2011 by Chrysalis. This article may be quoted or re-posted entirely, provided this is not done for profit, and provided the author is properly cited.
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