Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Altar Overhaul

This past month of blogging has been heavy with abstraction and theory, but that's not all I've been up to. In those moments when I step back and take a look at myself, I'm still a bit stunned at this sudden surge of energy and focus I've had since the winter solstice.

It was a little less than a year ago, just after passing my First Degree Exam with AODA, that I decided to cease formal study with the Order for a little while. I didn't perform the ritual self-initiation to enter the first degree of Druid Apprentice at the time, since one aspect of the ritual was to describe what you had learned during your time as a Candidate; while I'd written twenty-seven pages worth of reflection for my exam on this very topic, I wanted to be absolutely sure, to gain some perspective about some of the fundamental ways that Druidry had thus far shaped and changed me, before I committed to formal membership and further study. The following year was quiet and contemplative when it came to my spiritual path. I kept blogging, thinking and spending a great deal of time out in nature. I read a bit of Celtic mythology and other texts that were beyond the "Druidry 101" types I'd been lining my shelf with up until that point. But for the most part I lapsed back into observer-mode, the role I had occupied for several years as a student in college, studying Neopaganism from the outside-in before finally trying my hand at this whacky nature-worship hoopla for myself. For the past year, I've done very little actual spiritual work. I've continued to go on walks and attend to nature, but I haven't prayed, meditated or even done much ritual on the holy days. I just... didn't feel like it.

I'm not sure what exactly changed this Alban Arthan past, but something sure has kicked back into gear. I've felt a sense of renewal and more solidified commitment. Along with the intense serial posts that I've spent a great deal of time working on, I recently determined that it was absolutely essential to address the issue of my altar, which had been bothering me for quite some time. Over the year--especially in the autumn, as a means of coping with some annual bad-memories-relived issues--I had turned my altar area mainly into a kind of shrine to the local landscape of the natural world, scattered with leaves, seeds, nuts and stones I'd collected on my weekly walks. But with this new spurt of energy, and a renewed commitment to regular meditation that I'd already started to make good on, I decided to sit down and work on an "altar overhaul."

Assessing Needs

First, I made a list of the ideal uses that I would like my main altar to serve:

  • as a shrine, to display important and/or aesthetic objects (such as candles, statues, paintings, cards, other objects)

  • as a space of offering, incorporating objects from nature such as leaves, stones, flowers, shells, seeds, etc., to be placed in an offering dish or among the other ritual items on display

  • a focal point for meditation and prayer, with comfortable seating and an aesthetically pleasing balance in design, to draw me naturally and eagerly into the space

I quickly realized that my current altar set-up, in trying to meet all these needs, failed to meet any of them fully. I also noticed that I had no real interest in the kind of "working altar" and its tools that was commonly found in witchcraft and other kinds of magical practices, although this model of functionality (and elemental correspondence, especially) had been the first type I'd been introduced to and was still shaping my expectations in many ways.

Next, I tried to pinpoint some of the biggest problems with my current altar, to give me a clearer picture of what issues I would need to resolve:

  • using the top of my bureau as a shrine meant having a mirror as a permanent backdrop; not only did this limit the amount of decorative elements I could incorporate (as well as providing a distracting full-view reflection of myself during ritual), but using the mirror for mundane purposes meant that I had to literally "overlook" the shrine on a daily basis

  • a lack of comfortable seating (in particular a floor cushion that would allow me to sit in my preferred cross-legged position) discouraged me from extended or regular use; pulling up a chair required inconvenient furniture rearranging, plus the shape of bureau made sitting close awkward, with no room for my knees

  • the shape of the bureau top was flat and long, so that my altar was broken into smaller areas some of which had no organized theme whatsoever; it often felt too long to be practical, and didn't have an aesthetic "flow" or coherence necessary to create an inviting or inspiring space

  • at the most basic level, the area was impractical for activities such as burning candles or incense, or lighting small controlled fires in my cauldron; not enough space to allow for ease and comfort, amplified by my worries about wax or burn marks ruining a nice wood finish, provided too many causes for distraction or discomfort

With these problems clearly identified, I soon began to prioritize and scope out my apartment for possible new locations and set-ups for a more practical altar space. I found a corner in my bedroom that had become a kind of random-pile-of-stuff mess, so I buckled down and cleared it out, brought an old round end table up from basement storage, lugged a huge forgotten cushion out of the closet, and followed my instinct.

Over the past month or so, my most pressing priority had become a practical altar for meditation. I'd already begun meditating again before going to bed each night, sitting on my bed in my pajamas working at simple Sphere of Protection visualizations and occasionally going to my inner nemeton or sacred grove. But I wanted something more, something set off from the nightly routine: a candle to light, burning incense to mark the beginning of meditative time and permeate the space with a sense of quiet, sacred stillness. And for some reason, I really wanted to pour water over stones.

Cultivating Enchantment

I can't really explain this last desire--it is essentially nonrational. During family summer vacations in Acadia National Park, ME, in recent years, I'd taken to pouring out small amounts of water onto the ground when I stopped for a drink during long hikes. The huge granite slabs of the coastal mountain peaks, warm with long hours of sunlight, seemed to drink up the offering, glistening and growing darker where the water pooled and trickled between rough patches of lichen, into invisible fractures in the rock. I did it without thinking, as a way of showing my gratitude for the mountains, the earth, the pacing rocky shoreline and the sea racing out to meet endless sky. And now, thinking about my meditative practices and what my ideal altar would include, I found myself imagining the cairns and boulders of Acadia again, and seeing myself in a peaceful grove, kneeling and offering clear, fresh water (or maybe sometimes a bit of mead) to the earth.

This kind of nonrational ritual activity--pouring water over a small pile of stones, to soak into the soil beneath--had a strong aesthetic sense that enchanted and inspired me, so I decided to go with it. Rather than organize a new altar around the traditional four elements, I decided to focus instead on the Three Realms of Druidry: earth, sea and sky, represented by the bile (or sacred tree), the sacred fire, and the sacred well.

  • My mother had given me a beautiful hand-turned clay candle holder for Christmas, a deep gorgeous blue that rippled around a carved image of the sun, so I set to work washing out a small jar in which I could safely burn a tealight; this would be my sacred flame, a symbol of the sky and solar energies.

  • Next, I found a small blue bowl I'd bought more than a year ago, collecting dust in my kitchen cabinet. Filling it with sea salt infused water and laying a small mirror on its bottom, over which I scatter a few chips of moonstone and tiny snail shells I'd gathered along the beaches of Acadia, I now had my sacred well, to serve both as a symbol of the sea and of the lunar energies that would compliment and balance those of the sun.

  • Finally, I filled a round, green tray (which used to belong to a decorative planters pot) with rich, dark soil and built a small cairn out of river stones and rough pebbles; this would be my symbol for earth, this dish with its tiny axis mundi reaching upwards, circled by decorative green boughs.

I arranged these three items on the circular end table in the corner of my bedroom, rearranged a few chairs and bookcases to open up the space to allow for both standing meditation and sitting cross-legged on a cushioned elevated platform (i.e. a sturdy old wooden kids-sized table from my childhood that has outlasted every piece of brightly-colored plastic junk I ever owned). The altar faces southwest, and I often feel the interplay of fire and water, grounded deeply in the earth, as part of its inspiration and enchantment. During sessions of meditation, I place a small stick of incense to the left of the solar candle, and a pitcher next to the bowl of water. I fill the pitcher with fresh water before hand and, during my meditation, I infuse this with a few drops from the bowl before charging it with intention and gratitude and pouring it gently over the stones.

Back to Work

Soon after completing the overhaul and set up of my new altar, sewing my new white cotton meditation robes and practicing regularly for a good week and a half, I decided that I was indeed ready to finally commit to AODA's first degree of Druid Apprentice through the formal self-initiation ritual. So, once again, I found myself in need of a "working altar" arrayed with the four elemental cauldrons of the traditional AODA ritual. My meditation altar proved unsuitable for these purposes, and the shrine-like altar on my bureau was utterly impractical as well (not least because it did not allow me to walk circles around it, being up against a wall). Then it dawned on me: I had a perfectly good table already available, the one I had been using as a platform for my seated meditations. I kept it intentionally clear of clutter during the day to minimize the need to shuffle and rearrange objects when setting up my meditative space each evening. How simple it would be to pull this table out into the center of the room, arrange a chair in the south facing north, and set up a temporary "working altar" for practical ritual that could be easily dismantled again after the ceremony had finished.

This is precisely what I did. The dish of earth set in the north and the bowl of water in the west were complimented by a candle and incense in the south and east, and in the center I placed the solar candle as a focal point. Rather than merely representing the sky realm, as it did on my meditation altar, here it could serve to symbolize all Three Realms together: the candle inside still represented the sky and sacred fire, but now it floated in the jar I had filled with salt-infused water representing the sea, while the pottery itself, sculpted lovingly out of clay, came to represent the realm of earth. This jar full of water, which had felt the warmth of the sacred flame, I would later transfer into the lunar bowl on my meditation altar, where it would eventually blend with fresh waters and bless the soil and stones of the dish of earth. In this way, the energies and intentions at the center of my working altar would circulate in a fluid dynamic among the Three Realms in the sacred space where I quieted myself to meditate and pray, forging and reminding me of the intimate relationship of exchange between my receptive stillness and my active ritual work.

Out of respect for the oath I have sworn to the Order, I cannot go into more details about the nature of the initiation ritual itself, but you can also see on the working altar the symbols of my Druid Apprenticeship: the red cord, the knife, the red stone or "Druid egg" (though some scholars believe the Druid egg, said to have been made from the spittle of a ball of writhing serpents, was actually a bit of coral, not in the literal shape of an egg), and the tiny crane bag. These special objects now, too, sit on my meditation altar when they are not being used for formal ritual, representing my store of potential and the essence of my connection with the Sacred hidden and kept safe within.


  1. I really like the simplicity of your altar and the focus on the Three Realms. Very good idea!

  2. Thanks, Colorado. :) I don't know if you've seen pictures of my original main altar/shrine area, but it was getting a bit crazy and sprawling, so I really felt the need to simplify. It's been wonderful working with such a clean, open space (with the repetition of the circular forms, too). Very refreshing. :) Sometimes I wish there were more folks out there giving helpful advice on how to design or create altars that don't strictly conform to the four directions/elements model of ceremonial magic.

    My next project is to return to my original bureau altar and see how I can work it up into a satisfying aesthetic shrine. :)

  3. Hi there!
    I was browsing the blogosphere looking for people with similar interests that want to be friends - in a blogging kind of way, so I stopped to say hi!
    Wishing you happy bloging and the best in your life.

  4. Hi, BoH! Thanks for stopping by! :) Please come back and visit often. I always enjoy hearing from readers with different spiritual backgrounds, and I have a warm place in my heart for Buddhism. (I still carry around in my purse a pocket-sized copy of "Teachings of the Buddha" that a good friend got for me way back in high school. :)

  5. I've seen your altars on here & on pimp_my_altar and I have to say, every time you amaze me. They're so gorgeous. Keep it up!

  6. Jacqueline, Thanks very much. :)

  7. the furniture is store is full dinning table. the verity of degin dinning is really very and commbetable. the good stylish.

    home furnishing in chennai