All About Altars


[Why Altars Work] [Altars for Personal Integration] [Altars for Healing] [Life Transitions and the Home Altar] [The Inner Child Altar]

Why Altars Work

From “Altars: Bringing Sacred Shrines Into Your Everyday Life”  by Denise Linn


In many ways the power of the altar lies in its visible appearance.  The structure and objects of the altar appeals to our psyche because they give form to the formless and provide a visual representation of the Divine.  It is difficult to comprehend the spiritual realm because of its unseeable nature.  However, when objects are thoughtfully placed on an altar, they physically represent things which by their very essence are invisible, thus giving substance to faith.


Just looking at an altar can influence the way that you are feeling.  You may be conscious of the pleasing colors, pleasant smells and beautiful images, and this can have an effect on you.  However, ,in a much deeper sense, it is the subconscious mind, which is the part of the brain that dictates our beliefs, that becomes profoundly imprinted with the symbolic meanings of the objects on an altar.  The subconscious mind has much more influence on your life than your conscious mind.  It determines your deepest passions about life and even influences your destiny.


The altar objects exert a powerful influence on the subconscious because they simultaneously express various levels of truth beyond the reality of surface appearances, thus helping to create understanding out of the complexities of life.  Altar items are physical objects, yet each one represents an ideal, belief, relationship, concept or idea.  Together these objects become not separate symbols, but a synthesis that is far more than the sum of its parts.  It is an altar’s coherent and whole gestalt that so effectively impacts the subconscious mind.


The various components of the altar are not usually considered to be idols commanding worship, but rather reflections of the spiritual side of our lives.  For example, a rose on a home altar might represent love.  In some cultures, however, symbolic objects and representations are taken literally.  In the ancient Hindu tradition , for example, objects representing the gods were not considered merely symbolic.  When people encountered such an object, they believed that they were actually in the presence of the divinity so represented and would, therefore, be in a position to receive blessings from the god or goddess.  While most people today do not share this literal view, nonetheless symbolic objects play a very important role in shaping our beliefs, which in turn can greatly determine the reality of life as we experience it.  All the objects on an altar work as catalysts for the inner knowing places within us.


The visible form of an altar can also help strengthen our connection to our past and our future.   This can occur through the use of ceremony which accompanies the use of altars.  Whether the ritual used is thousands of years old, or whether it is a simple act of lighting a candle, ritual and ceremony are filled with the substance of life and carry us to the essence of being.


Most of our ancestors utilized ceremonial practices in every aspect of their lives, honoring the milestones in life, from birth to death.  These rituals, performed solemnly in front of an altar, reinforced the fact that an individual was not alone but rather and integral part of a larger community which extended both backward and forward in time.  Using the objects on the altar as focal points for ceremony helped put ordinary experiences into perspective within the greater panorama of life, and provided a way to step out of ordinary reality into sacred and spiritual.


Altars for Personal Integration

By Denise Linn


In modern life we tend to have many different roles.  We may look like one person on the outside, but we so often have a number of sub-personalities within.  Sometimes these different aspects of self pull us in so many directions that we lose sense of who we really are.


You can use your altar to combat this tendency by placing objects on it that symbolically characterize various aspects of your life, and are arranged in a pleasing combination.  In this way, an altar can serve as a kind of microcosmic representation of your life, where the arrangement of an altar can serve as a metaphor for integration and harmony.  For example, a paintbrush on an altar might depict an artistic part of you, a small silver spoon might represent the mothering part of you and a gold fountain pen might represent your career.  Putting them together on an altar can be a powerful metaphor for those three aspects of yourself being in harmony with each other rather than at odds.  An altar used in this way can be a place where you can symbolically bring together the various disparate elements of your life, so they can be welded together into a unified, coherent whole.


Clustering objects on you altar that represent aspects of yourself can help you to step beyond the fragmentation into the larger scheme of life.  By arranging and rearranging the elements on your altar, you can symbolically reorder your life.  The human psyche responds to symbolic acts, and when you use your home altar as a template for personal cohesion, it becomes a centralized point for inner synthesis.


An Integration Altar can also help deepen your connection to Spirit by the placement of objects that represent parts of yourself next to others that represent spiritual realms.  This can subliminally intensify your link to the Creator.  Feelings of meaningless and of being pulled in too many directions are often soothed and healed.  The Integration Alta can be a peaceful center in the busy whirl of life, a place where we can go to regain a sense of wholeness and unity.


Altars for Healing


Altars have been used for healing since the earliest times.  Today, they can provide a powerful focus for sending healing energy to yourself and others, and they can also be a distillation point to receive vital nurturing energies from Spirit.  There is increasing scientific support for what ancient healers have always known – that the body, mind (including your emotions) and soul are not separate.  The altar is a place where body, mind and soul can be healed.


Life Transitions and the Home Altar


Traditionally an altar was also used as a place to memorialize the turning points in life.  This type of altar is valuable in today’s world because there is a noticeable lack of places were we can express and celebrate life experiences.  In ancient times, whether the events were happy or sad, there were always appropriate rituals for commemorating significant losses and major successes.  By contrast, in modern life, a person is often given only one day off work to attend the funeral of a family member, and few people acknowledge that the period of mourning extends far beyond the funeral.  The end of a marriage is often marked only by the ceremony of signing legal papers and perhaps an appearance in court.  To honor happier occasions, we may go out with friends to celebrate a new job or moving to a new home.  But often these festivities consist of little more than a round of drinks or possibly dinner, while the deeper personal significance of what has taken place may be overlooked.


The home altar is a place where life’s passages can be given their proper homage over a longer period of time through the use of ritual and ceremony.  This can help you process, acknowledge and fully experience each of the important events in your life.  When you use an altar to honor the transitions in your life, you are taking the feelings that are inside you and giving them a physical form.  This articulation gives your emotions the attention and care that they deserve, and allows you truly to hear what is in your heart.



The Inner Child Altar

By Denise Linn


An inner child altar can be a wondrous experience to create, and it can also help begin to heal childhood wounds.  Many people have had la less-than-perfect childhood.  The pain from the past often lurks in the heart, sometimes negatively affecting relationships and important life experiences.  And inner child altar can create a powerful metaphor for beginning to heal the wounded child that still hungers for love, acceptance and happiness.


To create an inner child altar, take some time to go into a relaxed state and imagine yourself as a child laughing and feeling delighted with life.  Notice what and who are around you.  When you come out of your contemplation, find objects for your altar that symbolize the wonderful experiences you had in the meditation.  For example, on an inner child alter you might put a container of bubble soap for blowing bubbles, a wind-up yellow duck, a well-loved doll, and a childlike drawing that you have created of yourself looking happy.  Put anything that is representative of simpler and more innocent times.  This kind of altar can bring a spirit of joy, spontaneity and fun into a home and can help you begin to heal a difficult childhood.