Altars: Worship tool, work bench, shrine, or some other mixture?
For any one who has ever gone to a temple or attended a church service of any kind you are typically familiar with some sort of altar. The altar is a place where sacred texts are placed, where candles are lit, prayers are murmurer, and worship happens. In witchcraft and magic the altar can serve as any number of things. Some paths encourage and use the word altar and others prefer terms like shrine or work bench and anything in between. There are so many different concepts and terms associated with altars here that the purpose of an altar is hotly debated.
In regards to Pentalism the altar actually has three different purposes. In an ideal situation those who follow the path of Pentalism (which can be practiced solitary as I am now) will have three different types of altars. Each of the altars would serve a different purpose. So there are three purposes to an altar in Pentalism. All three of the purposes and all three types of altars will be covered here now.
The primary purpose is to focus as the center point of worship. The next part is more spiritual than religious. This is the “shrine” type of altar. The final type of an altar is that of the workbench. All three aspects of the altar come into play in ritual. Once and a while they will also work together in the form of spell craft. That however depends on the type of spell you are working. For now I am going to focus on the spells and magical practices that would use an altar and the ritual uses of the altar.
Before I can talk about the use of an altar in magic I must discuss the use of an altar in ritual. I find that before magic is practiced some sort of spiritual and religious background is required. Having either a spiritual (which does not need to be religious) background or a religious background will allow a person to have a philosophy in which to base and construct their magic. That is why the second type and purpose of the altar discussed will be that of the shrine and the final use will be that of the magical workbench.
So in ritual the altar serves as a few things. In some ways it serves as the focal point. On the altar there are two figures or representations. One for the God and one foe the Goddess being worshiped at that time and sabbat. At times there may be two Gods and Goddesses involved in which case you would need two different representations on the altar or in the center of the circle (one for each God and Goddess).
So what does the altar have on it for content?
Aside from the representation on deity, there are the symbols of the elements and the elemental guardians. How the elements are important will be discussed in the posts of elements and spirits as well as cosmology. You also have the offering bowl for the libation and the plate for the food. There is typically something in the very center to represent the ancestors. You also have the tools for the creation of sacred space (which will be covered in the circles post) on the altar which will include wands, earth, candles, incence, and the like.
Ok. That covers the equipment. So the next thing to cover is how they are used actually in ritual. The use in ritual depends entirely on what sort of ritual you are performing. Each of the traditions and types of witchcraft that form the foundation of this tradition have different styles of rituals and different tools they use in ritual. The equipment and altar set up is going to vary.
The one common practice and use of the altar in all of the rituals is the place where the offerings to deity are placed. That is why this is the primary purpose of the altar in ritual. While all the tools used in the various forms of ritual are placed on the altar, in essence it’s key role is to hold the offering to deity in the liquid and physical state as well as the gaseous state (incense burning in ritual can been seen as offerings if they are blessed and lit with that intention as part of the ritual).
There. I have covered the basic needs and purposes of an altar when it comes to ritual. The next thing I am going to discuss is the use of an altar as a shrine. While I see all shrines as a type of altar, not all altars are shrines. I’ll eventually get to the full aspect of a shrine in a later post. For now there is a basic purpose that any seeker and any beginner to any path can use.
A shrine here is a place that is sacred. It is blessed and consecrated in the honor of the beings that the shrine is for. On the shrine you can place any images or representations of the beings you like. It also holds a place for offerings to those beings and is a place that prayers to those beings can be offered.
At this moment I have two shrines. I have one for dragons and one for the ancestors and the spirits of this land. The concept of the ancestors will be discussed tomorrow in my second A post for the pagan blog project. Ideally I would have at least five more. One for each of the elements and one for the spirit of the land and the hearth/home (which in my case is the same being as I told the spirit of the land my apartment is on that she could come in to the apartment in the winter if she felt like warming up in the cold *her home is a giant oak which has scattered hair [my own] and coins around it as offerings to her*). For now the elements will have to have their small representations on the main altar and the heart/home and land spirit shrine will be shared with my ancestral shrine.
So an altar holds offerings and ritual tools. A shrine as an altar is a place for offerings to those beings and prayers. It also contains symbols and representations of those beings. That covers the first two aspects and roles of an altar. Both of those were ritual and spiritualistic based. Can we get to the workbench and magical aspect now?
Yes we can. The third role of an altar is that of the workbench. When an altar is functioning in this form it primarily has to deal with magical work. While many witches and pagans do practice magic as a form or part of their rituals, magic does not have to take the form of ritual magic or work. Right now I am going to talk about pure spell crafting and casting that would require and altar to function as a work bench.
So before I can talk about spells and spell craft and magic I should probably define what magic is right?
Um yeah. That would be helpful. So how do you define magic?
Magic for me has three distinct definitions and aspects. There is the aspect of performing an act to cause a change in the universe. There is the act of wishing and visualizing, and finally there is the aspect of energy manipulation. The energy manipulation and the act of causing a change are often considered to be the same thing. I do not see it as such. That is why I will cover all three aspects of magic separately starting with energy manipulation.
The most common definition was coined by Alister Crowley which basically is “The art and science of causing change in conformity with one’s will”. In that aspect I take it a bit further. As a practice and process for me magic is the art and science of causing a change in ones world and the universe by manipulating and directing the subtle energies that exist in this world.
There are many ways to raise and direct this energy. There will be more information on that covered in a few more posts later. For now the most typical way of raising energy is through chanting and repetitive motion. Once the energy is raised you direct the energy out to the universe to have it manifest your goal. That is an energy manipulated specific spell.
In spell crafting a workbench may often be required. This is the magical function of an altar. While you work spells you often need a place to hold the materials you are using to craft and perform your spell. The materials you use will depend entirely on what sort of spell you are crafting and performing. The types of magic worked are so various that the tools and materials found on workbenches depends entirely on the personal flavor of each witch and spell caster.
So what sort of tools or materials can we see on an altar as a work bench? That depends on the type of magic and the spell you are performing. If you are a kitchen witch (one who performs magic and spell craft through the foods and drink we ingest) then you will have spices, meats, herbs, baking and cooking supplies and maybe candles or stones. Some one who works just herbal magic will have different herbs and a candle typically as well as a censer for burning incense. Candle magic involves candles (based on color and needs) and oils. Prayers can be magical as can wishes. It all involves the type of magic you are performing.
There are the various uses of an altar in pentalism. I mentioned that they can sometimes be mixed in ritual and spiritual work. This is true. When I discuss the wheel of the year I’ll explain a bit about fertility. For me fertility takes many forms. One of them is simply the ability to provide for yourself and have all the needs you have in your life. That is where magic can be applied in rituals. When I discusses ceremonial magic there will be more information about that.
There you have it. I hope I have given you some idea as to the role and use of an altar. I also hope I have given you some idea as to what you might put on it for yourself. My personal altar changes on
Posted on March 13, 2012, in Experimentation, Exploration, God, Goddess, magic, Pagan Blog Project, Religious Practice, Ritual, Spells and tagged Eclectic Witchcraft, Hedge witchcraft, magic, Pagan Blog Project, religious witchcraft, spell craft, Spiritual development, traditional witchcraft, wicca, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.