Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Reflecting on Altars

Coven Trismegiston Lammas Altar 2013

At a recent seminary graduation ceremony I attended I noticed the altar.  It wasn’t an altar like the altars I’m more used to seeing. 

The setting was a church sanctuary, 1950s post-WW-II modern, set upon a hill with expanses of window giving view to the surrounding town and countryside.  The glass was clear but for a band of Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stained glass around the top.  Chairs placed in rows rather than pews faced the far end of the hexagonal-shaped room, with a choir section off to the right.  Although singers wore street clothes, most of them had some sort of rainbow chevron on their clothing.

The dais at the front of the room contained the altar, some chairs for dignitaries, and a lectern, probably the modern version of a pulpit.  The altar itself, set back against the wall at the far side of the dais, was a sturdy dark wood table holding a large spray of seasonal flowers.  That’s it.  No religious symbols.  No statuary.  No candles. No tools of any kind.

This got me to thinking about all the many kinds of altars people have created and the many ways they’re used.  The first thought that came to me, as I pondered the source of altars, was of a slab of rock upon which Abraham had laid Isaac for sacrifice before his hand was stayed.  I thought of it as a workspace.  I don’t know why my thoughts should take me in this direction.  Perhaps because of my Christian upbringing.

But of course the altars of my childhood weren’t used for sacrifice.  The altars atop Aztec pyramids were, though.  They were similar to Abraham’s slab of rock in that they were a hard flat surface for cutting and bloodletting, albeit sacred bloodletting.

Altars in the Methodist church were fairly simple affairs, a long, narrow wooden table draped with white linen, holding a few candlesticks and vases of flowers, with an empty cross hanging on the wall above.

The Roman Catholic altars of my father’s church outdid the Methodist ones in splendor.  I don’t know if they were larger or not, but they seemed so; they held many objects.  No plain linen altar cloths for Catholics.  Oh, no.  Theirs were embroidered with elaborate designs using gilt thread.  The altars held bejeweled chalices, censers, and monstrances, bells and Bibles, and who knows what all.  And they were used.  The priest and his assistants touched and moved and changed things – no doubt in the process of transmuting the bread and wine into the body and blood of their god.

Nor do Catholic altars stand alone.  There are other surfaces holding other things, plus elaborate gilded candle stands, banks of votive candles, chairs, both lectern and pulpit, surmounted and surrounded by statuary, images, hangings, stained glass windows, and all manner of marble and fine carved wood opulence.

When I first got into the Craft, we set up altars with the tools, paraphernalia and images we were learning to use, arranging them as artfully as we wished, although there were a few texts in those days that featured diagrams of exactly what each object should be and where it should be placed.  Esbat altars were fairly standardized and sabbat altars more elaborate and containing seasonal colors, images, and flora. Candles mandatory, altar cloths optional.

At that time we placed the one working altar in the North quadrant of our circle.  We placed point candles in the other three quarters, sometimes with a symbol of Element associated with that quarter, say a feather or bell in the East, a seashell or cup in the West.

When we began to offer public sabbat rituals, we sought to dress up and “sanctify” rented meeting spaces by erecting substantial altars in each of the four quarters.  They grew larger and more elaborate, bringing out the artist in the altar-builders.  We also had four long banners, about 3’ by 8’ hanging above each altar.

My late friend Judy Foster brought a whole new dimension to altar-building, about which I'll elaborate in a future post.  They deserve a post of their own. 


nwlorax said...

Thanks for discussing this. I remember that "official" altar chart, I think it was in the Pagan Way Materials. I look at my altar and can see my entire spiritual history and hopes encapsulated in it--Gifts from friends who have passed over, talismans to events important to me and some others, and a record of the hopes and travels of my life journey. It may have dust in a few places, but is still vibrant and very much a living record. They have expanded to three distinct spaces over the years.

Rory said...

I cannot remember where I first heard the suggestion (Ceisiwr Serith's 2009 book Deep Ancestors?), but the fundamental concept of an Indo-European altar is, for me, three squares of earth dug and then stacked so that there is a trench before them. Shining offerings are made on top, with chthonic into the trench, after which the arrangement is returned to its previous state.

Rory said...

This sort of altar is distinct from a "shrine" and I think that most pagan "altars" are really shrines: memorial installations rather than working space.