The Care and Use of an Altar

The Care and Use of an Altar January 4, 2013

Fellow OBOD Druid Dana Driscoll has a nice piece on her blog on the hows and whys of creating altars. It’s quite good and has some interesting pictures of her own altars. Go read Dana’s piece and then come back. I don’t want to duplicate what she’s already said – I want to continue the discussion and address the question of what we actually do with the altars we build.

An altar is a mystical center: a Maen Log, an Omphalos, a World Tree. If it’s not a living thing (and I don’t think it is, although I may be looking at the question too literally), then it’s at least a connection to other living things: the gods and goddesses, the ancestors, and the spirits of Nature. The longer you maintain it and the more you use it, the stronger those connections get. Spiritual practice is a storehouse – if you fill it during ordinary times, you can draw from it in times of need. If you ignore it, there won’t be much there when trouble comes.

An altar is a place for offerings. These can be offerings of food and drink, given in hospitality or in devotion. They can be offerings of incense or candles. They can be offerings of music and poetry. In ancient Greece, the altar was where an animal that had been sacrificed (“made sacred”) would be cooked prior to being distributed to the community to eat. There is value in pouring libations on the ground and leaving offerings for animals. There is also value in dedicating food and drink to the gods and goddesses before eating and drinking it ourselves, and in giving a “first performance” to our spiritual allies.

An altar is a place for prayer. If you have statues on your altar, this will come easily – one of the purposes of an idol is to give a deity a tangible form. Not because they need it, but because we do. The sacred images on the altar remind us of why we pray and what we should pray for. It is difficult for me to pray for trivial things when the Lord of the Animals is sitting right in front of me.

An altar is a place for meditation and contemplation. You put objects on your altar because they are meaningful to you. Sit or stand and gaze at them. Give them your full attention, not by hard concentration but by letting go of any thoughts not related to the images and what they represent. What do you see? What do you hear? Perhaps the gods are speaking to you. Perhaps it’s your higher or better self you’re hearing. What it is isn’t important. What’s important is that contemplation of the sacred – what’s sacred to you, not what someone else has told you is supposed to be sacred – will connect you to the Divine and to your True Will.

An altar should be tended. Perhaps you include seasonal items that are changed regularly. Perhaps you take it down every few months and give it a good cleaning. In her post, Dana talked about altars that evolve and grow as your practice evolves and grows. Don’t be afraid to take things off the altar. I have items on my bookshelves that were once on my altar – they’re no longer a focus of my practice, but they’re still meaningful enough that I want to keep them. There are other items that came off my altar and were returned to the elements. That doesn’t mean they weren’t important, just that their time had come and gone.

There are many ways to build an altar – choose what’s most meaningful to you. Then once you build it, use it.

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  • Wonderful post, John! I like how complimentary your post is with my own. You've covered excellent points about how to use an altar.

  • A good post about caring for altars–however, it touched on one very personal problem I've had. I recently lost my partner of 18 years, and all through his illness, i regularly tended my altar, doing my meditations, my daily devotions, and all of this was a great source of strength.

    But once he died, everything went with it. Sure, I'm grieving, but I assumed that by maintaining my practices, there would be something to draw from in the toughest of times. Honestly, that hasn't happened. I managed to "keep up appearances" for a few months, doing my daily prayers, etc., maintaining the altar–and then it all felt ridiculous, pointless. In truth, it wasn't helping at all. It was complete obligation.

    I'm very confused and upset by all this. Sure, sure, I know people will say you must continue even in darkest times and one day, all will be rainbows and light. But I look at my altar now, and it's useless. I would tend it, and nothing made any sense.

    My question is: With all the tending and devotion, what happened to this great store of spiritual strength from which I could draw in times of need? Perhaps this is a bit presumptuous on my part, to lay this all out on your thoughtful and well-meaning post–but I just feel it had to be said. Thanks for your understanding.

  • Riverwolf, I'm sorry for your loss.

    Grief affects us all in different ways. Sometimes it attacks our weaknesses, and sometimes it attacks our strengths, disconnecting us from our source of power and making the meaningful meaningless.

    Not knowing you, I can't make specific recommendations… not that anyone can at times like these. Do what you have to do to take care of yourself, don't worry about your altar, and return to it when the time is right.

    Blessings to you in this difficult time.

  • Thanks, John–that's pretty much what I'm doing, as it seems the best thing to do at this point is surrender to what is and see where it leads! I've found that resistance to these types of things (oddly, to quote the Borg from Star Trek) is futile.