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Monday, December 24, 2012

Modern Altars

It seems that most modern pagans have or use altars of some type. Sometimes permanent, sometimes transitory, the altar is often the focal point of worship, a place we can connect to our Gods in an active way. A place to go when we need something to focus on, and a place that can act as a base for ritual. This idea is certainly not unique to neopagans, one look at the ancient temples of Greece, Rome, or Egypt show us that altars go hand in hand with some religions. Of course from a Heathen or Druidic perspective the evidence is a little harder to find, mostly due to the difficulty in interpreting archaeological sites. In modern Heathenry and Druidism, however, altars are regularly used and may be simple or elaborate. Some traditions have very specific and detailed altar layouts for followers to use, while others can take a more freeform or organic appraoch to altars; in either case though the altar should be functional and serve the purpose of creating a place of connection.
    I am lucky enough to have several permanent altars in my home, including one that is dedicated entirely for honoring several healing Goddesses; this altar is where I go when doing any healing magic or when praying for healing. I have decided to share my own altars here and hope that others find it useful to see examples of how one person sets up and uses altars in a modern context.
Healing altar dedicated to Brighid, Airmed, and Eir
   Exactly what is on a modern altar and how the altar is used can vary widely, but as mentioned previously, generally each tradition or faith will have guidelines or expectations for the set-up of an altar. Most altars that I have seen will include sacred images, candles, and a place or bowl for offerings, but some may also include a variety of objects and tools. My own altars tend to get very elaborate as I try to include a variety of things that are important to me, but I have seen some that are as simple as a candle and incense burner.
    My Druidic altar is probably the most complex of all the altars I have. It includes images of several of the deities I honor, including the three Morrigan, Nuada, and the Matronas. I also include my ancestors and the daoine sidhe, symbols of sea, earth, and sky, my many wands, a ritual blade, mortar and pestles, and a cauldron. Additionally I decorate each altar for the holiday I am celebrating; for example in the picture of my Samhain altar you will see Jack o'Lantern tea light holders. To represent sea, earth, and sky I have three small cauldrons: one holds shells I have collected at the beach, one holds sacred earth from various locations, and the third is used to burn incense in. The fourth and largest cauldron on my altar usually holds a triple wicked candle, but is also used to burn ritual offerings in. I am very fond of using wands and I have more than half a dozen in different woods and styles; I also have two bronze rituals blades that are used for several purposes including in healing work and for collecting herbs. The mortar and pestles are used for making incense, for the most part. Since we have few details on what, exactly, a Druid's altar in antiquity would have looked like I have given myself a lot of creative liberty in designing my own - the biggest and most obvious difference from what we do know historically is that my altar is inside, not outside in a grove of trees or other sacred place. I do have an outdoor altar, but it is a very simple stone altar, used for outdoor rituals or offerings.

A Druid's altar set for Samhain


Druidic altar
In contrast my Kindred's altar, which takes a more Heathen approach is fairly simple. We have a shelf for images of the Gods we honor most often: Artio, Njord, Freya, Odin, the Norns, Frigga, Thor, and Freyr. The shelf itself has been decorated with Pennsylvania Dutch style Hex signs and runes. On the actual altar there is a drinking horn and cup, an offering bowl, incense burner, smaller offering bowl for food offerings, rune set, and symbolic Mjolnir. 

Heathen altar
In addition to these large altars I have smaller ones, which I call shrines, for specific deities. These generally consist of an image of the deity of the shrine, votive objects, incense burner, and candles. I use these sites to make small offerings, such as incense or candles, to that specific deity. Sometimes I will use these places to pray to or meditate on that deity as well.
Altar to Odin
Finally I have altars dedicated to my ancestors and to the daoine sidhe. These serve the same purpose as the other altars but are very specifically focused. I find that they are excellent for connecting to non-divine Powers and go to them no less often as the others.
ancestor altar



an altar honoring the daoine sidhe

2 comments:

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  2. The only Gods for all creatures of the Earth are the Earth Herself and the Heart churning within the deepest centre of Her being. That Heart, the Core, is Her unborn Child. Her Child, the Core, is sacred. The word 'Children' derives from the word 'Cauldron' and the Earth's Holy Child is contained deep inside the Earth, down, down, deep within Her 'Cauldron'. The letters of the word 'Earth' also form the word 'Heart'. The word 'Amen' forms the word 'Name' and is an indicator that our prayers and incantations should be closed with a 'Name'. So, Morgan, dedicate your altars to the Earth Mother and to Her unborn Child: the Hidden Core. And at the end of your prayers and chants, instead of saying 'so be it' or 'AMEN' invoke Her Sacred (Secret) Name, or just say 'Mother'. From Shiyloh, whose bones are as old as rocks.

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