Altar (noun): an elevated surface upon which one displays meaningful objects.
Any surface can become an altar. Geddes and Cunningham, with beautiful, inspirational photos and text that's both instructive and poetic, show us how. For women, they say, an altar can become a sacred space upon which to place symbols of her true self. Whether indoors or out, permanent or fleeting, an altar helps you to quickly focus on the spirituality inherent in common things -- the flicker of a candle flame, the heady scent of freshly picked lilacs.
Part One of A Book of Women's Altars explains the cultural and historical background of the altar and why to create one. Making and using an altar literally clears a path for a woman through the clutter of her world. She creates a place where she is free to make her inner journey, where healing is abundant. Cunningham describes the process of selecting a theme, choosing a place, finding the right objects, and knowing when to change the altar.
Part Two focuses on what to do with altars on special occasions. The author and photographer have created and illustrated -- with photographs and stories -- sixteen special altars. There are altars for the seasons of the year and the seasons of our lives -- including loss, remembrance, celebration of new life, and many more. Each has its own purpose, story, and ritual.
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||7 MB|
About the Author
Nancy Cunningham is an accomplished poet, author of A Book of Women's Altars, and workshop leader in yoga, meditation and ritual for more than 30 years.
Denise Geddes is a professional photographer, whose work is featured in A Book of Women's Altars. She teaches photography in Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
a book of women's altars
how to create sacred spaces for art, worship, solace, celebration
By Nancy Brady Cunningham
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Nancy Brady Cunningham
All rights reserved.
balance between earth and sky: what is an altar?
In the most casual sense, an altar is a place where you arrange an assortment of special things:
a shelf of treasured family photos
a desk holding mementos from a summer holiday
a dresser top displaying a jewelry box collection
a mantel trimmed with seasonal decorations
a dressing table covered with perfume bottles
a hearth and its collection of tools: shovel, poker, bellows, broom
a bureau with a basket of brightly colored scarves arranged beside a framed drawing of a seascape.
Nothing on any of these altars is of great monetary worth, so why are these things valued? Because they are meaningful to the altar-maker. The objects radiate energy simply because they've been placed apart, arranged, and lifted up for all to see. Although their creators might not consider them altars, they do qualify as such by virtue of their creators' intent to bring together objects that recall people, places, and experiences that are special to them. However, not every collection of special things can be considered an altar. "Arrangement" is the key word here. If someone left an empty soda can among the mementos on your shelf and you didn't notice, chances are you have a cluttered shelf, not an altar.
An altar is a mixture of various energies. For example, an altar dedicated to the first stirrings of spring might include a bowl of fresh water. The water represents both the spirit of spring (inherent in the thawing of ponds and lakes) and the cleansing property of water (signifying the inner renewal that people often experience as this season arrives). In addition, a hyacinth might be placed on the altar in memory of a beloved grandmother who favored this spring bloom above all others. Artistic energy could be present in the form of a hand-crafted clay ladle glazed a beautiful spring green. These three items draw together different energies on the altar: the spiritual energy of spring's purifying waters, the emotional energy of love for a deceased grandmother, and the artistic energy of a potter.
An altar may be kept indoors or outdoors. Outdoor altars are particularly appropriate to honor nature because they can be thought of as a middle ground between earth and sky. A tree stump is a "found" outdoor altar since it is a raised surface you might come across anywhere. You place objects on it that speak of the beauty (wildflowers), or the regenerative power (molted snakeskin), or the permanence (stones), or the delicacy (robin's egg) of nature. If the tree stump is not on your property, leave the objects set up for other hikers to contemplate. If the tree stump is on your land, visit this natural altar every day, observing how the forces of sun, wind, and rain change it over time.
A flower garden is an outdoor altar, a piece of land set aside as a meeting place for the four elements: water (rain), fire (sun), earth (soil), and air (wind).
your essential self, your essential space: why make an altar?
Time spent making, embellishing, and dismantling an altar—as well as time spent meditating, musing, or simply sitting there—might be considered wasteful by worldly standards. Why? Because there's nothing to strive for, no goal to attain, no money to be made, no competition to win! As you enshrine that which is of value to you, you continuously strengthen your contact with the deeper self, and this connection generates a more authentic you—a vital, confident woman who approaches the world and its problems with courage and a fresh perspective. Your altar helps you balance yourself. It gives you energy and helps you decide which life path to follow. It becomes the place where you perform ceremonies to honor Mother Nature, your ancestors, your creativity, and even the mundane chores of your daily life. Your altar enhances your dreams.
An altar is a place you go to reclaim your woman's intuition. This place says to the busy, rational mind, "Quiet down—let the deeper, wiser woman within you speak!" Over time your view of yourself and your place in the world shifts.
The altar becomes a sacred space because you place symbols of your true self on it. As you sit before the altar, these symbols act as mirrors reflecting your deeper self. You see yourself differently while looking in the mirror, and, in time, you find the courage to be this authentic self more frequently in the world.
The peace you've invested in your altar now radiates back to you.
Both you and your altar give and receive energy. For example, if you've created an altar devoted to inner peace, you have spent time and thought gathering together objects which symbolize peace for you. As you put the altar together this collection of things creates an almost palpable sensation of calm. This tranquillity is separate and not dependent on your inner state; therefore, the simple act of sitting before the altar when you are feeling frazzled will quiet your agitated emotions. Why? Because the altar absorbed your peaceful vibes when you were in a less harried frame of mind.
There is an individual design for each person's life hidden within the unconscious or deeper mind. Keeping an altar is one way to tap into this unconscious wisdom and discover the personal blueprint for your life. The road most consistent with your true nature magically appears before you.
There are many reasons to keep an altar. You may wish to honor your ancestors. This can be as simple as keeping a photograph of your deceased grandmother on your altar, or it can encompass symbols or pictures representing your ethnic or cultural heritage. It might even include a variety of mythopoetic ancestors, such as goddesses or folk heroines. Imagine that you can trace your heritage back to the beginning of time— a world of possible ancestors unfolds before you. Honoring the elders is a vital concern in modern life, for all of us stand on many shoulders, yet today's youth-oriented society chooses to ignore this debt to those who went before us. Keeping an altar as a symbol of your homage is a potent way to connect with the wise ones of old.
A practical incentive for keeping an altar is its ability to provide a place for simple ceremonies. You may fear that an altar requires long meditations or elaborate rites to justify the effort put into creating it in the first place. This is definitively untrue. Once assembled the altar provides a setting for easy rituals such as lighting a candle while you practice a breathing meditation each morning, or arranging a bouquet of fragrant flowers and inhaling their calming aroma at bedtime. An altar helps you to quickly focus on the spirituality inherent in common things, such as the flicker of a candle flame or the heady scent of freshly picked lilacs.
Outdoor altars celebrate nature and offer you the healing power of the wild. A nature altar provides the privacy of the wilderness, the peace of a backyard garden, or the inspiration of the seashore. Spending a little time at an outdoor altar reminds you that you are not alienated from the rhythms of nature, for you are composed of earth (flesh), air (breath), water (blood), and fire (energy).
If you are a person in the arts, whether a dabbler or a professional, an altar dedicated to creativity will enhance your work. Place your altar in the room where you draw or paint or sculpt, or create an altar using your finished drawing, painting, or sculpture as the centerpiece. Use your altar as your writing table, or dance before your altar, or recite poetry to your altar, or play an instrument for your altar. Whatever your artistic passion, an altar dedicated to that which fires you creatively acts as a muse to continuously inspire you.
Acknowledge the special nature of your daily life with your altar. Whether you enjoy cooking, taking a bath, doing yoga, or gardening, include a symbol of the activity on your altar: a bowl of uncooked grain, a decorative glass bottle of bath oil, a picture of someone practicing yoga, fresh flowers from your garden.
The altar bridges the gap between a woman and her wisdom; between a woman and her inner world; between a woman and her path in life.
A dream altar helps you gather your dreams, look at them clearly, and learn from them. Sit at your altar each morning as you scribble in a dream journal. Draw a picture of the dominant image in one of your dreams. Then give the journal a place of honor on your altar. This will stimulate the deep mind to produce more vivid dreams. Use a dream pillow to enhance your dreams. A dream pillow is a small pillow filled with six herbs known to encourage dreams: mugwort, rose, lavender, hops, rosemary, and chamomile. Leave the pillow on or beside your altar during the day and tuck it under your bed pillow at night to bring good dreams and soothe away bad ones.
the realm of possibility: what kind of altar?
Which kind of altar will you make? Permanent or temporary? Seasonal or "change at whim"? Indoor or outdoor? We will discuss the question of theme in more detail in the next chapter, so for now let's focus on the different types of altars. The choices are many.
A permanent altar requires less care than a temporary one because once it's set up your only tasks are dusting it, washing the altar cloth occasionally, and replacing the candle stubs with fresh tapers. The downside of a permanent altar is its tendency to blend in with the wallpaper and therefore not call to you as strongly as an altar which is changed according to the calendar, season, or whenever the mood strikes.
Halfway between a permanent altar and a "change at whim" altar lies the temporary altar. Seasonal altars are common temporary altars and lend themselves to many creative possibilities. A lunar altar can be changed weekly to reflect the four stages of the moon's cycle (dark, waxing crescent, full, and waning crescent). Or, the lunar altar can be changed monthly at the full moon, the name of that particular moon revealing the theme—such as the Corn Moon of August or the Long Night Moon of December. Another path might be a solar altar which honors the eight Earth Holidays: Winter Solstice, Candlemas, Spring Equinox, May Day, the Summer Solstice, Lammas, Autumn Equinox, and Halloween.
On a different note, if you're an artist, writer, poet, or dancer, you may want to create a "change at whim" altar to your particular art. Change this altar several times over the course of your creative project:
the original altar calls upon your muse to inspire the project
the first change honors the beginning of the project
the next change helps sustain you as the project moves through periods of stagnation
the third change observes the process of completing the project
the last change celebrates the project's conclusion
Nature abounds with places to create seasonal outdoor altars. For example, planting a ring of crocus bulbs in the fall will create a spring altar. Another altar could be a flat rock in a secluded spot, which you decorate with flowers, dried herbs and grasses, or crystals and feathers. Within your backyard garden, make an altar of whichever patch of earth is currently in bloom. Whether a bush or flowering tree, flowerbed or rock garden—this patch becomes the central visual stimulus for your meditation each day. Most "found" altars are outdoor altars: the tree stump hollowed out to make a perfect niche for a bouquet of wildflowers, or a large rock overlooking the ocean that forms a perfect ledge, beckoning you to come, sit awhile and meditate on the sight, smell, and sound of the ocean.
As your altar practice progresses, you may keep a number of different altars simultaneously. Perhaps a seasonal garden altar outside, a permanent altar to your deceased grandmother in the master bedroom, and a temporary altar in your meditation room dedicated to the four elements and their complementary season: air for spring, fire for summer, water for fall, and earth for winter. If you add things to your altar over time, you may reach a point when it looks cluttered. At this point, consider starting fresh. If you no longer see your altar when you enter a room, it probably needs to be changed so it will grab your awareness again.
life themes: how to create a personal altar
In the previous chapter, we considered the different types of altars: permanent, seasonal, and "change at whim." We also discussed the difference between indoor and outdoor altars. In this chapter, we learn how to further develop our altars according to theme. If you are unsure where to begin, set aside some "quiet time" and contemplate any of the following thought-provoking questions:
"What am I thankful for?"
"What gives me peace?"
"What healing or blessing do I need?"
"What inspires me?"
"What is magical in my life?"
"What makes me feel special?"
"What in my life excites me, gets my juices flowing, makes me feel alive?"
Jot down your answers. The questions focus you on both the difficulties and the blessings in your life. The answers become the fertile soil from which spring the themes for your personal altars.
The summary section in the back of this book lists several possible themes for your altar. Part of that list includes:
Honor Mother Nature
Connect with the energy of wind, fire, earth, or water
Pay homage to a totem animal or a deceased pet
Gather healing energies for yourself or another
Prepare for a difficult task
Bring good luck
Connect with the muse of creativity
Gather your dreams
Pay homage to the holiness of daily life
Any of these—or one of your own—is a perfect altar theme.
If you are a meditation teacher you may want to create an altar for each class. You might ask the other meditators to bring something different each week to symbolize whatever they wish to meditate on. During the class the altar is the visual focal point. At the end of class the altar is dismantled and people bring new objects the following week, so over time the altar represents the changing needs and concerns of the group.
Emotions such as joy, sorrow, anger, pain, love, and loss can be the focus of an altar. During the first year of mourning following the death of a loved one, you may integrate a snapshot of the deceased into the various altars you create. This inclusion helps you see the changes in the mourning process over the course of the year. Or you may focus on the joy of a new grandchild with pictures of her changing looks chronicling her first year on Earth.
Sometimes the theme for your altar will come to you in an unexpected way. For example, you come across a blue jay's feather in your back yard. You instinctively pick it up and turn it over in your hand. The feather begins a flow of thought. The color reminds you of a startling blue place mat tucked away in the linen drawer. You remember a gorgeous picture of a bird in flight from a nature magazine. The bird was photographed against a dawn sky just before sunrise. You become aware that yellow candles will mimic the sun's glow and accent the yellows in the picture. Before you realize it, you've found the theme, the colors, the centerpiece—all inspired by a blue jay's feather, which you now lay in a place of honor in the center of your altar.
Once you choose the intention for your altar, select a place where you can set it up. Remember, an altar can be created anywhere, outdoors or indoors. Any location that makes you feel special, peaceful, powerful, or appreciative is the perfect spot for an altar. Once you make a place special through the creation of an altar, you begin to respond to that place with a certain reverence. The altar absorbs and retains some of this reverential energy and so, over time, you become aware of the interplay of energy between you, the altar-maker, and your creation, the altar.
You have a theme and you've chosen a place. The question is now, "What do you place on your altar?" The answer is, "Anything you please!" When choosing objects for your altar, select those that revolve around your theme.
If you find inspiration in nature, consider which of the four elements you feel the most affinity toward and dedicate your altar to that element. Choose flags, fans, or bird feathers to represent air, and bowls of spring water, seashells, or essence oils to symbolize water. Gems, stones, crystals, potting soil, plants, and flowers for earth; candles, incense, pictures of flames or drawings of the sun for fire. Any or all of the four elements can be represented on your nature altar, whether it be indoors or out. If you wish to represent all four elements on your indoor nature altar, you might include a candle for fire, a paper fan for air, flowers for earth, and a bowl of water.
Excerpted from a book of women's altars by Nancy Brady Cunningham. Copyright © 2002 Nancy Brady Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
introduction: a woman's place
1 balance between earth and sky: what is an altar?
2 your essential self, your essential space: why make an altar?
3 the realm of possibility: what kind of altar?
4 life themes: how to create a personal altar
5 spiritual journey: what to do at your altar
6 seasonal offerings: winter, spring, summer, and autumn altars
7 soul purpose: special intention altars
8 ceremony and tradition: special occasion altars
9 inspirational inventory: a summary
10 a scrapbook: my altars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A Book of Women's AltarsHow To Create Sacred Spaces For Art, Worship, Solace, and Celebrationby Nancy Brady Cunningham and Denise GeddesThis delightful and spiritual book is what happens when two dedicated and enlightened women get together to share with us what they love most. The photographs are absolutely breath taking and I especially loved the ones of the different altars because it helps to illustrate how creativity and spirituality many times go hand in hand. I thoroughly enjoyed the way the information was broken down into sections so I could learn about why we have altars, and how to make them. There is so much wisdom and knowledge in these pages, and it gave me the warm fuzzies all over as I connected and understood the beauty that this testimony to spiritual growth and development really is all about. I would recommend this book to those who are seeking unique ways to express themselves both spiritually and creatively. Well done, Ladies.Love & Light,Riki Frahmann