AN ALTAR WITHOUT GOD? A “PLACE” FOR THE SACRED by Sara Frykenberg


The altar was not for particular spirits, but honored all the ‘spirits’ we brought with us to share: the spirits of the women and men in our stories, the memories imbedded in the items we gathered together and the spirit of every person present in the class that day.

Last week my students and I created a non-religious altar to conclude our class, Women, Religion and Spirituality.  We read about different feminist spiritual traditions in which women created altars to honor their ancestors, spirits or deities; and I thought it might be fun to practice our own form of literal physical creation.  I asked students to bring in inspiring items, pictures of people who’d helped them to grow or anything that honored what they considered sacred in their lives.  I also asked them to bring food to share, as no altar seems complete without food of some kind.  However, asking my students to participate in a course ritual, I also felt it was important to respect their very different beliefs… which resultantly, left me wondering how we would create an altar without God.

My religious experience taught me that altars were a place to surrender gifts in return for a greater gift of God’s blessing or love.  The church I attended as a child did have a literal, physical altar; but this raised table was only used monthly to present the communion bread and grape juice before it was passed through the pews.  Otherwise, I came to understand, one’s heart was the altar and we needed to present our sacrifices there.  Financial gifts needed to come from the heart, then put into the offering plate.  Gifts of time or action had to start in the heart, even when required by the youth group or spiritual authority; and resistance to giving these gifts also required sacrifice.  My resistance or lack of desire to sacrifice required that I leave my unwillingness at the altar so that I might become appropriately grateful.

At some point I started leaving too much at the altar; and like Abraham’s Daughter I said enough is enough.  I recognized myself in the sisters and brothers lying under the sacrificial sword, and I took back my heart.  My heart, I realized, hadn’t been the altar; it had been the offering and sacrifice.

So, how do I ask my students to bring an “offering” without asking them to risk their ‘hearts,’ so to speak?  I, like many of my students, am very inspired by the idea of physical altars— literal places I can go to visit the sacred, that also allow me to preserve the sacred places where my heart lives.  I already have a few places in my home that I consider altars of a sort.  I keep significant stones and a singing bowl on the hearth of my fireplace, so I can interact with peaceful energy and vibration there when I meditate.  I place a box with a rose in it under a drawn picture of a naked woman on my dresser.  The rose is from my grandmother’s funeral; and I open the box to remember her in my own physical way.  It is in terms of these physical meeting places—multiple interrelated sacred spaces— that I tried to talk about the creation of a class altar. 

I explained, “its meant to be a place where we can celebrate the journey we’ve been on, to remember, to share stories and to finish our class.”  I hoped our altar could be a meeting place, but let them know I did not want them to be uncomfortable.  They did not have to participate.  Those students who had altars or their own traditions didn’t need to disrupt their own practice or places to share sacred items with the class.  Most importantly, we would not dedicate the altar to a particular deity or spirit—which for me meant, I did not plan any particular ritual, perhaps, confusingly.  I have to admit, I was overly concerned that my students might not tell me if they were uncomfortable.  Thus, I believe that I used a lot of words to under-explain what I was hoping we would create (as I am apt to do).  What I forgot was that while the altar itself was not for god or goddess, that god and goddess would be there for those of us who honored deity.  The altar was not for particular spirits, but honored all the ‘spirits’ we brought with us to share: the spirits of the women and men in our stories, the memories imbedded in the items we gathered together and the spirit of every person present in the class that day.

I brought my meditation stones to share (along with several other items)—their two tiny spirits shy as I set them on the sari my father’s “Nana” Sharine gave me before she died.

I also made cupcakes, painting snakes on them with icing to both reference the goddess we’d studied in class and to continue my efforts to create a more positive relationship with this animal.  I didn’t put the cupcakes on the altar for fear that I would impose deity on our shared creation; but I was pleased that like me, others found the snakes a fun element.

Two students brought books, explaining the ways that the texts were pushing them, challenging them, exciting them or giving them hope.  One student reflected that really, her whole bookshelf was like an altar in her home—a sentiment that many in the class shared.

Several students talked about the importance of their politics and the way their items reminded them of their intentional commitments and priorities.  A rock shaped like a fist reminded a woman of her power.  The anime film, Princess Mononoke gave a man hope and inspiration as the characters engaged in a battle for nature.

Other rocks and pieces of nature joined the altar.  Three garden rocks with powerful words reminded one student of her journey with her partner.  A stick that made almost a circle or spiral had lived with another student for years, after they found one another in the forest during a hike.

One woman shared a ring that she’d bought so that she could have something for herself.  Her dear friend wore an identical ring, connecting the two across distances.

Another student told the class that her body was an altar and she showed us some of her tattoos, noting their (sometimes changing) significance.

Most students without physical items shared what they might have brought had the items not been too precious or fragile to bring.  A grandmother’s spice rack, creating food that ties family together.  The jewelry shared by generations.

Everyone reflected on the altar process, noting that many of us already had altars in our homes and didn’t realize it.

I was really touched by all offerings we brought to our altar, and how they encouraged and shaped us.  This altar wasn’t about sin, surrender or sacrificing our hearts—it was about what’s in our hearts.  Our temporary place told me more about who we were as a class-community.  My only wish is that I had known better how to honor this altar’s gifts with ritual or ceremony—which is why I wanted to write about it here.

What’s on your altar?  How do you honor this sacred space?  How do you create sacred places, temporary or no, in your own communities?  I would love to hear more about this.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.



Categories: college, Foremothers, Gender and Power, General, Goddess Movement, Herstory, Spirituality, Uncategorized, Women and Community, Women and Scholarship, Women's Agency, Women's Spirituality

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17 replies

  1. This reminds me of a ritual process described by Flora Kesgigian practiced by a nondemnominational womem’s spirituality group at Brown University (essay in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion). What I got from Flora and from your blog is that I can accept “names” for the spirit or divinity that are not “mine” including male names for God as long as the names I hold dear and all female names are not excluded. This principle of tolerance however requires those who come from intolerant religions at least to recognize that they are participating in a plural space.

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    • I definitely wanted this to be a plural space and a space for tolerance– though I have to say, initially, I thought I needed to exclude or “protect” the group from all deity/ spirit. This was not a very realistic expectation, nor one that would honor who we were as a group.
      This was a unique group to talk about feminist spirituality with for me– as most students did not have particular religious beliefs, though many were raised in households with religion.
      We had no participants from intolerant religions, which was nice. We also had a number of atheist participants– and I really wanted them to have a space to honor sacrality in their own way with their own stories.
      Thank you for the reference– I will have to take a look at Flora’s piece.

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  2. I hadn’t thought about alters as the spaces spontaneiously arising in the everyday whether recognized or not.

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    • I can’t remember what piece we were reading for class, but the idea of one article in particular was generally, that you create altars without knowing it all the time– the shift caused by recognizing those unconscious or spontaneous altars is very intersting to me!

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  3. Modern witches, pagans, and heathens are building altars all the time. We have them in our homes and wherever we gather for rituals. We build them for goddesses and gods and both, we have fairly standard altars (god and goddess candles, symbols of fire, water, air, and earth) and enormously creative ones, we have altars for a specific spell or purpose (to attract love, prosperity, a new home, etc.) and generally celebratory altars. An altar thus becomes a work of art as well as a focus for worship.

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    • Thank you for sharing! I am still playing with altars in my own life, in small ways (as I share above)— but I am very drawn to them and have seen some that are definitely works of art! :) A friend of mine (a wiccan) said she makes a new one for every season in her home, dressing her altar to honor these changes. She changes out her plates too and things like that to honor change– I actually really like this idea, as my house feels entirely different (energetically speaking) during different times of year, and it is also a place with a lot of wind… I would love to honor this shift in energies within my home.

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      • Many of us turn out whole home into a sort of combination altar and shrine. An altar, basically, is where we do magic. A shrine is a special setting dedicated to a specific goddess or god. There are lots of good books (a couple of which I wrote) on the subjects of altars and shrines in our homes.

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  4. I loved doing this alter and it was interesting to read your reflections on the experience. Since I’ve moved in March many of the items I placed on my (unintentional) alter are still packed away, unfortunately. Now that term is just about over, I’ll be finishing the unpacking. However, I realized I created one on my desk.

    To the right of my screen are some figurines from World of Warcraft, a game that is meaningful to myself and my partner. Next to it is a picture of my cat when I first got her. On the wall behind them are two magazine pages of dresses I love. Above those is my favorite picture – my mom hugging my brother and I, a candid shot from about 5 years ago. Above that are my giant wooden scissors and fork, each found in strange places and times and had to be collected. Above all of that, hanging from the ceiling, is a wooden painted mobile that my grandmother gave me.

    These are some of my favorite things, and placing them right near my desk so I could see them was important to me. It’s funny now I look at the same things there, but they mean something different because I know what they really are now.

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    • I love your reflections about your desk altar. I too have found that intentionally recognizing sacred spaces in my home also changes their meaning for me.
      Thank you so much for helping to build this class altar! I too really loved doing it, even though I was a little nervous during the process, having never done this class alter building before. I’m glad to have shared the experience and really appreciate your comments here too! ;)
      I also loved what your brought to the altar– your spiral stick is so beautiful!
      Every piece of our altar reminded me of similar experiences or items that decorate my own home with stories, my ancestors and spirit. :)
      P.S. I am very curious what these wooden scissors look like and where you found them!

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      • I hope it’s ok to link to a picture. http://i.imgur.com/XBDQr.jpg This is my desk altar. A little messy, but still, I love it. The little drawings were made by my partner. The scissors I found at a flea market for $15. I saw them and immediately had to have them. The fork was similar, but it was at a thrift shop. I only had enough for one, the fork or the spoon, and I chose fork after much deliberation.

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    • Brenna, I guess I’ll be a fussy English teacher all my life, but please be careful to spell it “altar.” That shows you know what you’re talking about.

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    • I guess different people find spirituality from different figures, not just a deity. I get a spiritual response from cats, as most of them are cooler than people.

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  5. It is refreshing to find a place to get a spiritual experience without the God pressure. This is proof a person can be “spiritual but not religious”.

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  6. When I was in high school I created an alter in my closet of a guy that saved my life. To me, he was my religion. Living in a life where men have raped, abandoned, threatened and misused me, it was important to me to find meaning within the male species.

    I think people need to find meaning in something and alters, especially ones without God, can connect people deeper to the world rather than to the cosmos.

    Since then, I have stopped creating secret alters in my closet, but I still have the fond memories.

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  7. I have several altars though my home. I like having something representing Godde, whether male or female. I’m leaning toward feminine images right now as I grew up with a “male” God to balance out. I’m a Christian Wiccan so I see Godde as both Mother and Father, both Lord and Lady. My main altar–what I consider the hearth of my home, has a picture of The Daphne statues on Northerly Island to represent the God/dess, a big jar, my wand, an amethyst crystal, a silver cup, sea shells, and some lilac blossoms. I have a little altar where I normally chant morning prayers and meditate. Right now there is a red candle in a holder with a beautiful silver cross with a blue stone in its center, a bell we bought on our honeymoon in Rome, and an icon of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. On my bedside table, I found this wonderful flat black rock on one of my walks along Lake Michigan. On top of it sits a tealight, small seashell, a feather, and silver ring with a moonstone in it, and there is an icon of my patron saint, Brigid of Kildare next to it. On my kitchen altar is a cauldron, a kitchen witch (where my journey as a Wiccan/Witch started), wooden spoons, a candle and more sea shells. I consider my entire home to be a sanctuary, and I think of altars like grottoes in churches. The whole place is holy, but there are little places to stop that speak more to you when the whole overwhelms you. If that makes sense.

    I like having all these reminders that my home is sacred space, especially as I work at home. The mundane and sacred are always intertwining in and out of each other, and my altars remind me of that.

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