- Shrines: These are altars devoted to a particular spirit (or egregore or whatever) whose primary purpose is to be a "gateway" through which to commune (or communicate, or worship, or whatever) a certain spirit or class of spirits. For most people, these include statues or pictures of the spirit, but mine tend not to (except for my ancestor shrine). Growing up Jewish left me a little squicked out by idols.
- Tables of Practice: This name derived from "The Art of Drawing Spirits into Crystals" (which I highly recommend). In that book, it describes a very specific, relatively small table/box used as a location to summon spirits. I'm corrupting the phrase to mean, more generally, a space permanently set up as a "working space" for doing magic (either in general or a of particular kind).
- Showpiece: These are altars whose main function is to store/display magic paraphernalia in a decorative way. Some people knock this kind of altar as "fake", but I think they're a nice if you have space for them, and they can also be slightly useful. I like to categorize and curate my magical tools and attractive materia into showpiece altars. By grouping items with similar magical "signature" together, I create a small space invested with that "vibration", so that other things I put there slowly acquire a subtle "flavor" of the "theme" by a kind of magical osmosis. For example, I have a 4 elements altar/shelves. Jason, over at Boundary Crosser, has a showpiece altar for the Seven Endless. If we ask really nicely, maybe he'll write a post about it with some pictures.
Over the next couple of weeks, I'll write about different kinds of altars. Today, I'll write about ancestor altars. Before I say anything else, a huge shout-out to Andrieh Vitimus, from whom I first learned how to make an ancestor altar. Thanks also to Kenaz Filan, who also offered lots of useful advice. There are lots of kinds of ancestor altars. Mine is in/on a cabinet I inherited from my parents (which, growing up, we always called "the weird thing") and is sort of voodoo on top, and daoist inside. I keep photos on top, so they're always visible, but the urn, candle etc I keep inside, because they sometimes creep out guests. (Guests who are not weirded out by the altar right next to the weird thing, with the preserved head of a black bear on it. Americans have a totally fucked up relationship with death, which I did not fully grok until my parents died) I generally leave the cabinet open, except when I have muggle company or when I want to do something I don't think my ancestors want to see in my "chantry" (like, say, sex magic).
Setting up an ancestor altar is very easy. The first thing you need is a place to put it. A shelf or small table is fine, or the top of a bookcase or dresser. Mine has an "interior" portion as well, but that's not necessary. Clean it thoroughly, both physically and magically. Wipe it down with a nice-smelling perfume or oil. Florida Water (a citrusy, floral, spicy cologne used a lot in voodoo) is traditional, but I use Jean Nate (a citrusy, floral, spicy cologne my mother wore). Once it's clean, lay a white cloth on top. (optional, but traditional). Some features that nearly all ancestor altars from differing cultures share:
- photos or other pictures of the departed. There is widespread agreement that it is VERY BAD to have pictures of the living on an ancestor altar, I think because it places the living person in the realm of the dead, and that can't possibly be good for them.
- an empty picture frame or "generic" statue to represent unknown ancestors. I don't have one of these. Right now, I don't feel any call to have one, but maybe I will in the future. I'm not opposed.
- mementos like jewelry and such. Pocket watches seem very popular.
- Water. Nearly everyone seems to agree that water helps smooth the way for the spirits of the dead. Most people say this should be in a white or clear glass, but I use a cobalt blue one I inherited from my mother. (My mother collected cobalt glass)
- dirt from graves or cremated ashes. I have an urn containing my parents' (mixed) ashes, as well as a jar with dirt from various ancestors' graves. The jar is behind the urn, so you can't see it in tht pictures.
- candles and/or incense
- religious paraphernalia like crosses, buddhas, icons, bibles, etc. I have the siddur (Jewish prayer book) my grandmother got at her confirmation. I'm thinking of adding a Michael ikon for my Greek family.
- small food/drink offerings. Voodoo practice recommends these be made on Mondays, but I often make mine just before kabbalat shabbat on Friday evenings. I don't usually offer alcohol, because my parents both (my mother especially) got abused by alcoholics when they were little, and so they were both (my mother especially) very anti-drinking.
- no salt, and no iron.
In addition to your "close" ancestors, you can also work with "tribal" ancestors at an ancestor altar. For example, I've recently been working with the matriarchs and patriarchs. (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) Sarah/Sarai in particular (for obvious reasons) resonates with me. When I first started working with her, I had a very powerful "vision" of a line of ancestors named stretching back from me, through my mother, through my Nan Sara (my mother's father's mother), back to Sarai, back to Astarte. If anyone in Israel is reading this, I would very much like a small pebble or pinch of dirt from (near) the Machpelah (the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs) to put on my altar.