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On Altars

Like many Pagans, I am a lover of literature. It was in books that I first discovered the Gods. I devoured tales of Artemis and Apollo and Isis and Anubis and Brigid. And -- like many -- the first thing I did after my (re)discovery of the Gods was build an altar.

I felt most drawn to the Hellenic Gods, but I had no real guidelines for the proper construction of a Greek-style altar. I found a basic diagram in Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, and used that as a template: bust of Apollo and a gold candle on the right, bust of Artemis and a silver candle on the left, bowl of dried flowers, small cup of earth, small cup of water.

Over the years, my altar has expanded and changed multiple times, as my spiritual path has matured and as I have moved around the country. Currently, my main altar includes icons for Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Hekate and Gaea, along with a hand-made clay icon of Odin (in thanks for a vision of Him, which I am still mulling over). 

An altar is extremely personal. Even when they follow the same template, altars are unique. They reflect the interests, history, and spiritual path of the individual. There are, however, a few books out there which may offer guidance both to those new to Paganism and those well-versed in the various traditions.

The first -- and most broad in its appeal -- is Peg Streep's Altars Made Easy: A Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Sacred Space. Accompanied by Claudia Karabaic Sargent's illustrations, Streep's text is simple (but not simplistic), straight-forward, and friendly; she's down-right conversational. The various chapters focus on everything from deciding where to place the altar, to workplace altars, to appropriate minerals, plants, and foodstuffs. There are even chapters on finding or creating sacred spaces in nature. 

Equally useful is Kay Turner's Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women's Altars. Filled with black-and-white and full-color photographs, Beautiful Necessity examines the many different kinds of altars built by women and the functions they serve: worship, expiation, healing, empowerment, beauty. I was particularly inspired by stories of altars which are passed down from mother to daughter, cared for and protected across the generations.

In addition to books specifically about altars, there are others which I have found equally inspiring. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona's Dictionary of Women in Religious Art, for instance, is filled with information about myths, legends, symbolism, artists, Saints, Holy Women, and Goddesses. Ever heard of Sabina von Steinbach? The Hand of Ishtar? Do you know what the cuckoo means in Japanese art? Or how Patience is personified in art? No? Go look them up.

If you are looking for path-specific guidelines, there books such as Frances Bernstein's Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome;* Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored by Sarah Kate Istra Winter; Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner by Galina Krasskova; Alaric Albertson's Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan; and Whisper of Stone: Modern Canaanite Religion by Tess Dawson. Each of these includes at least one section -- or even an entire chapter -- on altar construction.**

Oh, and last but definitely not least: Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation (will totally inspire you to create your own altar cloths, plates/offering dishes, and so forth); and Spiritual Protection: A Safety Manual for Energy Workers, Healers, and Psychics by Sophie Reicher (advice for creating a safe sacred or personal space).

So, there are my recommendations for anyone who needs a little inspiration for constructing an altar. Did I miss any great books on the subject? If so, let me know! 

 

* Sadly out of print. I was lucky enough to find one at a used bookstore.

** If anyone can recommend other path-specific books, please do!

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

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