Altars in Animism
There has been a lot of discussion recently in the groups where I participate regarding altars, so I thought I should share my two cents here at the hut as well. What is an altar? How do we use an altar? How important are altars in animism? Come on in and make yourself comfy. Today I’ll answer all these questions and more.
Spirits of Place
If you’re new to the Pictish Hut, this is a cozy place where I welcome readers from all over the Internet to learn about animism, spirit work and current affairs from a Pictish perspective. Physically, it resembles a traditional hut where Pictish families used to live, especially in the pre-Christian period.
In fact, although this can be considered my home, where I welcome visitors from all around the globe, I couldn’t say with 100% certainty that it is “mine” – not in the context of animism, anyway. Even families who have lived in the same place for many generations share their home with a lot of spirits of place. As an animist, I believe all spirits are equally important, not only human spirits (though admittedly, in my experience it is far easier to talk to human spirits than spirits of local animals, plants, insects, the fae, etc – we perceive humans more easily because we are human – but all deserve our attention).
Any spiritual practitioner will tell you, regardless of tradition, that an altar is a very personal place. Although church altars get the most visibility in the West (and these are public altars that a whole parish is entitled to use, within the rules of Christianity of course), altars are not an Abrahamic concept. They exist in a lot of traditions, from Hinduism to Buddhism to all kinds of Shamanism, Witchcraft and Neopaganism – and in all these traditions, a lot of importance is given to private altars, used at home (although public altars can also exist). However, once you consider that you coexist with a lot of other souls – even if you’re at home, whatever that means to you – it is important to know how to pay them respect first.
My personal approach to befriending spirits of place is very cliché and very effective: offerings. There is no need to impress them, but acknowledging them with something small and simple (even if it’s just a prayer offered to them at the beginning of each working at the altar) is always good practice. This is especially important if you aren’t native to the area and/or recently moved in. Unless there is some very serious karma between you and them, my best bet is they will accept and appreciate the gesture.
Altars in Nature
Contrary to the common belief, altars actually predate Christianity and other Abrahamic religions. I like the definition given by Encyclopaedia Britannica, “a raised structure or place that is used for sacrifice, worship or prayer”. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/altar).
I personally define “altar” as a central structure – the place where you offer something to a higher power during a ritual (be it a spirit, a deity, etc) and it is raised from the ground in order to symbolise formality and importance. Sure you can do magic on the ground or any random place – but an altar can step up your game a wee bit. They also help direct energy, hence why I sometimes compare altars to “shelters”: it provides containment and safety for your tools during the practice.
In the context of modern witchcraft and neopaganism, there is an abundance of resources on how to make an altar – which usually means an indoors table or similar piece of furniture elegantly dressed, where rituals and/or spells take place. This is a perfectly acceptable definition for altar, borrowed from Abrahamic contexts (but it definitely can be adapted for polytheism). However, although you can put effort and money into building a permanent altar indoors, I am here to tell you that you don’t need it. If your practice is animistic, temporary altars you find in nature are just as good, if not better.
In the end, natural altars aren’t “yours” to take – they are places that can be approached and used, by all means, but never personalised or bent to one’s will. There is no place for inflated egos in this kind of practice, which is why I love it so much.
I often visit the local beach for rituals, both quick and elaborate, usually during low tide (though I’ve done purification at high tide too, very freeing!). It is my go-to place for devotion to Lir. I also find it very useful for workings that involve introspection, trance work (ohh, the sound of the waves crashing!) and cleansings. My approach to working with water altars by the sea, a riverbed, etc is to only take the strictly necessary – I don’t see a need to use a cloth, even if waterproof. Nature is pretty enough already! I won’t take candles or incense. Water is the dominant element, so why try to balance it out? If you pay attention, the sun is fire (aye, even in bad weather, the sun is shining somewhere). The wind is air, the rocks are earth, and… well, water is everywhere. Better yet: the altar is alive, as is everything else around. There is no need for correspondences. Take only the tools you want to purify or direct energy with. The waves bring renewed energy and take away all the energies you need to dispose of. Don’t fight against the tides! Work with them. And always thank for their help.
Important note: please research what kind of materials are in your tools. If they are in any way toxic to aquatic life, do NOT include them in the ritual. The same goes for offerings. And for heaven’s sake, no litter.
As you can see in the photo, water altars don’t necessarily need to be at your hands’ reach. I suppose you’re looking where I’m looking? Aye, this is an altar I’ve used once. I was told by spirit to use the water as a conduit, so my offering would reach it.
It is important to build a relationship with the local spirits, though. Are you welcome in the area? Do they approve of you doing rituals there? Listen, before all else. In my case, I feel local here – the Picts, the Gael and the other Celts who live here for millennia have actually invited me in. But it’s always good practice to ask permission before proceeding. This is also the reason why I cannot understand “spiritual tourism”. Some spirits of place can be territorial! And it may take time to build a relationship with them.
Every woodland or forest area will certainly have an abundance of altars that can be used in ritual. Looking for them can be comparable to finding the heart tree. Remember the fact natural altars tend to be central, old and sovereign.
Above is a photo of the altar I use in the local woods. It is actually quite close to the place where the spirits initiated me into their animistic tradition! If I were to describe it in secular terms, it is basically a fallen tree – But in spiritual terms, it is so much more! I see two of the most sacred species finding shelter in it: ivy and moss (at least according to the Picts). I see liminarity because the tree died, but it sustains new life. I also see a raised, quite even, place for offerings and tools.
I recall offering Baileys once (it is in the plastic container). I left it there during the ritual, then poured it and brought the container home. There is no tide in the woods to suddenly engulf my plastic container, so it’s safe enough here. Sure I could have used something fancier, like steel or even silver, but I don’t care too much about appearing posh. I’d have to take it back home regardless.
Earth altars, especially wooden, like the one you see above, are ideal for incense sticks, so they actually work in this environment providing the weather is good. (Candles are a lot more dangerous in my experience). My standard procedure is to burn them out and take home the stem. Also, it goes without saying, do not leave them unsupervised – wildfires are no joking matter. As a good Pict, I leave no trace in nature – except for offerings, but then again they should always be friendly to wildlife.
Materially speaking, there aren’t any altars made of air. (Prove me wrong if you can, I haven’t a lot of experience with this element in magic and I look forward to hearing your suggestions). “Air altars” would be altars in high places or very open places, mostly surrounded by air and not much else. Think mountains, cliffs, fjords and hills. They’re windy and notoriously difficult for lighting incense or basically anything flammable, so again, work with the sun instead. Water is the one correspondence you’d have to take, both for magic and to stay hydrated. In terms of offerings, anything that wouldn’t be harmful to the local birds is ideal.
The few times I have used a solid altar in a very open place, I took advantage of the ample view in order to invite a very large number of local spirits who lived all around. These kinds of altars are also used in some shamanic traditions for trance work, and I suppose, shapeshifting (though I have no idea if they’re called “altars” in these traditions, much less “air altars” – this is just a silly term I invented here to better classify natural altars). I personally prefer to practice trance by the sea, though, as the sound of waves crashing really helps me – but I am not a shaman.
There is room for debate here, but another kind of “air altar” in my own definition are places like this meadow. When I took this photo last year, I saw the foxgloves reaching to the sun, and to me it felt sacred. The “altar” here is completely immaterial, delimited by the flowers but extending as far up as your spirit can reach. A good place for connecting with the Upperworld, perhaps?
I think the obvious choice are volcanos, especially the ones safe to climb – alternatively, unless it is a very active volcano, working at its base or harnessing the energy of petrified lava such as volcanic rocks is good enough.
In terms of safety, regardless of your level of experience, never EVER do a ritual alone at a fire altar, and don’t even think about it if you have zero experience in this kind of environment. (This goes for all environments, honestly, but fire is a particularly tricky element to deal with). If you live near a volcano that would be safe to approach, maybe go on a hike a few times before deciding to invest in magical endeavours – take the opportunity to ask permission to the local spirits, too, well in advance, even if you’re local.
I would be strongly against approaching a volcano for magic during your holidays, unless these are really long holidays and you spend most of the time near it. Still, there can be danger lurking in unexpected places, and this is a hostile environment regardless of how many tourists you see climbing it in safety. By the way, on the topic of tourists, and crowds in general: by all means avoid them – and this goes back to my original point: when you use a fire altar, you do it from a remote side of it, which means a lot of knowledge of the area and a lot of trust in the local spirits is required; But above all else, the ability not to get lost and not to cause damage to yourself or the environment is key.
Now that we’ve already explored the most powerful, but also most dangerous kind of fire altar, let’s move on to something that is, as I would put it, “intermediate level”. Hot springs tend to go hand in hand with tectonic activity – so if your homeland is deprived of lava, you won’t be able to find hot springs (though of course there are exceptions). If you’re lucky enough to live near them, however, know that the element of fire is present, whatever the source – as long as it’s natural.
These are a hybrid kind of fire altar – both water and fire are abundant. There probably will be a lot of earth (rocks), which can be used as altars. Although these places are somewhat safer than climbing a volcano, a reasonable level of knowledge is still very recommended – for instance how deep it is and what kind of hazards are there.
Allright, now on to the “easy” level: candle power. Wait, what? Wasn’t I talking about natural altars? Aye, this one is man-made, but you are still dealing with a primitive power which is very much alive – a flame – albeit in a controlled environment.
I think I don’t need to say that fire is the element I’m most familiar with in terms of magic – we all have the “favourite element” – and the photo below shows my first animistic altar ever. It looks very unassuming, even boring, I suppose. Why, most witches have dealt with candles a zillion times. What’s the big deal?
I’ll tell you what the big deal is: intent. Instead of offering a candle to a deity, or fire scrying, or using the candle to power a spell… you’re considering it – in itself – a temporary altar. The candle is completely central to the ritual, all other tools go around it. All offerings are burned in it (no liquids please. Just putting it out there). All correspondences surround it and highlight its power. In this kind of working you aren’t associating a candle with any particular being or personal aim – you’re considering it a fire altar, a burning environment with its own will and life.
I hope this “lecture” was interesting. You’re all very welcome to my Pictish Hut any time. Feel free to try using these natural altars in practice, and let me know how it goes. Feel free to share your own suggestions, opinions and comments.