As many of us begin to pursue and reclaim ancestral healing practices and Latinx spirituality, it's important to have visual references that reassure us along our path. This could include a Post-it on your computer with an affirmation intended to brighten your day or remind you of the boss you are. Other visual references to strengthen our spiritual work could include a vision board, statues of spiritual deities placed throughout our home, dreamcatchers, and altars.
Historically, altars have been a staple in organized religions around the globe, each having their own unique interpretation. Some altars were regarded as so sacred only priests or senior-level religious figures were able to get close to them. The public observed from a distance inside a house of worship. The ancient Greeks built grandiose city altars, which usually had a fire continually burning from them. They also built altars at the entrances of their homes as well as in courtyards, marketplaces, public buildings, and even sacred groves in the countryside.
In early Western Christianity, a baldachin or canopy-like structure resting on columns was used to cover the altar. An altarpiece, which consisted of a screen or wall with paintings and sculptures, acted as the backdrop, and a table covered in cloths sat in the center. The table usually included a copy of the Bible, consecrated bread and wine for the worshipers, a cross, and candles. This provided a central area of focus for the congregation to have a visual reference representing the presence of Christ during Mass. Nowadays, spiritual altars are not just reserved for churches and other houses of worship. Today, you can find spiritual altars placed strategically throughout people's homes and offices. On-the-go spiritual altars have become popular as well with people wanting to have an added layer of protection during travel.
What Is a Spiritual Altar?
The word "altar" is derived from words meaning "a high place." So, not only does the word refer to elevation in the literal sense as it is often created on a raised structure, but figuratively as well. However, there are instances where altars are made as a centerpiece on the floor for a spiritual ritual often involving a group. Spiritual altars are a visual metaphor for our spiritual journey, which provides us with somewhere to go when we feel hopeless, broken-hearted, and lost. As we sit, kneel, stand, or lie at our altar and surrender our burdens to a higher power, we can feel a sense of being supported by a spirit team, which includes ancestors, sacred ones, and spirit guides like animal spirits. It's also where we can connect our inner self with our physical world. But altars do not have to be a place where we only bring our sorrows. We can also celebrate our wins by expressing feelings of elation, joy, and gratitude in this sacred space.
What Is a Spiritual Altar Used For?
Spiritual altars are sacred spaces used to pray, meditate, worship, and practice rituals. Practices at the altar can be focused on oneself, another, or a situation. Offerings (ofrendas) are placed on the altar for our ancestors and/or the deities closely aligned with our spiritual journey. These offerings may include food, beverages, candles, incense, flowers, even a beer or a cigar if that's what your ancestor desires. Many like to honor their ancestors with the foods they once enjoyed. It's a way to give thanks for their support of our human experience.
What Is the Meaning Behind a Spiritual Altar?
A spiritual altar can carry many different meanings. You may want to set up an altar in memory of the loved one who has transitioned. Or create an altar dedicated to manifesting money, calling in the love of your life, inspiring creative expression, or protection from evil eye. Other altars may pay homage to deceased pets or honor Mother Earth. For specific areas of focus within our lives, you could write a petition or a letter to God or a higher power asking for something specific and then place it on your altar. If you want to create an altar to call in spring because you're so over the winter weather, you can do that, too. Let your imagination go wild.
How Do You Build a Spiritual Altar?
To build an altar, include a representation of the four elements — earth, air, water, and fire. Don't overthink it. Each element can be represented by everyday things we may already have in or around our home.
To represent the earth element, consider food, salt, or soil. Fire can be represented with a candle or by burning incense, sage, or palo santo, and the smoke that is released brings in the air element. A feather can represent this element too. The water element can be beautifully displayed by keeping a bowl or jar of water on your altar. If you practice moon rituals, you can even consider setting a jar of water on the windowsill overnight during the next full moon and then place it on your altar. Not only will this act as a representation of the water element, but also as an ancestor offering.
Once the four elements are represented, add other mementos or sacred items like pictures, statues, herbs, musical instruments, crystals, tarot cards, a journal, and anything you want to bless or feel connected to. You can change your altar seasonally or coincide with the new moon or full moon cycles. Alternatively, you can change your altar when it needs to be cleaned or when it no longer grabs your attention. Remember, this is your sacred space to speak with the Divine, reconnect to yourself, and pray for the well-being of others. So, make it a place you like to visit often.