By Sherrie Locke, written on 12 K’at, February 2014
A sacred altar is the central location or point of focus for meditation, contemplation and/or ritual related to ancestor reverence, meditation or ceremony.
An altar, or “mesa,” can be anything from a lovely cloth that you carry with your sacred objects and ritual offerings, to a very elaborate set up either inside or outside one’s home.
I will use the example of a typical “ancestor altar” for our first point of reference. Ancestor altars are usually placed within the home, in a location where you will be able to “sit with” that altar. Your family, home and traffic in certain areas of the home should all be considered when choosing the location of the altar. Will you have privacy? Will you need privacy for what you plan to use the altar for, or is it a family shrine? Will others use the altar?
Where to Place Your Altar
These are considerations for location. Don’t worry! If at first you don’t know where you will want to maintain it in the long run, you have the option of setting up the space and, after the conclusion of the ritual (or a certain period of time), you can take it all down and recreate it every time you wish to use it.
First and foremost, always cleanse yourself (see my blog on Sacred Smudging), and then cleanse the room and the space you will be using. Of course, be sure to physically clean the space. Would you have your extended clan over to the house with mountains of dust bunnies all over the altar? I think not.
Creating an Ancestor Altar
I learned to do my first ancestor altar from a respected elder, who explained the following things are required:
1. An altar cloth or something like that (in the old days they preferred frayed edges on the fabric, because the connection is better).
2. Pictures, symbols or items that represent things for you, for the day (such as in Mayan astrology) or for the ancestor(s).
3. A candle.
4. A vessel for water or liquid offerings.
Other options are a crystal grid, an item of personal power, or items that belonged to an ancestor.
The idea is to have a point of focus, such as a picture, a symbol or item that represents what you are doing,
Water is a natural conductor, so it is always good to put clean fresh water on the altar, possibly also some flowers.
The candle is to be lit and used during ritual or ceremony. In most traditions the candles should never be “blown” out, they should ideally be allowed to burn out on their own (be sure you put any candles in a fireproof “candle runner,” or what I use, a small bowl with some sand, which holds the candle firmly, whether you use glass-encased candles or tall taper candles).
You may also want to buy a nice candle snuffer to keep on the altar for this purpose. Some people prefer to use tea lights, since they have a limited duration and can be monitored more closely. Put them on a dish or something.
When choosing candles for an altar, consider what you are using it for and how long you will be able to watch it. Choose the size and color candle(s) that are appropriate for the operation. I will do a blog on ritual uses of candles and the colors and their uses in a future post.
Set your intention, look at everything and see that you like it and that the energies you are working with will be pleased with the offering(s). Light the candle. State your prayers, gratitude and give offerings (I find this is best done “out loud”) just as if you are talking to the person or energy directly.
You may choose to pour a libation, the favorite drink of an ancestor, (I will post a future blog on the subject of “offerings), or choose a bottle of liquor, a perfume, or an item that remains unopened as a part of the permanent altar space. Make it very special when you offer it the first time.
When I have permanent ancestor altars, I like to use a “covering cloth,” so when I am not using the altar it is protected from prying eyes and also in case someone might like to touch something on it, which I personally prefer not to happen.
My suggestion is to keep your altar simple at first so you learn to work with it and then build it up from there. Have fun with it, think of what an ancestor or the ruling nahual of the day might be like and what would be appropriate.
For an outdoor altar, you might gather rocks or build a small shrine that you can use regularly for a myriad of purposes.
Or build a fire pit, which is customary here in the land of the Maya, where our central rituals are all fire ceremonies.
How Often to Use Your Altar
The indoor altar in my house is usually rocking with candles and offerings of the day, most every day. You may use your altar whenever and however often you like, just keep up a steady rhythm or schedule.
If you are only to use it on, say a birthday, just use a portable altar or mesa setup. If you plan on using it more often, then stick to a regular schedule. Don’t let it get dusty, and never use it for a table!
Now go forth and create sacred space and a beautiful altar for your ceremonies of love and gratitude.