What’s in an Altar?
A very-non-expert guide to creating an altar:
I’ve had some requests to discuss what goes into keeping an altar and the meaning behind it. At the very least I will say, an altar is allowed to be whatever you want it to be!
In Western movies, we see the old trope of a mentally ill person keeping a secret cache of items and photos of a person they’re stalking, or god forbid, a hidden blood ritual space in the woods. Luckily altars IRL are a lot less creepy.
Basically, a home altar is a dedicated sacred space in your home. It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t even have to be pagan. Catholics keep altars both in the church and in family homes; think of the movie ‘Coco’, where the family ofrenda holds photos of departed loved ones and special foods.
I’m fairly new to altar keeping, and my relationship with having a sacred space in the home has grown over the years. My first altar started as a ‘nature table’, a flat space on top of my daughter’s Ikea toy kitchen where we would place cool rocks, feathers, shells, pretty leaves and other things we’d collect while playing outside. It was meant to be a “Please Touch” spot for natural manipulatives and to also inspire a love and appreciation for the outdoors in our kids.
As our collective love for the natural items we could add to the space grew, so did the items around it. A trip to a hippie shop in Takoma Park, MD resulted in a paper wall hanging with prayers to the Earth printed on it. Our little girl’s love for sparkly things added crystals to the space as well. At the time, our family spirituality was decidedly agnostic.
As I grew into my Reiki practice and began to understand how multiple actual deities can co-exist within framework of Oneness, my spirituality evolved but even then I didn’t keep an altar. I kept that ‘nature area’ on top of the toy kitchen, but as the kids grew up the toy kitchen moved to storage and our nature items came to live on the corner of a desk. That desk eventually became a messy catch-all, much like every other flat surface in our home. My crystals lived in drawers, and candles were only used to make the house smell nice on chilly days.
Later, a neighbor offered us a free dresser, I got tired of looking at the cluttered desk, and that day our home altar was born.
It sits in the kitchen, where we can see it every day. The drawers of the dresser hold art supplies, envelopes, non-sacred stuff. It’s only the top of the dresser that is reserved for holy items. When I created it I was in the process of receiving many, many messages from Spirit and having interactions with deities on a fairly regular basis through my work, so the altar became a space where I could place items and offerings to honor and thank them for Their guidance. However, psychic gifts are not a pre-requisite for having a home altar. Anyone can reserve a space in their home to remind them to be prayerful, thankful and reverent.
So what should go on an altar? That depends on what you’re using it for, and your own spiritual path. Christians and Catholics obviously put Christian symbols on theirs. (crucifix, holy water, etc.) Wiccans have items sacred to their practice that complete their altar (small caludron, sacred knife called an athame, candles, and others.) I am neither of those, but I’m a polytheist and mainly keep my altar just to dedicate a sacred space of gratitude for Spirit and the blessings of our life. That is the main theme of my altar – gratitude, wonder and honor.
The natural items that were on our “Please Touch” shelf are still gracing our altar today and we’ve added more, including some my kids’ baby teeth. Teeth are a weird item to keep anywhere (let’s get real, parents) but I felt weirder throwing them away or keeping them in a jar in some closet. At least on the altar, where they are placed in a small bowl along with some shells, they remind me to cherish the too-short time of being a mother to little children.
Altars also don’t have to be stuffy and stodgy, or taken too seriously. I’ve kept a box of 64 Crayola crayons on my altar for over a year now – a silly gift from a dear client in thanks for helping her learn about her energetic body and “understand in more colors”. The main figure in the center of the altar, Tara, is a Buddhist deity and I chose that statue not because She is my main source of Spiritual guidance, but because at the time my son said that God, to him, looked like “a Rainbow Buddha” and that statue was the closest I could find to a multi-colored Buddha. I’ve arranged some crystals – in each color of the rainbow, including white on either end – in front of her; again, not because someone told me I have to or it is required, but because rainbows are cool.
Over the years, photos of family and friends have been added, pictures we’ve drawn, rocks we’ve painted, and I added a bowl to keep the shed skin from our snake. (Again, simply because snakes are cool and I want to honor Mother Earth.) Flowers get placed according to the seasons. I keep a candle and some incense on it and light it when I want to calm down, or bring more peace and reverence into my heart and my thoughts. I don’t usually consider the color of the candle itself but some people choose candle colors based on an intention they want to set. For example, green might attract money energy, black is for protection, red for romance. I just get whatever color is in the Hispanic section at the grocery store.
When I pick a particularly awesome cucumber from the garden, or make delicious homemade cookies, I put one on the altar to show thanks for Spirit in our lives. (Sometimes we end up eating the food later, after it has sat on the altar for awhile, and sometimes I throw the food in the yard for the animals to enjoy. It depends on how I feel and how much of a certain thing we have.)
For those of us who grew up in authoritarian religious dynamics, the thought of an altar can sometimes cause more shame and dread. “Oh, gosh, if I can’t keep it clean and dusted God will be mad at me!” “I’ll end up offending God if I don’t put the right things on it or remember to light the candle!” And to that I say, just no.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned thusfar in life is that we can drop that belief like it’s hot. A relationship with an altar or with God shouldn’t be a source of stress. That’s why I’m so casual about candle colors, etc! I don’t want to stress about it, because the Divine doesn’t want me to stress. God doesn’t hate you, He/She isn’t lying in wait to pop out and admonish you for not doing things perfectly. The Universe accepts all offerings, and simply creating a sacred space in your home that works for you and makes you feel more connected with the Divine is enough.
Sometimes my altar looks crowded and cluttered, but that’s really only because I have so many cool things that I want to display, that remind me of Spiritual grace in one small space. I’ve decided for myself that that’s okay. Other people might clutch their pearls that our altar looks so “busy” but to me it’s just fine.
Another cool thing about altars is that it can be as large and encompassing in your home as you like. I have several friends who have more than one, and ones that take into account the Four Directions. For instance, one altar will be placed in the East part of the home (for pagans and polytheists, this will usually be an altar to Eastern deities such as Buddha, Kwan Yin, Tara and other Asian animals and deities.) One will be in the South, and this will honor Southern spirits, perhaps Hindu, South African, Aboriginal, etc. One for the West (in our case, desert animal spirits and Hopi, Navajo and other Indigenous American spirits) and then one for the North (Norse and Celtic gods). There is literally no limit to how a person can choose to honor Spirit in their home.
What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts about what should be kept on a home altar, and see pics of yours – especially if you decide to set one up!