Imagine if you will walking into an old temple. As you walk into the temple you smell the aroma of incense coming from a table. On this table there are candles, incense, flowers and other items. Here you have come to the altar, but just what is an altar?
An altar is a place where we come to commune with the presence we call divine, and each of the items we see has a symbolic purpose and representation. In ancient times it was where sacrifices and offerings were left for the divine.
The word "Altar" itself is made of the Latin word for "high", as in a high place. This in itself has ties to the many myths and legends that describe the divine living on a mountain top. Whether it was mt. Zion, mt. Olympus, mt. Meru or any other, these high mountain tops were the dwelling place of the divine. The altar then is a representation of this high place. The shape was often in the shape of a cube, and still to this day you can find cube altars in churches and temples. Ceremonial magicians make use of the cube altar as well, and on the cube you will find the various tools of their craft.
The Altar is You, the Microcosm
"Of the elements of earth is this altar composed. It is the great cube of matter. On or in this altar burns a Flame. It is this Flame that is the spirit of all created things. Man, know thyself, Thou art the flame, and thy bodies are the living altar."
- Manly P. Hall: The Initiates of the Flame
The altar (and the mountain for that matter) are symbolic representations of ourselves in a balanced state, with our awareness drawn inwards to the center, where the flame is set. The offerings of the bull, or a ram are the aspects of ourselves identified with that of Taurus or Aries etc.
Unfortunately, this has been a long forgotten symbol except for few mystics and initiates. It has been replaced by the purely external practices of worship found in the worlds' mainstream teachings of religion. They have forgotten the words:
"Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" - 1 Corinthians 3:16
Cube Altar and the Macrocosm
Whether you choose to follow the idea of Nature and mathematics with the law of self similarity, the religious belief that we were created in the image of the divine, or the Hermetic principle that says "as above, so below", they all support the idea of a correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm. This is also true for the symbol of the altar, where we find the cube as a symbol for space itself.
In the book Kabbalistic book Sepher Yetsirah, it describes creation by way of the 22 Hebrew letters. The X,Y,Z (north, south, east, west, up and down) are formed by the 3 mother letters. The 6 directions and the center makes the 7 planes, which are formed by the 7 double letters. The 12 intersecting lines on these planes are then made up of the 12 simple letters. Astrologically we find the 3 double letters corresponding to the 3 qualities of cardinal, mutable and fixed signs. The 7 double letters make up the 7 traditional astrological planets, while the 12 simple letters make up the 12 zodiac signs.
Cube Altar as the House of the Divine
One of the most recognized examples of the cube altar as a house of the divine is the Ark of the Covenant. This altar was carefully constructed and housed within it sacred items. In the Bible it describes this being used by the high priest as a way to communicate directly with God. Solomon's Temple was built to house the Ark within the most sacred space within, the Holy of Holies. The lid itself was referred to as the "Mercy Seat", and was considered as the throne of God.
Similarly we find the most sacred relic of Islam being the Kaaba, the large black cube that sits in Mecca. This cube similarly is referred to as the "House of God", and during prayer Muslims are expected to pray in the direction of this Kaaba. As one of the 5 Pillars of Islam, all Muslims that are able are required to make a pilgrimage to the Kaaba at least once in their lifetime.
The Flame on the Altar
So if we understand the altar as being a dwelling place for the divine and that this dwelling place is within us, it would be reasonable to think that there is a corresponding internal work that goes along with the ritual ceremonies that make use of the altar. On this altar are placed items that are used to invoke specific qualities of the divine. These make up our prayers. The offerings we leave are the sanctification of our resources, our time and our energies to the sole purpose of that prayer.
What have you done with your altar space?