The question is drawn from the Greenhaven Tradition; the YaaD course is not published on the Greenhaven Tradition website, but is made available on a person-to-person basis. Material that is not so closely held is available at http://greenhaventradition.weebly.com/
Class 6, Paper 1 (after reading, before class discussion): If you don’t have an altar of your own, think of an altar that you have seen somewhere else (of any majikal or spiritual tradition). Describe it in a one-page paper. What did it contain? What did you like or dislike about it? Did it feel special to you? Why or why not?
NOTE: I analyzed the altar of someone I’d recently met online, based on pictures she sent to me. I am reposting this with her permission, and with her name and some personal information redacted.
Assignment submitted November 19, 2011
Writing Assignment: YaaD Class 6 – Altar Tools
[This] altar is lovely. It's arranged on a multi-tier wooden platform, part natural form and part sawn and polished.
Behind the altar is a staff; I don't know if this is simply a walking stick that happens to fit in that corner, a magickal staff, or both. If it is used for magick, it likely represents the element of Earth, and may be used for casting the circle, raising energy, or providing a focus.
It's both. My initiations, patron goddess (more of her later) and practice are very much about walking, and my magical practice is very earth based (redacted). I use it as a walking stick and a focus, and also to tap into earth energy.
Also behind the altar is something I cannot identify; it's carved out of what might be horn or a very dark wood. From some angles it looks like a budding plant, but from at least one angle it looks really, really phallic.
It's a heron, and your first guess was correct – it's carved from a single cow horn. Heron is a strong magical symbol for me; not a totem, but certainly a guide which appears in either physical or symbolic form at times of magical significance, especially concerning my initiatory path.
At the base of the altar are two round bottles containing what appear to be iridescent liquid, or liquid with something sparkly suspended in it; two small statues that look like fairies; a faceted crystal ball; a pewter or silver mug (or possibly pitcher); and a ceramic mug. Depending on the contents of the bottles, they could be representative of water or earth (if, for example, the suspension is gold or mica). Tips for the Frugal Pagan even suggests that brightly colored glitter can be used to represent Fire. The crystal ball could be a gazing ball or a Magnet for Fairies; it might also be a representation of Earth. The mugs / pitcher may serve as chalices, and would be associated with Water.
The bottles contain a suspension of gold leaf flakes; you're quite right, they do represent earth but also act (with the apple) as a focus to encourage prosperity. I'm big on multi use items! The statues ARE fairies, and they are guarding my quartz gazing ball (it's not actually faceted, it just looks that way because it has a lot of inclusions). The pewter mug is my offering vessel to [redacted], my patron god, and the ceramic item is actually a dragon oil burner which to me, represents earth (the ceramic and the dragon as he relates to ley lines), fire (the candle and the dragon), air (the vaporized oil) and water (in which the oil is mixed). Pretty hard to tell any of that from the pic though, as it's tucked away!
A pair of flowers are tucked into a hollow at the front center of the altar; flowers are likely associated with Earth.
On the lowest platform, to the altar's own right, are three large faceted crystals, probably quartz; a large geode that seems to have some amethyst in it; and a sparkly gold candle-holder. Quartz crystals seem to be good general-purpose stones, tending toward balance; also, most of the healers I know do at least some work with quartz as a focus. Amethyst, if that's what it is, is a form of quartz described as being useful for, among other things, purification, regeneration, meditation, inspiration, and intuition. The candle holder, especially if it contains a candle, would be associated with Fire.
Spot on, aside from the large crystal. That's a piece of [redacted]. And yes, I use the quartz points (as well as the [redacted] and other crystals) for healing.
The middle platform, on the altar's own left, contains what appear to be representations of all four elements: an apple, for Earth; finger cymbals, like a bell, for Air; another candle-holder with candle, for Fire; and a chalice, for Water. There is also a female-figure doll, which I assume is a Goddess symbol. The Goddess is holding a feather, which could indicate that [her] patron deity is in some way associated with birds, with that specific bird, or with Air in general. In addition to representing Air, a bell (or the equivalent) can be used to break up energy or dispel negative energy and/or to attract positive spirits including Fairies. On a Wiccan altar, the chalice would also be available for use in a symbolic Great Rite.
The doll represents [redacted], one of my two primary patrons (along with [redacted]). The chalice represents water but is also my offering vessel to her (though she's not a big one for booze, and in my experience actually prefers her libations poured straight onto the ground, so it's rarely used in this way). The feather is a heron feather and was given to me by my best friend. Although [redacted] is traditionally more associated with water or earth than air, she has been instrumental in the same parts of my journey as the heron, so I tend to place them together. Plus, of course, herons are distinctly watery birds – and the paths [redacted] has taken me along have frequently been mountainous and airy! I don't have any affinity for the great rite, as I gather from your description you had already assumed.
Finally, the top-most, center platform contains a large amethyst geode with a figure tucked inside; two small statues, one wolf and one possibly wolf, coyote, or fox; another faceted crystal; several small polished stones; one small crystal ball; a tiny statue that I can't identify; and a knife. While I don't know if it's [her] intent, the figure in the crystal cave puts me in mind of Merlin, one of the most famous of all British magicians. The animal statues may symbolize specific totems or guardians. I can't identify the additional stones; my best guess is that they are present for specific properties of those particular crystals. Or, of course, they could be there because [she] thinks they're pretty. Since [she] is not Wiccan, the knife is probably not specifically intended as an athame or a bolline; however, it likely is used to direct energy in some fashion.
The figure in the geode is actually representative of a friend of mine who [redacted]. I have placed her in the geode, along with other healing works I have been doing for her, [redacted]. The polished stones are Chinese fluorite for de-stressing (at the back) and two pieces of rutilated quartz which I find have an amplifying effect (at the front). The wolf is my totem and astral form and the fox represents my daughter. The knife is I suppose an athame and boline in one, it's actually a Damascus steel blade forged for bushcraft and I use it to both draw and direct energy as well as for carving, preparing herbs, and other practical uses. I've been looking for the right piece of wood for several years to make the handle; when I've done this I'll make a proper sheath; at present if I take it out I wrap it in leather. The tiny statue you couldn't identify is a small pewter crystal-gazing witch.
What I didn't see on this altar, again, because [she] does not identify as Wiccan, were a pentacle (Earth, raising and holding energy), broom/besom (no element, cleansing sacred space), or incense (Air and Fire, various uses including purification and consecration of space and items).
I do use incense, in fact I have a large box burner behind the altar so that when I light it, the whole thing is bathed in the smoke. Kind of impossible to see though, unless it's lit!
There is nothing about this altar that I don't like. It feels very attractive to me; I could probably sit quietly and admire it (and ask questions about it!) for several hours. It seems clear that quite a bit of time and effort have gone into putting this altar together, both in finding all the components and arranging them. It feels balanced and welcoming and friendly. That is, I know better than to touch someone else's altar space, at least if I recognize it as such, but it feels as though if someone did (in innocence or in good faith) they wouldn't get zapped. I wouldn't want to be the person who laid hands on this altar maliciously, though!
Hee, it would be a bad move to have a zappy altar in a house with a four year old! She's very good, though, and rarely touches the area. I have a lot of protection on the house in general rather than the altar specifically, and as the altar is kind of the focal point both magically and in terms of my relationship with my deities, you're probably right – it wouldn't be good for anyone to deliberately do harm there. Especially if they tried to steal [Deity]'s ale! ;)
I think you've done really well with this exercise. You've been really close or spot on with almost everything, and the things you didn't get quite right were pretty obscure (and you said in each case that you weren't sure, too). I'm actually feeling quite flattered by your summary! Thank you! I hope you don't mind my filling in some details for you :)