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What is an Altar?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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An altar is an elevated and consecrated place used during worship in many religions. It may take many forms, including a movable table in the front of a church or a shrine built into the walls of a temple. Objects with particular religious importance are often kept on or around the altar, including offerings and relics. During religious ceremonies, worshipers face the altar and the religious officiant who is guiding the ceremony.

The history of the altar is quite ancient. Many early religions used altars for their sacrifices and offerings, and the tradition was adopted by later religions and worshipers. Examples of early altars can be found in museums all over the world, as well as in situ in religious sites such as Stonehenge. Many early altars have grooves or channels for blood and wine, suggesting that they were used for sacrifices and offerings. These offerings also would have included other foods such as bread and fruit.

Many early altars were in open-air shrines, often located in high places so that they would be closer to the heavens. Modern followers of pagan religion may also set up altars outdoors, or they may temporarily consecrate a location for use of an altar. These altars hold various objects where are used in religious celebrations, such as candles, salt, bread, herbs, bowls, or a ritual knife. Neopagans may also make space around their altars for fires.

In the case of religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, the altar often serves as a shrine which can be visited at any time, in addition to a focal point of religious celebrations. These altars may hold various aspects of the Buddha or the Gods, and they have spaces for offerings of food, incense, money, and other gifts. Many Buddhists also keep small personal altars in their homes. Tao and Shinto religious facilities also have altars, with many adherents of these religions also observing religious practices at home altars.

Altars also play an important role in Christianity. Most branches of Christianity have altars in their churches, often oriented so that the congregation will face East. The Eucharist is traditionally held on the altar among sects which offer Communion, and objects which are important to the church may be kept on the altar as well. In some sects, two altars are used: a high altar for important holidays, and a regular altar for other times of the year.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon170570 — On Apr 26, 2011

The literal meaning of the original word for altar is slaughter place, or place of sacrifice. They are special places of meeting between God and man. Noah built the first altar in the bible after he got out of the Ark.

By anon136915 — On Dec 24, 2010

Wiccans have had altars much longer than christians. A lot of people steal things from wiccans.

By anon113858 — On Sep 26, 2010

What is the symbolism behind an altar?

By amypollick — On Sep 17, 2009

The altar is the main part of a Christian church because it represents the presence of God in that place. It is not essential to have an altar to worship God, but most churches have them because they do signify the presence of the Lord in the church.

By anon16840 — On Aug 16, 2008

why is the altar the main part of the church?

By anon16838 — On Aug 16, 2008

what does the altar represent?

By anon16837 — On Aug 16, 2008

what do you do at the altar?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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