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The Neopagan Altar: Shamanic Paradigm

By Aaron Leitch

Let's journey back to the early 1990s: Massive changes were sweeping the globe; Jesus Jones proclaimed the world was waking up from history; and the Neopagan movement was hitting a fever pitch. The movement had existed since the early 1900s, found a home in the Feminist movement of the 1970s, and then we witnessed an incredible occult revival in the 90s - when Wicca and Neopaganism were poured into the mainstream of Western youth culture.

I personally entered the Neopagan subculture in Denver, Colorado in the summer of 1993. This was on the eve of the explosion of Neopaganism into the media. There were no such things as The Craft, Charmed, or Teen Witch. The market for books on Wicca was heating up, but had not yet become the tidal wave of watered-down material that we have seen. There was no World Wide Web.

Now, before I met these wonderful folks in Denver, I practiced my own brand of intuitive magick. I had not read Kraig's Modern Magick or the Farrrars' Witches Bible. In fact, I was introduced to these books and more by my friends in Denver. Overall, however, few seemed interested in following the books, choosing more intuitive methods- as I had done previously. Of course, it can't be denied that a distinctive Neopagan mark found itself upon our practices. Our magickal tools and Altars were arranged in the generic Neopagan fashion- such as can be found in Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, or any one of hundreds of similar titles. However, it remained a loose system - allowing each of us to remain distinctly individual and practice things in our own way. First, any suitable shelf, box, or small table could be used as an Altar. It was most often placed facing the North, but the East was just as acceptable. Of slightly more importance was the covering placed over the shelf or table. While purchasing a covering was not taboo, most of us used something with particular meaning for us - childhood blankets, furs and leather pelts (associated with spirit animals), and the like.

In the center was usually a Censor - the main focal point in most spells. This was then flanked on the right and left by two candles, preferably colored white (masculine) and black (feminine), to represent Universal Duality. Many of us were also on constant look out for figures, pictures, or other objects that represented the God and Goddess. Each figure would then be placed upon the Altar next to its associated candle.

The Chalice and Wand were also arranged so that the Chalice was nearest the black candle and the Wand nearest the white candle. Thus, as we can see, the Altar-top became symbolically divided between its right and left halves, representing in miniature the greater Universe and its Duality. Spells were worked in the center as if in recognition of the balanced middle pathway.

The Altar-top was also home to the most-used magickal paraphernalia: a container of salt, a libation bowl, incense and, of course, the Athame when it was not in use. It was not important where these things were placed, so it depended upon individual taste and available space on the Altar-top.

Such is what one might learn from a book, but it falls short of describing the actual living practice. The Altar became the central focus of the witch's magickal practice. Over time, such Altars had a tendency to expand and grow: images of Patron Gods and spirit totems found their home there, talismans and keepsakes were arrayed upon every available space- along with skrying crystals, magickal stones, and ritual jewelry. Thus, the Altar became a true magickal microcosm, reflecting the life and personality of the witch.

No book ever warned us that one's Altar would grow and become a primary magickal tool in itself. It just worked out that way. It would be many years before I learned that we had been instinctively following in the footsteps of our most ancient shamanic ancestors.

Shamanism is a universal term applied to the religious practices of pre-agricultural human society. Before there were priests and temples, the tribe's shaman was charged with the spiritual well-being of his people. He carried out this duty with a simplistic and highly intuitive form of magick.

In Psychedelic Shamanism, Jim DeKorne gives us a glimpse into the magick of the Peruvian San Pedro cults: Here, we find that the shaman's main focus is his Altar (called a mesa- table). Like the Neopagan Altar describe above, the mesa can start out relatively simple, but will grow over time along with the shaman. Years of practice finds it covered with talismans and tools, gifts given to the Gods, herbs and medicines, etc. Everything involved has its own special meaning or use.

Also like the Neopagan Altar, the Peruvian mesa is divided into halves. The right-hand side is dedicated to benevolent and life-giving forces, while the left is reserved for harmful and life-taking forces. The mesa is described as "a gameboard, a symbolic paradigm against which the ritual is played." (DeKorne, p. 139) Thus, it is also a microcosm intended to reflect the greater magickal universe, as well as the shaman himself.

This can be seen in modern tribal-based magickal systems like Santeria. A web search on "Santeria" and "Altar" will provide a few pictures for you to see for yourself. Then, run the search again on "Wicca" and "Altar" and you will easily see the similarities between the ancient and modern practices.

Modern traditionalists often scoff at the informal practices of "mainstream" witches. Yet, as trendy as they may be, it is possible to look into these mainstream practices and see that true shamanism is alive and well in the Western world. Like ancient shamanism, it is something that the young mind grasps intuitively. And, most importantly, it never jumps up and declares itself "Shamanism." Instead, it rests silently within the spiritual foundations of all cultures around the world.

Of course, this merely scratches the surface of the subject of the survival of shamanism in our modern culture. However, space here prohibits me from continuing. For further study, I highly recommend Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade, Psychedelic Shamanism by Jim DeKorne, and Sex and Drugs by Robert Anton Wilson. These books throw much light upon our own magickal practices and spiritual systems.

Copyright© 2003 "Aaron Jason" Leitch
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