The Art of Altar Making
The creation of an altar is an extremely old practice, and altars were widely used in Egypt, Greece, India and Europe in ancient times. In the modern west it has not been a common practice to have a home altar and yet more and more people are creating small altars in their homes, partially due to the growing popularity of yoga and meditation, which has exposed many people to stunningly beautiful Eastern altars. Making an altar is a powerful way to affirm your values, focus on a particular aspect of spirituality, express your devotion to a deity, saint or principle, and to express your creativity. They can be temporary, created for a specific time period and purpose, or they can be permanent. Altars can be set for healing purposes, to honour underworld journeys when we are working with the more shadowy parts of life, to celebrate guidance and help from the higher-power, or to invoke abundance and prosperity. Personal altars can also help us express the dynamic dance within the psyche, sometimes bringing to our attention symbols and patterns and acting as a communications bridge between the conscious and unconscious parts of self.
How to make and altar First you must decide what your altar is for. It can be for something small and specific such as for someone who is sick, or for safe travels, or it can be larger and more general such as the celebration of life and for general joy and abundance. Once you know clearly why you are making an altar, the next step is to define the space of the altar. It is best if it is raised up off the floor, perhaps on a table or a shelf, and ideally should not be used for any other purpose during the time you want the altar to be active. It is also a good idea to place your altar in a quieter part of the home, but not so quiet that you hardly ever get to see it, so the spare room isn’t the best place unless you plan to spend regular time in there; altars need to be seen because they act as a symbolic reminder of the sacred and spiritual aspect of life, which let’s face it, tends to get forgotten in our busy material lives. An altar can be used in numerous ways. Here are a few ideas: Celebrate Mother Nature Seek spiritual wisdom Honour the ancestors Offer up struggles Receive creative inspiration Dialogue with the deeper part of our being Offer thanks to the higher-power Flow with the natural cycles of life Connect with specific archetypal energies Connect with spirit guides and helpers Honour the dead Prepare for a difficult task Gather your dreams Here’s an example: Lets say you want to make a general altar for the home, and dedicate it to honour Divine Energies, weaving into that focus a request for blessings and protection, and regular life guidance from the higher-power. The next step is to find images and symbols that speak to you of love, devotion, protection, guidance and any other feeling or sense that you associate with Divine Energies. This is an intuitive process often driven by inspiration; the most beautiful altars are the ones infused with personal meaning, so it is good to take some time gathering together suitable items for your altar. Some things gathered from nature, others procured from shops if needed, intermingled with relevant symbols and images you might already possess. Typically home altars often have an image or statue of an archetypal deity or saint such as Buddha, Kwan Yin, Jesus, Ganesha, Shiva, Lakshmi or Isis. In addition there can be symbolic representations of angels, spirit guides, animal totems and nature spirits. There can also be crystals, flowers, pebbles, and interesting bits of driftwood, seeds, cones, shells, and feathers. In essence anything is possible so long as it resonates with you; it’s important that you appreciate and enjoy looking at every item you place on your altar. You can also play with colour combinations, and encode in your altar the four sacred directions (or the five elements), using the colours of the tradition you favour. In the case of the four directions, you might use red for East, yellow for South, blue or black for west, and white for north. Perhaps these colours might feature as small pieces of cloth, or coloured candles, or different coloured flowers or crystals. Alternatively you might like to honour the elements by using crystals, stones, plants or soil to represent Earth, an indoor water fountain, a bowl of water, seashells, essential oils or wine for Water, a candle, incense, or an image of the sun for Fire and feathers, flags, essential oils or incense for Air. The use of the four elements is a wonderful way to acknowledge the four windows of perception: thinking (air), feeling (water), sensing (earth) and intuition (fire). Sometimes an altar can be dedicated to just one specific element, especially if we have a specific purpose in mind. Lets say you have chosen a small table to use for your altar space, and you have found a perfect spot for it in the living room in a quiet corner where you won’t have to disturb the energy of your altar with other activities. You might want to clean the space well, to create a fresh, clean foundation for your altar. Then spend a bit of time clarifying your intent, or saying a prayer. In other words, focus your attention and be completely present. The next step is easy - place the items you chose in the way that speaks to you the most. Trust your intuition as to the right placement. Once you have finished all that’s needed is a small simple ceremony to activate your altar. This can be achieved by saying a small prayer, lighting a candle and maybe a stick of incense, or a sprig of white sage. Whichever way you choose, simplicity is often better than complex elaborate rituals.
The energy of your altar will get stronger in time and is powered by your attention to it, so be sure to keep a living connection to it. This can be accomplished by spending time in silence or meditation by your altar regularly. Lighting a candle, burning fragrant incense, adding new items, or moving existing ones into new positions will help keep the energy flowing and vibrant. Your altar will inevitably change over time, so trust that you do not have to have it all perfect when you start. Sometimes a candle and a crystal might be all you need to begin with. It is the energy you feel and your urge to express it that matters the most. There is no limit to how many altar spaces you create in your home. For an outdoor garden you can also work with a water feature, along with crystals and statues. The altar is a canvas upon which we can paint the various and often contradictory portraits of ourselves. The creation of an altar becomes a visual metaphor for the essential self; a bridge between the inner world and the world of form. Here in this sacred space we are free to capture and display shapes, hues and textures that reveal the substance of our invisible essence. Once set up, it begins to tell the story of our inner life, and offers a means by which we can make sense of what we are really feeling and being in the busy cycle of our lives. It provides a formal space we can visit, calm down and simplify, where we can sit and simply stare. Creating an altar is a life-affirming act in a world that at times can seem chaotic and destructive. It becomes a constant reminder that we are an integral part of a living cosmos, and that we are continually touched by Divine mystery; that we are never alone, but always connected and part of something bigger than ourselves. Through altar practice we get to contemplate powerful questions: Who am I? What healing or blessing do I need? What gives me peace? What am I thankful for? What inspires me? What makes me feel alive? What is my offering to the world? Above all remember that altar making should always be both reverential and fun, so relax and trust in the process. Know that various objects such as scarves for altar clothes, statues, pictures, candles, and candleholders will find their way to you. Objects you find around the house, in the yard, or in the shed will suddenly appear in a different light as you become more in tune with the art of altar creation. Altar objects are sacred because you consider them special--that is the only criterion.