Taking a New Breath: Raising an Altar
by Penny Billington reposted from Penny’s Website
ALTAR: from the Old English alter or altar, based on late Latin altare, altarium, from Latin altus ‘high’. and also to the Latin adolere, which means ‘to ritually burn or sacrifice’.
‘The altar’ can be a term to make hackles rise. We can find a difficulty in divorcing the term from its primary cultural association, embedded in mainstream religion. It’s good to get over this, though, as an altar is a wonderful tool for anyone on a spiritual path. Let’s unpack its uses…
A spiritual path is underpinned by the feeling of sacredness, sentience and a harmonious pattern to the universe. It is an understanding constantly undermined by the demands of the world, and deserves all our support. In making an altar we arrange sacred objects where we can see and remember them frequently. Certain things, placed with care, help shift the mindset from the mundane to the spiritual. Followers of nature spiritualities usually have representations of the four elements plus ingredient ‘S’ – often a candle – for Spirit. I immediately think of the table of the Magician in the Tarot.
The elements are represented thus: Earth, the pentacle; Air, the sword; Fire, the lance and Water, the chalice. This is the altar we might create to honour the mysterious spirit of life, glimpsed through its harmonious elements, the building blocks of the universe. The magician’s white and red signifies human/spirit in harmony and the lemniscate of eternity crowns him as, one arm raised and one lowered, he mediates the energies of the earth and sky. This altar is a place of balance. Ours can be as well, on the traditional model or however makes sense to our deeper feelings. One can have an altar to celebrate the seasons, a life event, for a precious or uplifting book, quote or object, or all of these in succession.
Where? The home: a permanent altar
Spiritual teachers recommend a daily tuning into spirit. One easy daily action, the simpler the better, come rain or shine. So we breathe with the sun, or light a candle, greet the day, perform a tree meditation or wave to our neighbour’s oak, to reset our ‘spiritual tone’. We are stating our relationship to life:
‘Greetings to the spirit of the world and the cosmos; I’m taking my place, and ready to be of service to the flow.’
That statement of intent governs the story we are choosing for our lives; then we get on with our day.
Long after movement has rippled through our muscles or the words we speak have flowed out to join the breeze, the solidity of the altar is a permanent reminder. And, very importantly, its physicality requires our daily attention. It gets dusty; nature offerings shrivel and water evaporates from the vases.
We might notice at Imbolc that some Winter remains have fallen behind it…Allowing our altar to become stale or mucky speaks volumes about our attitude to the spirit of life we are courting. It’s a visual reminder that we are neglecting it – and the needs of our shy, wild soul. In developing a personal gnosis, altars are of inestimable value.
Well, it happens: to everything there is a season. Don’t waste time on recriminations, but descend like a March wind on your altar; clear and clean the space, burn or compost the offerings that have had their time, so that it is ready for when you feel the urge once again. Every altar builder should have a clear plan for disposal!
In nature: Spontaneous altars
Making an altar in nature is often unplanned: we are surprised by beauty and need to mark our gratitude. It is a proof of our true witnessing and captures the feeling through the arrangement of natural materials into mandalas or symbolic shapes. Each walk can include a gradual collecting so that, when a place calls to us, we have materials which have caught our eye. Often, we slightly elevate our altar by choosing a large rock or tree stump as a base: we remember that ‘altar’ is from the Latin altus; ‘high’.
Leaving our mark somehow is a profound human need. At its most basic level, very public toilet wall records the imperative to say, ‘I woz ‘ere!’ in some form. Writing on loo walls, locked in in claustrophobic, smelly isolation, is absolutely in the loop of our own brain, disconnected. Frankly, it is sad.
Let us turn outwards instead to its opposite – the urge to expand out into the natural world, to be a creative part of the beauty and mystery all around us. This connection we can express by constructing a spontaneous altar. The few moments spent breathing with the space, sensing its permission then composing a natural altar aligns us with the felt spirit behind the physical world. We are changed by the observance and maybe leaving a gift to the next person who has eyes to notice.
To what or whom, and when?
The ‘when’ is easy: whenever the urge to express our recognition of spirit inspires us.
A quick word on seasonal altars. Many people plan their altars around the eight festivals of the year, but beware of neglecting them in between times. A vibrant, living altar should reflect from the earliest to the season’s latest aspects and frequently changing it builds our relationship with the spirit of the time. In the UK, Imbolc to Alban Eilir (Vernal Equinox) has seen a flowery succession through snowdrops, lungwort and primroses to violets and the first whorled sprigs of woodruff. Minute daily renewal allows us to place things that don’t last long on our altar – hellebore flowers for me – and feathers, twigs, stone from walks.
As well as venerating nature, our altar can show our allegiance to an abstract quality such as Justice or Peace, and we may want to add something that a signifies a personal sacrifice: a visible representation of our commitment to a cause. This can be a simple word, beautifully written – ‘money,’ ‘time’, ‘dedication’; or an illustration of a votive offering you’ve returned, as the ancestors did, to a body of water.
Altars and shrines: Divinity
So, an altar fosters our alignment to that ultimate unknown; the spirit behind things. Gradually, we come to cogitate on what is this mysterious thing called ‘divinity’. Many spiritualities have pantheons of God/desses, the form in which we clothe the higher powers, to whom we might dedicate our altar. Our path might have recognized pantheon of Godd/desses and we might have felt clearly that we have been chosen by one, or that there is one – perhaps with qualities we lack – which we want to petition regularly. How to choose – or how we are chosen – is for a different time. For now, let’s just consider the altar dedicated to divinity.
You do not need to jump into ‘claiming’ a God/dess; that can often be a rather facile ‘mind’ exercise that doesn’t involve the deeper senses. Many magical workers use generic names – ‘Lord/Lady of the Wildwood/Harvest’, or ungendered terms such as ‘Spirit of the Orchard/Plain, Desert/Wind/River, very effectively. Trust that your intent will make the connection: I believe the God/desses love and respond to overtures made with sincerity and integrity.
To move the discussion on and to its conclusion, an altar is for a purpose, but a shrine is a home for indwelling spirit. And so we might come to regard our altar as a shrine, to the Spirit of nature, love …. Whatever touches your heart.
SHRINE Middle English, from Old English scrīn, from Latin scrinium case, chest A place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic, marked by a building or other construction.
A shrine is a container, housing a physical and sacred relic. In ancient religions, it is literally a home for the indwelling of a deity. To entertain this possibility as a living reality in our home presents us with a million questions of definition, intent, relationship: it feels as if all the wishes and expectations we have had around our altars are taken to the nth of possibility… and at that exciting juncture we shall leave it: for now.
To finish, here is the most evocative prose describing the culmination of the process: a Goddess descending to indwell the space prepared by her Priestess. I’ve never read anything this powerful about the spirit of an altar, so mine is renamed as a shrine. My shrine is dedicated to a spirit of Awen, Inspiration, in the form of the Divine Fair Otherness that bridges the world of matter and spirit; of Gods and Humanity. Isn’t that the communication we crave, that is behind all that we do?
Please read this out loud. Allow the pictures to build to get the full effect, and feel the shivers up your back…
And a blessing on our altars, on our work, on our world.
Through the uncurtained eastern window the full moon was shining… A pale Persian rug lay on the dark polished floor and in its centre stood a Moorish inlaid table on which was a broad and shallow glass bowl wherein water lilies were floating. The moonlight shone full on this and a spot of bright light focused on the curve of the glass. The lilies lay colourless on the silver surface of the water but underneath were strange gleams of golden fire. I stood watching this softly glimmering bowl across the wide hall and being raised by the altar steps it was on a level with my eyes. And as I watched it seemed to me that mist was rising from the surface of the water and floating upwards like smoke in still air, and that within the mist there was a Light. Then I knew that all was well, for the power had come down; Isis was indwelling the temple I had prepared for Her and in the language of the initiates, I was on my contacts.
~ Dion Fortune, Moon Magic