People have created altars for thousands of years. Since the Protestant Reformation, however, the intentional use of altars has become taboo for most Abrahamic monotheists. Nevertheless, people continue to create what author and spiritual counselor, Denise Linn, calls “subliminal altars.” We create altars unconsciously by arranging photos, memorabilia, and other special objects on fireplace mantels, dresser tops, coffee tables, and pianos.
We have an intuitive need to create sacred spaces and fill these spaces with objects of devotion. These altars are often a way of honoring and celebrating family or remembering ancestors. They may also be used to order our lives psychologically, with the objects on the altar representing aspects of our inner selves. When the objects are brought together on the altar, they become more than separate symbols; they become part of a whole gestalt, which is the altar. In this way, altars can help to bring the disparate parts of ourselves into a more integrated wholeness.
Visible altars also remind us to attend to the hallowed places within ourselves. For Neo-Pagans, altars are places where they can center, pray, meditate, give thanks, and even make offerings. Many Neo-Pagans enact rituals at their altars, from the simple act of lighting a candle to more complex rituals.
The items on the Neo-Pagan altars may include objects from nature, like natural or polished stones, shells, and flowers. They may include pictures of or memorabilia from ancestors. They may also include explicitly religious icons and images or statues of ancient deities. Neo-Pagans have no prohibition against the creation of “graven images” as do monotheists. Many Neo-Pagans are comfortable with the use of statues of gods and goddesses, which act as visible representations of the divine and foci for worship or reflection.
Michael York has observed that the very physicality of the altar itself and the objects placed on it reflect the value that Neo-Pagans place on matter. York uses the terms “corpo-spirituality,” as well as “spiritual materialism” and “tangible sacrality,” to refer to this aspect of Neo-Pagan belief and practice. Neo-Pagans treat the physical world “as intrinsically and integrally sacred.” In short, matter matters to Neo-Pagans. This belief finds expression in a this-worldy focus and their affirmation of pleasure, as well as in their use of altars and physical representations of the divine.
For Neo-Pagans, the objects placed on the altar are sacred because the physical world is itself sacred. York explains, “The idol* is an embodiment of the sacred. But it is also a representation of the special. As such, it may be revered as holy in and of itself, or as the vehicle of something not immediately or visibly present, or as both.”
The use of altars and statues grounds Neo-Pagan worship in the natural world, while simultaneously creating a connection to the enchanted or sacred world, bringing the two together. York explains, “The idol, in fact, is a locus in which the divine other and the divine this-ness are believed to interpenetrate and come together.” The physicality of the altar and its objects helps to blur the artificial distinction between nature and the sacred, between the world and divinity. Ultimately, though, the objects placed on an altar are intended by Neo-Pagans, not as ends in themselves, but as aids for devotional or reflective focus.