Creating a ceremonial altar is not just about transforming the energy of a space, it is a way of creating your reality. The altar can be seen as a microcosmos of your world, and the greater universe. When we commune with the elements of creation and connect with spirit through ceremony, we are able to re-create, and re-arrange our worlds through loving intent and prayer.
In Peruvian shamanic practice, the five elements – East/Fire, South/Earth, West/Water, North/Air, and Cosmos/Ether/Center – are called upon, when creating an altar, also called a Mesa. These elements are summoned by choosing objects that represent each direction, and their encompassing energies. The sacred objects are then arranged according to each cardinal direction, in a wheel or spiral-like fashion.
In the ancient Quechuan language, hailing from Peru, the North is called upon by the word “Wiracocha”, East by “Inti”, South by “Pachamama”, West “Mamakilla”, and Center by “K’uychi”.
East/Fire is most often symbolized by a candle flame, burning Sage, or Palo Santo. South/Earth by a rock, crystal, or a plant. West/Water commonly by a cup of water, or a seashell. North/Air by a feather or another object symbolizing the heavens. Cosmos/Ether/Rainbow is placed in the center, holding all the elements together, and can be represented by your most sacred object, or even a mirror that reflects the All. An altar cloth is used for protecting the boundaries and containing the energy. Once the five elements are in place, they are activated through sound; toning the names of each direction seven times, as well as by your intent, and your prayer.
I had the great pleasure of studying with a master ceremonialist and shamanic practitioner, Debra Kelly, trained in the Peruvian Pachakuti Mesa tradition*. I asked Debra to provide advise for someone just starting out in the practice of creating ceremonial altars.
Can you give some starting points for beginners on how to create a ritual altar?
1. First, enter sacred space without any distractions, and call upon your guides and unseen helpers for assistance, then tune in to the subtle energies. Take your time, it is not a race, and the more you feel and breath into the experience with intention, the deeper your connection.
2. Create a sacred contract – a true reason why you want to endeavor this creation. Altars/Mesas are not just about beauty. This is a practice that opens a portal to all that is. To be responsible in that undertaking, get clear on what that is for you and include the bigger picture in this initiation.
3. Choose a sacred altar cloth to represent the threads that reach through the universe as your foundation.
4. Consecrate the ground below your sacred cloth, with any or all of: blue corn meal, tobacco, lavender, flower water, or essential oil hydrosols.
5. Choose representatives to encompass the earth, water, air, fire, and ether with candles, stones, shells, feathers, and crystals.
6. Gather your sacred artifacts, the ones that call to you and represent the finer energies listed above, the ones you feel a deep resonance with. Don’t be surprised that once you begin this journey, the artifacts begin arriving in your life, like clockwork, eager to come and be of service. Your intentions have been heard and all of life is awaiting this sacred exchange for the greater good of the All!
7. Commune with every object that holds space on your sacred altar ground. You are now their keeper and steward. Enter relationship with each artifact as you would with a trusted friend.
8. Begin the ceremony of placement with intention. Explore what is true for you and build on that as you go, for one size does not fit all. Tune in to what feels right, and as you deepen your understanding give yourself permission to change your mind along the way. As we evolve, our Mesa is a living, breathing, holographic extension of that, and every place on the Mesa has a functional supportive energy, so be sure to move the energy on your mesa when you feel the call, and do so with clear intention.
DEBRA’S ADVISE FOR PLACING YOUR SACRED OBJECTS ON A MESA:
– BOTTOM –
If my altar cloth mirrored the human body, to the center bottom of the cloth would be the Earth element. Symbol: stone. Associations: dream-time, nature, roots, nurture, foundations, body, health, animals, trees.
– LEFT –
To the center left of the cloth is my Water element. Symbol: shell. Associations: night, unconscious, ancestors, flow, change, womb, feeling, heart, remembering, whales, song, receiving.
– TOP –
To the top center of the cloth would be the Air element. Symbol: feather. Associations: star-beings, guides, winged ones, higher consciousness, intuition.
– RIGHT –
To the center right of the cloth is the Fire element. Symbol: candle. Associations: transformation, vision, clarity, becoming, masculine energy, manifesting, abundance, birth.
– CENTER –
To the very center of the cloth would be that which to you represents the center of the Universe and all that is. Associations: eternal, the void, all potential, everything, no-thing, creator, above and below, and all timelines.
Can you give a summary of what building an altar/Mesa means to you?
DK: The Mesa carries my hopes and dreams. It is the animated cosmos and holds space from beyond ordinary reality, transcending all the dimensional layers that we perceive as time and space. The mesa is the center of the universe, and embodies pure magic in motion, in response to a sacred agreement of balanced exchange from heartfelt intention.
What would you say is the most important aspect of Mesa creation?
DK: First ask what is your intent. As you begin this journey of exploration in ceremonial arts, it is more important how you interact with it, than what you embellish it with.
In other words, entering with your heart wide open. Let the Mesa speak to you; commune with every object that holds space on this sacred ground, and you will quickly feel its essence guiding you. It is really helpful to have an understanding of your cosmology and where in the medicine wheel each element resides. That is a personal quest we must all undertake to have an effective exchange. The more you understand your placement and how it relates to each turn of the cosmic wheel, the deeper the integration of all the intentions being carried into the ethers to effect change, healing, abundance, vision, understanding, peace, protection, clarity. Follow your heart as you create your Mesa.
The Mesa is all encompassing and limitless in its ability to restore harmony, healing and beauty within Ayni (a sacred agreement of balanced exchange from the heart). Your part in this deepening connection is being present and tending to this ever-changing and growing creation, through song, dance, incense, flowers, or silent retreat. Offer your hopes and dreams, and sit with your Mesa. Work with it in humble confidence that you are being held and guided by the cosmos. The gifts of this sacred exchange will reveal in time – as certain as a tree that bares sacred fruit – its sweet nectar is sure to bless your life in all ways.
Debra Kelly / Shamanic Practitioner, Ceremonialist & Artist of the Sacred / www.insacredways.com
*Peruvian Pachakuti Mesa Tradition Cross-Cultural Shamanism was originated by Peruvian shaman and kamasqa curandero Oscar Miro-Quesada / www.heartofthehealer.org