Updated: Oct 14, 2021
An altar is a place where one goes to enter into communion, make offerings, and create or participate in ceremony.
Altars are often described as points of power or points of focus and they are found in every religious and mystical tradition. Altars are an aspect of the sacred arts that we all hold in common.
When we think of altars we assume that they are only found in public places and/or religious spaces like churches or temples. But people have had altars and personal shrines in their individual homes that serve many purposes at the same time: in times when individuals lived far away from a central place of worship the personal altar allowed people to still participate in the rites and ceremonies of their traditions; and in other times the presence of the personal altar has allowed people to be in communion, make offerings, and make ceremony without the oversight of the dominate religious institution but in their own creative way.
The Qer’o people of the Andes (an indigenous people in the lineage of the ancient Incans) know an altar creates a portal to the heavenly realms. With prayers, intention and attention to honor the ancestors, the elementals and spirit helpers with the altar as the focal point, a column of light emanates from the heavens downward into the center of Mother Earth via the altar space. This column of light is called a canali, and acts as a gateway for angels, guides and masters from the heavenly realms to come into your place of prayer and ceremony. They come to answer your prayers and bring blessings from the supernatural worlds of Spirit.
Altars are created and used by many peoples around the world, indigenous, religious, and vastly spiritually oriented. There is a common experience of creating sacred spaces for prayers to be focused, sent and received to and from the Divine. Native Americans, Peruvians, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, protestants, Celtic Druids, and on and on and on, find sacred objects, for sacred spaces, to set an altar to speak to Great Spirit, God, Goddess, the Divine.
Pregamming for Altar Work:
Body as altar is a useful practice because it is true, it is good for our bodies, and it allows us to start thinking about altars in a different way – not simply as points in space and time but as living, breathing, creations that we have an ongoing and dynamic relationship with. When we view our body as a holy place then we make slight, or in some cases significant, changes in how we eat and drink, how much sleep and rest we make time for, what kinds of physical rituals we engage in, and even who we choose to associate with.
For your Altar:
1. Have a Designated space – altars require some space. If you do not have any space at this time for an altar but wish to have one then you can create a portable altar by making a shrine with a cigar box, mirrored box, or other container.
2. Distraction-free zone – once you have worked at your altar consistently you will find that you barely register distractions. However, when starting out, it is smart to ensure that you will be as little interrupted as possible during the time you spend at your altar.
3. Proper placement – There are many different templates made for different altars. There should be an element of earth, air, water, and fire on your template, along with a picture of an ancestor or spiritual guide (whether it’s an orisha, an angel, or even a saint) that will aid your navigation into the spiritual realm. Also be mindful of the direction your altar is pointing toward, whether its north, south, east or west. The placement of your altar can provide additional support to your altar work and enhance the vibrations of your intentions and manifestations.
An altar in the North may well have a grounding influence on your work. Long ago we oriented ourselves to the North Star and we still use due North to give us direction and help us navigate. An altar placed in the north can function in the same way. If you feel scattered, not sure whether you are coming or going, and easily distracted then an altar in the North is a good choice.
An altar in the East honors the rising of the Sun. Working with the sun is something that our ancestors did regularly. We depend on the sun’s rising and setting to designate the length of our days, our sense of time and season. The rising sun is the growing and strengthening sun, radiating more light and life into our lives as it ascends. An altar placed in the east is aligned with: vibrancy, new beginnings, strength, growth, possibility and potential.
South, West, and the point at center, also have their own qualities to consider and now that you know how to think and feel into proper placement I am sure you can figure out what those qualities are for yourself.
4. Cleansing and Preparing your Altar
Spiritual cleansing is a very old practice and can be done in a number of different ways. Essential Oils, holy water, rose water and agua florida and water that you have blessed yourself can be used. Anoint the four corners of your altar with your liquid. Then cleanse the space in the environment, by first smudging white sage then palo santo in the air. Then place clear quartz around your altar to amplify the energies you’re are creating.
Then its time to figure our who you are honoring and making offerings to, is it yourself? Is it an ancestor? Is it an orisha? When working with other energies and intelligences, it is very common for the requests for offerings to change throughout the course of your work. If your practice is to offer up red wine then you will need an offering bowl on the altar. If your practice is to light a candle then you need to have the matches close by.
Also, offerings that are edible should either be placed on the altar to be blessed and offered up and then consumed by you, or, after a reasonable period of time ritually disposed of; they should not be left to mold on the altar.