The Aliveness of Altars
Nearly a decade ago, when my love affair with the sacred began (or maybe it’s more accurate to say “we got back together”!), I felt an urgent need to create my first altar. I did it haltingly, worried I might not be capable. First, a low blue Chinese cabinet called to me from a mail order catalog. Was it sacred enough, I wondered? Next, I added a beautiful cloth, a candle, and a sculpture of a black bear that my daughter had made for me out of clay. Mother bear was the first spirit I connected with on my path. To honor the largesse of the earth, I placed a vase of peonies from my garden. I remember thinking it was beautiful, but that it didn’t feel especially powerful. Mother Bear assured me that it was perfect. So, I kept going.
A few years later, I visited India where a new temple had just been completed. The guru explained to us that it would take three years before the physical temple would ripen into a place that could “enlighten” others. He was right, the freshly minted temple was gorgeous, but, inside it was “meh”. It didn’t (yet) possess the accumulated peacefulness of, say, Notre Dame, in Paris, where people had been praying for hundreds of years. As I reflected on my own altar, this resonated so much. I had begun to more deeply understand the shamanic truth/tenet that “everything that IS is alive.” Altars and temples included.
Since then, I have experienced many unique altars created by shamans. Some are temporary and incredibly elaborate, taking hours to build out of earth, flowers and cantaloupe sized crystals (chosen to empower and direct the energy), only to be completely dismantled when a ceremony is over. Others are more portable, and designed to be carried all over the world. One traveling shaman’s powerful altar is so small, in fact, that the components could be held in in your two outstretched hands: tiny figurines carved from bone, stone and wood along with some holy images of saints printed on laminated paper cards. One of my favorites (I got to help create it) was a turtle altar shaped with our hands out of mud and decorated with stones and wildflowers. She stood guard at the entrance of a sweat lodge and served as a place to pray before entering. I have learned that the size and form of an altar are immaterial; it is the care and spirit in which it is “carried” that makes it powerful.
What Goes Into An Altar?
Alongside me, my own altar has slowly grown more a bit more ripe. As I have “fed” it with my prayers and spiritual work, it’s become a place I can go to easily find comfort, or to do ceremonial work on behalf of others. It’s a fairly MAXIMALIST, yet orderly affair. It’s components at the moment:
-A dozen or so figurines representing the spirits I now call upon stand, like a sacred army of cherished friends, ready to leap into action or just to listen to my prayers.
-A green glass candle in the shape of a frog burns brightly as a reminder of a very special initiation I received.
-My sacred tools for shamanic work are there: rattles, bells, feathers gifted to me, a leaf rattle I made with the help of a tree spirit. My drums lean against it, ready to help take me where I need to go in order to restore balance to myself, to another person or to our community.
-A crystal dish filled with soil from the altar of one of my beloved shaman teachers is there too.
-A tiny piece of art with my current intention written on the back.
-Fresh flowers (or a single bloom) and whether they be flowers from my garden in the summer or grocery store carnations, it feels like one of the most powerful ways to keep my altar fed.
My shamanic teachers always admonished me to keep my sacred space meticulous. Your altar is a metaphor for your life and your spiritual work and it’s important to tend and care for all of the sacred tools you possess. When I am stressed or things feel terribly out of balance, I will often go to my altar, dismantle the whole thing and carefully clean, speak to and care for each item while I burn copal or sage. I’ll also remove faded flowers, past intentions and other accumulation.
Then, piece by piece, I lovingly rebuild it anew. This process never fails to shift things. Sometimes, the spirits will let me know that I need to gift some part of my altar to a client I’m working with or to a friend. It’s always sad to part with something sacred that I have worked love with, but I also know that gifting these things in this way makes room for more good to flow into my life.
If you are new to building altars, simply ask your heart, “what wants to be here”? There are no rules. Choose what what delights you and honors your path and build with care. If you are familiar with the process of shamanic journeying, you could ask a spirit teacher to teach you about altars and how to begin.
An altar can also be an anchor to the divine for a group during ceremony. One night, as I sat in in front of a healer’s powerful altar, I prayed to be enabled to grow my altar, to have it become a place that was capable of supporting not only myself, but also others in my community. That night, the spirits showed me that my heart, itself, was an altar. That touched me so deeply. I was a walking, talking sacred space. My hand went to my heart that night and stayed, sensing the steady rhythm in my chest. Those four chambers. All the flow that transpires there. Letting go. Receiving. Sending nourishment out to the farthest regions of my body without ceasing. And I have learned, that as we tend, prune and honor our altars, we all grow in strength.
I love my own altar and feel a sense of strength and comfort whenever I sit before it. Altar building, for me, is one of the most powerful ways to make spirit visible…which is something all of us on this path long to do.
Sending much love and many blessings,
Sarah Bamford Seidelmann
She is an instructor at the Martha Beck Institute and graduate of Michael Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies Three Year Program, and is author of Swimming with Elephants (Conari Press, 2017) and The Book of Beasties:Your A-Z Guide to the Illuminating Wisdom of Spirit Animals (Sounds True 2018). She lives in northern Minnesota.
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