Altering your Altar

Over at Atheopaganism, Mark Green recently wrote a great post about Keeing a Practice Going, which has some brilliant advice for all of us for those times our spiritual practice may fall into a slump, due to work or illness or depression etc.

Mark’s post includes the brilliant phrase “dusty altar syndrome” (coined in another excellent blog post), which really got me thinking.

Like most Pagans, I have an altar, or shrine, in my home. Mine is in the living room, at the symbolic heart and hearth of the home. It is there where I read, write, and study Druidry, but also there where I relax, watch TV, eat dinner and spend time with my partner and our often bitey pet gerbil. So I see my altar every day.

And yet, it currently has an old rune I drew as part of a daily divination several days ago and haven’t moved, a vase of dying grasses that really need replacing, and yep, it could do with a good dust.

Altars should be living, growing, organic elements. They should change with the seasons, new items coming and going, new arrangements that speak to mood and meaning, altering as our perception of ourselves and our practice changes.

There’s no right way to create an altar, and there’s no need to do it exactly as it instructs in whatever Wicca 101 book you may be reading. Altars can be busy and cluttered or Zen-like in their simplicity. They can be dedicated to a particular deity, or to nature, or the ancestors, or yourself. They can have candles, stones, things you found in the woods, or exquisite statues – or even Funko pop representations of gods like Thor if that’s your aesthetic. Whatever is meaningful to you.

There is no right way to create an altar, but there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to have an altar that is no longer significant, that no longer gives you pleasure, that is no longer used, that is gathering dust.

If an altar can be seen as a visual representation, or focus, of your spirituality, then what does an unused, dusty altar say about your spirituality?

Thankfully, it’s an easy fix. Altar creation can be a relaxing, meditative, creative and fun way to reflect on your spirituality and how you want to express it.

One quite traditional thing to do is to change your altar up with the seasons, perhaps by creating a new arrangement for each of the eight festivals on the Wheel of the Year. Another idea is to create elemental altar arrangements, seeing how the four classical elements fit with the seasons: Earth for Winter, Air for Spring, Fire for Summer and Water for Autumn.

How you represent the season or elements is up to you. You can use crystals, candles and statues, or you can use feathers, twigs, stones and shells. I’m quite fond of having things I picked up on my nature walks in the woods, or my visits to the seaside, on my altar. It makes it feel more connected to the land, and brings the outside in – it’s part shrine, part nature table.

You may also want to think about what to do with “old” items, things that have either naturally deteriorated like leaves and flowers, offerings from previous rituals, or things that no longer hold significance for you. With the natural items, there is a well-worn path from the altar to the compost heap. To me this is not remotely disrespectful; by composting offerings or natural decorations, they return to feed the very Earth I try to honour at the altar. For other things, it’s less simple. Statues of gods can become ornaments on bookshelves when they’re not being actively honoured, crystals can live in a display bowl, candles can be burnt down and then the leftover wax melted down to make new candles.

As with anything else in Paganism, your altar is not a static thing, nor is it ever “finished”. The point of the path is in the walking of it, and an altar, like your practice, is something you do, not something you admire from afar.

And, from time to time, life will get in the way, and your altar will get dusty. When that happens, as Mark suggests, jump back in, dust off the altar, rearrange it to be pleasing and meaningful to you, and keep going.

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