For the second “A” of this year’s Pagan Blog Project, I decided to write about altars, since quite a few introductory books on diverse pagan paths tell you to build an altar, but some don’t seem to mention what you should do with your altar once you have it. So today, I’m going to give a short and not-too-serious introduction to altars!
First, let’s start with a definition. My trusted Oxford English Dictionary defines altars as:
1. A block, table, stand, or other raised structure with a flat top used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a god or gods.
b. A similar structure placed before a shrine or sacred image, or in a private or side chapel.
Most of us are familiar with structures like these from, for example, attending Christian services, thus we know that an altar is something a priest engages with during Mass. However, an altar sitting in one’s home is, I guess, something that is uncommon to most people. So, in the following, I’m going to address the function of an altar, where it can and/or should sit, what goes on your altar and what you can do with it.
1) Invite your deity into your home!
Building a home altar for a certain God or Goddess is a “statement that you are consciously inviting Deity into your life” (Krasskova 2005: 175). Ideally, an altar should be a place of worship, meditation and focus on your deity, and, depending on where you decide to place your altar, it can become the spiritual focal point of your room, flat or house.
It’s a bit like inviting a friend over for dinner; for the sake of brevity, let’s call this friend Bob. You put out an invitation and hope that Bob, who you’d really like to get to know better, accepts. Likewise, in my view, the main function of an altar is to give the practitioner a medium which helps to develop a closer relationship with deity.
2) Find a good place for your altar!
Consider that your friend Bob has accepted your invitation. Once he enters your home, you wouldn’t ask Bob to have dinner in a spare room that you hardly ever use, nor would you make him sit next to your mutual acquaintance Linda, who you know Bob doesn’t get along with at all.
Always assuming that you’ve got the means and the acceptance of your potential housemates, your altar could potentially sit anywhere. However, I would encourage you to place your altar where you’re sure to engage with it. Mine used to sit in my bedroom for quite a while before I noticed that apart from sleeping, I hardly ever spend any time there and thus don’t do any work on my altar.
My new altar for Loki now sits on the window sill in the living room – this is the room where I spend most of my time at home, where I work, write poetry, and enjoy my free time. Having an altar where I can see it all the time thus makes it far more easy for lazy me to integrate Loki into my life, to light a candle and give thanks or focus on Loki than if I have to go to another room where I wouldn’t normally be staying.
Others, however, might prefer to have their altar in a place that is sacred and set apart, where they can go to calm down and meditate and/or do serious (magical) work.
Which of the two options you choose is eventually one of preference; both can give nice results for your work with deity.
One thing you shouldn’t do, however, is to place altars of deities Who dislike each other next to one another. I’m assuming that Loki wouldn’t be all too pleased to find an altar to Skadhi next to His one, considering that it was Skadhi Who fixed a snake above bound Loki that dripped venom on His face.
my living room altar to Loki - the snake represents Jörmungandr
I'm planning on adding figurines of His other children
3) Place things on your altar that your deity will enjoy!
So now that we’ve sat Bob down in our preferred room, it’s getting serious. I hope that, when you invited him, you made sure that you know what Bob likes and dislikes for dinner. You’d make sure that he’s not allergic to any of the food you’re planning on serving (or that he simply hates, say, asparagus), you’d perhaps ask whether he’d prefer wine or whiskey, and you’d consider his taste of music when compiling the playlist for the evening.
When you’re inviting deity into your home, you should be equally respectful of Their preferences. If you’re familiar with the Norse tradition, you’d agree that it would be very unwise to place an image of Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent, on Thor’s altar.*
Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera in their book Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner give quite an extensive list of correspondences for the Aesir, the Vanir and the Rökkr, that is, a list of which foodstuffs and items are preferred or commonly associated with specific deities. Alternatively, or if such a book isn’t available for your tradition or your deity, you might ask other practitioners what they found your deity likes, just as you might ask a mutual friend whether Bob would like vanilla or chocolate ice-cream better for dessert if you can’t get hold of Bob yourself.
In general, common items that go on most altars are candles, incense holders, images and/or effigies of the deity, and bowl that holds libations, as well as whatever else your tradition requires that you have – consider these the analogy to glasses, tableware and your preferred knickknacks you’d place on the table to make Bob feel at home.
In addition, items you deeply associate with your deity can go on your altar, as well (as these might facilitate getting yourself into the right mindset to get in touch with your deity).
But in the end: don’t be too formal about it. If you think that Loki will enjoy the tiny Lego Avengers version of Himself, then by all means ask Him and place it on the altar if He agrees.
Ask your deity whether They'd enjoy representations like this one of Loki.
* for those unfamiliar with the Norse deities: Thor hates the Midgard Serpent with a passion, and in the final battle at Ragnarök, they will kill each-other.
4) Engage with your altar!
When you’re having dinner with Bob, you wouldn’t sit there, eat in silence and completely ignore him. Instead, you might discuss that film you saw that made you both laugh, talk about your friends, or how your parents don’t ever answer the phone. Cause if you don’t want to engage with somebody, you usually don’t invite them to your home in the first place.
Likewise, your altar shouldn’t just sit somewhere and gather dust; this is not respectful to the deity you’ve spoken the invitation to. Instead, work with your altar and engage with it. Use your altar for meditating, for doing magical work if you feel so inclined or your tradition requires it, for giving offerings of food or incense, or simply for sharing your thoughts with deity in a place that you feel close to Them. By “engage with your altar” I don’t mean just going over there and dusting it every so often, but using the altar as a place where you engage with your deity, cause that’s why you built the altar in the first place.
5) What if I find myself not doing any work with my altar?
And, finally, a ‘what if’ – what if we suddenly find that, halfway through our dinner with Bob, we don’t know what to say to each other anymore? We can’t just ask him to leave while he hasn’t even finished the main course (of course assuming that we’re polite people). So ideally we’d have to figure out why there’s this sudden lull in the conversation and find out what we can do about it.
Similarly, you might find that you’ve built your altar and done all of the above – you’ve made it a nice ‘home’ for your deity, you’ve kept it clean and did a lot of work on your altar, but for some reason you don’t go there as often as you used to, or not at all. Obviously, as altars themselves aren’t sentient beings – contrary to our friend Bob – you could just decide that altars aren’t for you, after all, and dissemble it. If you still engage with your deity after that, I guess it’s fine; not everyone *has* to maintain an altar, after all.
However, if you find that your worship of your deity declined along with your altar work, you might want to consider delving deeper and finding the reasons for your sudden lack of devotion. Obviously, these reasons can be manifold, but you could think about the following:
- Have there been any changes in your (private or working) life lately? When you’re very stressed out, you tend to do less spiritual work, just as you would perhaps not go out drinking with Bob during stressful times. You might want to ask yourseif if there is anything you could do to relax and find some spare time.
- Review your expectations and be honest with yourself when you do. Why did you build your altar – because the books said so, because you thought it might look fancy or because you had a desire to connect to your deity? As I said, not everyone needs to have an altar, and if you find it’s not for you, do take it down and find some other, meaningful way of engaging with deity. For example, going out to pray in nature might come more naturally to you than sitting inside in front of an altar. Experiment and see what works for you.
- Is there a spiritual crisis of some sort? Do you feel like deity isn’t listening anymore? I’m afraid I can’t offer any patent remedy here, but talking to others, e.g. on forums, might help as you can share experiences.
I’m interested in how you use your altars. What do you place on them? Who do you honour at your altars? Does your tradition require you have one? And what do you do when you feel your worship on your altar lacking?
Oxford English Dictionary (online edition)
Krasskova, Galina and Raven Kaldera. 2009. Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner. A Book of Prayer, Devotional Practice, and the Nine Worlds of Spirit. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.Krasskova, Galina. 2005. Exploring the Northern Tradition. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.