If you peruse a few Paganism for Beginners-type books, you’ll find that nearly all of them start with the act of assembling one’s altar. This isn’t surprising – altars are arguably, in some form or another, a ubiquitous element across religious and spiritual practices. It is a centre for activity, a focal point for one’s devotional exercises…in short, the altar may be one of the most important physical features of a religion or spiritual path.
A quick glance at the Instagram #altar hashtag reveals that most altars consist of small, dedicated spaces in the practitioner’s home. However, those who have easy access to natural space may also create an altar space hidden within the landscape; given that many neo-pagan and spiritual practices emphasise the need to reconnect with nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that many practitioners consider this an ideal to strive towards.
A more recent phenomenon within neo-pagan circles of today is the creating of hidden or minimalist altars; this comes as a response to a variety of issues, including smaller living spaces and the need for hiding one’s practice from others. For the latter case, digital altars have also become popular (McSherry 2010). By utilising social media networks that encourage collating images and posts from around the Internet (for example, Tumblr or Pinterest), an altar can be creating in the digital space, easily hidden from others.
Components of the average, modern day altar (read: not based on any particular, non-neo-pagan religion or pantheon) seem to take inspiration from popular practices such as Gardnerian Wicca, which in turn arguably appropriates from many other religious practices (Sylvan 2016). Ritual tools such as the athame, the pentacle, and the chalice are usually on hand, often consecrated with oil or water prior to use (future blog posts will discuss each of these tools individually). Again, there is also an emphasis on nature worship in many of these spiritual practices, so altars may often have representations for each of the four elements (i.e. candle for fire, incense for air, a seashell for water, and a plant for earth). Additional altar items will often depend on the particular focus of one’s practice – many neo-pagans associate with particular pantheons, which may in turn dictate how they adorn their altars, for example.
So, how could we look at the modern day altar through a more archaeological lens? In some ways, this can be problematic – the use of the word “ritual” has been contested and debated amongst archaeologists for years, and probably requires its own post to fully discuss. But, if we consider the altar as a place of ritual, this requires that we consider the entire space as well in our archaeological investigation. Moser and Feldman (2014) have discussed ritual as a “performance” that cannot be studied without spatial context included.
In Wicca, for example, the acts of “Casting the Circle” and “Calling the Corners” are important components to ritual – this refers to the act of either physically or metaphorically creating a sacred space to perform one’s ritual, and then calling in the four “corners” (North, South, East, and West), sometimes along with reciting the four elements, although this varies amongst practitioners (Sylvan 2016). Given the emphasis on creating one’s sacred space, you could understand why spatial context is important for discussing an altar. As previously discussed, many modern altars are created in specific rooms or natural landscapes – this echoes a recurring theme found in ritual archaeology, where sacred spaces play with this dichotomy of built/natural places (Dematte 2014). It also provides a clue as to what the focus of the practice was on – a modern day altar created overlooking an ocean, for example, could indicate that the practitioner considers themselves a “sea witch”, or someone who worships a particular sea deity. Further clues could be discovered by the materials found within the altar space, but it is the spatial components that provide much of the background information (Williamson 2014).
But what about altars that are found amongst the everyday? Those that are found tucked in between bookshelves, or hidden in closets, or found in digital form only? Spatial context is still important, but now we move onto practicality – what is feasible? What will work within the individual context? For many, including modern witches that keep their practice secular (non-religious), ritual and practicality are one and the same. A ritual (or a spell) is performed in order to achieve a particular outcome, so it would make sense that certain altars may be placed where that practicality makes most sense; for example, there are many instances of altars made with the intention of focus or prosperity that are then placed in an office or similar working environment. Some modern practitioners of witchcraft may specialise in a particular kind of magic, so their altar may make more sense in a particular room; kitchen witchery, for example, would obviously require an altar in the kitchen.
Altars found within what we may call a “domestic” sphere also brings into mind another archaeological debate: should we consider the sacred and the profane as separated? Or can these spheres be one and the same? Many sects of neo-paganism, as well as Wiccan and witchcraft practices, would argue that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016); from the way one stirs their coffee to the way they dress for the day, there is a possibility to place purpose behind every action. Again, there may also be a “practicality” factor at play here: as we live in a period of late capitalism, where many work longer hours (and/or multiple jobs!) with less pay, maybe there is a need for making everything ritual. When you lack the time for spirituality, you make do – perhaps by combing your spiritual practices with your secular ones.
The altar is simultaneously both a simple and complex concept to understand and discuss: on one hand, it simply represents a place of ritual and spiritual focus. On the other hand, there are many complex factors that are at play: is it a consecrated and/or removed place from the everyday and profane? Or is it an immersed experience that reflects the idea that everything is sacred? Is it an altar of practicality and functionality, where ritual tools are stored and used? Or is it more meditative, with items to allow for focused mediation and prayer? Or both? Perhaps these considerations can be applied to current archaeological debates regarding past religions and rituals – maybe things are more complex (or more simple?) than we all thought?
Dematte, P. (2014) Itinerant Creeds: the Chinese Northern Frontier. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.
McSherry, L. (2010) Cyber Altars: Using New Technology in Traditional Ways. Llewellyn’s 2010 Witches’ Companion: An Almanac for Everyday Living. Llewellyn Publications. (p. 72-78)
Moser, C. and Feldman, C. (2014) Introduction. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.
Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.
Williamson, C. (2014) Power of Place: Ruler, Landscape, and Ritual Space at the Sanctuaries of Labraunda and Mamurt Kale in Asia Minor. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.