The Altar of Curiosities, Part II

The Altar of Curiosities, Part II June 10, 2014

In my last post, I introduced the Altar of Curiosities through one particular manifestation thereof, the place altar. My own place altar includes small items taken from or otherwise representative of a number of locations I’ve been to that I have a particularly strong connection to, what I consider to be “personal power spots”. It not only maps out a microcosm of these places, but also serves as a physical link to them when I can’t visit them in person.

A natural history-themed cabinet of curiosities.
The place altar is a good example of an Altar of Curiosities as it combines elements of the two parent concepts. As a cabinet of curiosities, it brings together a deliberately themed collection of specimens and puts them in a pleasing display, open for examination and education. It represents the natural history of the places the specimens are drawn from–their geology in the case of stones, their inhabitants in the case of fauna, flora or fungus specimens, and so forth.

But it also functions as a spiritual altar. These items are not just souvenirs, but connections to places I consider sacred. They are vessels for that sanctity in and of themselves, and the altar additionally provides a place to meditate upon them, to work rituals for and with them in my own home, and to make offerings to them.

And that sums up the basic concept of an Altar of Curiosities: a collection of natural or otherwise noteworthy items that are valued both for their intrinsic qualities as specimens, and whatever spiritual qualities their curator ascribes to them. The altar as a whole is a microcosmic representation of the world or a portion thereof, with additional personal meaning. It may be a permanent fixture, or temporarily assembled, though the former is more true to the spirit of the original cabinets.

This is a fairly specific definition for a reason; not every altar has the curiosity element to it, and not every cabinet of curiosities has an intentional spiritual angle. An altar that is primarily meant to store a set of Wiccan ritual tools like the athame, chalice, etc. simply because that is what is traditionally required is not an Altar of Curiosities; the items are not curated based on the origins of their materials, or the artists who created them, for example, but only because they are what’s expected of the practitioner’s path.

However, let’s say that each of the tools is made with a local material that represents the tool’s element–the pentacle is carved from local stone, the handle of the athame is made from a native evergreen tree that secretes a great deal of pitch (a natural fire starter), and so forth. If the tools are displayed to show off those natural characteristics instead of just as the Wiccan altar rank-and-file, then the altar could be considered an Altar of Curiosities.

This beautiful altar contains an array of items that could be appreciated on their own merit as well as spiritual meaning.
Conversely, imagine an art-based* cabinet of curiosities that consists of statues of deities from around the world. It might be a very impressive collection, full of carefully hand-carved works in a variety of media, representing dozens, if not hundreds, of cultures worldwide. If the curator only sees them as lovely pieces of art and perhaps valuable rarities, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a proper altar. However, if the curator ascribes spiritual value to them, either by honoring the deities they represent, or at least the qualities the deities are thought to embody, then we’re getting warmer. And of course if the person deliberately uses the statues and their cabinet for spiritual rites, offerings, and other such practices, then it is an altar in deed as well as in name.

These are just a couple of examples, though, and the Altar of Curiosities is not bound by strict holy writ. The basic rule of thumb is that it is curated and appreciated both for its form (natural history, the story behind each piece, how the various pieces in the collection are related to each other) and function (particularly spiritual function, whether representing concepts sacred to the curator, or involving more active practice).

In the third installment of this series, I’ll offer up some tips on how to create and work with your own Altar of Curiosities.

* Many people often only consider cabinets of curiosities to contain natural history specimens, particularly oddities like two-headed sheep and rare orchids. However, the classic cabinet could contain specimens from biology, geology, and other natural sciences, as well as religious relics, archaeological findings, fine art, and more. The early cabinets were meant to house items that had not yet been carefully examined or categorized by the newly budding Renaissance sciences and other studies, though these days we have a lot fewer mysteries on our hands, and so we may know more about our collections more easily than our predecessors.

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