New Incarnation of Altars

Thank you again for joining us for a brand new episode of “This Old Altar,” with your host, Bob Vila! Er wait, that’s not quite right…let’s try this again:

When I moved into my neighbor’s house last year, it was probably one of the best decisions I could have made during the divorce process. I loved living with B. and she gave me a safe place to begin healing. However, I was only renting a room, and that did not leave me much space for altars. I used an old nightstand as my spiritual focus area, and switched out statues depending on whom I was moved to honor in the moment.

Now that I’m in a place of my own, I have the luxury of being able to set up several smaller altar spaces. Each one serves a different function, and has different layers of public and private meaning. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that each alter combines a primary element with a secondary in order to give it a unified aesthetic.

The altar I use most frequently is the one next to my stove, what I call my hearth altar (auto-correct said “heart sculpture” and that’s an apt description, too). It’s predominantly rooted in the Earth element of the North, but with a strong overtone of Fire. The statues represent Gwydion and Aranrhod, though that is not what the artists originally intended. (Yes, these two are sharing space; no this has not caused issues.)  Gwydion is my wild magician, and often appears to me as having features of the boar, wolf and/or deer that he was changed into as punishment for Goewin’s rape. Aranrhod (“a fun ride”: WTF auto-correct?) is not only a celestial goddess, but the goddess of the waters. And since I’ve always had trouble giving Don a face (which according to Kristoffer Hughes is actually appropriate as this goddess was in fact faceless), I rededicated her statue in Aranrhod’s name.  The little fellow playing the flute is a wight from my father’s garden.  The sprig of lavender represents peace and beauty, and the turkey feather represents family; the spiral plate is carved Welsh slate that I brought back from the 2002 National Eisteddfod. This is where I perform morning prayers and my work with the Sun Mirror; it is also the altar that my son likes to help light to thank the Ancestors when we begin cooking a meal.

Right next to the back door in the South is my working altar, the one I use for daily divination or more involved magical workings. It serves to anchor my work in the cunning arts and with the Strategic Sorcery system, which is why Hekate presides over it. In addition there are representations for spirit allies that I work with on a regular basis. Both the sword and spear are ritual as well as martial tools, and at the moment I have wands of Poplar and Willow drying and waiting to be carved.  This altar is the polar opposite of the hearth altar, being a manifestation of the Fire of will, grounded in the Earth.

To the West I have an altar space dedicated to the Makers: Bridget, Cerridwen, and Wayland. This is an altar to creative inspiration, and where I give thanks for the gods’ aid in music, poetry, and assorted crafting endevors. Hufflespawn particularly likes the Wayland statue, and even made him a little helper at school which he insisted on placing right next to the Master Smith. Cerridwen is accompanied by tokens from pig and chicken, which refer back to her animal shapes in her pursuit of Gwion Bach. Bridget has bone weaving tools dedicated to her, and a harp tuner. In front of Wayland sits a chunk of iron slag that I found on the beach in Salem Massachusetts, a gift that seemed most appropriate.  Air is the ruling element here, with a secondary infusion of Water (and Fire, too, if I’m honest, even though it messes up my nice, neat classifications).

The next two altars are a bit more “work-in-progress.” First is a home for various local spirits and wights. Thus far Turkey, Crow, Datura, Boar and Snail are represented. I will also likely include guardians from my OBOD work here as well. On top of the shelf is a ceramic Dragon my soul’s sister made for me, which eerily matches a spirit guide of mine. Water rules here, not least because one of my allies from this land is a river wight, but also because this is an area which very much requires dreams and intuitions to access fully. Air is the breath which stirs the surface of the Water.

Finally we have this very much WIP altar, which seems to be shaping into a repository for images of Divine Queens. It may end up being more of a display for statuary that I like than an actual working altar, but I think there’s a place for both in one’s home. This sort of feminine strength and inspiration is something I’ve needed greatly over the past two years, and I’ll be interested to see whether this altar remains dedicated to that casue, or whether I will eventually repurpose it for something else.

So, after only having had a single altar space for year, I may have gone a little crazy with all these! Still, it feels good to be able to move from altar to altar, and to have specific foci for various parts of my life.  More likely than not things will get pared down after a little while, but for now, this suits my needs quite well.

Element Earth

Roughly a year ago, Awen began smacking me upside the head to do a series of paintings for the elements. (It’s true, sometimes Awen hurts.) I’ve obviously been sitting on this inspiration for a while now, but I think the brew’s been boiling for long enough.

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At the last full moon, I scoured the conservation land for as many different types of leaves as I could get my grubby little Ovate hands on. The results were: four types of oak (red, white, black, pin), American chestnut, staghorn sumac, hawthorn, striped and red maple, sassafras, fern, birch, and beech.

15547038782_23c9ad4a04_kI pressed them between the pages of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (yes, its abbreviation really is OCD) for two weeks while my brain played with the patterns. Finally, in a rare two hours of free time, I prepped the canvas board with acrylics and began arranging the leaves.  Where they didn’t contact the wet paint directly, I used PVA glue to secure them.

15360891228_4e913c87dc_hThe next step was to fashion a stencil that could be used on all four paintings for the elemental symbols. Once it was in place, I used metallic gold spray paint to create the Earth motif. Finally I cleaned up the edges with various shades of Sharpie to make the gold really pop.  This was the final result.

Next stop: Water.

Sycamore

Week 38 of the PBP.

There’s just something about the scaly, leopardy bark of the sycamore that I’ve always found irresistible. When I visited Portugal in 2011, one of the most memorable experiences of the trip was sitting beneath the giant spreading branches of a sycamore in the courtyard of a Templar monastery. It was almost as if the branches still held the chants of the monks rustling amongst its dry winter leaves.

Sycamore is of the deep Earth, rooted in the sturdy realm of Saturn. A sycamore gifted me a branch this past Samhain, and rarely have I felt nwyfre flow so freely in an impromptu tool. The branch is quieter now, but no less grounding.

Poke weed

Week 33 of the PBP.

Poke weed holds the dubious honor of being the first plant that I took it upon myself to identify because no one I talked to knew what it was. In a sense, it was the guardian to the world of knowledge through guidebooks. I checked out several from the school library, sitting with the plant for what seemed like hours, trying to get it to give up its name to me. I was more than a little thrilled to find out it was poisonous! Dangerous plants are always more glamorous, even at a young age.

Tall stands of poke weed grew around the elementary school. It was also the first plant I ever tried to turn into a spear. It was lightweight—a good quality for an aspiring fourth grade hunter—but its joints twisted and turned, which made it very hard to get it to fly true. Eventually the berries became currency, and were traded for other valuable commodities like acorns and bunches of garlic grass. I later encountered poke weed in the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, where she described it being used to paint the smile on a child’s doll.  We painted rocks and sticks with the mashed up berries quite a bit around the school yard, but never really graduated to dyeing anything other than our fingers.

Ocymum basilium (basil)

Week 31 of the PBP.

Basil: the king’s herb. I believe this to be the tastiest weed on this good green earth. So many different flavors, so many colors, I could go on and on. With just a little pinch back at the beginning of the season, you’ll soon have a wealth of materials for pesto, thai cooking, even sorbet!

I associate basil with Earth and Jupiter, not least because it has the reputation of being quite handy in money spells. I also find it to be a mood brightener. It’s almost impossible to feel sorry for oneself when munching on a tomato salad garnished with basil greens.

Basil is everything that is good in life, summer’s bounty and the promise endless fragrant breezes ahead.

Lilac

Week 24 of PBP.

There is nothing like driving past a hedge of lilacs in bloom with the windows rolled down. It’s incomparable. The only thing more fun is standing amidst them in the rain, letting the water roll down over glossy leaves and splash on your face.

These are the flowers of my maternal line. My mother brought the white lilacs from her family home in Pennsylvania. It’s a stubborn plant, growing in a place that should be too shady, and blooming anyway. It’s always been smaller than its purple neighbors, but I’ve always been very fond of it because of its history.