Tag Archives: altar

Art and the Altar

What do you offer? While I very much like candles and incense, I’m conscious every time I strike a match that fire is part of the problem at the moment. Humans need to burn less, and burning things as an act of reverence or prayer makes me deeply uneasy. But, what do you do with an altar if you aren’t burning things?

I’ve been experimenting with having an altar space for some months now, and trying to figure out how to do that in a way that makes sense to me. I’m interested in the way altars can function as spiritual instillations – I see plenty of photos online of the sacredness people create by making beauty. Changing what’s on an altar to reflect the season, or a festival, or a specific focus can clearly be a lovely thing to do.

I’m short of space. There is nowhere I can keep things that could be on the altar – either it lives there or it doesn’t. I do bring in seasonal finds, but that’s occasional and it happens when it does. I’ve tried liquid offerings, but I can’t leave them out – I’m clumsy and bump into things, and also there is a cat who at some point is going to get himself to the top of the bookcase.

I’m currently experimenting with the idea of making art for the altar. It’s something I can do at need, for whatever reason occurs to me. I can use it to reflect seasons and festivals. It is an offering of time and care, and it means trying to make something of beauty. It’s a lot cheaper than buying things to put on the altar, and paper doesn’t take much storing.

My first serious attempt at this was a set of three roses for Valentine’s Day. I’m not much into the hetronormative romance as performance. I don’t like commercialism around this day or any of the other social festivals. But, I also had a lot of other things going on and I wanted to honour the idea of love, and this seemed like a way to do it.

The Messy Altar

Back in the autumn we established a household altar space. It was a big decision – being three adults and a small cat in a small flat, space is at a premium. But, it felt right to dedicate space, and it felt necessary. We talked about what we wanted the space for and what we needed it to do, and then we started experimenting.

My son suggested that a non-binary green person would be a good thing to have, and Keith Healing made us a rowan spirit image on rowan wood. Some of my old ritual kit – wooden goblets – have taken up residence, and some small items of personal significance. We’ve brought in seasonal materials, and we’ve improvised trying to find out how best to use this space.

At the moment, the altar is messy – there’s ivy on it we took from a fallen tree, and there’s a sprawling bowl of hyacinths, the perfume from which fills the flat. It’s a chaotic space, and for the first time since we started, I feel like this is how it should be – a bit wild, excessive, and alive.

Altars are highly personal. At the moment, it’s easy to find lots of glamorous online images of altars made with the shiniest and priciest of items. Sometimes this will make sense. But, it’s not about the money spent, it is about making a space for your heart and soul and doing what makes sense to you.

Sacred Space

A rowan tree spirit, on rowan wood, created by Keith Healing. Now part of the family altar space.

Making an altar

Ten years ago and more, altars were part of my life as a Druid. I like having dedicated space in this way. However, for a couple of years I lived on a narrowboat, and there wasn’t any space to dedicate. Horizontal surfaces were at a premium. So there was no altar.

This flat is also small, and horizontal space has also been at a premium. We live and work here – three of us, and for a while, four of us. There have also been cats, and cats and altars do not mix well unless you can keep the one off the other reliably.

The last week has been really hard. There is now no cat, and we’ve been unexpectedly a household of three when three of us thought we were a household of four. It’s complicated, painful and I write this with no clarity on what’s going on. There’s nothing sensible or useful I can do.

My Druidry has always, to some degree, been what I do in self defence.  This is something I may need to look at and rethink. Often I am at my most willing to dig in with magic and spirituality when I am most in trouble. I tend to manifest my Druidry more on the service and creativity side when life is ok.

So, I made an altar space. For the first time, I made a cooperative altar space. In the past, James was simply too young and not really interested in engaging with the spaces I made. He was interested in Druidry as a child, but more the bard stuff and having an invisible fairy dog (it’s a long story).  This is the first time Tom and I have had shared space we felt willing and able to dedicate in this way.

We’ve talked about what should be on a household altar. We’ve put some things together, and talked about how and when to change that. We’ve made a heart space that we haven’t had before in this flat, and we’ve made the decision to give that some priority. I’ve pulled out old ritual kit that’s been stashed and I’ve started thinking about what it means to me to have dedicated sacred space inside the flat, and what I might do with that, and who it is for.

An altar raises all sorts of questions around intent, and connection, who to honour and how. It raises issues about what it makes sense to do symbolically. Who are we inviting in by making offerings? What do we want to change in our lives by doing this?

In part I wanted to change the energy of the space. I wanted to make something good that could be a focus for love, for beauty, for connection. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about how to better invite magic and wonder into my life, and this is in part a consequence of that process.

I feel better for doing it. I feel like I’ve reclaimed a part of myself that I’ve not been able to make enough space for in recent years. I feel that making this altar space is an act of commitment to a certain kind of future and an expression of how I want to be in the world. I’ve done all of this from a place of feeling grim and lost, and I’ve done it as an act of dedication to not giving up on myself, on the future, or on hope.

Where is your temple?

(Or, why I prefer to do it outdoors)

I know a lot of Pagans do their rituals inside. There are advantages – privacy, quiet, warmth, not being rained on. Other people dogs and children will not roam through your circle. Toilets are close to hand, and other useful resources. It can be fitted in around the rest of your life without much hassle, and you can wear whatever you like, or nothing at all, without fear of the consequences.

I have done rituals inside. Mostly because I was working with a group and either the weather, or the proposed work meant others wanted a degree more security than the woods could offer. Group work has to include a degree of compromise sometimes.

All the reasons for staying in, are also reasons to go out. Yes, people will see you. This can make you feel exposed, vulnerable and like an idiot, but if we take what we do seriously, then we should be able to stand that. Being able to be a pagan in a semi-public place without shame, is a good thing, and worth experiencing. It also means showing a few lone souls what we do, and that doesn’t hurt either. We may be strange people in the woods, but if others see that we cause no harm, sacrifice no chickens and summon no demons, that helps tackle a few myths about pagans right there. Of course if you do want to dance naked (does anyone actually dance naked?) there might be issues.

Yes, you will be disrupted by the weather. You will get cold, be rained on. The fire will go out. Insects will bite you. Someone will tread in excrement. It will get dark and you will not be able to read the script. But this is nature, as it really is. Not the ‘nature’ we might worship in abstract from a living room, but the dirty, messy, uncomfortable, demanding reality of it. If you can get out there, honour it in person, deal with the dubious stains and the setbacks, it’s so much more real. It’s a much more honest, grounded kind of paganism.

It takes more effort to gather outside, safely, effectively, with the right gear. You can’t just hop into your personal magical space, do a quick thing and get back to regular life. Ritual outside is a big event. It will take energy. This is a good thing. The more you put in, the more you get out, so look at these challenges as an open invitation to put more in, and see where it goes.

You can’t wear what you like. An icy wood at imbolc is not the place for dainty heels, flouncy shirts, or even cloaks. You need solid boots and a good coat. Working outside through most of the year knocks some of the scope for pageantry out of the ritual. So if the aesthetics matter to you, you have to work harder. See previous comments about putting more in. Otherwise, if you are the kind of person who mostly lives indoors, this will be a profound journey. Learning about the reality of nature, the demands it makes of your body, the kit you need for basic comfort – is all good. It’s all real, it all teaches lessons.

It takes determination to do a ritual in the pouring rain, or to trudge out through the snow for one. It takes the right gear and a bit of will to handle a scorchingly hot day, or a bitter wind that you can’t shout over. You will pause and ask why the hell you are doing this to yourself, what it is for and whether there is any point. The gods are clearly not on your side. Perhaps they don’t care if the ritual happens or not. Why not go home and see what’s on the telly?

At that point, some people will give up and either decide they aren’t pagans, or embrace the living room altar with new zeal and fervour. But for the people who survive, who work out why they were out there in all that weather trying to speak some lines… there is a whole new understanding to be found about what paganism means to us. That’s worth getting rained on for.