For the ritual my buisness partner Jamie and I wrote for PantheaCon 2009 I set myself the challenge of crafting the main god figures for the center altar. It took a while, but i managed to get them done just in time for the convention and the ritual!

Now that ritual is over they are for sale in our Artfire shop and I can show them off here! 🙂 The awesome photos are by Jamie (of course) who now has a whole bunch of her photography up in the shop by the way!

I’ve also been doing a little bit of writing for Artfire.com’s Art Daily. So far they have posted two of my pieces. One is a short article about how to create your own beaded doll head. The other is about how to be friends with people with allergies and chemical sensitivities (like me!) I hope you’ll swing by Artfire and take a look!

Blessings,

Kate

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Altars and Altar Building

November 15, 2007

I have been an avid altar builder for years. At first it was simple things, a candle or two, a feather, some incense and off we go. Over the years, and depending on the reason and need, I have built more lavish altars to the point where some folks have suggested I write a book about altar building. In this case, my lack of compiling with this suggestion is more about my own puzzlement than any procrastination in my head. And by puzzlement I mean thoughts running through my head like “well… ok, but you just put stuff on the altar and it looks pretty.” I am really not trying to be dense, I guess I just do altars as an instinctual process so much of the time that I forget that others don’t do things the same way. For me, building an altar is “simple”. I really am not trying to sound like an ego maniac here… I just don’t think it through most of the time. So I thought I would give it a shot and try to describe my altar building process.

I build altars for a couple of reasons. One reason I build altars is to have a focal point for meditation, ritual, or magical work. Another reason I build altars is because they are pretty and fun (I know that’s a two for one, but work with me here). A more practical reason is because sometimes you just need a place to put the script and the cork screw, so you might as well make it pretty. Altars are also made for specific functions and seasonal needs.

Like most humans I am very visually oriented. I need images, objects and the written word to move between tasks and places. So magically an altar serves as one of the anchor points for me. the main altar is usually the main place of focus and attention, though not always where the majority of decorating happens. This altar needs to be functional, so there must be room for the matches, the wine, the cakes and the script along with the ritual tools (in my case usually this means a cup, an Athame, a pentacle, a scourge and a wand). If the space for the altar – the table or box is small then this altar needs to be stripped down and basic. It needs to have the tools first and foremost, the mundane as well the magical, and only after those needs are seen to does the decorating happen.

Other altars get to be prettier more of the time. Directional altars, altars for specific deities, the ancestors and so forth, while at times the focus of the working, usually are not the focus of the mundane elements and so can have more decorative components.

I guess this is where I say that while altars don’t have to be pretty, and filled with lots of stuff, I think if they are not at least aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity, then something is not working quite right. Maybe that’s my bias, but that’s what I strive for when I build altars – beauty along with functionality.

Before I start building an altar I decide what its function will be: will it be the main altar of an Essbat or a Sabbat? Will it represent a deity or archetypal energy like one of the elements? Here are a few examples of work I have done, two are for deities, and two are main altars for specific events.

Deity altars are lots of fun because for most deities there is enough information about who and what they are, what elements or energies they work with, what animals they are associated with and the like, to provide many options on things to include on the altar.

Demeter’s altar

 

This is an altar for Demeter that I built a few years ago for my private use. I like using varying levels in altars to give a variety of visual shapes and looks. The box in the middle is a box of holding – it includes two drawers to hold the items I used to make offerings to Demeter: olive oil, poppy seeds, barely, orange spray and honey. On top of the box is a bowl to receive the offerings bracketed by two stone carvings of horses to represent Demeter’s role as Queen of Horses. Behind the bowl are two different representations of wheat. The front one is actually a candle holder, the back one is a plaque that I accented with strategically placed bits of paint. The colors of fabric range from blue to gold both of which are colors that I associate with Demeter. The gold is the more common color for her with all her associations with wheat and honey. The blue is for her connection to the ocean.

 

When I started building this altar, I converted a bookshelf and so needed to find a home for the misplaced books. Next was a quick cleaning to get all the dust and old energies out of the space. Then honestly there is a lot of sitting there listening to the space, to Demeter, and my instincts. Slowly I get a feeling for what might work and start hanging fabric to create the container for the other elements. Next came height issues… so I played with a couple of different sized boxes to see which would both work well in the altar and give me the storage space I needed for the offering supplies. I already had a collection of items like the plaque, the candles and the horses set aside as elements I knew I wanted to work into the design. Now that the surfaces were set up, I could start playing with laying out these items and see what fit with what. A little tinkering and I settled on a design that felt right. Over the next few days, as I worked with the altar I tweaked a few things here and there, adding one or two more items, taking away some things in balance.

 

Here is another example of an altar to Diety – this time several in one. This is an altar my housemate and I created to honor all the Dead Gods that members of our household are working with: Hella, Ghede, and Mamman Bridgette specifically.

Dead Gods altar 2007

 

This altar was built in a space under the spiral stairs connecting the upper and lower parts of our house. We all like the symbolism implied in the altar to dead gods being under the stairs and on the lower level. Here again we used several levels both for visual interest and to help get all the gods a section for their icons and offerings. In years past we have used black and white, this year black and red felt like a good choice. The first thing we did was to cover the space in black fabric for the color and feel, and to keep the dust off the elements of the altar (all the traffic on the stairs brings lots of dirt and dust between the treads). In keeping with the theme, there are several skulls used here. One is in fact a human skull that was legal purchased from that joy of shopping – the bone room. Another is a resin skull representing Papa Ghede, and the third is actual a votive holder made of plaster. In addition there is the lower portion of a horse jaw bone that is used in connection with Hella. The two bowls of stones and stuff are representative of burial mounds. The one on the middle level belongs to Hella, the one on the upper level belongs to Mamman Bridgette. Once again, we provided a plate to receive offerings as needed and candles, this time home made, for the various powers.

 

Altars for a specific ritual natural have other needs to be addressed. General these can be seen as highly decorated main altars where the decorations help to align the altar with the theme and focus of the ritual.

This first picture is from a ritual my husband and I did with our coven to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary and to support all the member of the coven in making and keeping strong, vibrant partnerships.

 

Altar for Wedding Anniversary 2006

Here I used the underskirt from my wedding dress, with its heavily beaded trim, as the altar cloth to tie all the energies of the altar and the ritual in to the purpose and theme of the work. The rest of the altar items are things normally used by the coven during ritual with the addition of our wedding goblets as the chalice for cakes and wine, and flowers reminiscent of those used in my wedding bouquet. As flashy as this altar seems, most of the difference and flash comes from the choice of fabric for the altar cloth. Using the skirt could have been awkward, but in fact worked out very well magically for all involved.

These last two altar pictures are from another coven event, this time for Beltane several years ago. The ritual was held out doors in our backyard using an old willow tree stump as the main altar.

Beltaine Altar full

There was an amazing crop of Lilacs that year and I had bought several bunches which we used around the base of the stump to give that luscious Beltane, fruitfulness of the gods feeling that comes with the season.

Beltaine altar close up

The items on the altar are again several tools that are normally used by the coven in ritual with the addition of the plaque and goddess statue in the middle and the bowl of beads (that later had water added to it) to the right. All the statuary by the way is from Paul Borda of Dryad Designs… I just added a little paint to my copies to spice things up.

As far as I can tell, there really is no wrong way to make an altar. Sure, you can put too many things on a small surface or use clashing colored cloths, but in the end, if you come to the process with love and focused intention of making something beautiful for yourself and the gods, then I think you will succeed, no matter how many kitten statues or feathers you choose to use. And above all, have fun and enjoy the process. Altar building is like coloring with three dimensional objects… inside or outside the line does not matter, what matters is having fun and making something you like.

Blessings,

Kate