Altars

Book of Shadows


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Wherever an altar is found,
there civilization exists. - Joseph De Maistre

As new forms of spirituality emerged at the turn of the century, the tradition of spiritual practice one or two days a week did not fulfill the need for a daily spiritual life. Meditation rooms and memorial gardens have become common. In every culture one can find sacred space in the home at least one altar or shrine. Catholics dedicate altars to god and their favorite saints, Hindus to their patron deities, Buddhists to invoke a sacred calm, Native Americans to the sacred earth. Whether yours is dedicated to the divine, is a cluster of pictures honoring one’s ancestors or a working altar for magickal purposes, each is a created sacred space personal to you. If you are new to the concept of altars, you have probably already created several altars without even knowing it - even dressing a dinner table is an altar to the gods of bounty and an act of thanksgiving.

When creating a sacred space, it can be as small as a bedside end table, a bookshelf or as I use, a small sideboard (that belonged to my foster sister) with a series of shelves above. Some people have little altars all over their homes and gardens. Little clusters of items they hold sacred for whatever reason, sitting on tables, bookcases and shelves symbolize sacred moments, people and philosophies. Witches who are not ready to come out of the closet, often cluster, drift wood, stones, seashells, flowers, and other natural treasures that appear merely as decorations to the mundane world but have a much deeper inspirational/devotional meaning to those who educated in their magickal properties or those who simply treasure nature as sacred. Those who are comfortable with their path openly display magickal tools and images of their gods and goddesses.

Anything you hold sacred can be put on an altar. It doesn't matter whether you follow the rules strictly or follow them at all. Start with the basic layout and let your natural instincts guide you.

Whether an entire room is dedicated as a temple for spiritual practice, a portion of it with a permanent altar or a portable altar made from a shoe box. Altars enrich one’s spirit just by their very existence.

Altar Placement

Altar placement is a matter of tradition. Permanent or semi-permanent altars usually face the direction that symbolizes one’s tradition, unless the altar is placed for a particular god or set for a particular holiday or purpose that evokes a different placement. The person actually faces the direction and the altar represents that same direction, facing the person.

North
The significance of the northern tradition of placing an altar comes from the Irish traditions. North is a feminine direction and primarily attached to the goddess and the season of winter. It is also the direction of the land of the dead, an ancestral direction and the direction of sleep and dreams. Being Irish, my grandmother trained me to sleep with my head to the north in order to communicate with our ancestors through dreams. She wanted me to seek advice and wisdom from our sacred dead every night, not just on Samhain. So, north is my first sacred direction. Yet much of my work using the sun and moon require an eastern tradition. Deities with earth ties are Gaea: the earth personified, Pandora: Greek goddess the "all-giver," endlessly producing food for people and animals. Demeter; Goddess of Grain and Abundance. Anieros: A Phrygian goddess much like Demeter, Arianrhod Celtic Goddess of the Moon and Earth and Geb is the Egyptian earth god, As a post script, the Korean Unification Church (The Moonies) has adopted a northern altar position. Modern Druids cast circles starting in the north. I cast starting in the east, but before that, I always salute the North honoring my family tradition

East
The significance of the east was well known to the early pilgrims. Like the rising sun, Christ (the Sun of Justice and Light of the world) rose in the early morning on the first Easter Sunday. In all Catholic churches, the morning sun streaming through the stained glass windows made a dramatic sight during the mass. Long before Christ - Hebrew, Persian, Egyptian, Sumerian and many other philosophies saw the rising sun as a godly image, with few exceptions. Muslims adopted the practice as well. East is a masculine direction and primarily attached to the god image and the season of spring. Primary East/Air/Light deities are Woden, Thor Mercury, Hermes, Aeolos: Greek god of wind and air and Aether: Greek personification of air. Also Aradia Queen of Witches and Gwydon. Some sky and wind deities are also attributed to the east such as Eos (Aurora), goddess of the dawn.

South
The significance of an altar facing the south is a mixed bag. No long time, significant tradition is attached to the south accept that it has a strong masculine attachment and Mars, god of war, is the primary god attached to this direction. (Apollo: Greek Sun god, Ra: Egyptian god of the sun, Helios, Hyperion, Phoebus, Sol, Horus, Bel, Belenos: Canaanite Sun god, and Lugh: Irish Sun god. Then Bridget: Irish Fire goddess, Pele: Hawaiian Fire goddess, Sunna: German fire Goddess. and Sekhmet: Egyptian Lion headed goddess are among the other Sun/Fire deities also attached.) It should be no surprise that the southern direction is attached also to the season of summer. So, there are some fiery superstitions attached here. When sleeping with one’s head to the south, one opens one’s dreams to angry nightmares and restless sleep. The solar powered southern direction is so masculine and so powerful, that is leans toward the combative, angry, warlike energies. Consequently, it should be a very powerful practitioner, who stands facing the southern conflagration of energy. (In the East and Air direction are the nobler masculine qualities) If your interests tie you to Southern Sun/Fire deities, I can see this placement as a challenge and sacred goal.

West
The significance of the west is also sketchy. It is feminine in nature, attached to the season of fall and although it is attached to water deities, it is mostly attached to Moon goddesses, the sunset in opposition to the direction of the Sun and east.. All but one Catholic church built with its altar facing west was dedicated to the Blessed Mother, Mary. Modern thought on the west placement of an altar is that it is the direction of peace, love, psychic abilities, spiritual communion and healing. If your magickal interests tie you to these studies or abilities, then a western facing altar may work for you. Many Moon worshippers face their altars this direction. Moon/water goddesses, Selene: Goddess of the Bright (Full) Moon, Luna another Bright (Full) Moon goddess, Artemis: Greek First Crescent moon, virgin goddess. Hecate: Goddess of the Dark (New) Moon, Isis: Goddess of the rivers of life, Arianrhod: Celtic Goddess of the Moon and Earth. Tethys: The most ancient pre-Hellenic sea Goddess. Amphitritea: Greek goddess, owned the caves under the sea where she stored precious jewels. Andromeda, a Greek possibly pre-Hellenic moon-goddess, Galatea: A minor Greek goddess, Cerridwen, Welsh moon goddess, Astarte, Inanna Kuan Yin, Ceres, Cybele, Diana and Hathor just to name a few. Gods of this Moon/water direction are Poseidon: God of oceanic consciousness, Neptune: God of Psychic Flow, Osirus, water god, Nanna, Suen & Asimbabbar are synonyms for the ancient Sumerian Moon-god (upon which some say the god Allah was based) and Lyr; Irish god of the sea.

Center
When one has the luxury of having a sacred room that is used solely for ritual and magick, the altar is most often placed in the center of the room. With this convenience, the practitioner can stand facing which ever direction is required for the ritual or rite. It allows for the flexibility of solitary work as well as coven work. However, most of us live in the real world and are lucky to have a permanent dedicated altar anywhere in the house.

© 2004-2017 Ardriana Cahill

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