Friday, January 10, 2014

A is for Altars

As a busy person, altars are very important to me.  In fact, I think my altars are actually the lynchpin that holds my spiritual life together.  I love my grovemates and fellow members of ADF, and I love ritual with them, but that's only once every six weeks or so.  I love the members of my coven, and I love ritual with them; but again, it's only a few times a month.

When first discovering Paganism and moving on from Christianity and that idea of religion, I had trouble understanding why most beginners books only had ritual or prayers for the High Days or the Full Moons.  Having been raised to practice religion every day - bible reading in the morning, prayer at meals and at night - I couldn't understand how this more present, accessible Divine was only acknowledged about twenty-one times a year.  It's something I continued to struggle with for many years, often letting my practice lapse to just those twenty-one days and ignoring my spiritual side for the other three hundred and fourty-four.  It obviously wasn't working for me.  Then I discovered ADF, Druidry, and Heathenry.  Though ADF is as formal as you make it, one big advantage for me is the option to make it very formal.  I don't usually go through a full Core Order of Ritual for my daily devotions, the template was incredibly helpful to me in forming a daily practice.  The other crucial piece of the puzzle?  My altar.

It's there every day.  It's a physical reminder of my spirituality, of the hospitality due to the Gods and spirits that I have invited to be part of my life.  With the representations of these beings sitting in my room or my kitchen, they truly feel like guests in my home and life.  Even in the busy rush-rush life of being a mom to three, I can make time to stop and say a prayer of thanks to Nerthus while preparing dinner, because Her altar is right there in my kitchen and I'm reminded of Her every time I go to open the fridge.

Here is the portion of my Dedicant Path work where I wrote about my home shrine(s), including some pictures.  It is quite long, as we are asked to describe the purpose of every item.

On one counter in my kitchen, I keep a shrine to the spirits and Goddesses of the home.  On the far left is a cute small-scale home in a box, which I use as a place to give offerings to my house spirits.  The next statue is a representation of Brigid, and is where I will leave a candle for my flamekeeping shifts or give offerings to Her.  The next statue represents Frige, and is where I will place offerings or say prayers for Her.  To the far right is a representation of a chalice made by my middle daughter at Sunday school, representing our family's dedication to the ideals of Unitarian Universalism.  I thought it appropriate to place it here, because UUism is our "family" religion that all who live in our home can agree with.

On the other side of the kitchen, next to the fruit bowl which is full of oranges and bananas this time of year, is a shrine to a few Earth and land Goddesses.  On the left is a representation of Nerthus, the Earth Mother of ancient Germanic tribes.  She is also strongly associated with water, and so I chose a statue that emphasized that aspect of Her.  In the middle is a figurine that's easily recognized as the Venus of Willendorf, which I use as a representation of the Goddess of the Platte River watershed.  Behind Her is a bottle of sacred water made from water from the Ogallala aquifer, a creek near my house that drains into the Platte River, and the river Herself.  To the right is a representation of the Goddess Yavanna, who many would argue is a "character" in JRR Tolkien's mythology; but who I experience as a distinct divine Goddess.  All of these representations are primarily used as placed to make prayers and offerings to the respective spirits.

My main altar is constructed in three tiers to represent the Three Realms.  On the bottom tier is my Well, a simple black bowl; and also a shrine to my Ancestors, seen on the right.  It features a box handed down by my great grandfather, a handkerchief made by my great grandmother, a skull made of quartz, and a statue of a woman to represent my Idesa (female ancestors in Anglo-Saxon culture).  The bottom tier is also a bit of a catch-all because of its size, and has (from left to right): a chalice to hold the Waters of Life when doing Core Order of Ritual, three candles for the Three Kindreds in Himalayan salt candle holders, a statue of the Goddess Varda (also featured in Tolkien's mythological cycle), two pitchers containing oil and water respectively for offerings, an incense burner for offerings, and a blue ceramic candle holder filled with sand which holds spent matches.  In the center is the Well, as described, and a small plate which holds items of spiritual significance to me: a vial of cinnamon oil gifted by a friend, my homemade set of prayer beads, and a candle inscribed with the symbol of Sunna from a recent Solstice ritual.  The left of the bottom tier features Ancestor representations already discussed, and also a brass incense burner for making offerings.

The second tier features my representation of the Tree, seen there in the center, and also several representations of local Nature spirits.  Here are leaves and a bit of twig from each tree in my yard, a stone I dug from the garden, and feathers my children have found.  There are also some stones of various types gifted to me by friends.  The carving behind the Tree is a seashell, a tree, and a feather; representing the realms of land, sea, and sky so prominent in Celtic cosmology.  On the left side I have grouped representations of the Anglo-Saxon deities I honor most; Woden, Eostre, and Thunor.  In front of Thunor is a sachet I made of several protecting herbs and a quartz crystal that I asked to be blessed by Him, and my hammer necklace.  On the right side are my Celtic deity representations:  a glass horse representing the Goddess Macha, a carving from the doors of the Library of Congress depicting Ogma, and a representation of the sea god, Manannan mac Lir.  In front of Manannan is a necklace I wear dedicated to Him.
On the top tier I keep my Fire, a grouping of three candles usually colored appropriate to the seasons.  I also have a plaque with the words "Fire and Well and Sacred Tree, Flame and Flow and Grow in me".  The cloths used are also colored seasonally; since it is nearing Imbolc at the time I'm writing this, I have used snowflakes and the color white to represent the winter that will begin to fade soon.  I also have a few crystals hanging from pegs, which are there because I am very pleased by things that shine and sparkle.  I feel they help bring the aesthetic of my altar together. 

In the future, I'd like to finish the carvings and staining that I had originally planned when I began constructing my three-tiered altar; including carving representations of each of the Three Kindred.  I'd also like to acquire a better representation for Macha, perhaps a horse made of stone that fits in better with the size and aesthetic of the other figures.  Since I have been connecting more with the Cailleach, a Celtic winter Goddess, I'd also like to find or make a representation for Her.  I would also like to hang a shelf in my kitchen next to the door that leads outside to house the representations of my Earth Goddesses, so they aren't relegated to a rather crowded corner of my kitchen counter.

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