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altar, table or platform for the performance of religious sacrifice. In its simplest form the altar is a small pile, with a square or circular surface, made of stone or wood. Its features vary according to its purpose. The altar of libation usually has a drain for the liquid, and so does the altar of bloody sacrifice; the altar of burnt offering (including incense) often has a depressed hollow for a fire. Altars in Egypt, in Mesopotamia, in Greece, in Rome, and among the Aztec and the Maya were highly adorned with friezes, cornices, elaborate platforms, and canopies. At Pergamum there was a huge monumental altar 40 ft (12.2 m) high. Altars as a rule were out of doors in the ancient world and in Central America. The Christian altar is the place to celebrate the Eucharist, a sacrifice in the traditional view. In the Western Church the altar is a long, narrow table of stone or wood, often reminiscent of a tomb; at its back is a reredos, which often bears a canopy. In the Roman rite there are in the middle of the altar a crucifix and a tabernacle to contain the reserved Host, although recent legislation of Roman liturgical reform suggests that the tabernacle be placed elsewhere in the church. There is a recess in each altar containing bones of martyrs; this is even true of tiny portable altars carried by chaplains. In Eastern rites the altar is square and has no backing or reredos; it is away from the wall. Most Protestant denominations have no altar; a typical practice is to have a permanent communion table below and in front of the pulpit.
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The altar in Breedon-on-the-Hill church, Leicestershire, England. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The original meaning of the word signified a raised structure, usually of stone, later of bronze, where sacrifices were offered or incense burned. Altars served as the focus of communal worship. Although the structures have been called by different names, all religions that share the element of sacrifice have used altars. Usually a severe ritual was enacted, with priests or shamans leading the rite while a congregation looked on. The offering consisted of everything from the plant material used in goddess worship to the animal sacrifices of Judaism and the elaborate human sacrifices of Canaanite and Olmec worship. Later, especially in Christianity, a table was substituted, often called a Communion Table, because here were placed the elements of the communion meal, which celebrated the sacrifice of Jesus.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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Wiccan altar of the Gardnerian tradition. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

An altar is a piece of furniture used at a religious ceremony, and it is usually regarded as the most sacred part of the temple in which it stands. In effect it is a table, its function being to hold the various items used in the rites. In primitive societies, the altar was the surface on which sacrifices were offered. Frequently a large, naturally flat, rock would be used. At Mystery Hill, in Salem, New Hampshire, an altar rock may be seen that has a deep groove worked into it, running around the periphery of the stone. This has been referred to as a "blood groove," although there seems to be no concrete evidence of blood sacrifices having been made at this particular site. Blood sacrifice, and even human sacrifice, has been known in various societies such as the Aztec, as is evidenced in the sacrificial altar at the great temple pyramid to Huitzilopochtli, where King Ahuitzotl sacrificed more than twenty thousand prisoners after the two-year war in Oaxaca. The altar stone was five feet in length and three feet wide, rising three feet off the ground.

Few altars equaled the Aztec one for bloodiness; indeed, many if not most religious rites do not call for blood sacrifices of any sort. Ancient Egyptian altars were frequently in the form of small tables bearing only incense-burners and jars, although other, more elaborate, altars were also used. Many altars—as in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine—were of stones piled on top of one another with a fire-holding stone, or fire pan, at the top. Many Hebrew altars, such as the one from the old Canaanite site of Megiddo, were square and had pointed extensions at the corners, often referred to as "horns."

The Greeks had both public altars dedicated to various gods, where fire burned continuously, and domestic altars for family use. The latter were sometimes placed in the kitchen, as the principal room. Examples of this are found at Pompeii. At other times the domestic altar would be placed in a special room constructed just for it. An early Greek altar was in the form of a tripod. This was used at Delphi and other sites as the seat for the Pythoness and her sister sybils. Barbara Walker says that the three legs signified the connection between the priestess and the triadic spirit of prophesy.

Altars were also used by the Native Americans. The Hopi and other Pueblo tribes built their altars of sand with decorated reredoses behind them. The Mound Builders, east of the Mississippi, invariably included clay altars in the center of the mound. These were as long as six feet, and they have been found filled with charcoal and fragments of human bones, suggesting mortuary rites.

In Voodoo, as found in Haiti, the peristyle temple is circular in form and has a central post holding up the roof. This post is known as the poteau-mitan and around it is built the altar. The principle god, Damballah-Wédo, a serpent, is believed to live at the top of this post.

In Wicca, the altar is the focal point of the religious gatherings. Witches meet in a consecrated circle, which serves as their temple. There are no sacrifices of any sort in Wicca since all life is held as sacred. The altar is frequently placed in the center of that circle, although it may be in the north or the east, depending upon the particular tradition. In the Gardnerian tradition, it is in the center and holds two white altar candles, censer, god and goddess figures, pentacle, scourge, cords, white-handled knife, sword, wand, containers of salt and water, wine goblet, and the athamés of the High Priest and High Priestess.

In the Seax-Wica tradition, the altar itself is always circular and may be a tree stump (if the ritual is held outdoors) or a rock, a log, or a circular table. On it stand a single white altar candle, god and goddess figures, censer, salt and water, drinking horn, sword, and the book of rituals known as "The Tree." The presiding priest or priestess may also lay his or her seax on the altar.

Different traditions of Wicca use different altar arrangements. The candles and censer seem to be universal, as are a drinking vessel—goblet, horn, chalice—and some form of anointing substance such as salt and water or oil. Some altars seem to bear everything, including all the athamés of everyone present, while others are very sparse. An altar cloth may or may not be used.

Scott Cunningham suggests setting up an altar made of three stones: two roughly equal-sized stones as the base and a larger one resting across their tops. Smaller stones placed on top may represent the god and goddess, although there is no reason why the two supporting stones themselves should not represent the deities.

In some Wiccan rituals, such as the Cakes and Wine and the Gardnerian Third Degree ritual, the High Priestess will sit on the edge of the altar, using it as a throne. For the performance of the Great Rite, the altar may be cleared so that the High Priestess may lie down full length on it, if it is of sufficient size. Failing that, she will lie on the ground immediately in front of the altar. Doreen Valiente says, "Use of a living woman's naked body as the altar where the forces of Life are worshipped and invoked goes back to before the beginnings of Christianity; back to the days of the ancient worship of the Great Goddess of Nature, in whom all things were one."

In Ritual or Ceremonial Magic, the altar represents the center of the universe and, by extension, the center of the self. In the western occult tradition, the altar is ideally constructed of stone but is more usually of wood, in the shape of a double cube, two feet by two feet and four feet high. In many forms of Ceremonial Magic, the altar is constructed to precise dimensions and is inscribed with certain glyphs, or sigils, in one or another of the traditional magical alphabets: Theban, Malachim, Passing the River, Angelic, Ogam Bethluisnion, Egyptian Heiroglyphics, or Runes. Although not as necessary as in Ceremonial Magic, this is often carried over into Wicca, according to individual taste. Runes and Theban seem to be the favorites of Wiccans.

Some Wiccan altars are elaborately carved with figures of the gods, and/or foliage and animal forms. Others are plain and unadorned. Tables, trunks, boxes, and even chests of drawers are adopted and adapted for use. There are no criteria as to what constitutes a Wiccan altar. An altar made of two mighty yew logs topped by a solid block of stone is used by a Solitary Wiccan in England, while a simple white cloth laid directly on the ground is used by a whole coven in France. Wood, stone, clay, earth, brick, concrete—all can become the sacred space that is an altar, the center of the ritual area.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the credence and also the most important part of a Christian temple.

Outdoor altars, initially earthen or stone, became grandiose structures in ancient Greece and Rome, finished in marble with reliefs—for example, the Pergamian altar, circa 180 B.C., antique collection in Berlin. In the Christian cult, which replaced bloody sacrifices with symbolic ones, the table in the temple on which “the mystery of the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ” took place, came to be called the altar. Christian altars were decorated not only by sculptures but also with gold and precious stones—for example, the altar in the Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan, 824–59. In Catholic churches the name altar also was applied to the decorative wall raised on or behind it, usually decorated with paintings and sculpture—for example, the altar by Donatello in the Basilica of Sant’ Antonio in Padua, 1446–50. Portable folding altars with paintings on the panels appeared in the eighth century. Later, altars were painted in churches, attaining huge dimensions, like the altar by the Van Eyck brothers, finished in 1432 for the Cathedral of St. Bavon in Ghent.

In general usage, altar refers to the entire eastern portion of the church separated by the altar bar or, in the orthodox church (where the table for communion was called the throne), by the iconostasis, used since the early 15th century.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about an altar?

The meaning of an altar depends on certain other specific contents of the dream, as well as on individual associations. Clearly, an altar has a more complex range of meanings for a priest than for someone who has never attended a religious service. When an altar does not relate to worship or to specific associations with one’s church, it often connotes sacrifice (e.g., letting go of something, symbolically letting go of parts of oneself), dedication (e.g., entering into a marriage), or new beginnings (renewal).

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. An elevated table, slab, or structure, often of stone, rectangular or round, for religious rites, sacrifices, or offerings.
2. The Communion table in certain churches.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. a raised place or structure where sacrifices are offered and religious rites performed
2. (in Christian churches) the communion table
3. a step in the wall of a dry dock upon which structures supporting a vessel can stand
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005