Saturday, 3 September 2011

Pagan Altar

"The Household Gods" by J W Waterhouse (1880)
My altar (which may also be called a shrine or a Lararium*) tends to be changed around a fair bit from month to month but there are a few core features (as to the rituals performed at my altar see this post) – the core features are:
  • a designated space for the shrine itself - in my case I use the entire top of a cabinet in the bedroom. 
  • a candle holder (compare to a lucerna).
  • an incense burner (compare to a turibulum).
  • a container in which to keep incense (compare to an acerra).
  • a small plate on which to place food offerings (compare to a patera).
  • a small glass in which to place liquid offerings (compare to a gutus).
  • a container for salt (compare to a salinum).

As for the detail ...
  • It is near a window (in my bedroom), which I leave wide open while I am performing the daily ritual (lighting the candle and incense and so on) and for so long as the incense is burning. This is inspired by the Roman tendency to have household shrines placed in open or semi-open areas. I do not think it is necessarily essential that one’s altar be in an open space, or near one, but I do think it feels more real when I can feel and hear the elements; it is for this reason I always turn off the TV, music and artificial lights while I perform the ritual.
My altar - simple and serene
  • I have a wooden box with a peacock carved into the lid (peacocks being sacred to Juno), this contains incense, a lighter and spare incense holders. 
  • Naturally, I have an incense holder and a candle holder which has a fresh tea light placed in it every evening. Generally my tea light burns for around five hours straight, thus if I perform the ritual before dinner the tea light has generally burned out by the time I go to bed. I have used more hard core candles in the past but I have found they can create quite a bit of mess, with dripping wax and blackened ceiling and walls.
  • I also have a small plate on which I place my food offering (salted crackers). This plate has an elephant on it – this is a fine piece from Wedgwood, which I inherited from my mother. I am not at all averse to the link this plate may have with the Hindu Ganesha, remover of obstacles. Likewise I place liquid offerings (whisky or wine in my case) in a small liqueur glass.
  • I also have a wooden, covered container with salt in it, this is essentially a salinum - which I keep on my altar as a symbol of ritual purity. 
  • Additionally I sometimes have a bunch of flowers (as an additional offering to "local spirits" and "spirits of the household") on my altar, however I always have a small porcelain bunch of flowers on the altar. 
Generally I try to keep my altar fairly basic – I want it to feel serene and personal. Much of what I use on my altar has been bought from a Japanese speciality shop. These Japanese items have a simple and somewhat rustic feel which I find appealing (and I note that traditional Japanese religion is polytheistic).  When I perform this daily ritual I usually find it is one of the calmest and most genuine moments of my day. Gazing on the candle flame, noticing the scent of the incense, giving thanks for the good things in my life and focusing on what I want most out of life (as I ask the Gods for these things) is a moment of profound sincerity and the unostentatious nature of my altar facilitates this mood.
*Note that many of the ideas for my daily ritual and altar are inspired by reconstructionist Roman Paganism - however they are not necessarily an orthodox representation of Roman Paganism.

Polytheistic Inspiration
Inspiration can also come from other sources - Hinduism in particular. The image below is a fantastic example of a household shrine in honour of Ganesha (God of beginnings and obstacles - the Roman equivalent of Ganesha, if he has a Roman equivalent, is almost certainly Janus). This shrine has all the essential elements that I think a household shrine should have - a candle burning, incense and a food offering. I also like this altar because it is very practical. It does not take up too much room and yet is prominently placed. Additionally, it includes objects that are symbolically sacred to the God being particularly honoured (elephants in this case) as well as a strong central image of the particularly honoured God. I do not have an image of any Gods on my altar (this is a personal choice) but I do have a slightly erotic nude painting (evocative of the spirit of Venus) above my altar.

By M' Sentia Figula (aka Freki), find me at neo polytheist

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