The Altar and How to Use It

Eric O. Scott —  April 12, 2013 — 34 Comments
Be it ever so humble.

I never had an altar before I moved out of my parents’ house. That seems impossible, in retrospect, but I can’t remember ever setting one up. I had some statues – mostly the same ones that line my altar today, actually – but I never thought it was important to set them up in a way that would facilitate personal rituals. For that matter, I never cared much about doing said rituals in the first place. This may explain why, all these years later, I’m terrible about remembering to actually use my altar; whenever I hear somebody I respect mention how she finds daily practice mandatory, I feel sheepish. This is my version of feeling guilty about not going to church.

When I was 18, I moved into a Truman State University dormitory in Kirksville, a small town in the far northern reaches of Missouri. Like every dorm room, it was not set up for comfort so much as interchangeability. There was nothing distinctive about it, other than having once been the maids’ break room. (The room I moved into a semester later had literally been a broom closet the year before. You kids living in Missouri Hall now, after the renovation? You don’t know how good you have it.) The furniture was the same as every other room: a “lofted” bed, which is to say, a bunk bed without the lower bunk; a particle-board desk; an uncomfortable blue chair. If you were drunk enough, you could get off the elevator on the wrong floor, walk down the wrong hallway, and climb into the wrong bed, all without realizing something had gone awry until you heard the screams.

This was a hell of change for me. My parents left no inch of their home unchanged by their presence; there might be twenty feet of bare wall space in there. An entire wall of masks brought back from Mexico, cabinets filled with collections of elf statuettes and minerals, a five-foot-tall painting of my father naked holding a yowling cat; these are only a few of the things I grew up around. (Mom and dad never really cared much about making our house “suitable for entertaining.”) The place is bewildering to strangers, who invariably stare straight ahead to resist being overwhelmed.

In the living room, my parents have a tall cabinet filled with all of their ritual equipment: robes and swords and a whole drawer dedicated to incense. The altar sits atop the Magick Cabinet, filled with so many icons of the gods that my dad had to start moving them elsewhere in the house to keep them from spilling off the edge. 

But although the cabinet was where dad performed his personal ceremonies, in reality, our entire house was an altar, every edge of it filled with items of magickal significance, even if only we understood what that significance was.

So within a week or two of moving into my bland dorm room, I was homesick – not just for my family, or the familiar environs of St. Louis, but sick at heart for the house itself. I needed a bit of it to call my  own. I needed an altar.

I had most of the things I wanted for it already, but there were certain constraints on my behavior in the dormitory. For one thing, we weren’t allowed to have knives, so I couldn’t bring my athame from home; it remained tucked away in the Magick Cabinet for several more years, until I got an off-campus apartment in my junior year. Instead I used a wooden letter-opener I got from the St. Louis Hare Krishna temple, a bit of ingenuity I’m still proud of. (Since I couldn’t take my athame on the airplane, I used that same letter-opener during Pantheacon earlier this year.) My roommate thought this was hilarious, and constantly asked me to get my athame when our mail came in. There was no way around the prohibition on fires, though, so I went without burning incense. For that, I’m sure, my roommates were thankful; broom closets aren’t that well ventilated.

Given the premium on space, I set my statues and implements up on top of the wardrobe, which abutted the headboard of my loft bed. Every night before I went to sleep, I crawled into the ten inches of space between mattress and ceiling to make my offerings, whisper my chants, and consecrate my chalice full of tap water. (Dry campus.) It wasn’t much; it lacked many of the trappings that I had always thought of as essential to practice.

But despite my situation – my threadbare little altar in a faceless dorm room in a town too small to have much in the way of other people like me – I felt very Pagan when I prayed at that altar. More Pagan than I had felt before in my life. This altar wasn’t much, but it was mine. 

And, more to the point, it was not my parents’.

I imagine all children must have feelings like I had: the feeling that their religion, whatever that religion is, belongs to their parents. Everything they have known about their faith has been shaped by their parents’ tastes and predelictions; not much about it has been defined by their own needs and desires. This is true for a child born into Paganism, too, and maybe especially for one born into Paganism. After all, my parents were eclectic, and accepted all the things that appealed to them into their version of Paganism – which, in our case, not only structured the religion, but structured the very nature of our house. (How many other kids grow up with a Magick Cabinet in the living room?) But that meant everything that didn’t suit them was left out. Perhaps they never banned those things outright, but still, if it didn’t appeal to them, it didn’t make its way into our home, and therefore, not into my head.

So when I looked around the altar of our home, I saw all the things they had put into it, and not much of my own. I had been borrowing their altar my whole life, and in doing so, borrowing their Paganism. When I built my own altar, I took my first steps towards finding my own way of looking at the world.

My practice is, of course, founded on the things my parents taught me, but it’s not the same thing. Some of the choices I have made are considerably different from theirs; some are the same. But they have been my choices, not theirs. If you look at our altars now, you’ll see how they are alike, but you’ll also see how they are different.

I’m pretty sure this is how they hoped it would turn out.

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Eric O. Scott

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Eric Scott writes fiction and creative nonfiction from the unique perspective of a second-generation Wiccan. He earned his MFA from the University of Missouri - Kansas City and is a current PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Missouri - Columbia. He has published in a number of magazines and anthologies. He serves as a Contributing Editor at Killing the Buddha and writes the Real Pagan Geek blog at PaganSquare. His first book, "The Lives of the Apostates," was recently published by Moon Books. He once played guitar in a Taoist glam rock band.
  • http://www.facebook.com/dsalisbury David Salisbury

    Great post, Eric! Thanks for sharing these insights.

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      Thanks David.

  • Elysia

    Love it! What a good read. :)

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      Thanks Elysia!

  • Anna Gewojna

    “a five-foot-tall painting of my father naked holding a yowling cat” LOL!! Back in the 1940s, my father, a professional musician, borrowed my mother’s jewelry and wrapping his head and groin areas in a towel, proceeded to have a picture of himself taken while playing his oboe and pretending to be a Hindu fakir. And people think I’m weird…. it’s genetic

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I find your insights and reflections fascinating, Eric, coming as they do from a virtually unique perspective, that of a second-generation Pagan. And I almost fell off my chair at the speculation on drunkenly entering the wrong room!

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      Sadly, I’m not clever enough to have invented that; it actually happened to a friend of mine. And the dorm room intruder was, as I recall, naked at the time…

  • Joseph Merlin Nichter

    Eric, this was a simply fantastic post. I love your writing style and technique. Period.

    I was also raised in a “unique,” family where being grounded included remote viewing and astral projection.

    Our time is upon us. BB, Joe

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      Thanks Joseph!

  • William Scott

    Yep… Gotta write your own songs….

  • Ellen Catalina

    As a mom, few things fill me with happiness the way reading about a 2nd generation pagan does. Delightful.

    • http://www.facebook.com/markus.skogsberg Markus Skogsberg

      Hear, hear!

  • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

    Owning your own practice is an important life-step. Congratulations on the transition!

  • Charles Cosimano

    One method I’m told works is to have a large photograph of the altar you have at home and then just put that up to link yourself to it wherever you are.

    • Raksha38

      That’s a great idea! This would have been very useful back when I had to travel a lot. I’ll keep it in mind in case I start again.

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  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Unlike you, I was raised Christian. My stepfather was an Anglican Priest.

    We never had a sacred space/altar type environment in our (very religious) home.

    We had a whole building next door.

    I think, perhaps, this is why I would love to build a temple.

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      I’d like to have a temple, too, mainly because the cat has a vendetta against my altar and I could just not let her into that building.

      Also because the Voodoo Temple in New Orleans in in my top 10 favorite buildings on Earth and I would love to do a Heathen version of it…

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I am a fan of ‘living history’ and experimental archaeology. There are a fair few reconstructed building and villages in Europe (actually going to one tomorrow, for a Stone Age day), but I have not seen an example of a reconstructed temple.

        I have, in fact, often wondered whether some of the older Anglo Saxon church buildings in England started life as Pagan Temples (as per the instructions of Pope Gregory I to Mellitus.)

        • Raksha38

          Well, there’s been talk of plans to rebuild the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (in modern day Turkey). That would be awesome if it actually happens!

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Rebuild (as in restore) or reconstruct?

            I like reconstructions that are placed near to the original site (such as Lofotr Viking Museum, in Norway), but building directly on top is a more controversial idea, as it ruins the original site which makes further archaeological study very difficult.

          • Raksha38

            Well, the articles I saw didn’t say exactly where, but they did mention
            the plans are being made in conjunction with archaeologists, so I can’t
            imagine they’d go along with any plan that would destroy the original
            ruins.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Of course, the next question (rhetorical, I don’t expect an answer) would be “Is it being built out of historical interest/as a tourist lure or will it actually allow religious use?”

  • Kenneth

    My favorite altar is one that isn’t! I have a small dresser in a hallway because it fit in a little nook where nothing else would. On the top, I have an array of some candles, a few shells, some of the odd rocks and an old brass spittoon from somewhere. I had some new friends over one time who were still all awestruck by the Wicca thing and said something to the effect that the altar must have a deep meaning to me. I said “yes. It means I have a space to put all the crap that wouldn’t fit anywhere else in here!” I kind of hated disabusing them of their sense of wonder…..

  • Raksha38

    I love your posts, Eric! Because so many of us are first generation Pagans, most of the writing out there reflects that. I find the stories of second gen Pagans absolutely fascinating. A little peek into a childhood I wish I’d had!

  • http://www.facebook.com/markus.skogsberg Markus Skogsberg

    As always, very interesting and inspiring post. As a father I hope my kids will grow up to share the religion me and my wife have chosen, but just as you say I profoundly hope they can also make it their own.

  • heathenchinese.wordpress.com

    “I imagine all children must have feelings like I had: the feeling that
    their religion, whatever that religion is, belongs to their parents.”

    Not necessarily, if one is raised non-religiously.

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      Even the lack of religion is a decision that the parents made for the child, not a choice the child made for herself. I’ve known several non-religious people who, when they grew up, started to wonder about that religion thing. (More than a few are Pagans.)

      Obviously, “non-religious” is not, itself, a religion, but the principle in this line of argument is the same.

      • heathenchinese.wordpress.com

        Well, sure, parents influence their children’s feelings about religion, I don’t disagree with your basic point.

        But I guess what I was trying to say is that for many people raised non-religiously, religion feels more like it “belongs” to the religious: the religious schoolmates, teachers, etc. that one meets as one grows up.

        • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

          That’s true. Heck, I had shades of that growing up myself.

  • KhalilaRedBird

    I’m second generation Pagan — my son got me into it about 20 years ago. His altars far outdo mine (my husband is not religious and I’m not sure he groks “altar”). My son shares custody of my grandson Loki with his ex-. I’m not sure what detailed spiritual direction Loki is getting (he’s 10) from his mom, who’s gone back to identifying only as Quaker. But it was cool to have Loki’s help setting up the Water altar in my living room and pointing out the less-elaborate Air, Earth/Spirit, and Fire/Life altars — none of which would catch the attention of casual houseguests. The more questions Loki asked, the more suggestions he made and the more joy I felt. And he was really fine with the central statues of Freedom (ie, from the dome of the Capitol) and Liberty. Among other tributes.

  • Robert Alvarez

    This is an excellent post. And an excellent primer and Re-Minder for anyone regarding the Psychic Bridge that is the Altar.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186404199 Crystal Hope Kendrick

    Thanks for this story, Eric. I always enjoy reading your perspective.