The Altar

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


I ask thee of the earth's extremest limit,
where is the centre of the world, I ask thee.
I ask thee of the Stallion's seed prolific,
I ask of highest heaven where Speech abideth.
This altar is the earth's extremest limit;
this sacrifice of ours is the world's centre.
The Stallion's seed prolific is the Soma;
this Brahman highest heaven where Speech  abideth.

 The great southern gate of Pergamon rises up like a brazen shield carved into walls whose foundations are massive cliffs falling away to hot and dusty plains. No foliage softens their imperious profile, no gentle breeze cools their heated flanks. Before the eyes of the traveller white rocks and barren walls pulsate in the vibrations of summer heat. They glare and invade his consciousness with their irradiating and seemingly weightless mass. Like the land all around him, he is parched and moves painstakingly upwards along the path to the great door. He moves his hand quickly from its metal handle, which burns him as he revolves the smaller pedestrian entrance inward and steps into a broad stone courtyard. On three sides the walls loom and towers cast a darkened shadow across the gleaming flagstones beneath his feet. Overbrooding the promontory entrance-way to Pergamon, they also look down upon a fountain where travellers may refresh themselves and wash away the heat and dust. Rested and cooled, the traveller emerges from the courtyard and ascends the broad stairs leading to the expansive lower agora which separates the House of Consul from several gymnasiums and from the temples and treasure-houses of the lower acropolis. His eyes rest thoughtfully upon the Doric columns of the temple of Athena, and they delight in the graceful Ionic symmetry of Demeter's abode.

 He muses, thinking of the ancient Thracians and Phrygians whose artistic genius and sense of the dramatic had been matched with a keen awareness of the military strength afforded by the rocky outcrop upon which the city was built. He was aware that Lydians, Macedonians and Greeks had all been drawn to this kingly seat and had each left their architectural stamp upon the temples and altars and public houses. He knew also that they had been drawn to more than the seat of worldly power, for the land of the Pergamenes was known to have been sacred to the Kabiri of old, whose Mysteries were celebrated here. He knew all of this and yet none of his patiently acquired knowledge could prepare him for his first glimpse of the Great Altar that rose upon the terraced slope above the upper agora of Pergamon.

 It stood in the centre of a platform paved with marble, its forty-foot height supportive of the most complete representation of the Greek pantheon ever sculpted in one place. Atop the crowning entablature, which extended out to two wings on either side of the great central steps, were twelve magnificent life-sized figures of gods and goddesses. The weary traveller was flooded with awe, for he recognized in their exquisite forms craftsmanship that matched the finest sculpture of Praxiteles of Athens or Myron of Thebes. His wonder increased as his eyes moved more carefully, taking in the design of the structure and its artistic details. He realized that the structure was at least one hundred feet deep and well over one hundred feet wide. Twenty-five steps, each seventy-five feet wide, were cut into the huge podium to a thirty-foot depth so that the wings continued to protrude on the sides whilst one mounted to the central platform and Ionic colonnade. As he ascended, he found himself at the base of the podium of the altar, which rose to the height of three or four men above him and included a crepidoma of five steps supporting a base ornamented with a cornice. Above this was another moulding serving as a frame for the most magnificent frieze he had ever beheld.

 He, a traveller, who had lived in many lands and fought wars alongside Lydians, Persians and Greeks, gazed in astonishment at the great entablature which adorned all sides of the enormous altar. All the gods, giants and monsters of the three worlds were depicted, locked in myriad expressions of the legendary Gigantomachy, the Great War in Heaven between the kindred and followers of Zeus and the Titans of a previous age. On the eastern side he identified the rising Olympians carved in faithful detail, their valiant expressions matched by their frightening arms. On the western side various divinities of land and sea joined in the struggle, whilst the Titans were banished to the south. Moving slowly around the great altar, his eyes lingered over every agonized and victorious expression while his steps paced off close to four hundred and fifty feet. Numerous serpents adorned the bottom of the frieze, coiling through the powerful movements of death, triumph and immortality. Whilst he stood engulfed in the grandeur of the entire structure, the Mysteries of the Kabiri unfolded before him. He felt himself swept up the altar steps to the place of sacrifice, where a great fire was being prepared. Kneeling before the flames, he felt his heart rise within him and fly up through the battlefield of the gods. Like smoke, he drifted and smouldered, he fought on every side. And like a spark which escapes into a rarer atmosphere, he transcended the struggle, finding himself in a realm of timeless quietude where flame and smoke, spark and essence of fire, were one.

  There is, in the altar, a sense of Divine Presence which promises reunion and integration with the Deity. Written on a set of sixteenth-century English altar rails, the words "I will wash mine hands in innocency so will I compasse Thine altar O Lord. Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me" expresses this well. God is present as a witness in the altar. It is the point wherein meet the worshipper and that which is worshipped. In most traditions, offerings and sacrifices are presented on the altar in supplication, recognition and sometimes in thanksgiving to God. But an altar may be raised to receive a god, as in ancient China, where they were built by certain emperors along the banks of the Lo and Ho rivers. Gods would appear in the form of glorious green or yellow dragons, who would ascend the altars and display divine instructions for the kingdom, written in figures upon their backs. In temples, cathedrals and churches, altars are usually placed at the east end of the structure, before the rising sun, and they are often raised above the level of the sanctuary by a symbolic number of steps. In the Christian church the rise of one step usually marks the separation between the choir and the sanctuary, whilst the altar itself is commonly approached by three steps.

 Altars are the meeting-point with Deity, but they are not necessarily confined to one sanctified spot. In the worship of Ishtar, small movable prayer-altars were used by individual worshippers in ancient Canaanite shrines, whilst an example of what must be the most portable altar in the world may be found in the American Indian Sacred Pipe. Super-altars are used in Christian rituals when they are placed upon already consecrated high altars for special festivals, whilst some lesser side altars, like the Vedic dhisnyas, were merely heaps of earth covered with sand on which the smaller fires were placed. Easily moved, built and destroyed, these altars were, nevertheless, focal points for sacred communion. Their varied shape does not detract from the shared theme of their function, and it may be, as some historians have suggested, that the earliest altars were pillars or movable idol-images of deities. The Hebrew masseba might answer to this, and Semitic people engaged in blood sacrifice would attempt to bring the blood into direct contact with the deity by daubing it on the cairn or image believed to be the dwelling place of the god. Sailors of the ancient Mediterranean world used to perform the old fireless sacrifice at the feet of the brazen pillars of Herakles at Gades, believing that their prayers were conveyed through the pillars directly to the god.

 Whatever its form, at the altar the deity is witness, and so countless men have stood, like young Cyrus and the Persian nobleman Orontas before the Lydian altar of Artemis, and sworn an oath of friendship. Xenophon and his Ten Thousand passed by here long after this took place and mourned the loss of friends in war. But the power of Lydian altars was renowned, and later still, Pausanias observed that "the Lydians, who are called Persians, have religious precincts in the city of Hierocoesareia at Hypaepa. Within each sanctuary there is a building and in the building there is an altar with ashes atop. But the colour of the ashes is not normal. When the priest has entered the building and heaped up dry wood on the altar, he first puts a diadem on his head and then chants foreign incantations, incomprehensible to Greeks, to some god or other, reciting from a book. It is required that the wood be kindled without fire, and that the bright flame gleam from the logs."

The great world's altar stairs
That slope through darkness up to God.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 People dedicate altars to a god because they have received assistance, but gods have indicated their holy places to men in myriad ways. Lord Shiva, pursuing the capricious Vishnu in feminine disguise, is said to have scattered his semen as he ran through Aryavarta. Wherever the precious fluid fell, a lingam arose as a place of worship, and men, in wonderment, erected beautiful temples where pilgrims still come to venerate the highest life-giving power in the universe made manifest. The lingam is part of the altar where they place their offerings of flowers, and the yoni at its base is the vessel of sacrifice which holds the Logoic flame.In the Pawnee creation myth, Tirawa, the Chief of Heaven, and Atira, his spouse and Sky Vault, overbrooded the birth of a son to the Sun and Moon and a daughter to the Morning and Evening Star. With the formation of the earth by the elemental gods, these children were placed upon its surface and bidden to awake. To them was born a son, and they realized that they would have to labour to care for him. To aid them in this, they were instructed and given the first lodge and its altar, as well as the fire to burn and the power to speak in prayer. Such a gift was the buffalo head, used as an altar in the Cheyenne Sun Dance, and the Dakota Sacred Pipe given by White Buffalo Cow Woman. These divine gifts provide a contrast to the notion of the Altar of the Earth erected at the Temple of Heaven in ancient China. Here the altar was identified with the throne upon which the emperor as Son of Heaven would personally intercede with the gods on behalf of his people.

 This is similar to the Christian idea that the altar was the earthly representative of the throne of God. To the right of it was the place of honour because God had said, "Sit thou on my right hand." The gospel is supposed to be read on this side and the epitaph of Christ is kept there. In both these examples, the altar is made by man to represent something identified with Deity instead of being, in themselves, gifts of God. Perhaps the concept of the altar as a tomb illustrates a mixture of these ideas, for it combines the notion of God's gift to the world with sacrifice and intercession. Indeed, many altars are in the shape of a tomb or sarcophagus, like those of the martyrs placed by their Christian brethren in recesses in the catacombs of Rome. Secreted under arched canopies hewn out of the rock by burial teams, the faithful prayed at such altars, hoping that the spirit of the martyrs buried within the sarcophagi would intercede with God on their behalf and give them strength to endure their own persecution. Thus, the spirit of God enters the world, is martyred and entombed before it is released to join its Father in Heaven. Men worshipping at the altar-tomb are attempting to receive this spirit and merge their being with it as it is merged with its source.

 Another powerful symbolic interpretation of the altar lies in its identification with a table upon which a meal is spread for God. The Mayans constructed their altars so that the sun would descend upon their tops at midday in order to consume the sacrifice. Thus, they said, the fires arose at noon and things of this earth were transported to heaven. The Egyptian hieroglyph for altar was or hetep, which means both 'altar' and 'offering'. They believed that the altar possessed the power of transmuting the offerings laid upon it and turning them into spiritual entities of such a nature that they became suitable food for the god Osiris and his spirits. This belief is very old and widespread in the world, as can be witnessed by the common ritual of offering food to the household god as well as the many first-fruit ceremonies where the first and best of the harvest is placed upon an altar table dedicated to the deity. Early Christian altars were often referred to as 'Christ's Board' in remembrance of the communion table laid out for Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. For this reason the Eastern Orthodox Church continues to use the wooden table form for its altars to this day.

 In the rest of the Christian world wooden altars were gradually replaced by heavier ones of stone, some of which resembled a tomb, some a communion table. For the most part, the stone slab tops were very plain and were commonly marked with five crosses at the corners and the centre. These symbolize the five wounds of Christ, and at the consecration of the altar a little fire is made at each one of them and they are smeared with sanctified oil. Though the bareness of the altar signifies penitence, an amazing array of ecclesiastical service has become standard accompaniment to altar ritual. Chalices, patens, cruets, pyxes, censers, chrismatories, crosses and candles are all used in conjunction with cloths and varying coloured frontals which change with the liturgical season. As the altar became more loaded, it increased in size until the whole church treasury could be displayed on festal days. The pomp and ceremony of such rituals easily obscured the idea of sacrifice, and for many Christians the brocade frontal of the royal throne became much more interesting than the linen altar cloth which represented the shroud of Christ.

 In Chinese as well as Hebrew and Christian altars, there was often a cavity in which relics were placed before being sealed with an inset of stone. In many traditions it is believed that there is contagious power in the remains of saintly people, and the consolidation of that power within an altar has been conceived of as beneficial to the communion with God. The more numerous the relics, the greater the benefit. One descriptive parchment enclosed within an early English altar informs us that on December 7, 1214, the altar was dedicated to the honour of St. John the Baptist and that the relics placed therein were numerous indeed. They included portions of the vestures of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the bones of John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul, some blood of St. Stephen, the bones of ten masculine saints, ten feminine saints and four martyrs, and the oil of St. Nicholas! Clearly, the emphasis here was on the altar as a tomb and on the powers of intercession believed to be possessed by exemplars of religious faith.

 The ideas of intercession and appeasement were mixed in the various practices of blood sacrifices known to man. The Vedic horse sacrifice was based upon the belief that the prayers of the priest could be conveyed heavenward by the spirit of an animal believed to embody the elemental powers of the gods. Human sacrifices involved the giving up of man's most treasured gift by proxy in the hope that this supreme gesture would inspire the Deity to reciprocate in a shower of rain or assistance of some sort. The descriptions by the Spaniards of scenes witnessed at Aztec sacrificial altars reflect their horror of this practice. The great beauty of the altars was lost to them in the confusion and shock which they felt in the presence of the awesome gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, whose grim countenances looked down upon the bloody remains of burning human hearts. The Aztecs would, no doubt, have been equally horrified with the knowledge that Christians dismembered their saints and used the separated remains as relics, but the main theme in both practices is intercession.

 At the heart of the symbol of the altar is the theme of sacrifice. More fundamental than all the ideas of intercession and appeasement, sacrifice is the most direct means of establishing reunion with the Source of all that lives. In attempting to merge the fire and its smoke with the source of the spark, man builds a sacrificial fire upon the altar and prays in phrases that may be similar to the beautiful words of the Rig Veda:

May we adore thee in thy loftiest birthplace,
And, with our praises, in thy lower station.
The place whence thou issued forth I worship:
To thee well kindled have they paid oblations.

 The "loftiest birthplace" is the heavenly solar fire, whilst the "lower station" refers to the firmament where Agni is born as lightning. The place where "thou issued forth" and are "well kindled" is the altar where the sacrificial fire burns. Sacrifice performed in this manner is the outer symbol of an inner work, the inner exchange between gods and men, man giving what he has and the gods giving in turn the "horses of power", "the herds of light", and "the heroes of strength".

That which refuses to give itself
Is still the food of the Cosmic Powers.
The eater eating is eaten.

 The altar is the meeting-point of sacrifices from above and from below. The archetypal sacrifice from above sets the stage and hands down to the human race the legacy of the greatest and foremost Law of Nature. In Hindu myth the Altar of Brahma called Samantapanchaka is said to rest atop Mount Himavat. Upon it a great sacrifice was performed from which came into being a creature the colour of the blue lotus, with sharp teeth, slender waist, enormous strength and at whose birth the whole earth trembled and the ocean rose in great waves. This being was Asi, 'the Sword', who was born to protect the gods. It was passed down from Rudra to Vishnu and to Marichi, who turned it over to the Seers from whence it passed to Vasava, the world Guardians, and finally to Manu in the shape of the Law. Thus, sacrifice is the first law and lays the basis for all other patterns operating in the interdependent universe. Owing to this fact, and as man is capable of being intelligently involved in this process, man must live by sacrifice in order to become more godlike. One of the Sanskrit words for altar means, literally, 'udder', referring to the generous flow of milk from the Akashic abode of Vach on high. Man's greatest task is to become a pure part of that generous flow.

 The more exacting Sanskrit word for altar is vedi, a feminine term describing the shallow bed dug in the sacrificial court which will contain the fire during a ritual ceremony. Being narrow in the middle, it is like a woman's waist; hence the term vedi-madhya ('having a vedi-shaped waist'). One of the names of Draupadi was Vedi-Sambhava, she who was born or produced of the altar, and her marriage to the five Pandavas took place in a vedi-ka or vedi-shaped open pavilion prepared for weddings. Draupadi exemplifies sacrifice. Her life reminds us of the sacrificial yoni at the base of the lingam, and it is fitting that the kindled flame of Agni should begin here with the feminine sacrificial side of Nature. In the bosom of the Mother, the Law of Sacrifice reigns supreme, and it is in this aspect of his own nature that man must find the kindling to nurture the altar fire.

 The Vedic fire altar is the world centre, the "earth's extremest limit", "the uttermost end of the world". The clay from which it is built represents the earth, the water with which it is mixed are the primeval waters, and the lateral walls mark the farthest extent of the ocean of space. The altar is based upon three circular perforated bricks or stones symbolizing the three worlds, the lowest being related to Agni, the middle intermediate to Vayu, and the highest to the 'Eye' opening upward to heaven, the realm of Aditya. The continuous opening running through these levels is both a passage for the ascending fire and a corridor to the higher world, leading out of death and darkness into immortality and light. Made of three hundred and sixty-five bricks, the fire altar represents time materialized, and the sacrifice itself restores the whole to an original timeless unity, an ever new beginning.

 The principal elements brought together on the Vedic sacrificial altar are kindling for the divine flame, the offering of ghrita (clarified butter), the soma-wine and the chanting of the Sacred Word. Ghrita is the precious yield of the Cow of Light and symbolizes the rich clarity that comes to the illuminated mind. The kindled fire represents the unification of Light with the Power within man. It symbolizes the communication and interchange between the mortal and the Immortal, the flame growing to become the force of Divine, supra-mental Truth. Soma-wine is the immortal delight, the ananda which is the very basis of existence. Expressed as sense-mentality in man, the secret delight in existence is translated into terms of sensory awareness. When soma is distilled, purified and intensified until it becomes luminous and full of energy, then and then only does it become the food which can be sacrificed to the gods. The Sacred Word binds all these elements together at the altar, focussing them in an expression of illuminated Thought which is formed in the heart, shaped in the mind and arises out of the soul. The soul is the altar upon which the Divine Flame of Agni burns. Inherently pure and untouched by the impurities upon which he feeds, Agni rises in the vedi-nature of man and forces evil towards goodness, burning in order to purify, destroying in order to save. When the body of the sadhaka is burnt up with the heat of tapas, it is Agni which roars and devours all that attempts to obscure and envelop the soul. Without this Divine Fire, the sacrificial kindling will remain as dead wood upon the altar of the soul, which will remain hidden, wrapped in cold and hard stone.

 The uttermost limit of the world is to be found at its centre and there, at that heart, must the altar be prepared. There, on the very edge of things material, does man face the presence of the God within. This is why he must make a burning-ground of his heart whilst raising the altar of his soul like a pillar of light shining within him, irradiating all around him. Thus did the Holy Kabiri teach the initiates of Pergamon, and thus did the Vedic sages exemplify by their lives of sanctified sacrifice. Man is a suppliant soul whose greatest and most beautiful purpose in living is to make of one's whole life an altar-place of devotion to Krishna, a sacrificial turning-ground for the sacred Fire of Shiva within.

The world is the altar
Of our lifelong session of sacrifice.
Let us be great souls
And sacrifice like the gods.