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Further Reflections on Altars

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An Altar at Lucky Mojo Curio Co., Forestville, CA

This post I hope to be another of a series of writings about magical objects, tangible items that have meaning to and are used by Pagans of various stripes.  I’ll work from the more immediate (altars, clothing, incenses, masks, etc.) to the broader (temples, nemetons, sacred spaces).

To continue, what’s the purpose of having an altar?  Is it a surface to holding the tools with which we work?  Certainly in most Witchen[1] situations that’s how an altar is used.  But besides holding working tools and such (bowl of water, dish of salt, cup, athame, etc.), a Witchen altar holds candles and more often than not images of a deity or deities.[2]

For an altar that holds working tools, one may also consider a kitchen counter arrayed with bowls, ingredients, spoons, measuring cups, cutting boards, strainers, colanders, and the like, ready to bake a cake or baste a roast.  After all, the kitchen is where the magic of transforming the nourishing fruits and flesh given us by Nature into sublimely tasty comestibles takes place.  Our ovens are our athanors, the chambers that with heat and time transform what we put into them.

Another altar holding working tools is the surgical tray.  I have little conscious experience of operating rooms where surgery is performed, but I’ve seen enough dramatic reenactment to know that there is a cadre of persons who assist the lead surgeon.

Perhaps you have a carpentry workroom in your garage or a sewing room in your home.  When you prepare to work, do you lay out an array of tools you expect to employ?  Beyond that, do you perform a brief ritual as you prepare?  I know that some cooks do so, and I would guess that some surgeons or surgery teams may also call upon some kind of divine guidance of the hand wielding the scalpel – at least I hope their work is not compromised by hubris.

Altars can also serve as the foundation upon which sits an idol or idols.  Deity altars usually hold candles, incense, flowers, fruits, and other offerings.

Older books on Wicca and other magical systems, as most readers know, contain detailed charts showing where each specified item should be placed.  Those altars contained cup or chalice, blade, wand, pentacle, dish of salt, water, at least two candles, and often representations of goddess and sometimes god.  In other words, basic tools.  In addition, they may contain flowers or seasonal vegetation, and other tools that may be required for that particular working.

One friend who began her practice on the East Coast had learned to use two candles on her altar, one for the goddess and one for the god. That's not a custom I had encountered when I was learning.

When I began my practice, my altars were fairly simple, although I never felt that I needed to place items in any other configuration than that which pleased my personal aesthetic and I always felt I could add other pretties as I was inspired to do so.  Over the years my attitude towards altars evolved, more about which follows shortly.



[1]             I prefer using the term “Witchen” when referencing the most common manifestation of Pagan religion in our contemporary world.  To my knowledge, this word was coined by Deborah Bender back in the 1970s to encompass both older British lineaged Craft traditions and newer bootstrap traditions. So in this context, Wiccans are formal descendants of British Traditional Wicca – I leave the discussion of who is who in the context of BTWs to those who hold to it – while Witches include both Wiccans and other practitioners of what is generally known as Witchcraft or the Craft.

[2]             I intend another post exploring idols and idolatry.

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com

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