Let’s talk altars.
What are they and What do they do for you?
The Nine Key Elements of Sacred Space
Altars are referenced not only in nearly all pagan literature prior to Christianity but also throughout the Bible. People have seemed to always understand we need a separate, sacred, intentional space set aside for our personal interaction with the Divine.
Every indigenous culture I can think of at the moment uses altars also for ancestral worship. It stands to reason if we can contact the Divine in this sacred space we create we could also seek counsel from our ancestors in this same space.
There are nine things which seem to transcend most altar craft: aromatics, fire, water, sound, food, flowers/herbs, alcohol, religious iconography and ancestor representation.
Aromatics take many forms: resins, flowers or herbs burnt, incense and even colognes. Burnt offerings have been a staple in human civilization since atleast Sumer. Elaborate rituals cover not only how the aromatics are harvested but how they are grown and how they are prepared. In many cultures tobacco is used as a strong spiritual aromatic. In modern times people are most familiar with incense and white sage.
Fire is probably the first magick man ever knew. It transformed everything in his life and from it sprung society and civilization. Many ancient altars incorporate actual pit or bowl burn areas. Candles represent this fire most frequently today.
Water is life. For all of us. Water nourishes and it purifies. Holy waters prepared in various forms play an important part as not only offerings but to clean our sacred items and altar itself.
Sound is incorporated in all indigenous practice varying from drums/flutes clear to bells. Every culture has some instrument that is used to vibrationally cleanse sacred space. In modern culture many replace this with music.
Food is an important part of every major festival in any religion. Traditionally the entire process from hunt to harvest was part of many days long festivals which culminated in shared feasts. Universally separate foods would be left for both deities and ancestors alike. Incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods prepared by your hand and ethnically important foods which take time and care to prepare are important parts of your altar left as offerings to the Divine and your ancestors. Food is essential to life and this offering signifies your humility and commitment to the sustainment and “life” of the Divine and your ancestors.
Flowers/Herbs also play an important part in altar craft as they represent most often procreation and the energy encased in our physical sexuality. Elaborate procreation rituals used to be an integral part of not only Spring ceremony but ceremonies throughout the year. We adorn ourselves with flowers and herbs to be both visually and aromatically attractive to others. We also use these same items to show respect at death, because they represent the height of life.
Alcohol is another of the simple forms of alchemical magick which predates modern civilization by thousands of years. Some of the best wines, beers and meads in the world were actually created by monks and other clerics before them. The process of taking fresh fruit, herbs and honey and fermenting it to turn it into alcohol is a transformative process long seen as Divine in nature. Offerings of alcohol are not only present at religious ceremonies to commemorate the blood of Christ, but predate this modern tradition by thousands of years. Even mummies were buried with wine. Pouring out a glass for the dead is a common tradition world wide.
Religious Iconography has taken numerous forms in different cultures from Pictish glyphs to icons made of stone, wood or plants. Anything important to a faith be it an icon such as a cross, ankh or triskele clear to signs of the crucifixion such as nails or crowns of thorns. Statues of deities, rosaries you name it if it is a visual representation of the Divine you can find it on an altar.
Ancestor Representation is almost always present at ancient sites of altar worship and is carried through in modern indigenous practice using photos and personal items of deceased relatives and cultural icons. What is important to remember is to NEVER place an item relating to someone still alive on ancestral altar even if this person is very sick.