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“So how high is the altar?” I ask.
I'm talking long-distance with the director of our regional pagan land sanctuary, planning the upcoming Midwest Grand Sabbat. I've never been there, but I know that there's a standing altar in the grove.
At Old Style sabbats, the altar is a throne, where the Horned sits to receive His people. So it needs to be of at least a certain height.
The answer was readily forthcoming.
“It's high enough so that someone laying on the altar can have sex with the priest standing in front of it,” he tells me.
Keeping altars is probably one of the most consistent things we do as Pagans in our personal practice; though "altars" (and if you insist on using this word, please spell it with an "A"; "alters" is a process of forcing change) would not technically be the correct word. What we keep are actually "shrines," places where we make images of the Divine and our spiritual practice, worship and make offering.
I keep an awful lot of altars myself. My household altar is now located in the centerpiece of my living room, which is a beautiful mirrored china cabinet gifted to me by my mother-in-law. It contains my ritual tools, statues of the Deities appropriate to the time of year, antlers to honour the Horned God, pine cones to honour the Earth Goddess. The image you see at the top of the page is the central top shelf of my household altar, which currently is adorned with the pentacle of my tradition (which I'm pretty proud of; it's solid copper and was handmade by one of our founders, Mistress Leia,) an image of Osiris (to symbolize the God who was dead and is now reborn,) and the Star Goddess (which was a white clay figurine I purchased and then painted.) In the center you'll find my personal pentacle (handmade by me,) a terra cotta incense burner with a turtle (placed there for feng shui value and also for a Terry Pratchett reference,) my Moon Crown (purchased several years ago from Lobelia's Lair in Nanaimo) and behind these, underneath the tradition's pentacle, my wand (also handmade with a lot of personal symbolism I don't care to publicly share at this time.)...
Within Vanatru, there is a lot of room for diversity of belief and practice - nature itself is diverse, and thus different ways of doing things are seen as natural and organic, as befits a living tradition. As such, there is no Vanapope who will swoop down from on high proclaiming that you're "doing it wrong" if you don't do this or have that. However, the very "do it yourself" approach amongst most Vanatruar can be confusing and even frustrating for newbies, who are full of questions about how to get started.
One of the things that I tend to recommend people do when they first start out, is set up an altar. This is not mandatory or absolutely necessary - I know plenty of folks who get along just fine without altars. In my own case, having an altar is helpful because it's a visible, tangible reminder of the Powers, is a way to express Their energy and presence - which can be a tool to better get to know Them and connect with Them - and is a place to leave offerings and perform rituals and magick. And as such, I think that building an altar can be a valuable beginning step, a way to establish a connection to the Powers....
I recently wrote a piece about Pagan tattoos. Hundreds of people posted pictures of their artwork and many more folks told the stories of how those designs came about and why they were so compelled to etch them indelibly into their skin.
And this got me thinking - Tattoos are altars, of a kind. They are permanent representations of a moment or a belief or a particular rite of passage. These permanent, personal altars are like touchstones to those important times. In most cases, they are carefully thought out. They are planned. The placement, the design, the colours, the images and the symbols are all considered. Then there's the actual "building of the altar" itself....
So here I am at Samhain-tide again. Like many Pagans this is the "big one", our month when we get to be as witchy as we want and it goes mostly unnoticed because everyone out there in the Western world is hanging up skeletons and foam cut outs of owls and black cats.
It's also the month where I find myself running from pillar to post, organizing and priestessing all sorts of Samhain-related events. As is often the case, I'm part of the organising team for the 35th annual Reclaiming Spiral Dance in San Francisco. I'll be part of North Bay Reclaiming's Samhain ritual and this year I'll be at a four day retreat in the Mendocino Woodlands called "Mysteries of Samhain". I'm fortunate to be a busy witch....
We stroked his head and ran our hands along his body. He purred. We looked at him directly in the eyes and we sang songs. He purred. We told him of mice and birds and long summer days that would not end. He purred. We held him close, so very close, as the needle pierced his skin. The purring stopped.
The last few days have been filled with tears and with fond remembrances of our dear cat, Bear Claw. He lived for almost twenty years. I have children that have never known a time before Bear Claw. Simply put, he was part of our family.
I spent the last year of his life as a care giver of sorts. As his health failed, I cleaned up after him. I helped him up to his favourite perches around the house. I carried him out into the warm sun on my shoulders and made sure his "apartment" was warm and comfortable. He and I spoke about how and when his life would end. We had an agreement that when the good days were outnumbered by the bad days, we'd part ways mercifully and quickly.