Altars are wonderful things. Nearly every Pagan that I know has one. Except me. Back when I first started on the path of Paganism, my days within Wicca, I attempted to keep an altar. Nothing elaborate, just a decent sized piece of quartz that I kept on a small table. While I had all the religious protections a person could have when I was in the United States Air Force; it was still never a good idea to flaunt your beliefs in front of others. That “altar” lasted about a year. I never used it for anything. It just sat there.
Of course, I was a bit ignorant of the entire concept of what a devotional practice was. Plus, I was still fleshing out just exactly how I felt and believed about the concept of Polytheism. So, it only seems natural that I would not have utilized an altar for anything, except to just have one. Which, to a certain degree, makes it completely useless.
These days, I am claimed by one God, work with another God, and a Goddess. On the rare occasion, I may have a need for an altar as a focal point in practicing some aspect of magick. And yet…I still don’t have one. Well, sort of. I do have my stone circle in the back yard. I do some of my ritual work there. When I do practice magick, I usually find myself there. And yet, I’m still unsure of calling that an altar, because it really is not. Its similar in nature, but not really the same thing. At least not in my mind. But then…
On a small bookshelf next to the door of my office, I have a small statue of Mother Nature, Maiden of the Forest, along with two stones. Hanging over this is my Crow-skull mask. Leaning against the bookshelf is my staff. This is about as close as things get to an altar for me. Or at least what would resemble an altar. if I did anything there. But does the lack of doing anything at this particular representation take away any aspect of significance that it might have as an altar? Let’s have a look…
The definition I found for an altar at dictionary.com was thus: “A table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity.” Well, that seems fairly straight-forward, right? No sacrifices, no offerings — no altar. But then, I started to notice some variations as to the definition, particularly one that stated: “a platform or table used as a center of worship.” Ok, in my case, this means that what I have described as a potential altar in my office – just is not.
However, this does seem to provide a description for an altar for one’s ancestors. A surface where the individuals that had come before are venerated. Perhaps, you light a candle next to their pictures on significant days, such as the day of their birth. Which started me down a path of trying to find all types of altar uses. And I realized that it would be a ton of stuff that would lead to boring writing.
So let’s say that an altar can be utilized for sacrifice, offerings, worship, and a good deal many things that we don’t need to go into massive detail on. As a Pagan or a Polytheist, are you required to have one? I would say no. If you are comfortable with having one – have one. If its just not your bag, then let the thought go and move on with what is important in your practice. I am certainly not one to stand on absolutes in anything. There are individual preferences to be considered. And after all…you know your personal practice far better than I would.
So, in that instance, could my bookshelf setup be considered an altar? Sure, someone might consider it to be just that. For me…not really. Its just a nice looking display in my office, on a small bookshelf – where I happen to lean my staff. The closest thing I have to an altar is the stone circle…and its not really an altar. But that’s just my personal preference. Your own mileage will certainly vary.