With more people being attracted to paganism and animism, there may be a lot of new people who aren’t aware of altar etiquette. Lots of people don’t know an animist altar when they see one. While guidelines vary from person to person and group to group, here are some general things to look out for so that you don’t step on anyone’s toes.
What’s an Altar Look Like?
First, let’s talk about what an altar looks like so that you can recognize one when you see it. If you’re in a church, the altar is pretty recognizable. It’s the big table or flat topped block that occupies a place of prominence up front. It is often wooden, marble, or covered in a cloth. Sometimes there are candles, icons, statues, or flowers on top of it.
Pagan altars look a bit different. They may be just a patch of incense, items from nature that look like they were placed together, or statues, crystals, with bowls containing food or water. Some are permanent and some are temporary. If you frequent Asian restaurants or nail salons, you’ve probably walked right past them and didn’t know what they were.
Altar Etiquette for Your Altar
If you have an altar, you probably already know these things, but I am going to address some things for people who are new and maybe don’t yet know.
- Tend it. Altars are focal points for energy. They need tending. It should be clutter and dirt free. If you are making offerings, make sure they are freshened regularly. Visit your spirits regularly.
- Keep it sacred. This is not where you eat, watch tv, or go about your daily life. It’s sacred space.
- Make sure that whatever is on the altar is purposefully chosen. Don’t place random things there that do not support your work. Be careful to choose items that compliment each other rather than work against each other. An altar is a focal point for spiritual work, not just a decoration.
- Come to this space in a clear, loving state of mind. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but as much as possible, you want to cultivate this space as loving, gentle, and calming.
- If you are placing your altar on public land, leave no trace. Either create it with something that will degrade quickly and naturally or take your tools with you when you go.
Altar Etiquette For Someone Else’s Altar
If you come across someone else’s altar, whether it’s in a public place or private, keep these things in mind.
- DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING! You may be looking at something ancestral. Ritual tools are often consecrated. Even if they are not, this is not your space. Admire from afar.
- Do not move anything or add anything there without permission. This is not your space. Respect the boundary.
- If you are invited to make an offering, the offering stays there when you leave. An offering is a gift. It’s a sign of respect, gratitude, and reciprocity.
- If you are making a sacrifice to a deity or helping spirit, that stays there when you leave. You haven’t given up anything if you take it with you.
- If you are putting something on a public altar to help hold space for your intention, cleanse it first. Make sure that your intention is in alignment with the intention of the group. Take it with you when you go.
Nature is the animist “church.” An altar may be anywhere. They can be made of anything. If you come across something that doesn’t quite look nature made, leave it alone. It could be an altar.