The Altar and How to Use It

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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.