In contemporary times, building altars--personal places of prayer, ritual, and meditation--is one way to acknowledge the sacredness of all the space we inhabit. By acknowledging that something greater than ourselves exists, we create an environment where a sense of the sacred can be realized in the details of our everday lives and in ourselves. Altars don't "make" space sacred; they work by showing us what has been there all along. They release energy within us and around us, that we simply may not have been aware of. As part of the creative process, they help us refocus our spiritual eyesight. Altars can be visual clues when you are caught up in daily life. They can center you and bring you back.
An altar can be as simple or elaborate as the creator wishes. In the hands of the wealthy, or of Kings and Queens in days gone by, altars were made of the most precious of woods--cedar and ebony, among them--and adorned with gold or silver, precious gems, and the finest of fabrics. In the hands of the humble, altars have been no less effective in enriching spiritual life when made of scraps of wood and simple bits of woven cloth and gifted with small offering of fruits and meadow flowers.
What differentiates an altar from a simple grouping of objects on a table or mantlepiece is intention. What may begin as a collection of loved and meaningful objects or momentos ends up being something quite different when a person taps into what the objects mean to him or her, and what they articulate. Even without being aware of it, you may find that you've organized things in your home not just by how they look, but also by what they mean to you. Take a moment to think about it, and you will probably realize that certain objects or plces in your home make you feel more comfortable or energetic, or more in touch with yourself than others. Building an altar is the next step to awareness.
Creating altars will permit you to articulate feelings and thoughts in a physical way, bringing those feeling and thoughts into full consciousness. Yet, as a creative process, altar building draws on unconscious thoughts and associations as well, bringing thoughts and feeling we may not have been fully aware of into the open. Building an altar allows us to tap into what's really inside and shows it to us in a physical way. And what we choose not to put on our altars informs us as much as what we do place on them.
The very act of creating sacred space makes us spiritually receptive to the sacred, as well as giving us a physical place to pray or meditate or perform rituals. Creating an altar gives you a place to find what connects your heart to the larger heart.
When men and women talk about their altars, many words come up in their descriptions. Some refer to the process of seeking the self: energy, direction, meaning. Still others address state of mind: peacefulness, calm, strength. Usually, there are words that connect to finding the sacred in daily life, focusing on something larger than the selfand the day to day: prayer, meditation, communication. The altar is not like decorating; it is a search for meaning or a process of discovering what has meaning for you.
Many people build altars and choose their placement in the home to energize that space for a particular purpose. Many people build specific altars to help them focus and clarify their thoughts and intentions, to gather up and strengthen their spiritual energies. Everything about an altar is ultimately personal. Though there are philosophies and systems of thought for guidance, or traditional symbols, there are no really hard and fast rules of altar creation. And the inspiration to build an altar may arise out of many different circumstances. Shrines and altars are not churches, temples or ashrams, for the latter are places of refuge set apart from the pressures, pains, and pleasures of daily life. Domestic altars are deliberately set into the every day, as a way of imbuing the ordinary with the sacred.
Available space as well as convenience may be the primary factors that determine where you decide to place your altar or shrine; many people simply choose the room or area in their home they spend the most time in. Some people believe it should be visable from the bed, a safe haven of thought and quiet for many people. Others believe an altar should be placed wherever the energy is needed. No room should be considered inappropriate for sacred space. Some people even have sacred space in their kitchens, a place believed since long ago to be the center of the home.
How to orient your altar is a matter of personal choice. Perhaps the simplest way is by using the four directions or cardinal points. Many people like that approach, simply because it links interior sacred space to the natural world outside, as well as to the sun, the moon, and the stars. Different cultures associate different qualities with the four directions--but many people also choose to ascribe personal meanings to them. These are no less true and useful.
Generally, the North is often considered the realm of thought, of coolness and clarity, while the South is the area of passion, growth, heat, and light. The East is the place of the rising sun, and therefore the area of possibility and promise, often associated with enlightenment, wisdom, and the contemplative life. The West is the area of the setting sun, of quiet and resolution, of activity and materialism, and of old age. In some cultures, the axis from North to South represents potential, and the East to West is the axis of manifestation.
Another popular system which can be utilized to create sacred space is feng shui. The following are some of the different approaches that offer possibilities for maximizing the energy potential of your sacred space:
Shapes: Linear shapes--rectangles and aquares--are yang in nature and thus spin off energy. They should be balanced by circular, or yin shapes--in the form of objects or furniture--to keep the space in balance.
Doors and windows: Where you enter your home is important to the energy of the whole house, as well as your altar. The chi, or energy, should be able to flow into the house as a whole; if the entrance is cramped, use mirrors to reflect the chi back through the house. Mirrors should also be used to retract all the available light from the windows to increase energy. Feng shui also holds that objects that protrude into space--columns, pillars, or exposed beams for example--obstruct energy and that their negative effect on the flow of chi should be countered by wrapping the obstruction in cloth or by using mirrors to reflect the chi into another path and so through the dwelling.
Living things: Plants and potted flowers increase the energy in space, as do aquariums and terraria.
Moving objects: Wind chimes, mobiles, and running water, as in a small fountain, increase the energy in domestic space.
Directions The placement of elements within your home, including your shrine or altar, has significance in feng shui. In a grid called the bagua drawn from the I Ching, the four cardinal points--South, West, North, and East--are related to four of the five elements, with the fifth element, Earth, at the center. Both the cardinal points and the elements can be used to maximize the energy of an altar.
South, or Illumination: The most important and auspicious of the cardinal points, South is associated with professional success, fortune, and fame, as well as with the warmth of the sun and fecundity of summer. The element of fire is associated with the Soth, as is heat; the color red, the color of celebration in Chinese philosophy, is South as well. Facing your altar South and incorporating red objects is thought to increase the energy for attaining personal success. Birds are associated with this area.
West, or Creativity: The direction connected to autumn. West has a sphere of influence that includes joy and children. Metals are associated with the West, as well as the color white, which in other contexts is considered an unlucky color. The white tiger is an animal associated with the West.
North, or the Journey or Career Path: The opposite of South, North is a complicated direction. On the one hand, North governs many of life's negatives, such as death and calamity; on the other, its element is water, and its animal is the tortoise, symbol of long life. Because the flow of water represents money in feng shui, the North is associated with business and career.
East, or Elders: Harmony and involvement in family life is the Sphere of the East, as are health and well-being. Spring is its season, and the color green, symbolic of growth, is part of the Eadt's domain. Wood is its element: the dragon, symbol of power and growth, is its animal. Use something green on your altar to maximize the possibilities of renewal in your personal and family life.
Midpoints between the cardinal points are also significant, depending on your spiritual needs: altars that address specific issues in your life might be oriented according to these areas.
Southwest, or Relationships: Southest governs all partnerships, including marriage, motherhood, and sibling relationships. Its color is yellow.
Southeast, or Fortunate Blessings: Southeast is the domain of wealth and fortune; its color is purple.
Northeast, or Contemplation: Northeast is the area of intelligence, knowledge, and learning. Its color is blue.
Northwest, or Helpful Friends: Northwest is the domain of fatherhood and guardian spirits. This is considered an auspicious direction for those in need of spiritual support and sustenance and is, according to Denise Linn, a good place to put an altar. It is also the direction pertaining to travel.
The ideas of balance and harmony are essential to feng shui. The five elements: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal--also need to be connected in a creative rather than a destructive cycle of energy.
The cardinal points--North, South, East, and West--along with the Sky (up) and the Earth (down) are also linked to the Native American medicine wheel, another possible guide to placing and orienting your altar. The medicine wheel began as part of outdoor rites; its earliest form was probably a simple circle of stones set into the earth representing the Wheel of Life that sits below Father Sky and on Mother Earth. Most important is to understand that , in all Native American thought, the medicine wheel assumes that there no distinction between the sacred and the profane: the universe is animated by supernatural principles that are interconnected and in harmony. The role of ritual is to bring the individual or tribe into harmony with the Wheel of Life, which is larger and contains within it all living beings. Different tribes associate different totemic animals and birds with the directions, as well as colors, gemstones, vegetation, and gods and tutelary objects.
In the tradition of the Medicine Wheel, the four directions can be understood as follows:
East: The direction of the dawn. East is also the place of enlightenment and new knowledge; an altar facing East will draw on burgeoning power. It is also the direction of Spring and growth, birth and childhood. Its color is yellow, its stone amber, and its animal the golden eagle.
West: The place of the setting sun and the moment between day and night. West is the direction of contemplation. Associated with the autumn, which lies between summer and winter, West is the place both of harvest and of letting go. It is the direction we face when we are ready to begin the journey into self-discovery. Its colors are the deepest of browns and black, and its stone is obsidian. Its totemic animal is sometimes the bear or the raven.
South: The place of the sun high in the sky and the lush growth of summer. South indicates activity and productivity. It is an empowering direction to maximize the energy you need to follow an already chosen path. Its colors are red and sometimes green. Its animal is the coyote.
North: The crystal clarity of the winter sky is the North's. It is the direction of internalization and quiet, the place where we burrow deep beneath the frozen ground of the self and come back up with true self-knowledge and wisdom. It is the balancing direction to the hot energy and activity of the South. Its stone is the crystal and animal the white owl. Face your altar north to begin a journey of self-discovery and give it time to take shape.
Altars for Special Purposes
Altars can be built to celebrate or mark turning points in one's life , to help heal grief or pain, or simply to focus energy on a specific part of your life that needs attention.
In the workplace: Decide beforehand whether you will want to answer questions about your altar from your colleagues, or whether you want it to blend into your workplace surroundings. Begin by looking at the area which you work--where do you sit? What direction do you face? What do you look at? Does the place promote or inhibit productivity? Treat the place as if it matters to you--neaten it, file or throw out papers you don't need. Then, choose the place for your sacred space based on your needs. You may want to pick a spot where you can rest your eyes and your spirit during the work day. If you work in an office with a window, using your window as an altar is a nice option. You can build an altar to energize the space you spend over 40 hours a week in. The simple addition of a few fresh flowers , particularly scented ones, will automatically raise your spirits and energy, and provide a focal point for a moment of quiet during the bustle of the day. Natural objects--a shell or a small crystal--can act as vsual reminders of the natural world outside the ebb and flow of all things, including the occasional work-related crisis. Sacred imagery--a statue of Athena, for example, for invention or an image of a wolf for leadership--can be used to help you maximize your strengths; equally, other images--a Kuan Yin for compassion or a snake for energy and transformation--can keep you focused on qualities you strive to incorporate into your working day. If your job requires that you work closely with other people, try building an altar that supports partnership, choosing pairs of objects or a symbol--such as a knot--signifying interdependence , along with images of fruition. If your working space, like so many, has been designed with sterile colors, try working with color on your altar to change the energy level; choose brightly colored objects for high energy, softly colored ones for a calming effect.
Any object with personal resonance is a powerful visual reminder that our lives are filled with many gifts. Try choosing things that remind you of the fullness of life. Objects that can be handled--a string of beads, the round smoothness of a rock or mineral, the soft fragility of a feather--are a way of bolstering yourself with the power of touch. Scent also has the ability to evoke feelings and thoughts--fill a small bowl of potpourri.
Carving out a bit of sacred space in the office--no matter how small or unobtrusive--is an important reminder that the various dualisms our society encourages us to believe in--the separation of the sacred and profane, the intellect and the spirit, the mind and body, the professional and the personal--are really not helpful if we intend to live productive, fulfilled, and spiritually rewarding lives. By creating sacred space where we work, we signify our presence there and our intention to use the time we spend at work as fruitfully as possible.
A portable or traveling altar can be simplicity itself--a printed image or a small-scale statue, a few stones or a crystal, a small piece of cloth. The ancient human impulse to create meaningful space, to make ourselves spiritually and emotionally at home wherever we are, sometimes reveals itself long before the individual is conscious of the true meaning of his or her actions. Creating sacred space helps center and ground us, reminding us who we are no matter where we are.
The "Porta-Witch" Altar
These are items you may want to carry with you for on-the-fly rituals and spells:
1. A compass. Its always important to know where the directions lie.
2. Symbols of the elemental powers: birthday candles(fire), a shell and a 4oz. silver chalice (water), feathers (air), and a rock (earth)
3. A miniature Goddess or two
4. Small plastic bags holding matches, self-ignited charcoal, sand, salt, incenses, and oils
5. Small clay saucers to burn the incense in
6. Four small glass candle holders
7. A letter opener to use as a ritual knife
8. A generic altar cloth (a square yard)
Earthwork altars are made of the earth and these altars are an ongoing dedication to the two Equinox Holidays of Winter and Spring. These can be built in the forest, field or right in your yard. They may be of any shape. If you are artisticly inclined you may want to sulpture a serpent, winding its way toward a giant egg. The important thing to remember when building an earthwork altar is to take pleasure in it, to feel the earth as you mold your altar into any shape or form you feel You may then plant seeds, or transplant seedling plants, or leave it bare.
This is a wonderful way to celebrate nature in itself. Garden altars are living altars that bridge nature by nutruring. Try to set your garden altar near trees if possible. Plant flowers that will attract birds, butterflies and such. If you like to attract butterflies most love, daisies, salvia, globe amaranth and lupine. Birds are fond of sunflowers, millet, coreopsis, Virginia creepers. Hummingbirds are very fond of Trumpet creepers. If you can place a bird bath at the altar, and remember to place a few stones in it so that the butterflies may sit and sip from the water.
For millennia, trees were the first altars as well as guardians. They are the symbols of the life force, reaching from their roots in the underworld up through the vastness of the sky, trees are inseparable from the divine. Simple offerings such as a flower planted at the base of a tree, a stone circle, a crystal hung, or written prayer rite banner hung from the tree. Tree altars are the simplist and yet the most profound. Here is
May all I say and all I think
be in harmony with thee,
God within me, God beyond me,
maker of the tress.
In me be the windswept truth of shorepine,
fragrance of balsam and spruce,
the grace of hemloc.
In me the truth of douglas fir, straight, tall,
strong-trunked land hero of fireproof bark.
Sheltering tree of life, cedar's truth be mine,
cypress truth, juniper aroma, strenght of yew.
May all I say and all I think
be in harmony with thee.
God within me, God beyond me,
maker of the trees.
In me be the truth of stream-lover willow
hazel of sweet nuts, wisdom-branching oak
In me the joy of crabapple, greatmaple, vinemaple.
cleansing cascara and lovely dogwood.
Amid the gracious truth of the copper branched arbutus
bright with colour and fragrance,
be with me on the Earth
May all I say and all I think
be in harmony with thee.
God within me, God beyond me,
maker of the trees.
There are many different kinds of tools you may want to use for your altar, but there are basically four "essential" tools which correspond to the four tarot suits: swords, wands, cups, and pentacles.
Instead of swords, most Witches today use athames. The athame is a consecrated, black-handled knife that is used primarily to draw pentacles in the air. Your forefinger also works just as well.
The wand conducts and directs energy. It carries the energy in a specified direction. Hold and point your wand when you invite the elemental powers to your altar and ritual. You can also use a feather, a quartz point, a flower or leafy branch, a stalk of dried wheat or other dried floral, or your fingers during ritual.
How to Make Wands
Wand of air:
Cut an 18 inch Lilac branch. Slowly shave only the bark off, no wood. Make sure the branch is green. Holding the wand with your thumbs, light insense under it, and let the smoke touch it. As the insense burns, chant: "Spirt of Air, maker of wind. Bless this wand to channle your strength through."
Wand of Fire:
Cut an 18 inch Cherry branch. Slowly shave only the bark off, no wood. Make sure the branch is green (red). Resting the wand on your thumbs, light a candle under it, Push wand in and out of the flames while chanting: "Spirt of Fire, maker of distruction. Bless this wand to channle your strength through."
Wand of Earth:
Cut an 18 inch Dog Wood (or Oak) branch. Slowly shave only the bark off, no wood. Make sure the branch is green. Resting the wand on your thumbs, slowly sprinkle dirt/earth over it
while chanting: "Spirt of Earth, maker of Mountain. Bless this wand to channle your strength through."
Wand of Water:
Cut an 18 inch Willow (or Drift Wood) branch. Slowly shave only the bark off, no wood(Don't shave drift wood). Make sure the branch is green (Not necessary for drift wood). Resting the
wand on your thumbs, slowly sprinkle water over it while chanting: "Spirt of Water, maker of sea. Bless this wand to channle your strength through."
Cauldrons or chalices are symbols of containment and of the ever-nourishing, ever-productive womb and breast of the Goddess. a large cauldron is appropriate for outdoor rituals. Fill it with sand to burn incense, or fill it with epsom salts and alcohol to make a fire. Chalices are used to drink ritual wine.
The pentacle can be used as an earth symbol for your altar. Some Witches wear them around their necks. You may also hang pentacle s in your home for protection.
Altars Made Easy by Peg Streep Sacred Space by Denise Linn Creating Sacred Space With Feng Shui by Kingston