‘m trying to remember the time when I built my first altar, but it’s all in a haze – it was so long ago. I had to seriously improvise. It was Beltane, and all I had was a description of a group ritual – dancing around a Maypole. Well, there was no Maypole dancing custom in Poland – on the contrary, 1st of May was a secular holiday, the Worker’s Day – so I couldn’t build an actual one, as that would be too conspicuous. And how would I even weave the ribbons around it on my own?
So I adapted and improvised what I could. I built a tiny Maypole in my room out of Lego blocks and grabbed a doll to pretend to weave the ribbons with me. The book said to use my favourite glass for the chalice, for consecration and water/west symbolism, so I did – a plastic one, with floating glitter in its walls. I had a tiny collection of semi-precious stones which I bought during a visit to some mines, which supplied the rock crystal, to be the Earth element symbol. And so on. It was awkward, yet I was thrilled to be a part of an old tradition, a women’s secret. I knew I had finally found my place.
My early altars were all in miniature, easy to cover and pack away, as I was afraid of my parents’ reaction. I hid my precious book under my bed for a time as well. Luckily, I think they decided that interest in religions and occult was a “phase” I would grow out of, so I didn’t loose anything. I was still cautious though. I kept my tools, herbs and candles in a locked cabinet in my desk and hid the key in a secret spot. I waited until the parents were asleep before I dared to light a candle, and I put a rolled-up blanket under my closed door so that they wouldn’t see anything should they wake up in the middle of the night.
Later, I learned to disguise my altars as room decorations. I remember having a wall niche with a scroll painting of a Chinese woman (a portrait of the Goddess), a Japanese tea bowl (the chalice) and a chopstick (the wand). I enjoyed the feeling of having secrets hidden in plain sight. I think that was when I switched from building altars “by the book” to building them in an aesthetically pleasing way. Ironically, this probably worked against their purpose. I enjoyed feeling clever, and being creative, but they didn’t connect me to the Goddess as much as content selected specifically for her would.
Over time, I built many altars, but the one thing that stayed constant was the consecration ritual from “The Women’s Spirituality Book” by Diane Stein. The book contains three solitary rituals for celebrating phases of the Moon (which I find to be highly appropriate, seeing that one of the primary symbols of the Goddess is the Moon). The first of these, a waxing Moon ritual, combines a (re-)consecration of the altar with personal purification and self-blessing. It helps me confirm my commitment to the Goddess and cleanse myself from any mental, emotional and spiritual burdens I picked up over the previous month.
Such formal rituals help me build and maintain the connection with the Goddess, but they don’t usually bring any special messages or visions. These come in meditations and during prayer. Diane Stein suggests that all rituals should include a appropriate guided or themed meditation (after participants are purified, but before the circle is cast and the main ritual begins). Based on my experience it’s an excellent suggestion. There needs to be a time for quiet, private and spontaneous communion with the Goddess because it is then that I can hear Her answer.
In the end, the altar is an expression of my connection to the Goddess and a place where we meet for special occasions. As the relationship changes, it can take many forms: a place of magic, of secrecy, of art, of vision and of purification. Or it may even not be there at all, as She is with us always.
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