Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women's Altars


In the most basic sense, an altar is a home for sacred images, a place for venerating and inviting the comfort, help, and companionship of the gods. But the amazing, dazzling, decorative, poignant, picturesque, inspiring, glowing, passionate altars in this book are not those of churches and temples, designed for the official worship of an omniscient god ceremoniously tended by a priest, rabbi, or minister. Instead, these places are the expression of the most intimate beliefs and fears, memories and dreams of ...
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In the most basic sense, an altar is a home for sacred images, a place for venerating and inviting the comfort, help, and companionship of the gods. But the amazing, dazzling, decorative, poignant, picturesque, inspiring, glowing, passionate altars in this book are not those of churches and temples, designed for the official worship of an omniscient god ceremoniously tended by a priest, rabbi, or minister. Instead, these places are the expression of the most intimate beliefs and fears, memories and dreams of women who are making new spiritual traditions from ancient ones--pagan, goddess, Celtic, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Greek Orthodox. No one knows more about this remarkable efflorescence than Kay Turner, who has been exploring the subject for over twenty years since accidentally encountering the extraordinary altar of a Quiche Maya woman--described by its maker as a "beautiful necessity"--in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Since then she has gathered abundant evidence of how this phenomenon grips women in the most diverse locations, from the studios of artists in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco to the kitchens of Mexican-American homes in Texas, from Mama Lola celebrating Afro-Caribbean gods in Brooklyn to a Wiccan priestess in California worshiping the goddess Aphrodite. The statues, flowers, pictures, photographs, drawings, amulets, pieces of shell, and bits of earth that are collaged together and reproduced here in color represent their makers' histories, beliefs, and desires. Turner draws out the personal stories that lie behind the altars and explains their appeal and significance for everyone.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
For at least 1000 years, women have created home altars dedicated to their personal deities. Turner, who earned a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Texas, has spent more than 20 years exploring this rich, cross-cultural tradition. She weaves scholarship in feminist religious studies, many interviews with women altar-makers and an obvious appreciation for this individual art form into an informative (if, at times, repetitive) and occasionally inspirational reading experience. Turner is motivated by a feminist need to discover a woman's spiritual tradition that has been neglected or dismissed by male scholars. She emphasizes how, by creating private, domestic altars, women have claimed space from public and patriarchal practices for their own individual relationships with the Divine. After a brief historical survey of the tradition of women's altars, Turner devotes the major part of her study to analyzing contemporary altars made in what she terms "folk religious practices" (those running counter to institutionalized religions). She also includes altars made by women without institutionalized affiliation, such as pagans, Wiccans and goddess worshipers. In addition, she provides a brief biography of each altar-maker in a particularly valuable appendix. For all the merit of Turner's thorough textual analysis, many readers will feel that the book's value resides in its 110 illustrations, 80 in color, since it is through these that we are allowed to enter the private space of the home altars. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780500281505
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson
  • Publication date: 10/1/1999
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.77 (d)

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the tradition of women's altars

The age-old task of religious art has been to bridge the division between the sacred and mundane, the spiritual and the material, the Self and the Other. We now live in a time when this division is at its most extreme, but, from the very beginnings of human consciousness, a particular religious art form has assuaged the terror of separation by creating a special site to serve the human desire for relationship with unseen gods and spirits. We call that place an altar, a place set apart to house the images of powerful sacred beings, who by their presence there can be called upon for help and comfort. An altar makes visible that which is invisible and brings near that which is far away; it marks the potential for communication and exchange between different but necessarily connected worlds, the human and the divine.

    The word `altar' usually brings to mind the great high altars in churches and temples dedicated to God and ceremoniously tended by a priest, rabbi, or minister. But this book is concerned with a different kind of altar, one that is not male-determined or dogma-bound. It is an intimate altar, a home altar, made by a woman, and dedicated for her personal devotion to the deities she chooses. For the past twenty-five years I have engaged in research on domestic altars, a very old tradition practiced for thousands of years by women of different religious beliefs the world over. The home altar is ancient in its legacy and yet continues to this day.

    A rich andrelatively unexplored vein of women's history links the altar found in the dwellings of female-centered Çatal Hüyük in the fifth millennium BCE with a similar one depicted on a Minoan seal centuries later. That link is sustained in the altar at the entryway to Nefertiti's private chambers at Armana and also in the Jewish mishkan. The Greek hearth altar dedicated to Hestia continued in the Roman one devoted to Vesta. The altar to the Virgin Mary occupying a niche in the home of a thirteenth-century woman of Lucca in Italy finds its counterpart in an Italian Catholic home in Brooklyn today. A Pakistani or Indian home in Detroit contains an altar where women serve the same Hindu deities that have been worshiped for centuries. The woman who currently practices Goddess Spirituality, venerating the Neolithic Great Goddess at her altar, recalls and reinvents an ancient tradition for modern times. A convert from Protestantism to Buddhism discovers the value of another domestic altar tradition. And perhaps the reader has also reverently established an altar in her own home.

    Certainly there is great variation, but the link between women's altar traditions remains unbroken. In fact, I would venture to say that, throughout its long history, the woman's domestic altar all over the world has changed little in its basic religious intentions or in its aesthetic treatment. A Mexican-American woman's altar filled with statues of the Virgin and other saints does not look very different from an altar laden with Goddess figures found in the Early Cucuteni shrine of Sabatinovka (5000-3500 BCE). A Transylvanian table altar for ritual vessels is similar to the modern altar of a woman in Oregon. A contemporary artist's altar heaped with reproductions of the Great Goddess is not only a recapitulation of herstory, but an affirmation of its continuing vitality. If the first altar made by a woman was created some 8000 years ago and the most recent is being assembled somewhere by a woman today, the remarkable thing is that there is a connection between them, a shared purpose in altar-making between that ancient progenitor and her twentieth-century inheritor. Exploring and affirming that connection is the aim of this book.

    I didn't grow up with the tradition of home altars. Raised as a Presbyterian, I was taught that the veneration of images was suspect. And yet I was one of those children who kept a secret corner in the upstairs attic. There I made fetishes of a disparate array of objects: rocks and shattered robin's eggs, key chains, and pencil stubs, along with pictures of my childhood god, Roy Rogers. Years went by. I outgrew my "attic altar," devoted myself to and then retreated from Christianity in the turmoil of the 1960s. Still, I never lost the sense that objects intuitively gathered together were a powerful means of meeting the sacred unknown.

    My fascination with women's altars started with an experience I had in 1974 in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. My friend Nancy and I were nearing the end of a year-long trip that we had impulsively, and somewhat haphazardly, undertaken to study the goddesses of pre-Colombian Mayan cultures. By this time we had very little money, and often found ourselves wandering the market place, gazing with longing at food we couldn't afford to buy. We became friendly with a butcher, a formidable Quiche Maya woman named Virginia, who occasionally took pity on the hungry gringas by giving us her day's leftover sausages.

    Soon we were visiting Virginia quite regularly. Our amiable talk often turned to religion because she was a Catholic with an exuberant devotion to the Virgin and we were novice but eager Goddess-worshipers. Our friendship grew through these discussions, and one day Virginia invited us to have dinner at the home she shared with her mother. As soon as we arrived, she insisted that we follow her down a dimly lit corridor. Dutifully we trailed after her, and at the end of the hallway we entered a glowing pink room. There before us, all by itself, stood a lavish altar table overflowing with statues and pictures of the Virgin Mary and various saints. Candles blazed in front of the images, and vases of fresh flowers filled the room with an aroma I can still recall today. On a carved bench, turned toward the center of the altar, Virginia then knelt down and offered a brief prayer for Nancy and me. I was enraptured, overwhelmed. I felt that I had never seen anything so inspired or so perfect as this altar. Later that evening as we dined, I ventured to ask Virginia why she kept an altar at home, and she simply replied that it was "a beautiful necessity." She made no further explanation; I did not further inquire. But the phrase "a beautiful necessity," and the altar to which it referred, had captured me, and the mystery of its meaning began to grow in me.

    After that first encounter, I began to see women's personal altars everywhere in my travels. I saw them in Mexico; I saw them in Italy; I saw them in the United States in Brooklyn, San Antonio, Albuquerque and Detroit. They were in the homes of Mexican Americans, Polish-Americans, and Vietnamese-Americans. And as the second wave of feminism and the first streams of gay liberation spilled out on to the cultural landscape I also found altars in the homes of middle-aged lesbians in Ohio and in the studios of radical feminist artists in New York. It was such a ubiquitous tradition, and, no matter where I observed it, the home altar was maintained predominantly almost exclusively—by women. I could not escape that simple fact—and for me its implications. Yet, in the early days of my interest, I found very little documentation to support my growing sense of the tradition's importance. Anthropological and art-historical sources either failed to mention home altars or described them in terms that always implied their insignificance. I remember, for example, reading George Foster's classic ethnography of Tzintzuntzan, Mexico. Even though he found that "every home has one or more simple altars," he dismissed them as a kind of "low-pitched daily homage" and said no more. Typically neglected or obscured, this woman's way of knowing the Divine seemed weighted by its absence from history. I knew I had a mission. And my urgency only grew as in 1975 I began to assemble fragments of the tradition's history that did exist.

    Certainly, as the bibliography for this book attests, the available literature on domestic altars has grown considerably since I began my study years ago. A detailed, cross-cultural historical treatment remains to be done, but for my purpose here even a brief review of the evidence in the Western archaeological and historical record alone reveals certain themes that recur consistently in women's altar-making from the distant past to the present. I should forewarn the reader in acknowledging that my research focuses on the pre-Christian and Christian—specifically Catholic—history of the tradition in the West. Other religious cultures which maintain legacies of the domestic altar tradition—Buddhist and Hindu, for example—deserve further consideration which is not possible here.

    The first Western domestic altars were made in the Neolithic era around 5000-6000 BCE. In many pre-patriarchal cultures in Old Europe, the Near East, the Indus Valley, and the Mediterranean, altars were dedicated in households to insure the protection and advocacy of various life-giving and life-nourishing fecund goddesses. The veneration of their images, most likely initiated and certainly sustained by women (as, for example, the record at Çatal Hüyük indicates), formed the ideological core of early matrifocal (mother-centered) religions, shaped by reverence for fertility, reproduction, and regeneration—in a word, creativity—and asserting the interconnection between all things, animate and inanimate.

    Across cultures, early domestic altars exhibit similar features in their construction: a low platform used as a base to assemble votive images of deities-female figures generally outnumbering male—accompanied by ritual objects, such as pottery incense-burners, lamps, and offering-vessels. These altars were sacred settings where libation, offering, prayer, adoration, petition, and propitiation combined to create daily and seasonal cycles of communication with the divine feminine, the Creatrix.

    The archaeologist Marija Gimbutas is renowned for her recovery and interpretation of Goddess-centered religious culture in many societies in Old Europe. She suggests that the art of these early societies shows the persistent and widespread use of altars, images, figures, symbolic script, graphic design, and ritual accouterments in formulating what she calls a "language of the goddess," a language for abstract ideas. The home altar was no doubt the place where this language, based on representation and analogy, was primarily "spoken" over thousands of years. At their altars women repeatedly engaged in combining religious objects and ideas, uniting the material and the spiritual in an exploration of consciousness itself and in the subsequent formulation of values for human living.

    At the very core of the domestic altar tradition's purpose is an age-old concern for mediating the gap between Self and Other in a specifically woman-centered way. If a mother recognized that the child born from her body was both of and separate from her, "the language of the goddess" translated this physical fact into a powerful recognition of both the differences and similarities between Self and Other, and ways of mediating the two through acts of ritual communication and care. The Goddess housed on her altar acted as a cognitive stimulus, a template. She presented a model of maternity, with references not only to the biology of motherhood (and its associated physical manifestations, such as menstruation and lactation), but also to ideas and beliefs that made up a formative maternal ideology concerned with generation and regeneration, birth and rebirth, giving and receiving, being and not being.

    These cycles were understood within the context of maternal practices—of giving birth, nurturing, and raising children—and a kind of embodied thinking, a thinking through the sacred representation of the female body. Judy Grahn, in her important amplification of Gimbutas's findings, suggests that "Goddess icons embody ideas as the primary motive for their existence." They are what she calls "metaforms," "containers of ideas," and she argues that "the connection of woman to nature, as reflected in art, is a cultural connection; that is to say our ancestors expressed relationships with other creatures in order to give form to their ideas." In the making of their altars, our ancient foremothers were engaged in a profound revolution: the invention of a place where the idea and value of relationship was born. A reverence for shared images and symbols first gave rise to the meaning of shared relationship with the sacred female Other, and at the same time with all others—humans, animals, plants—who dwelled together in the first creation of community.

    Cultures of the Goddess and her domestic altars were transformed and diminished, but never fully obliterated, as patriarchal rule and religions evolved and consolidated in early Western societies over a two-thousand-year period beginning, roughly, in the third millennium BCE. Riane Eisler defines this paradigm shift to patriarchy as the movement from the "partnership model" to the "dominator model" of society and culture. The culture of ancient Greece provides insight into this transformation. As the Greek state evolved from 1000 to 200 BCE, patriarchal ascendancy produced social, philosophical, and religious polarities along gender lines (polarities which still determine gender hierarchies in the West today), including the distinction between polis (state/ public/male) and oikos (household/private/female). Patriarchy re-configured the Self-Other relationship from one of complement to opposition: "woman" became the devalued "Other" dominated by the prescriptions of "man," the ideal "Self." A culture of kings, heroes, and wars—of male superiority first assumed in assigning women to an inferior status—developed and finally triumphed. Female-centered domestic worship was marginalized as public temples grew in imperial importance. But the powers of primal fertility and Greek family legacy still emanated from the household in reverence for Hestia, goddess of the hearth altar.

    Her significance is remarked in the Greek proverb, "Begin with Hestia," for it was said that she "is enthroned in the middle of the universe, just as the hearth is at the center of the house." The etymology of Hestia's name reveals her importance: ousia is glossed as "substance, primary, real, the substratum underlying all change and process," and its most common derivative is estia, defined as "a hearth, a household or family, an altar." in Hestia's name is the root form for the very meaning of "essential being" or "essential reality." Further, her virginity confirmed her self-generating, self-sustaining powers. At the center of the family, Hestia stood as an image of inviolate privacy reflecting "the idea of conserving, withholding, and keeping internal the basic elements of the support system, the household." Hestia was a woman's goddess. Even as women's power was being occluded by patriarchal ascendancy, Hestian devotion marked women's religious autonomy and consequent self-identity.

    Women celebrated the sanctity of the hearth and their alliance with Hestia in ritual acts, including daily food offerings and ceremonies such as the amphidromia, an inaugural carrying of newborn children around the hearth to welcome them into the home. Ensuring the female legacy of the hearth altar was at the core of the Greek wedding ceremony. Lighting a torch from the fire of her own hearth, the bride's mother then carried it ahead of the newly married couple and lit their first household fire with hers.

    Hestia is a crucial figure in the historic lineage of the domestic altar; she is the key to an understanding of the tradition, still important today, as a testament to what feminist theologian Christine Downing calls the "holiness of the ordinary." Downing says that Hestia provokes a question: "She creates suspicion of the extraordinary, of all that we usually mean by the divine." She demarcates a crucial difference between her realm and all other sacred sites: one need go no farther from the holy than home. At a turning point in Western history, when patriarchal exclusion of women in many public religious domains became socially established, Hestia and her hearth altar gave validity to an approach to religion that remained female-centered, private, personal, self- and family-connected. The value of a woman's difference—her reproductive and maternal capability, but moreover her autonomy and sense of self-worth—were placed in the keeping of a tradition that quite simply would not let go.

    The etymology of our word "altar," in fact, reflects this division. It is derived from the Latin altus, meaning high, and refers to a raised structure for the presentation of offerings to deities. Once temples had been established as the formal habitation of the gods, the Greeks and later the Romans distinguished the high temple altar (altare), dedicated to the honor of a supreme, often a state god, from the domestic hearth altar (focus). Temple altars were the sites of public sacrifice and official celebration; domestic altars were reserved as a place to focus family and individual attention on the gods. Aligned with the powers of home and hearth, the domestic altar remained a place of origin, generation, and regeneration. And most assuredly it was a woman's source of focus for her understanding of the Divine. As state and imperial religions exalted in transcendence, women's sense of the religious retained its basis in immanence.

    That a woman-centered domestic altar tradition played a part in the beginnings of Christianity is far from merely speculative. This new religion was troubled by its conflict with long-established state and pagan traditions; for example, the Roman temple to Isis, whose religion was considered most favorable to women, was still active until 300 CE. Initially, the Church was driven underground, and surreptitious worship quite likely required some features of the domestic altar cult. Scholars suggest that in the first two centuries women formed a core group, coming into early Christianity from other traditions. In fact, Celsus, an early critic, denounced Christianity as a religion of marginals: women, children, and slaves. Celsus exaggerates his point, but probably women enjoyed a certain centrality and perhaps some unfettered creativity in the first years of the Church. They had enough power, no doubt, to bring their familiarity with pagan forms of domestic devotion into the secret rites of the newly evolving faith.

    Centuries later, when patriarchal Christianity had become the dominant religion in the West, the home altar still gave women a special place for developing their religious values. Encaustic portrait images of the saints, and of Christ and Mary began to be made in the fifth century, and it is thought that painted icons were originally created for home use. Like their pagan counterparts, early Christian images were treated with a sense of individual affiliation. Faith in the living power of images fueled both their veneration and petition for personal help, favor, and blessing—they were not merely static representations of a power that dwelt elsewhere. Belief in icons was highly attractive to women. They could appeal to images without intervention from the Church hierarchy, which offered women limited participation in public worship. The Church Fathers condemned women's "superstitious" devotions, but, as historian Judith Herrin suggests, "The cult of icons provided a suitable vehicle for the expression of female religiosity, being a very personal one which could be practiced privately.... For those who owned domestic icons, there were no restrictions on their devotions...." Herrin notes that home altars were a feature of Byzantine life. And while it is true that both men and women used them, she claims that women had the strongest reasons for promoting private domestic worship.

    Eventually, a political conflict, the iconoclast controversy of the eighth century, broke out between those who claimed the efficacy of unmediated personal relationship with images and those who did not. The iconoclast clergy, in an attempt to consolidate their power, contended that, "only objects that had been properly blessed by the appropriate authority could be treated as holy." Privately worshiped icons were not formally blessed, and, unsurprisingly, women were more likely to be iconophiles (devotees of icons), even risking the censure and rage of their iconoclast husbands. Powerful women of the Byzantine Empire struggled, often subversively, to retain their right to venerate personal images at their altars. While the Emperor Theophilus publicly condemned the worship of images and persecuted the worshipers, the Empress Theodora and her mother-in-law Euphrosyne secretly continued their veneration of icons—and taught such devotion to their children—in the private women's quarters of the palace. The end of iconoclasm was itself precipitated by a woman. After the death of her iconoclast husband, Leo IV, Irene became regent in the year 780, and immediately reinstated the cult of images.

    In the Western Roman Catholic world, following the split from Constantinople in 1054, private devotion and the demand for images continued to increase during medieval times. Around 1300 devotional images to accompany private prayer began to be more widely distributed throughout Europe. Increasingly, the cheap manufacture of mold-made images, engravings, and even small altars gave people from all classes greater domestic access to the Divine.

    By the thirteenth century the cult of the Virgin Mary had taken precedence over all others, and continued unabated for over three hundred years. During this time images of the Virgin in painting and sculpture became much more human, subjective, and emotionally wide-ranging. Her earthly, bodily life was stressed in realistic images that centered thematically on her role as Virgin Mother. Scenes of the Annunciation were often shown taking place in contemporary domestic settings. Other popular images, including those of Mary suckling the infant Christ, or portraying her relationship with her mother, St. Anne, confirmed Mary's ultimate "humanity" inscribed in her maternity, but also demonstrated her influence in Christ's earthly destiny and her autonomy within a female lineage of support.

    Unfortunately, at the same time that visual messages of the powerful immanence of the Virgin came to dominate the production of images for the Church, verbal messages pronouncing the innate inferiority of women were very much a part of Catholic theology. The contrast, however, leaves room for suggesting, as feminist religious scholar Margaret Miles has done, that women's personal interpretations of visual images may have provided a strategy for self-empowerment over and against verbal misogyny. Visual images can provide a wider range of personally interpreted meanings than texts can. Miles assumes, for example, that images of Mary's virginity, which were for churchmen non-threatening testimonies to her purity and passivity, could have been integrated by women into an understanding of her freedom from the entailments of marriage and sexuality, and hence her spiritual autonomy. Miles makes a crucial, if speculative, claim for women's interpretation of images as indicative of the "creative intelligence of medieval women and their ability to work for their own advantage with images they did not control." A woman's personal altar was the obvious setting for her subversive interpretations of relationship with divine allies such as the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, St. Anne, and others who would understand and abet her needs and her wishes.

    The altar as a site of subversion is also linked, no doubt, to women's interconnectedness with each other through the practice of the tradition. Both within families and communities, women's reliance on a network of religious affiliations—official and unofficial—gave them a means for trying to fulfill their own needs. Under patriarchy, women have always worked creatively to benefit from their shared resources, and in religious terms this has often resulted in a process of hybridization between older pagan or primal religious traditions with evolving state or institutional religions. In the Middle Ages, for example, women who sought refuge from patriarchy in their private devotion to the Virgin and saints also had recourse to the supernatural gifts of midwives, healers and diviners—witches—whose altars joined the natural and magical with the cultural and doctrinal. Marginalized practitioners of the old earth-based religions combined Catholicism with herbal medicine, amulets, potions, incantations, blessings, and curses to produce real effects—a birth, a healing, a miracle—in a world that allowed women little power. This mixing of elements from old and new religions is central to an understanding of women's altar traditions because historically it has always been women who are more likely to keep or reinvigorate old practices alongside the new, which are usually a result of male-determined war, conquest, or ideological transformations.

    Overall, the history of women's home altars under patriarchy can be fruitfully viewed within the larger framework of women's culture, a concept used by feminist historians to denote a culture distinct from but operating within the general culture that is shared by both men and women. This concept distinguishes activities, beliefs, and behaviors which are generated out of women's lives from those roles and behaviors prescribed for them. As the feminist historian Gerda Lerner has stated: "Women live their social existence within the general culture and, whenever they are confined by patriarchal restraint or segregation into separateness (which always has subordination as its purpose), they transform this restraint into complementarity (asserting the importance of woman's function, even its `superiority') and redefine it. Thus, women live a duality—as members of the general culture and as partakers of women's culture." Where such "living in duality" exists—and it exists widely—women's beliefs and attitudes are expressed through ritual and art, providing a visible focus for the validation of women's contributions to culture as a whole or as expressions of their conflict with the dominant culture. The home altar, for example, has for centuries encoded a visual language through which objects "speak" to the distinctive concerns of women's "hidden" culture.

    Visible traces of the domestic altar in the historical record reveal not only the fact of its existence, but also the way in which a women's religious and artistic tradition, uninterrupted and evolving over time, can be said to mark the maintenance of certain tenacious, even unyielding, values. The altar is a material expression of values; influence, not simply representation, is its final end. Perhaps even a partial and "voiceless" history, as briefly summarized here, suggests the great legacy that the home altar retains in the many versions of its practice today. That legacy points to the continuing validity of a religious tradition which expresses certain crucial aspects of women's interpretation of living. Fertility, maternity, birth and rebirth, family generation and social regeneration, creativity, sacred embodiment of the feminine, the Self-Other relationship, self-identity, and autonomy are concerns and values consistently addressed at women's home altars worldwide. Taken together, they enfold a feminine paradigm of co-creation favoring a particular understanding of the union of body and spirit. If this paradigm was central to the formation of human society, and then marginalized under patriarchy, it was always given visible recognition in the tradition of home altars.

    This brief history is a starting point for the rest of this book, which is devoted to the current practice of the tradition, and, thankfully, replaces speculation with direct evidence: the living voices of women speaking to the meaning of personal altars in their lives. In 1979, for my dissertation, I started interviewing Mexican-American women in South Texas. Over the course of several years, they became my foremost teachers in their versions of the folk-Catholic altar tradition. Eventually, I began questioning altar-makers wherever I encountered them, and in 1983 I published a special issue on the diversity of women's altars in Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night, the feminist spirituality journal that I edited at the time. Since then I have continued to pursue the tradition in all its variety of expression throughout the United States. For me, this book is very much like an altar on which I have gathered together portraits of so many of those women, some of whom I have now known for decades. Their grace and insight, shared with me in often lengthy interviews, are necessarily distilled here, but—I hope—without diluting the knowledge and experience that each has brought to my understanding of women's altars. Their testimony in these pages typifies the legions of women in the past and present whose keeping of the tradition lays claim to its beautiful necessity.

    Most women, including many I have known, maintain altars within the context of folk-religious practices associated with but often running counter to institutionalized religions, such as Catholicism. In class- and gender-stratified societies, folk religion harbors and generally exercises an autonomy based on symbols and rituals that favor the subjective, individual aspects of religion. Keeping an altar is one of many folk-religious traditions that over centuries have been of benefit to women excluded from full participation in male-dominated religions. But in the late twentieth century, altar-making has grown dramatically, has even erupted, at a time when established religions are no longer central in the lives of many women. Unaffiliated Pagans, Wiccans, and Goddess-worshipers have taken the tradition for themselves, reclaiming and reinventing it for these new times. Artists, too, have been drawn to it. They bring the private altar into public settings, fluidly combining images and materials to reveal essential aspects of the tradition in startling new ways.

    Contemporary altar-makers range from the very traditional to the radically revisionist, and I have tried to include representatives of them all. Sra. Soledad "Chole" Pescina, a Texas-Mexican Catholic, learned altar-making over a hundred years ago from her grandmother in Mexico, and every day, until her death in 1986 at the age of ninety, tended and used her altar dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) and San Antonio (St. Anthony). In contrast, the artist Kathy Vargas works within her Mexican tradition, but radically renews it by creating photographically based altars dedicated to the memory or aid of dear friends. Traditional altars built to invite the presence of Afro-Atlantic gods and goddesses, such as Ogún and Yemayá, are made by Miriam Chamani, founder of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple at her home in New Orleans. Yet Ogún is also given a central place on the new home altar of Candice Goucher, a professor of African history living in Portland, Oregon. Artists expand both the interpretation of the altar for women and its visual aesthetic by transforming aspects of its history, sometimes by appropriating ancient symbols and giving them a very contemporary slant, or by inventing new symbols which are sacralized by enclosing them in the altar's frame. The artist Nancy Blair creates reproductions of ancient goddess figures for women's altars all over the world, while another artist, Nancy Fried, diagnosed with breast cancer, makes terracotta altars of breasts dedicated to her own healing. These and many others presented here show that, although cultural and individual histories play their part in determining particular practices, it might also be said that we are united as women in our various altar traditions.

    This deeply historical and widely dispersed religious art form provokes questions concerning the different meaning of women's beliefs, values, and creativity. Perhaps more than any other domestic art form, the personal altar demonstrates the validity of identifying the distinctive features of a feminist aesthetic. I think of how much we've learned about women's creativity and social expertise from the feminist study of the quilt. By linking feminist theory to the history of quilting, scholars brought fresh perspectives to a range of quiltmakers' concerns—family legacy, creativity, and social networks—that were unthought of twenty years ago. A feminist approach to altars similarly provides the opportunity to probe women's spiritual-aesthetic concerns for answers to deeper questions about the meaning of feminine creativity, not in limiting essentialist terms but as a concept that bridges women's distinctive bodily and psychological determinations with their experience and values. In fact, my interpretation of women's altars tries to demonstrate a point of reconciliation in the long-standing feminist debate that opposes essentialism and social construction. Our altars do make a claim on women's difference from men, but not simply as a natural cause, rather as an ethical and therefore a socially invested one that asserts a woman's perspective on the meaning of life lived in the union of body, spirit and intelligence, not in their separation.

    Why has the home altar survived the passage from pre-patriarchy to patriarchy and now to what is hopefully an evolving post-patriarchal era? What is so central to the tradition, no matter how or where it appears, that has kept it vitally entrenched for millennia? The answer to these questions is not a simple one, but my overall sense is that the home altar consecrates and serves women's understanding of the power of relationship to overcome separation with an emphasis on the values of inclusion and exchange. The home altar is a visible representation of this power, and a highly effective instrument for bringing it into action and effect. Even if, by definition, all altars perpetuate an affiliation with the Divine, women's altars promote a particular ideal of relationship and approve its fundamental continuity within women's lived experience.

    In the past several decades feminist scholars have worked broadly on the crucial meaning of relationship for women. My understanding of women's altars owes much to the writings of medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum, art critic Lucy Lippard, psychologist Carol Gilligan, theologian Carol Ochs, and archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. In their own areas of expertise, they and many others have articulated a relational perspective on women's difference. Asserting the gendered nature of all religious experience, Bynum claims, "Religious experience is the experience of men and women, and in no known society is this experience the same." Her study of medieval European religious writers suggests that women are more likely to build religious metaphors from social and biological experiences, and that their use of symbols is "given to the muting of opposition." She also finds in medieval women's use of religious symbols a "tendency to emphasize reconciliation and continuity." Bynum's remarks are particular to a historical period, yet this "tendency" is, I think, also in evidence in women's personal altars, sites where religious metaphors are most specifically assigned their intention by women. Altars symbolically convey women's concern for reconciliation, continuity, and the muting of opposition.

    Anthropologists Judith Hoch-Smith and Anita Spring have also explored female religious metaphors. Women across cultures, to a consistent degree, are regarded as sacred primarily in connection with reproduction and mothering, and, following from this, with their skills in nurturing and relationships. Religious rituals and other practices sponsored by women on behalf of women often make creative use of the metaphors of menstruation, pregnancy, birth, lactation, and mother-child symbiosis to push the ideological precept beyond the production of the child to the creation and maintenance of human relationships. Though not exclusively concerned with reproductive metaphors, the home altar tradition seeks divine help in initiating, preserving, restoring, and protecting the vitality of all relationships.

    Sociologists Kathryn March and Rachelle Taqqu invite a closer inspection of religious domains, such as altars, where "women actively exercise their authority as women within a divinely sanctioned interpretation of their gender rights." They argue that private religious activities do not necessarily rationalize women's place in the wider spheres of sex-stratified societies, but may serve as a "legitimate basis for autonomous action" emerging at least in part "from the supposedly `affective' basis of [women's] shared cultural perceptions." Women's religious competence arises from feeling, intuition, emotion, and simply from the experience of being a woman.

    Carol Ochs suggests that women's spirituality "focuses on something that is available to all people equally—their own experience," and is "the process of coming into relationship with reality." According to Ochs, women's reality—and hence our sense of spirituality—is based on the female model of development that gives priority to relationship and interconnectedness. Women's spiritual disposition favors a reality that is patterned by obligation, care, and responsibility to others and to themselves. Every day women proclaim the value of this reality at their altars. In the intimacy of their own homes, in the presence of a sacred site that they themselves have created, women do not seek salvation from this world; rather, they find a more productive, integrated sense of relationship with this world—and those who dwell in it.

    Twenty-five years ago, at the beginning of second-wave feminist revisions of religion, Mary Daly spoke of the need for women to create a new space apart, a space which she defined as a state of mind "where it is possible to be oneself, without the contortions of mind, will, feeling, and imagination demanded of women by sexist society." Further, she held that this new space cannot be "static space"; rather, it must be "constantly moving space ... its center is on the boundaries of patriarchy's spaces, that is, it is not contained." Daly's idea of a dynamic "space apart" is prefigured in the domestic altar, a woman's place apart, built and maintained for centuries before patriarchy, and then conserved for centuries more on the boundaries of patriarchal alienation. Deep within her home the woman's private altar has been—and continues to be—a self-made sanctuary dedicated to the fulfillment of her own gyno-theology.

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Table of Contents

the tradition of women's altars
defining the personal altar
inheriting the altar tradition
new ways of coming to altar-making
altars and the desire for relationship
layering, embellishment—and excess
embodiment and identification
ritual gestures and words of power
restoring body, mind, and spirit
a beautiful necessity
About the altar-makers 167
Notes 171
Bibliography 171
Photo Credits 174
Index 175
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