Several months ago, I walked into a yoga class, dripping sweat from running...
Many historical faiths use Altars as a focal point of worship, including Greek and Norse religion. Altars are used in almost all spiritual practices and organized religions. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Freemasonry and and Judaism all use altars in some form or fashion. To a smaller extent, core Shamanism employs a sort of mobile altar in practice. The reasons these institutions and belief systems use altars vary widely on the “how”, but the “why” is pretty consistent among all. Some altars can be as small as a sacred space cleared for two people, and some are as large as whole buildings. There are some who believe that our physical bodies in ordinary reality are altars. They can be temporary or permanent structures, and can be used once, or over and over by 1000’s of visitors.
When I say that the “how” varies widely, I mean that the style of the altar varies with the culture of the community creating them. Altars can be very personal creations by those who create the altar. A quick search of google images CLICK HERE will show this diversity. Objects are usually placed on the altar that have some type of significance to the beliefs of the geographical area, and possibly, to the person creating it. In some belief systems. spirits will actually tell you what objects belong on the altar during the process of building the altar. The objects’ origins may also be from the same geographical and cultural area. For these reasons, altars may look wildly different, while still attempting to achieve the same spiritual objectives.
Altars are used to create a focal point for a particular spiritual activity. These activities can take many forms, but some of the more common reasons people visit an altar are:
- requesting spiritual assistance – This is probably one of the more common reasons that one may build or visit an altar. Their are an infinite number of reasons one might feel the need for spiritual assistance during their time in this ordinary reality (ie. sick relative, failing marriage, spiritual incongruity). The requests are usually in the form of relief from some spiritual or emotional pain, and can quite often be accompanied by physical pain.
- veneration – the act of paying respect or admiration to some aspect of ones’ spiritual beliefs. In Christianity, it is very common to pay one’s respects to the dead, or Roman Catholic saints. In Shamanism, we pay our respects or venerate our spirit guides. In the southern spiritualist churches, ancestor worship and respect is the bedrock of an ancient belief system that was carried from West Africa to the US during slave trade . Veneration would also include thanking spirit guides, Saints, etc. for favors granted after spiritual assistance is requested.
Altars have been part of spiritual practices since the dawn of spirituality. Ancient indigenous tribes of the world used them in Shamanic ceremonies and rituals common to their practices. Southern spiritualists, Voodoo practitioners, hoodoo and conjure practices use them in ceremonies and ancestral veneration among other rituals. Roman Catholics use them more commonly in celebration of the mass. In each of these examples, we are focusing spiritual energy in the direction of the altar to achieve our spiritual purposes.
During altar ceremonies and rituals, including the mass, it is not uncommon to cleanse the altar to clear sacred space or clear the altar and space of all negative energies. This is commonly accomplished by burning sage, incense, tobacco or any combination of the above. It is a way of preparing for a visit from spirit helpers, Saints or other deities that may feel comfortable enough to visit us for our spiritual veneration or requests. This is not unlike the ordinary reality process of cleaning the house before company comes. Almost across the board, smoke is considered a spiritual cleansing agent, hence the reason for its use in these activities.
Another way of experiencing the full effect of how altars are used would be to search youtube or some other video site on the web and search for “altar ceremonies” and watch some examples of how priests, healers and spiritual practitioners use altars in their daily practice.
Mark Glynn, CSP