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The History of Altars
Altars have been used from almost the beginning of human civilization, as far back as the Paleolithic Age. Yet many people today do not understand exactly what an altar is outside of a religious structure, and do not believe they can set up personal altars in their homes. Nevertheless, on a subconscious level, we set up varieties of altars without giving any conscious thought to the process.
It is common to see groupings of family photos arranged on shelves, tables, or pianos. Many people place clusters of sentimental objects or collections of various kinds in glass-front cabinets or on shelves in various rooms of their homes. It is not uncommon to see displays of beer cans, thimbles, dragons, model cars, or similar objects. These are all done without conscious thought or planning except that we “want to.” But why do we feel drawn to do this?
Why Do We Build Altars?
Carl G. Jung named the deepest part of our subconscious mind “the collective unconscious,” and said that it connects every person to every single ancestor and provides access to everything that has been known in the past. It seems that the collective unconsciousness within each of us is persuading us to build a personal altar, such as our ancestors did. The problem is, we seldom stop our busy minds long enough to listen to the collective unconscious and learn from it.
The wall of beer cans is a type of informal attar to the gods Dionysus or Bacchus, both deities of the vine, wine, and good times. Model cars may well be a subconscious tribute to the fleet-footed Mercury or to Helios and his sun chariot. Thimbles are symbols of weaving goddesses such as Spider Woman, Ixchel, the Fates, and Athena. Collections of dragons, wizards, and the like are subconscious attempts to tap ancient magick and mystical knowledge. Groupings of family photos can be remembrances of the dead in the hope they will aid us, or sympathetic magick to link the dead with the living. A collection of frog figures may be a subconscious plea to ancient fertility goddesses.
This penchant for informal altars cuts across social and cultural lines. In fact, preparing an altar is a multicultural experience. Unknowingly, humans are constantly building altars around them. Perhaps we should give more thought to the process, thus learning how to enhance our daily lives and spiritual growth.
Archeologists have discovered the very earliest permanent sacred altars to be deep inside caves, with narrow, treacherous paths leading to them. Their difficult access made the journey a determined, conscious effort. The caves were highly spiritual places, not to be entered lightly, for they symbolized the eternal, everflowing womb of the Goddess and the cauldrons of primordial energy. Within them, people used magick for hunting and performed rites of passage including initiation. People and their tribal shaman visited these secret caves whenever their clan migrations brought them back to that area.
However, it is likely that the migrating people of the Paleolithic cultures also carried small Goddess images with them as they traveled from one area to another in search of wild game and other food. These people would create a temporary altar at the hearth they made inside each cave or rocky shelter they entered. The strange little rotund female figures they used to represent the Goddess were shaped with exaggerated belly, breasts, and buttocks to symbolize the Great Mother who gave birth to everything in the world. The faces of these figurines were only vaguely formed. Some figurines had their legs taper to a point that could be stuck into the ground, others had flat, widespread bottoms, so they could be placed on any fairly level surface. All were quite small, just the size for carrying easily from one place to another.
Later statues became slightly more sophisticated, but most still retained only the suggestion of facial features, like their earlier counterparts. Where the Goddess of Willendorf and those of Grimaldi, Lespugue, and Sireuil are very stylized and exaggerated in body form, the Minoan snake goddesses appear more human in proportion. In addition to being decorated with spirals or meanders (wavy lines), the Minoan figures now hold two recognizable snakes. This evolution of form continues until we find the beautiful, very human statues of Egypt, China, the Middle East, Greece, and Rome.
The earliest caves were decorated with vivid, life-like paintings of animals, handprints, and other symbols, all representing spiritual and magickal ideas concerned with sustaining life and bringing comfort in death. Later, when villages were established and the clans no longer roamed from place to place, human-built shrines became more elaborate. Although the shrine itself is a symbolic cave, the floors of some in the Minoan culture are carefully paved with seashells and roughly carved, colorful stones, with the walls painted just as vividly as those found in the mystical, secret caves. The symbolism’s representation becomes more direct.
From the incised decorations on the surviving deity figures, the fabulous paintings on cave walls, and the remains of later shrines, archaeologists have learned that certain symbols held great meaning for our ancestors. Meanders represent water and the sacred snake of life. Lozenges stand for fertility, while the triangle means the feminine and regeneration, just as the cave itself did. The crescent represents the lunar cycle and energy. A cupmark cut into a stone held water, symbolizing the sacred water that flowed from the Goddess of life. Footprints painted on cave walls refer to the healing force and guidance of the Goddess, while hands are symbols of Her divine powers against evil. Eyes, spirals, and coiled snakes represent the cosmic life force that is an endless source of energy. An X symbolizes death and regeneration, and is similar to both the butterfly and hourglass.
Archaeologists have found evidence of two types of shrine through every age: the permanent and the mobile. Two things become clear from the study of the religious practices of ancient cultures. The first type was originally a natural site, such as a special cave, grove of trees, hilltop, or power spot. What we would call the altar was usually a naturally formed rock that happened to be within the sacred place. Except for engravings on rocks or paintings on cave walls, the sacred place was not transformed in any way.
The second type of shrine indicates that these early people understood that any place could be made sacred by erecting a temporary altar. This simple portable altar, consisting of a Goddess statue, was of great value since Paleolithic clans seldom stayed in one place for very long. They needed a place to worship and to perform their sympathetic magick while they followed the migrating herds of wild game.
These two types of shrine persist even after people began to settle permanently in villages. It seems that although people gathered together in one place for special ceremonies, they liked the idea of having their own personal altars at home.
The elements of Earth, Water, and Fire were very important to the early migrating peoples. Their lives depended on fire for protection, warmth, and light; they considered that the earth provided their source of food; and they knew their existence depended upon a ready source of water. Much later, our ancestors added the element of Air to the list when they realized that this invisible substance was needed for breathing and that wind brought storms and rain. Spirit, the traditional fifth element, had always been important, for the elusive power of Spirit tied the living to the dead and held the promise of rebirth.
Today, we find the same symbolism in our modern places of worship. Some religions have a definite altar, while in others the altar has become only a raised platform for the minister and choir. Non-Christian religions often have special cabinets for their holy books. Sacred spaces are decorated with flowers, candles, and often pictures or statues of deities, saints, or gurus. Sometimes, holy water is kept by the door, and grape juice or wine is offered to the participants. Singing or chanting and prayer are usually part of the service.
But what do we do at home, in our private places? Statues of saints are common in Catholic households. A cross is a familiar symbol in other Christian homes. Non-Christian homes have statues or symbols of their deities, often surrounded by flowers, candles, and other symbolic offerings. These are consciously made altars, places we make sacred for our spiritual growth and comfort.
Those who do not attend any organized church or temple or do not profess any belief in any deities are still influenced by the collective unconscious mind to build altars. Subconsciously, they are drawn to build little informal altars of collections of items that appeal to them. With some thought and attention, these altars can add positive energy to our lives.
The Benefits of Building Altars
We need to realize that conscious intent in building an altar can create a positive, spiritual atmosphere that will improve our everyday lives. Altar building crosses all cultural lines and is not necessarily connected to any religion. Taking this action merely says that you wish to connect with the unlimited pool of cosmic energy that sustains the entire universe. This connection may be made to manifest certain desires in your life or simply to say “thank you” to a higher power for what you already have. An altar can be permanent, changeable, or temporary, according to your needs. The bottom line is that you should be building your altars with conscious intent and understanding of what you are doing.
Intentionally building an altar helps you to step outside yourself and whatever everyday troubles you may have. Using an altar helps you to elevate yourself in order to see your surroundings and conditions more clearly. It helps you to clarify what you want and why you want it. Although you may choose objects for your altar subconsciously, not completely understanding why you made the choice, the very act of creating an altar teaches you to listen to your subconscious mind and its messages. When you are centered, positive energy and happiness flow into your life. Isn’t that what we all truly desire?
How to Erect and Prepare an Altar
Joseph Campbell said that a sacred place is a place where wonder can be glimpsed. Building an altar (or altars) in your home can fill your life with wonder, for the presence of an altar makes any place sacred. Creating an altar opens you to the spiritual dimension, whatever path you choose to take. It allows you to express your personal glimpse of the divine in whatever way you imagine it. It helps you to integrate the sacred into your personal life, for altars are places of centering and rebalancing. It draws on subconscious thoughts, making you receptive to the sacred in life.
Building an altar requires four stages of preparation: thinking out and clarifying your reasons for doing so, planning the project, acknowledging the emotions behind this decision, and actually building the altar. These steps are no different from what we should be doing when we make every major decision in our lives. The whole experience is a process of discovering more about yourself, how you perceive things, and what symbols and objects mean to you.
Placing an Altar
What do you need to create an altar and make a sacred space? Really, not much. There is no need to run out and spend lots of money. Begin with what you have on hand. Most people are pack rats of a sort and tend to accumulate items they like. Look closely at your possessions. You will be surprised at what you find.
The first thing you will need is something on which to arrange the symbols and objects you choose for your altar. An altar space can be anything: a small shelf, a table, a covered box set in a corner, the top of a dresser, or one corner of the coffee table. The important thing is simply a flat surface, which does not need to be large or elaborate.
If you wish your altar to be private, arrange it in a place not readily visible to everyone, perhaps in your bedroom. If you wish to energize certain rooms of your home and do not care about your altars being seen, you can place them wherever you wish.
It is not unusual to find tiny altars in kitchens today. These may contain shiny copper molds, pictures of the family and pets, or perhaps a small statue of the Virgin Mary or the goddess Kuan Yin. At one time, the hearth and cooking area was the most important part of every house, for it was here that the precious fire was kept burning and the food for survival cooked. And it was here that one could find a small statue of the Goddess and perhaps a kitchen deity. The symbolism is the same as eight thousand years ago, when people placed Goddess statues in the grain bins so that the food supply would never run out and so that occupants of the house would prosper.
According to the Chinese art of placement, called feng shui, situating an altar so that it faces the main door will permit the ch’i, or energy, to freely enter the house. This may go back to the centuries-old thought that the threshold of a house should be protected, and that sacred objects set near the entrance build a demarcation between the outer public world and the inner private one.
Feng shui is thousands of years old and still used, with remarkable results. The energy forces said to be promoted by this art are believed to determine or change the outcome of health, prosperity, and luck. If you wish to place your altars according to feng shui, consider these suggestions. The Chinese say that rectangular and square shapes are very yang, or masculine, in nature and spin off energy, while circular shapes are yin, or feminine, and hold energy in balance. Both yin and yang objects should be used in the art of placement; wind chimes, mobiles, or small fountains will increase energy within the home.
The Chinese also carefully consider directions when placing altars. The south is connected with professional success, fortune, and fame, also with the color red and images of birds. The west is for creativity, joy, and children; the color white and an image of a tiger will increase energy in these aspects. East is associated with health and growth; use green and a dragon here. The north is connected with money, career, and business, as well as the color black.
For information on the use of colors, the elements, objects, symbols, and the directions, see page 13.