ALTAR The term derives from the Latin altare, meaning “a high place”
(high altitudes were a preferred location for the earliest altars).
In its most general sense, an altar is a space dedicated to the veneration of someone or something. The very first altars were spiritual, but in the modern secular world, altars are also constructed to honor pop or sports stars (whether consciously intended as altars or not). Describing a teenager’s room as a shrine to a pop idol accurately describes the finished effect.
Altars may be dedicated to any spirit or simply a personal place for your magickal tools and focus.
The concept transcends religious and spiritual boundaries. Altars may be public or private, personal or part of an organized religious institution. Churches, cathedrals, and temples of many faiths often contain individual altars dedicated to specific saints or spirits. Although some spirits are closely identified with specific sites and/or shrines, most are subjects of home altars, too.
Altars are tableaux or arrangements of specific articles. Everything involved in the creation of an altar is carefully chosen. Nothing on an altar is random. Altars may be color-coordinated to suit a spirit or intention. Candles, incense, fragrance, flowers, gifts, food, and drink are offered to a spirit on an altar, in the process becoming part of the altar.
An altar may serve as an individual’s tribute to one or more spirits or operate as the equivalent of a visual journal or log of an individual’s spiritual path.
Spirits, their images, and/or power objects are added, moved, and removed as inspired. The word shrine is sometimes used synonymously with altar. It may also indicate a building or edifice that may or may not contain altars. Although it is common to include images of spirits on altars, this is unnecessary. Those who object to graven images may create altars with only candles, flowers, or neutral objects.
An altar reflects the spirit it venerates and the needs of the devotee. Altars come in many styles and sizes. The simplest Spiritualist altars consist of a candle and a glass of water, considered the basic components of spirit summoning, while lavish, complex Vodoun altars are entire rooms filled with lovingly, meticulously arranged treasures. Tiny miniature altars are contained in matchboxes, shadowboxes, or cigar boxes.
Altars may be permanent or temporary. Some rituals or magic spells involve creating a temporary altar. Those making specific but presumably one-time requests of a spirit may wish to set up such a temporary altar: a tableau that exists only for the duration of the ritual or spell or until the request has been fulfilled. Permanent altars keep the presence and image of the spirit close.
Altars create a focal point of veneration, potential thresholds or portals to Spirit Land. An altar serves as a point of two-way communication between spirit and devotee, a meeting place. Information on customizing altars for specific spirits is found in their individual entries. Where there is no specified information, let the spirit inspire you.
The following people may prefer permanent tableaux:
- Those who have developed close working relationships with spirits
- Those seeking to develop such a relationship
- Those who simply adore a spirit
Constructing permanent home altars for some spirits is discouraged, especially those spirits intimately associated with illness. Disease spirits transmit and remove illness. Appeals are typically directed toward them when healing is desired. Once that is achieved, it is usually considered best not to maintain the spirit’s interest for longer than necessary. You don’t want them to feel too comfortable in your home.
Altars have a tendency to take on a life of their own. They are not static, but evolve over time with items continually added and (less frequently) removed. A person may maintain one altar for one spirit, or one altar may honor many spirits. Several distinct altars may be simultaneously maintained for different spirits, one spirit per altar. It all depends on the spirits in question and your own spiritual path and needs. Many, although not all, spirits are gregarious: willing and happy to share space with each other. Exceptions are noted in entries for individual spirits, but a good rule of thumb is that if bitter conflict between two spirits is an integral part of their mythology, it may be best to keep some space between them.
What is the purpose of an altar?
- Altars summon spiritual assistance. The components of the altar serve as signals to spirits that their presence is desired. These components traditionally share in the essence of that spirit or consist of items that are sacred to the spirit or evocative of its presence. The arrangement attracts the spirit’s notice, beckons, and welcomes them.
- Altars enable communication with spirits. Essentially, they improve reception. Many people choose to speak with a spirit at its altar or while tending the altar. (However, this is not necessary. You may speak with spirits whenever and wherever you please.)
- Altars serve as a forum for communication. By adjusting the items upon your altar, you can demonstrate your needs using symbolic language. For example, let’s say that a permanent altar is maintained for the Yoruba goddess Oshun, a particularly versatile, powerful, generous, and gregarious spirit. Different-colored candles may be lit so that you can signal your needs and desires. Oshun’s personal colors are gold, yellow, and orange. Candles in those colors are burned to honor her. In addition, you might also burn a blue candle for physical healing or emotional relief or a green one if your immediate crisis is cash. (See the Glossary entry for Colors for a list of color associations.)
- Altars serve as a focal point. You don’t truly need an altar. You don’t really need anything. Whatever communication transpires between people and spirits actually occurs on the mental or spiritual plane. Working with spirits has traditionally been the province of the poor and can be accomplished at absolutely no expense if necessary. A cry from the heart suffices. All the paraphernalia, fragrances, incense, candles, statues, and things are merely vehicles, signals, or tributes. All that you truly need is your ability to concentrate and create a mental connection with the spiritual entity. Once you’re experienced, you’ll recognize when the connection has been made; it’s as if a switch has been turned on or a phone line is suddenly open. This can be done via visualization, dreams, or pure focused thought. However, as simple as that sounds, the reality is that for many people this process can be extremely challenging, especially in the beginning. The altar creates a focal point for one’s attention, making it easier to focus upon the spirit and intensify concentration.
- Altars create a comfortable home for the spirit, a preferred rest stop on their journeys, so to speak. If they’re happy, they’ll linger, potentially offering assistance without being asked, often identifying your needs before you do.
- Altars serve as tribute and thanks for favors and wisdom granted.
- Altars are used to create amulets, healing oil, and Holy Water. Leave objects; oil or water on the altar overnight or for a specified length of time so that the spirit’s aura permeates the medium.
There are home altars and public altars. Altars may be maintained inside or outside. A carefully arranged garden embellished with stones, statues, fountains or specially chosen objects serves as an altar for nature spirits.
Place altars wherever the spirit is likely to be happy. Water spirits enjoy the bathroom, fire spirits the hearth. Spirits of romance like to be in the bedroom. The most primeval altars and shrines were once arranged in caves, as, for example, cave-bear shrines. Niches built into walls reproduce the concept of the cave. Most modern altars are placed on tables, shelves, or some other flat surface. They may be placed in boxes or cabinets. Altars in automobiles are placed on dashboards. Altars may be maintained openly for all to see or kept private. In some cases, this is the preference of the spirit: while altars for Ogun, spirit of iron, may also be maintained on tabletops or shelves, his traditional cauldron containing iron tools is usually kept discreetly in a cabinet. In general, however, where to put an altar and how visible to make it is entirely up to you.
Different forms of altars exist.
Here are some examples:
- The Latin American nicho is literally a niche. It may be built into a wall but is more usually a simulation of such a niche hung onto the wall. A nicho contains an image of a sacred being and may be decorated with flowers, supplementary images, objects, and/or written prayers. The simplest nichos are plain wooden boxes or tin frames. Elaborate nichos already containing images are available for purchase, as are empty nichos waiting to be filled and embellished. Nichos may be open for continuous view or have doors protecting the privacy of the spirit within.
- The kamidana (usually translated into English as “god shelf”) is a small Shinto shrine intended to house a spirit or deity. (The Japanese Buddhist term for kamidana is zushi.) Some are very simple shelves (with or without doors), while others are constructed to resemble miniature shrines, sometimes reproductions of famous Shinto shrines. Kamidana may also contain scrolls, sacred tablets, or objects associated with the spirit it is intended to honor. Kamidana are sold empty, so that devotees may use them to construct their own personal altars. Kamidana are hung on the wall or placed on a tabletop.
- Espiritismo altars are based on the teachings of the highly influential French Spiritist Allan Kardec. The basis of the altar is a table covered with a white cloth. In Spanish, this is known as a mesa blanca, literally a “white table.” Sometimes this type of altaris just called a mesa (“table”) because the inclusion of the white cloth is so implicit it no longer requires stating. This style of altar has become very popular; English speakers use the Spanish terms, as well. (Spiritism/Espiritismo became so popular in Latin America that, even though Kardec was French, Spanish is its lingua franca.) The classic Espiritismo altar serves more than one spirit. Each is offered its own distinct vessel of water (open to the air, not sealed). The altar may then be embellished with dolls, statues, flowers, incense, candles, and/or various offerings (food, beverages, cigarettes, cigars), sacred texts, photographs, and objects.
The longer a practitioner maintains an altar, the larger and more elaborate it may become.
Objects tend to accumulate, and so extra space may be required. Shelves may be added over the table; floor space beneath the table may be utilized, too. Sometimes this is simply because of the need for expanded space, but sometimes it reflects the nature of spirits honored by the mesa:
- Earthbound spirits and anything to do with them are placed on the table.
- Celestial spirits, such as angels, are celebrated on shelves above the table.
- Chthonic (subterranean; normally living beneath the ground) spirits are maintained on the floor below the table.
Some altars proclaim their spiritual affinities: stick a large traditional statue of Guadalupe in the center, and everyone will recognize it as an altar. Other altars are subtle, only recognized by those with trained eyes.
Altars may be traditional or creative.
Some sacredness will eventually attach to all components of an altar, and many feel that once something has been included on an altar, it should then be reserved for sacred purposes. Some spirits are possessive and resent the loss of anything perceived as theirs. It is always best to communicate very clearly with spirits. Many spirits will allow you to borrow an item or to use their altar as the equivalent of a sacred battery charger, if you let them know.
If you are placing something on the altar that is yours and that you intend to remove later, state that to the spirit explicitly. Ask for permission. How will you receive it? Through divination. A simple method involves a coin toss. Keep a coin on the altar to be used as a conduit to the spirits. Ask whether permission is granted (or any other yes or no question), then flip. The coin will become part of the altar and serve as the spirit’s oracle. It is best to use a distinctive coin to lessen the risk of it being casually pocketed or treated as any other common coin. Ancient or valuable coins may be used but are not necessary. A Kennedy half dollar works well. Many coins display images of spirits, and so these may be coordinated. Coins aren’t necessary: any small flat double-sided disc may be used, including religious medals, casino chips, or Zar medallions. Alternatively, substitute any divinatory system that suits you.