A spiritual altar is, at its simplest, a focal point for self-reflection and contemplation on the divine. It can be highly religious in a formal sense or more spontaneous and intuitive. A spiritual altar is your personal space, so it should represent you and your understanding. I've found that placing items on my altar is a meditational act in itself, as I reflect on the item's meaning and even ritualize its placement. Sometimes I reference a text to get further understanding of the concept associated with my chosen item. Altars, or shrines as I like to call them, are very personal and will grow with you as your understanding grows.
1. Egun Altar: a place for the ancestors
Called bovedas or bovidas in Santeria and Lucumi or Iku Joko in Yoruba, these types of altars and those mentioned below can be found among various religions including Santeria, Vodoun, Ifa, Lucumi, Akan and others.
In the African tradition, ancestors now live in the spirit world and often intervene in the lives of their descendants. To neglect them is to welcome imbalance and ill fortune. We show them reverence and love by offering fruit, water and even a portion of our meals on an altar specially allocated for them. My ancestral altar consists of a white cloth laid out on the floor with a white candle in the center. I light this candle whenever I make an offering to them, do a cowrie shell reading or whenever I just sit and speak to them seeking clarity on whatver is troubling me. Two ornate glasses of water stand beside the candle on each side. Water is offered as a sign of offering life and vitality to your honored loved ones. I offer fruit by placing a few pieces on the cloth and then reciting an African prayer and calling my ancestors' names while pouring libation in the glasses. A large frame contains pictures of family members who have passed on. Beside it are a few items belonging to my father who was instrumental in setting me on a spiritual path.
“Don't underestimate the wisdom of ancestors.” African Proverb
2. Ibori: Ori Altar
The Ori refers to one's “head,” that intuitive spark of one's highest self. It entails both character and destiny. In exploring our own Ori we learn to first examine our character before placing blame elsewhere for the mishaps in our lives. Meditation on the Ori (depicted at the crown of one's head) helps us to come into alignment with our highest potential. A formal Ibori has been blessed by a traditional priest and contains earth mixed with divination powder, over which incantations have been chanted to bring good luck to its owner. The Ibori can be lavishly ornate or simply decorated. It is prayed to and propitiated with offerings before turning to the shrine of one's family deity.
A prayer for one's Ori:
Orunmila, please descend Orunmila, please descend Orunmila, please descend
Ori, I call on you Ori, I call on you Ori, I call on you!
Ori, place me in good condition.
If there is any condition better than the one I am in at present
May my Ori not fail to place me there.
Support me, my Ori. Make me prosperous, my Ori.
3. Deity Altar
In many African traditions, it is held that we are born with certain deities and ancestors already attached to us, in order to guide and protect us during our journey here. The supreme creator uses emissaries to communicate with us and help us in our lives (called Vodou, Orishas, Neteru, etc., similar to the western concept of angels). These deities assist us in manifesting our highest potential. When one is divined and initiated in Ifa, Vodoun or another ATR (African Traditional Religion) he or she receives a vessel containing the force (ase) of their predominate deity or deities. This level of worship brings with it specific rites particular to the tradition and deity served.
If you are a beginner and building your first altar, I suggest simply laying out a white cloth then placing on it images and statuary representing your deity or saint etc. My first altar had an image of an ankh, a bronze statue of Sekhmet, a gold figurine of Khepera and a host of candles and plants. Over time it grew, and the icons and figurines changed as my connection to my personal deities became clearer.
If it is your path, consider initiation into your chosen tradition. Initiation unlocks latent potential and strengthens one's force as well as your connection to the deity that predominates in your life. Divination by a trustworthy priest/ess is a must before a formal shrine can be installed and you can be initiated.
Key Elements of a Spiritual Altar
A few suggestions to get you started...
- A book of wisdom: something you can reflect on which helps you to transcend normal mundane life experiences, helping you to gain a better perspective that can be applied to those experiences after your practice. Meditations, proverbs, verses, etc.
- An image of a deity, spiritual symbol, etc. It's helpful to have something to look up to, something to emulate as an ideal example. Choose a deity, philosopher, guru, saint or a symbol like the ankh or tao. Whatever moves you or gives you a sense of peace
- Candles Fire enlivens and gives a spark of energy to your altar. Consider colors to match your chosen deity or symbol, i.e. Oshun likes yellow, Lakshmi likes red & gold.
- Natural elements: water in a crystal bowl, rocks representing earth, shells from the ocean or plants and flowers. These types of elements help to create a vibrant space, full of life. This will allow you to feel rejuvenated when you visit your sacred space.
- Incense or Oil burner: when we burn incense or oil each time we visit our shrine, we begin to automatically feel calm and meditative whenever we smell the scent. We come to expect that peace and settle into it. This helps to settle anxious mental chatter and calm frayed nerves.
- Music: like the sweet aroma of your incense or oils, music sets the mood and focuses the mind on whatever spiritual aspect you are focusing on. I like to hear soundscapes or mantras set to relaxing music. For my focus on a specific deity, I play the associated songs accompanied by the traditional instruments. Sometimes I prefer the meditative sounds of water falling as rain during a thunderstorm. Do what works for you, sometimes you may just enjoy silence.
- A cloth to lay beneath these items and/or a glass table to place the cloth and items on, low enough to kneel in front of.
Altar building can be a fun and enlightening experience. It can begin with a simple image and sometimes it can lead us to search for a priest/ess to help us take that shrine to the next level. Enoy the process and the path, whatever it entails for you.
Johnc488 on July 12, 2014:
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Pya Kule (author) from Philadelphia PA and Columbia SC on June 06, 2012:
Yes, voodoo123, there are indeed many tpes of altars. I began saying so, however I use what I know personally as a framework. Thanks for commenting.
voodoo123 from Provo, Utah,United States on December 19, 2011:
An altar does not belong to any one religion or practice. It is a place to which one comes to honor the sacred and to deepen one's experience of the sacred. More Detail : http://www.mastervoodoospells.com/
Pya Kule (author) from Philadelphia PA and Columbia SC on November 03, 2011:
Thank you for that. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I'll keep them coming... again thanks for the feedback. Hetep.
Silke White on August 09, 2011:
Very well written, I really enjoyed reading it and I learned a lot. It was easy for me to understand and I want to learn more. Thank you
Pya Kule (author) from Philadelphia PA and Columbia SC on March 04, 2011:
A compliment of weight from one who has published on the subject. I really appreciate it. Congratulations on the "sold out" status of your book. It appears your light is making a notable impact. Hetep.
chris ochun on February 06, 2011:
i would like to say this was well done, and adding another suggested book. The Espiritista which I wrote. May you continue to shine light to many.