Why Your Mantel Just Might Be the Most Magical Place in Your House: Altar-Making and Enchantment

May 19, 2020

Altars. Small, magical spaces dedicated to spirit, to self, to love, to creativity, to communication. They keep popping up in our Facebook discussion group (particularly in a post by Kate of Enchanted Conversation!), so today we’re sharing a little about our own altar spaces and a few of our favorite bits of the marvelous Dr. Kay Turner’s book Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars. This is one of our ALL TIME favorite folklore books, and frankly one of the greatest on material culture in general. We highly encourage you* to order it if the concept of altar-making sparks any kind of recognition in your soul.

As Turner describes, “the very heart of altar-making is a woman’s daily choice to engage with the sacred on her own terms” (Turner 34).

“A woman’s personal altar evokes her particular–her intimate–relationship to the divine, human, and natural realms. There she assembles a highly condensed, symbolic model of connection by bringing together sacred images and ritual objects, pictures, mementos, natural materials, and decorative effects which represent different realms of meaning and experience – heaven and earth, family and deities, nature and culture, Self and Other. By actively engaging the Divine at this self-created sacred place, she makes her altar a living instrument of communication, a channeling device for integration, reconciliation, and creative transformation” (27).

A few gorgeous photographs from the book

Altars are places to express something deeply intimate about the self and connect that expression to various otherworlds, be they spiritual, emotional, creative, or otherwise. Many altars have something to do with spirituality, but that doesn’t always have to be the case either. For example, the author Erin Morgenstern makes an altar for each book she writes, gathering special objects she gives symbolic meaning to somehow related to her work in progress.

Closeups of Brittany’s altars.

“Margot Adler, writer and Wiccan, declares: ‘All of these images [/objects] are windows. And doorways. An altar is a collection of special objects that are doorways to your own soul and being. These images allow you to enter a deeper reality through gazing at them, through looking at them, through touching them, through being with them'” (33-34). “An altar makes visible that which is invisible and brings near that which is far away: it marks the potential for communication and exchange between different but necessarily connected worlds, the human and the divine (7).

Brittany’s cats Pye and Grimmy love altars :).

With an altar, a person can “inven[t] for herself the usefulness of symbolic objects, both sacred and secular, universal and personal, according to her own history, needs, desires, and beliefs. She makes a place for these objects; she sets them apart; and she assigns them their meanings and purpose” (77). Altar-making is a “creative process” (30). Brittany loves making altars and makes them all over the place – for her, each object represents something deep and profound about her beliefs or herself.

A small altar space of Brittany’s

Here, Brittany has gathered several items of significance to her for a small altar space. The blue bird of happiness statue holds a wish inside her from her mother, and the Turkish evil eye protects (and reminds her of a wonderful family vacation). The various jars and bottles are full of things from nature. There are angel images, crystals, candles, and a carved black cat to represent all her critters. A cut-out key represents The Starless Sea (she told you it was a soul book!) You can also spy a statue of Artemis, a box with vines and pomegranate seeds to represent Persephone, a “Sleeping Beauty” coin, a carved crow from her sister, a butterfly wing, vials of sand from Siesta Key beach (where she lived with her family), and so much more. And yes, she admits that she sometimes gets a little carried away with the “glorified materialism” aspects… her altars do have a tenancy to get a bit overwhelmed? But that’s why we especially love Turner’s chapter on layering, accumulation, and embellishment in altars (even to the point of excessive decoration.) It was… comforting for Brittany to say the least! “Hey, it’s not cluttered, it’s depicting a very personal ‘aesthetic of relationship'” (104)! :P.

Sara’s mantle altar

In these images, Sara has made a simpler, but exceptionally thoughtfully curated altar space featuring an enormous bejeweled owl (that Brittany think MIGHT house Sara’s soul sometimes?), a tiara from a dear friend, a wooden bird hand carved by her stepfather, candles, tarot cards, a theatre program, a card from her mother, and more. Sara’s altar is a bit less permanent, since she created it knowing she would be moving again soon, but no less meaningful!

Candles are wonderful additions to altar spaces

Altars appear all over the world, and “[a] Mexican-American woman’s altar filled with statues of the Virgin and other saints does not look very different from an altar laden with Goddess figures found in the Early Cucuteni shrine of Sabatinovka (5000-3500 BCE). A Transylvanian table altar for ritual vessels is similar to the modern altar of a woman in Oregon” (8-9). This is a practice that is accessible to everyone, and it can help create more than a bit of magic in your life. If you’ve never made one before, give it a shot. It might be exactly the eye opening experience you’ve been looking for!

Do you have an altar? Or perhaps spot full of significant items you’ve never really thought of as an altar until now? Please share in the comments or in the Facebook group, we would love to see!

* While Turner’s book is dedicated to women’s altars and, as we’re both women, we focus on that here as well, this is not to say that personal altars cannot be made by men and/or the genderqueer. Turner points out that women’s altars have traditionally often functioned as “a site of subversion,” a unique place to combine religion, culture, nature, etc. and “keep or reinvigorate old practices alongside the new” in “a world that allowed women little power” (19). Basically she’s arguing that altars can become a feminist expression outside and beyond patriarchal institutions, and we totally agree. But while this is absolutely important to keep in mind, we think it’s also good to remember that these profound “space[s] apart” (25) can today be for ANYONE (though still perhaps particularly for those who feel marginalized by dominant, patriarchal institutions.)

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