I’ve noticed quite a few entries for Altar posted in the Pagan Blog Project, which are all very interesting. However I wanted to write my own take on altars and what they mean to me. At home I have two main altars, one inside and one outside in my garden. However I also erect small ones occasionally for different focuses. I was thinking recently about the original purpose of an altar. Wikipedia says that an altar is any structure upon which offerings or sacrifices are made (placed) for religious purposes. It’s funny how a lot of my searches for altar came up with Christian uses of altars or some rock band called Pagan Altar even. Further, shrines are typically different from altars as they are, or were, little cases in which icons or statues were placed of various gods, goddesses saints, ancestors that were venerated. They were part of the altar set up but not places where sacrifices or offerings were made.
What’s interesting to me is the idea of altars being places of offering or sacrifice. As a pagan (shamanic witch) the giving of offerings is important to me. It’s part of the reciprocal connection I have with the deities and spirits – ghosti (an Indo-European word from which comes our word host). So the main focus for my altars is the one on giving offerings. In fact the main reason for an altar is to give offerings to the spirits and deities with which I work. So how do I do this?
It all depends on the deity with whom I’m working. If it’s Brighid I offer milk, Cernunnos is offered oak bark which is burnt as a smoke offering, or olive oil. If I’m working with Modron I offer my own blood. I know that might seem nasty to some, and in some places is a taboo but it is done safely I assure you and she doesn’t require pints of it thank goodness. I will explain my use of a blood offering to Modron later on in this project. Suffice to say that what I offer is not decided upon by me but by my communication with the deities or spirits involved.
The offerings are placed upon my altar and left there for three days. Why the number three? Well, for me this number has high spiritual symbolism which stems from my Celtic tradition. The Celts, especially the Druids, loved the number three and we can still see its use in the Druidic importance of Earth, Sky and Sea. After the three days I place the offerings in a special receptacle in my garden. No, I do not leave things out for the birds or wildlife to eat (although I do feed my local wildlife).My thinking is this – if I give a present to someone I wouldn’t take it back and give it to someone else. The offerings I’ve made have been given to specific entities, therefore they belong to them. When the receptacle is full I seal and bury it.
But of course I decorate my altar, who wouldn’t! It seems it is a natural human thing to want to decorate one’s altar with symbolic and meaningful objects of ones beliefs and spiritual path. I also believe it’s part of the fun of ones path too, which is meant to be delightful as well as serious. Nonetheless I always try and remember that the main purpose of an altar is as a place of offering to the deities.