An altar is any structure upon which sacrifices or other offerings are made for religious purposes, or some other sacred place where ceremonies take place. Altars are usually found in shrines, temples, and other sacred places. They were features of temple furniture in many cultures worldwide from ancient times to the present day, particularly in ancient Pagan religions. Today they are used particularly in the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism (also known as Daoism), as well as Christianity, Satanism, Thelema, Neopaganism, and in Ceremonial Magic. They were also found in other ancient religions.
The first altar was the Altar of Burnt Offering ( mizbach ha'olah) also called the Brasen Altar the Outer Altar (mizbach hachitzona), the Earthen Altar (mizbach adamah), the Great Altar (mizbach hagedola) and the Table of the Lord This was the outdoor altar and stood in the Court of the Priests, between the Temple and the Court of Israel, and upon which the korbanot (animal and bird sacrifices) were offered. The blood of the sacrifices would be thrown against the base of the altar and portions of the sacrifices would be burned on top of it (precisely which portions would depend upon the type of sacrifice). Also consumed at the altar would be some of the meat offerings, and the drink offerings (libations of wine) were poured out here. All sacrifices had to be "seasoned with salt" ()
Three separate piles of wood burned atop the altar. The largest of these was where all the portions of the sacrifices were burned; the second fire provided the coals for the Altar of Incense within the sanctuary, and the third was the "perpetual fire" which constantly burned on the altar. Nothing was placed on it, and no coals were taken from it. It existed solely to fulfill the commandment that there be a perpetual fire, as the Torah states: "And a fire shall burn there on the altar constantly; it shall not be extinguished" (). There was no commandment regarding the type of wood to be used; however, the Rabbis forbade the use of olive wood and grape vine, as these would not burn well and needed to be conserved because of their commercial value to the people. Three particular types of wood were preferred: fig, walnut, and pine. These woods all burn well, and were therefore preferable. The choicest branches of fig were used for the second fire, the one from which coals were taken for the Altar of Incense. If all of the lamps of the menorah went out, they would have to be rekindled from the fire on the Altar of Burnt Offering.
A large pile of ashes was formed in the center of the altar from the remnants of the three fires. A portion of the ashes from this pile were required to be removed every morning before the first sacrifice of the day. In the Second Temple, the priest who fulfilled this mitzvah (commandment) was chosen by lottery every morning. He would vest in his priestly vestments and wash his hands before approaching the altar. The ashes were taken up in a silver shovel and set on the ground to the east of the altar at what was called, "the place of the ashes." Then he would change from his priestly vetments into ordinary clothing and remove the ashes to a clean place outside the camp (Cf., ).
In the various utensils used with the altar are enumerated. They were made of brass. (Comp. ; ; ). The altar could not be carved using utensils made of iron or of bronze nor were any allowed on or near it, because iron and bronze were used for implements of war. The Altar and its utensils were considered to be sacred, and the priests had to vest and wash their hands before touching them—even so much as removing the ashes from the altar.
According to the Bible, the fire on the altar was lit directly by the hand of God and was not permitted to go out (). No strange fire could be placed upon the altar. The burnt offerings would remain on the altar throughout the night before they could be removed ().
A second lottery would be made to determine which priests would fulfill the various duties involved in offering the sacrifice and preparing the menorah and the Golden Altar.
When Moses consecrated the Tablernacle in the wilderness, he sprinkled the Altar of Burnt Offering with the anointing oil seven times and purified it by anointing its four horns with the blood of a bullock offered as a sin-offering, "and poured the blood at the bottom of the altar and sanctified it, to make reconciliation upon it" ().
The Kohathites were the Levites who were responsible for moving and setting up the altar. When it was time for the Israelites to move, they removed the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it, placed all of the instruments and vessels used in the sacrifices on it, covered it with a blanket of badger skin, and put the carrying poles in place ().
According to the Bible, after the rebellion of Korah, the censers that were used by the rebels were made into broad plates used to cover the altar, as a warning that only priests of the seed of Aaron may offer incense before the Lord ().
This altar was renewed by Asa (). It was removed by Ahaz and "cleansed" by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians in 586 BCE ().
After their return from the Babylonian captivity it was re-erected where it had formerly stood. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem, he defiled the Altar of Burnt Offering by erecting a pagan altar upon it. Judas Maccabeus renewed the altar when he re-took Jerusalem. Since the existing altar had been defiled by the blood of pagan sacrifices the old stones of the altar were removed and replaced with new, unhewn ones. However, since the old stones had been previously sanctified by the Jewish sacrifices they could not be moved to an unclean place; so they remained on the Temple Mount, "until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them." (1 Maccabees 4:41-47).
During Herod the Great's extensive building activity on the Temple Mount, it was likely refurbushed. Talmudic scholars give a very precise description of the altar during the Second Temple period. The altar was built as a perfect square and was quite large: it reached a height of 10 cubits (app. 5 meters) and its width was 32 cubits (app. 16 meters). It was constructed of two main parts: the altar itself, and the ascent ramp. Both were constructed of stones and earth. On top of the altar at its four corners, there were hollow boxes which made small protrusions or "horns." These horns measured one cubit square and 5 handbreadths high, each (or, app. 18" x 18" x 15"). In this form, the altar remained in its place until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Today, in the Dome of the Rock, immediately underneath the great golden dome, which is believed to occupy the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock known as the Foundation Stone, measuring about 60 feet in its extreme length, 50 feet in its greatest breadth, and at its highest point about 4 feet above the pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon's Temple was built, and may have been the site of the Altar of Burnt Offering, although a recent analysis suggests it may have been the floor of the Holy of Holies. Underneath this rock is a cave, known today as the Well of Souls, which may have been the granary of Araunah's threshing-floor ().
The altar was constructed of shittim wood and covered in pure gold. It was an upright rectangular stand, measuring one cubit wide, one cubit deep, and two cubits high, with a "horn" on each corner, a border of gold around the top, and rings on opposite sides through which poles could be passed to carry it (). The poles were made of shittim wood covered with gold. Moses consecrated the altar with the anointing oil when the Tabernacle was dedicated ().
On this altar incense was burned daily at the time of the morning and the evening sacrifices. The coals used on this altar had to be taken from the Altar of Burnt Offerings. The incense used had to be made according to a specific formula and no other incense was permitted (). According to Jewish tradition, the incense was made by the Avtinas family, who closely guarded its secret. The offering of incense also had to be seasoned with salt.
The offering of incense was the apex of the daily morning and the evening services. According to the Rabbis, this was the part of the temple service that was most beloved by God (Zohar I 130:A). The burning of the incense was symbolic of the prayer of the people rising up to God (; ). The offering of incense had to take place after the sacrifice, because only after the atonement could communion with God take place. After the offering of incense, the Kohenim (priests) pronounced the Priestly Blessing upon the people.
Whenever certain sin-offerings were brought, the coals from the incense that was lit that morning were pushed aside and the blood of the "inner sin-offering" was sprinkled seven times on the top of the Golden Altar ().
Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Altar of Incense was purified (). The High Priest, after sacrificing a bull and a goat and purifying the Holy of Holies with their blood, would mix the blood of the two animals together. Then, starting at the northeast corner, he smeared the mixture of blood on each of the four corners of the Golden Altar. He then sprinkled the blood eight times on the altar.
In Solomon's temple the altar was similar in size, but was made of cedar-wood overlaid with gold. In it is called "the altar of wood." (Comp. .)
In the temple rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile the Golden Altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was afterwards restored by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 1:23; 4:49). It was at this altar that Zacharias ministered when an angel appeared to him (). Among the trophies carried away by Titus after the destruction of Jerusalem, and depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome, the Altar of Incense is not depicted, though the menorah, silver trumpets (the hasoserah mentioned in ), the mortar and pestle used for preparing the incense, and possibly the Table of Showbread are.
It should be mentioned that there are other offerings involving incense, such as the meat offerings, but these were consumed on the Altar of Burnt Offering, not on the Altar of Incense. On the day of Yom Kippur only, the High Priest would offer incense in the Holy of Holies.
The word "altar" (Greek: θυσιαστήριον) appears twenty-four times in the New Testament. Significantly, spoke of Christians having an altar of which those who follow the Jewish liturgy could not partake, a reference, it seems, to the Eucharist and the table/altar used by the early Church. In early and later Catholic theology it is a re-presentation, in the literal sense of the one sacrifice being made "present again." Hence, the table upon which the Eucharistic meal (the Bread and the Wine) is also called an altar.
Altars occupy a prominent place in the sanctuaries of many churches, especially those belonging to the ancient Christian traditions, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches. They are also found in many Protestant worship places. It plays a central role in the celebration of the Eucharist. A priest (or minister in Protestant circles) celebrates at the altar, on which the bread and the wine are placed.
The area around the altar is seen as endowed with greater holiness, and is usually physically distinguished from the rest of the church, whether by a permanent structure such as an iconostasis, a rood screen or altar rails, by a curtain that can be closed at more solemn moments of the liturgy, as in the Armenian Church, or simply by the general architectural layout. The altar is often on a higher elevation than the rest of the church. In Reformed and Anabaptist churches, a table, often called a "communion table", serves an analogous function. In some colloquial usage, the word "altar" is used to denote the altar rail also, although this usage is technically incorrect.
Churches generally have a single altar, although in the West, where concelebration had formerly fallen into disuse and priests always celebrated Mass individually, larger churches have had one or more side chapels, each with its own altar. The main altar was also referred to the "high altar". Since the revival of concelebration in the West, the Roman Missal recommends that in new churches there should be only one altar, "which in the gathering of the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church. But most existing Western churches, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, may have a high altar in the main body of the church, with one or more adjoining chapels, each with its own altar, at which the Eucharist may be celebrated on weekdays.
Architecturally, there are two types of altars: those that are attached to the eastern wall of the chancel, and those that are free-standing and can be walked around, for instance when incensing the altar.
In the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist appears to have been celebrated on portable altars set up for the purpose. Some historians hold that, during the persecutions, the Eucharist was celebrated among the tombs in the catacombs, using the sarcophagi of martyrs as altars on which to celebrate. Other historians dispute this, but it is thought to be the origin of the tradition of placing relics beneath the altar.
When Christianity was legalized under Constantine the Great, formal church buildings were built in great numbers, normally with free-standing altars in the middle of the sanctuary, which in all the earliest churches built in Rome was at the west end of the church. "When Christians in fourth-century Rome could first freely begin to build churches, they customarily located the sanctuary towards the west end of the building in imitation of the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. Although in the days of the Jerusalem Temple the High Priest indeed faced east when sacrificing on Yom Kippur, the sanctuary within which he stood was located at the western end of the Temple. The Christian replication of the layout and the orientation of the Jerusalem Temple helped to dramatize the eschatological meaning attached to the sacrificial death of Jesus the High Priest in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The ministers (bishop, priests, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes), celebrated the Eucharist facing east, towards the entrance. Some hold that for the central part of the celebration the congregation faced the same way. After the sixth century the contrary orientation prevailed, with the entrance to the west and the altar at the east end. Then the ministers and congregation all faced east during the whole celebration; and in Western Europe altars began, in the Middle Ages, to be permanently placed against the east wall of the chancel.
Most rubrics, even in books of the seventeenth century and later, such as the Pontificale Romanum, continued to envisage the altar as free-standing. The rite of the Dedication of the Church continued to presume that the officiating Bishop could circle the altar during the consecration of the church and its altar. Despite this, with the increase in the size and importance of the reredos, most altars were built against the wall or barely separated from it.
In almost all cases, the eastward orientation for prayer was maintained, whether the altar was at the west end of the church, as in all the earliest churches in Rome, in which case, the priest celebrating Mass faced the congregation and the church entrance, or whether it was at the east end of the church, in which case the priest faced the eastern apse and had his back to the congregation. This diversity was recognized in the rubrics of the Roman Missal from the 1604 typical edition of Pope Clement VIII to the 1962 edition of Pope John XXIII: "Si altare sit ad orientem, versus populum …"
The present rules regarding the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite liturgy declare a free-standing main altar to be "desirable wherever possible. Similarly, in the Anglican Communion, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer assumed an altar fixed against the wall, until Prayer Book revision in the twentieth century removed language which assumed any particular form of altar.
As well as altars in the structural sense, it became customary in the West to have what in Latin were referred to as altaria portatilia (portable altars), more commonly referred to in English as "altar stones". When travelling, a priest could take one with him and place it on an ordinary table for saying Mass. They were also inserted into the centre of structural altars especially those made of wood. In that case, it was the altar stone that was considered liturgically to be the altar. The Pontificale Romanum contained a rite for blessing at the same time several of these altar stones. In the East the antimension served and continues to serve the same purpose. In the West, the obligation to use one for the celebration of Mass has been abolished.
The term "movable altar" or "portable altar" is now used of a full-scale structural altar, with or without an inserted altar stone, that can in fact be moved.
Such altars are found in Roman Catholic churches awaiting restructuring from an arrangement in which a priest celebrated Mass at a remote high altar, usually facing away from them, to one in which he is closer to the congregation and generally facing them. Both Catholic and Protestant churches use them to celebrate the Eucharist in places other than a church or chapel (such as outdoors or in an auditorium). In those Protestant churches in which the focus of worship is not on the Eucharist, which may be celebrated rarely, and in churches which want to make use of both a fixed and free-standing altar at different services, they are not only movable but are in fact occasionally moved. Churches that have adhered to the Protestant Reformation have favoured as altars free-standing wooden tables placed in the quire away from the east wall and the high altar, and without any altar stone.
In the United States the General Instruction of the Roman Missalis used regarding regulations for the altar. The Instruction recommends:
That there be a fixed altar in every church, since it more clearly and permanently signifies Christ as the living stone (cf. ). The reason an altar is called 'fixed' is because it attached to the floor so as to be irremovable.
Roman Catholicism requires that there be only one altar in a newly built church, and that it be made of stone, ideally natural stone, as the altar symbolises Christ who is regarded as being the cornerstone of the Church. In practice, however, solid and well-crafted wood is often used, due to the expense of stone. It is still customary to place relics of saints under the altar.
In older church buildings where the altar is positioned against the wall and cannot be moved without damage (examples of which can be seen in this section) a table is normally placed in front, and the old one used either for aethestic purposes or for the tabernacle.
Because the altar represents Christ, only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa (the flat, horizontal surface of the altar), but this is not a recommendation that is normally followed.
Candles, which are required at every Catholic liturgical service, are placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary. Catholics also place a cross, or crucifix (a cross with the figure of Christ), on the altar or near the altar, where it is clearly visible to the congregation.
Altars in the Anglican Communion vary widely. At the time of the Reformation, altars were fixed against the east end of the church, and the priests would celebrate the Mass standing at the front of the altar. Beginning with the rubrics of the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI published in 1552, and through the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which prevailed for almost 300 years), the priest is directed to stand "at the north syde of the Table [altar]." This was variously interpreted over the years to mean the north side of the front of a fixed altar, the north end of a fixed altar (ie., facing south), the north side of a free-standing altar (presumably facing those intending to receive the Elements who would be sitting in the quire stalls opposite), or at the north end of a free-standing altar placed lengthwise in the chancel, facing a congregation seated in the nave.
Often, where a celebrant chose to situate himself was meant to convey his churchmanship (that is, more Reformed or more Catholic). The use of candles or tabernacles were banned by canon law, with the only appointed adornment being a white linen cloth.
Beginning with the Catholic Revival in the 19th Century, the appearance of Anglican altars took a dramatic turn in many churches. Candles and, in some cases, tabernacles were reintroduced. In some churches two candles, on each end of the altar, were used; in other cases six - three on either side of a tabernacle, typically surmounted by a crucifix or some other image of Christ.
In Anglican practice, conformity to a given standard depends on the ecclesiastical province and/or the liturgical sensibilities of a given parish. In the Parson's Handbook, an influential manual for priests popular in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, Percy Dearmer recommends the size of an altar be "as nearly as possible 3 ft. 3 in. high, and at least deep enough to take a corporal [the square of linen placed underneath the Communion vessels] 20 in. square with a foot or more to spare." He also recommends that the altar stand upon three steps for each of the three sacred ministers, and that it be decorated with a silk frontal in the seasonal colour. In some cases, other manuals suggest that a stone be set in the top of wooden altars, in the belief that the custom be maintained of consecrating the bread and wine on a stone surface. In many other Anglican parishes, the custom is considerably less rigorous, especially in those parishes which use free-standing altars. Typically, these altars are made of wood, and may or may not have a solid front, which may or may not be ornamented. In many Anglican parishes, the use of frontals has persisted.
When altars are placed away from the wall of the chancel allowing a westward orientation, only two candles are placed on either end of it, since six would obscure the liturgical action, undermining the intent of a westward orientation (ie., that it be visible to the congregation). In such an arrangement, a tabernacle may stand to one side of or behind the altar, or an aumbry may be used.
Sensibilities concerning the sanctity of the altar are widespread in Anglicanism. In some parishes, the notion that the surface of the altar should only be touched by those in holy orders is maintained. In others, there is considerably less strictness. Nonetheless, the continued popularity of altar rails in Anglican church construction suggests that a sense of the sanctity of the altar and its surrounding area persists. In most cases, moreover, the practice of allowing only those items that have been blessed to be placed on the altar is maintained (that is, the linen cloth, candles, missal, and the Eucharistic vessels).
A wide variety of altars exist in various Protestant denominations. Some groups, such as Lutheran and Methodist will have altars very similar to Anglican ones, keeping with their sacramental understanding of Holy Communion. In Protestant churches from Reformed, Baptist, Congregational, and Non-denominational traditions, it is very common for the altar to have on it only an open Bible and a pair of candlesticks. Many of these groups use a very simple wooden table, known as a Communion Table, adorned perhaps with only a linen cloth, and would avoid any suggestion of a sacrifice being offered. Such Communion Tables often bear the inscription: "Do This in Remembrance of Me" indicating the belief in Holy Communion being a memorial rather than a sacrament. Such a table is normally not consecrated in any manner, and may be temporary, being moved into place only when there is a Communion Service. Many Protestant denominations have no altar at all, the sanctuary being dominated only by the pulpit.
Some evangelical churches practice what is referred to as an altar call, whereby those who wish to make a new spiritual commitment to Jesus Christ are invited to come forward publicly. It is so named because the supplicants gather at the altar located at the front of the church (however, the invitation may be referred to as an "altar call" even if there is no actual altar present). Most altar calls occur at the end of the sermon. Those that come forward will usually be asked to recite a sinner's prayer, thereby making a formal confession of their new faith. They may also be offered literature, counselling or other assistance. It is sometimes said that those who come forth are going to "be saved". This is a ritual in which the supplicant makes a prayer of penitence (asking for his sins to be forgiven) and faith (accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior).
Altar calls may also invite those who are already fully members of the Christian community to come forward for specific purposes other than conversion; for example, to pray for some need, to rededicate their lives after a lapse, or to receive a particular blessing (such as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit) or if they are called to certain tasks such as missionary work.
"Altar" has a meaning in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches that varies with context. Its most common usage does not denote the table itself, but the area surrounding it; that is to say, the entire sanctuary. This includes both the area behind the iconostasis, and the soleas (the elevated projection in front of the iconostasis), and the ambo. When one enters the sanctuary, one is said to be "going into the altar". The altar table itself may be referred to as either the Holy Table or the Throne (Prestól). This section will describe the Holy Table, not the sanctuary.
For both Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, the Holy Table (altar) is normally free-standing, although in very small sanctuaries it might be placed flush against the back wall for reasons of space. They are typically about one meter high, and although they may be made of stone they are generally built out of wood. The exact dimensions may vary, but it is generally square in plan and in reasonable proportion to the size of the sanctuary. It has five legs: one at each corner plus a central pillar for supporting the relics which are placed in it at its consecration (if, however, the consecration was not performed by a bishop, but by a priest whom he delegated for that purpose, relics are not placed in the Holy Table). A plain linen covering (Strachítsa) is bound to the Holy Table with cords; this cover is never removed after the altar is consecrated. The linen covering symbolizes the winding sheet in which the body of Christ was wrapped when he was laid in the tomb. Since the altar is never seen uncovered thereafter, the strachitsa tends to be constructed more with sturdiness than aesthetics in mind. Above this first cover is a second ornamented cover (Indítia), often in a brocade of a color that may change with the liturgical season. This outer covering usually comes all the way to the floor and represents the glory of God's Throne.
Atop the altar is the tabernacle (Kovtchég), a miniature shrine sometimes built in the form of a church, inside of which is a small ark containing the Reserved sacrament for use in communing the sick. Also kept on the altar is the Gospel Book. Under the Gospel is kept the antimension, a silken cloth imprinted with an icon of Christ being prepared for burial, which has a relic sewn into it and bears the signature of the bishop. Another, simpler cloth, the ilitón, is wrapped around the antimension to protect it, and symbolizes the "napkin" that was tied around the face of Jesus when he was laid in the tomb (forming a companion to the strachitsa). The Divine Liturgy must be served on an antimension even if the altar has been consecrated and contains relics. When not in use, the antimension is left in place in the center of the Holy Table and is not removed except for necessity.
The Holy Table may only be touched by ordained members of the higher clergy (bishops, priests and deacons), and nothing which is not itself consecrated or an object of veneration should be placed on it. Objects may also be placed on the altar as part of the process for setting them aside for sacred use. For example, icons are usually blessed by laying them on the Holy Table for a period of time or for a certain number of Divine Liturgies before sprinkling them with holy water, and placing them where they will be venerated. The Epitaphios on Good Friday, and the Cross on the Feasts of the Cross, are also placed on the Holy Table before they are taken to the center of the church to be venerated by the faithful.
In place of the outer covering, some altars have a permanent solid cover which may be highly ornamented, richly carved, or even plated in precious metals. A smaller brocade cover is used on top of this if it is desired that the altar decoration reflect the liturgical season.
The Holy Table is used as the place of offering in the celebration of the Eucharist, where bread and wine are offered to God the Father and the Holy Spirit is invoked to make his Son Jesus Christ present in the Gifts. It is also the place where the presiding clergy stand at any service, even where no Eucharist is being celebrated and no offering is made other than prayer. When the priest reads the Gospel during Matins (or All-Night Vigil) on Sunday, he reads it standing in front of the Holy Table, because it represents the Tomb of Christ, and the Gospel lessons for Sunday Matins are always one of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus.
On the northern side of the sanctuary stands another, smaller altar, known as the Table of Oblation (Prothesis or Zhértvennik) at which the Liturgy of Preparation takes place. On it the bread and wine are pepared before the Divine Liturgy. The Prothesis symbolizes the cave of Bethlehem and also the Anointing stone at which the Body of Christ was prepared after the Deposition from the Cross. The Table of Oblation is also blessed, sprinkled with holy water and vested at the consecration of a church, but there are no relics placed in it. Nothing other than the sacred vessels, veils, etc. which are used in the Liturgy of Preparation may be placed on the Table of Oblation. The Epitaphios and Cross are also placed on the Table of Oblation before the priest and deacon solemnly transfer them to the Holy Table. In addition to the higher clergy, subdeacons are permitted to touch the Table of Oblation, but no one of lesser rank may do so. The Table of Oblation is the place where the deacon will consume the remaining Gifts (Body and Blood of Christ) after the Divine Liturgy and perform the ablutions.
In the Armenian Apostolic Church the altar is placed against the eastern wall of the church, often in an apse. The shape of the altar is usually rectangular, similar to Latin altars, but is unusual in that it will normally have several steps on top of the table, on which are placed the tabernacle, candles, ceremonial fans a cross, and the Gospel Book.
In Hinduism, altars are also shrines to the gods, and therefore sacred. Offerings and sacrifices are made at these shrines, to the gods. A large shrine is found in the temple, or mandir, while smaller ones are found in the home. A Hindu shrine consists of images of the gods called murtis, and offerings to that god. There is usually also lights, pictures of saints and gurus, and offerings, often of food.
Taoist altars are erected to honor traditional deities and the spirits of ancestors. Taoist altars may be erected in temples or in private homes. Strict traditions describe the items offered and the ritual involved in the temples, but folk custom in the homes is much freer.
Nearly all forms of Chinese traditional religion involve baibai (拜拜)--bowing towards an altar, with a stick of incense in one's hand. (Some schools prescribe the use of three sticks of incense in the hand at one time. ) This may be done at home, or in a temple, or outdoors; by an ordinary person, or a professional (such as a Daoshi 道士); and the altar may feature any number of deities or ancestral tablets. Baibai is usually done in accordance with certain dates of the lunar/solar calendar (see Chinese calendar).
At certain dates, food may be set out as a sacrifice to the gods and/or spirits of the departed. (See, for example, Qingming Festival and Ghost Festival.) This may include slaughtered pigs and ducks, or fruit. Another form of sacrifice involves the burning of Hell Bank Notes, on the assumption that images thus consumed by the fire will reappear--not as a mere image, but as the actual item--in the spirit world, and be available for the departed spirit to use. In Taoist folk religion, sometimes chickens, pigs feet, and pig heads are given as offerings. But in orthodox Daoist practice, offerings should essentially be incense, candles and vegetarian offerings.
In Buddhism, a butsudan is an altar found in temples or homes. The butsudan is a wooden cabinet with doors that enclose and protect a religious image of the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas (typically in the form of a statue) or a mandala scroll, installed in the highest place of honor and centered. The doors are opened to display the image during religious observances. A butsudan usually contains subsidiary religious items—called butsugu—such as candlesticks, incense burners, bells, and platforms for placing offerings such as fruit. Some buddhist sects place "ihai," memorial tablets for deceased relatives, within or near the butsudan. Butsudans are often decorated with flowers.
The shrine is placed in the temple or home as a place of worship to the Buddha, the Law of the Universe, etc. Scrolls (honzon) or statues are placed in the butsudan and prayed to morning and evening. Zen Buddhists also meditate before the butsudan.
The original design for the butsudan began in India, where people built altars the size of skyscrapers as an offering-place to the Buddha. When Buddhism came to China and Korea, statues of the Buddha were placed on pedestals or platforms. the Chinese and Koreans built walls and doors around the statues to shield them from the weather. They could then safely offer their prayers, incense, etc. to the statue or scroll without it falling and breaking.
When the Japanese finally welcomed Buddhism after many years of Shintoism, they took in the religion along with the butsudan. As many new Buddhist sects came into being, the butsudan was placed in many temples. The Japanese took the plain walls and doors of the mainland shrines and elaborately embellished them, and the butsudan became the focal point of every temple. As time went on, people began installing butsudans into their homes.
In Shinto, altars are found in shrines. Originating in ancient times, himorogi are temporarily-erected sacred spaces or "altars" used as a locus of worship. A physical area is demarcated with branches of green bamboo or sakaki at the four corners, between which are strung sacred border ropes (shimenawa). In the center of the area a large branch of sakaki festooned with sacred emblems (hei) is erected as a yorishiro, a physical representation of the presence of the kami and toward which rites of worship are performed.
In more elaborate cases, a himorogi may be constructed by placing a rough straw mat upon the ground, then erecting a ceremonial eight-legged stand (hakkyaku an) upon the mat and decorating the stand with a framework upon which are placed sacred border ropes and sacred border emblems. Finally the sakaki branch is erected in the center of this stand as the focus of worship.
A basic altar, called a Hörgr was used for sacrifice in Norse paganism. The Hörgr was constructed of piled stones, possibly in a wood (harrow), and would be used in sacrifices and perhaps other ceremonies as well.
A possible use of the hörgr during a sacrifice would be to place upon it a bowl of the blood of an animal sacrificed to a Norse deity (e.g. a goat for Thor, a sow for Freyja, a boar for Freyr), then dipping a bundle of fir twigs into it and waving the bundle in the form of the "hammer-sign" to spatter the participants with the blood. This would consecrate the attendees to the ceremony, such as a wedding.
In Neo-Paganism there is a wide variety of ritual practice, running the gamut from a very eclectic Syncretism to strict Polytheistic reconstructionism. Many of these groups make use of altars. Some are constructed merely of rough-hewn or stacked stone, and some are made of fine wood or other finished material.
In the tradition of Wicca, altars are of particular importance. Since many Neo-Pagan traditions currently worship in the home of a member of the fellowship, the altar may be a permanent part of the home or a portable set of items set on a surface which will be consecrated and released at each event. Any surface can be used, although some traditions prefer a particular type of wood, stone, or other natural material. The altar may be of any shape and size, or even a patch of ground. The items brought to the altar may be a random assortment of personally significant items or a particular set with ritual significance. Traditionally, altar items may include but are not limited to: candles of significant colors, cups or bowls or cauldrons, small statues of gods and goddesses, a ritual knife which in most traditions must never be defiled by being used to cause damage, a wand, a bowl of salt, a bell, and possibly some crystals. The altar is usually covered in some sort of cloth. Some traditions separate the items on the altar into the four Greek classical elements, of earth, air, fire and water; other traditions assign gender preferences to the items and believe they signify the masculine/feminine principles.
High places in Israelite (Hebrew: Bamah, or Bama) or Canaanite culture were open-air shrines, usually erected on an elevated site. Prior to the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites in the 12th–11th century BC, the high places served as shrines of the Canaanite fertility deities, the Baals (Lords) and the Asherot (Semitic goddesses). In addition to an altar, matzevot (stone pillars representing the presence of the divine) were erected.
The practice of worship on these spots, though after the temple was built it had been forbidden, became frequent among the Hebrews, and was with difficulty abolished, though denounced time after time by the prophets as an affront to God. A closely related example is a "backyard" altar, so to speak. Before there was a set temple and a set altar people set up their own altars on their property. After the temple was established using of these altars was forbidden, unlike the preivous case this was quickly eradicated.