Ritual: Altars Contents

An altar may be defined either as a place where the gods sit or as a place at which offerings are made. (The use of "altar" in many Neo-Pagan groups today to describe a table on which tools are put until needed, most likely derives from Christian usage by way of ceremonial magic.) In a particular ritual, these two definitions may be represented by two different structures, the same structure may serve both purposes, or only one kind may be present.

That the Proto-Indo-Europeans used altars of some kind may be assumed on linguistic grounds; they had deities (*deiwós) to whom they made offerings (*gheu-) (York, 1993, 241-2). They must have had altars at which to make their offerings. Their descendants, the Indo-European peoples, made their altars almost uniformly of stone, a material which is, however, unsuited to the assumed nomadic lifestyle of Proto-Indo-Europeans. A less permanent building material must have been used. It is my contention that by looking at the religious practices of Indo-European peoples, this material may be identified.

At one end of the Indo-European world we find the Scots. There are a records from the eighteenth century of building May Day fires on a pile of turf (Frazer’s note on Ovid’s Fasti, 417).

Preserved in the Christian Anglo-Saxon spells, presented by Grendon (1909), are tidbits of Pagan ritual. The most suggestive of the spells, the Land Remedy Spell (A13), seems to contain a ritual for the creation of sacred space. Prescribed for restoring fertility to land, it involves taking four sods, one from each side of the land. Their undersides are to be sprinkled with holy water while a prayer is said.

First, however, something is done with "oil and honey and barm, and milk of all cattle on the land, and every part of every kind of tree growing on the land, except hard trees, and part of every known herb except burdock alone." Just what is to be done with these is not said, except that they are to be sprinkled with holy water. The articles mentioned, however, seem first to be intended to represent the life of the land in its entirety, with the exception of hard trees and burdock, representative perhaps of the sort of plants that are not desired to be made fertile. They seem as well to be typical sacrificial items, especially the oil, honey, barm, and milk, as well as wood for making a small, hot fire.

The sods are brought to church, where masses are said over them, the green parts toward the altar. The sods are then returned to their original places, and crosses of aspen wood laid in the hole before they are replaced. These sods are certainly stand ins for the land as a whole. However, the sacrificial offerings, the orientation towards the altar in church, and the connection with the crosses clearly identify them also as altars.

The Romans, in Augustan times, had the tradition of placing a sod on their stone altars before sacrifice, as mentioned in Servius, 12.119 (in Salmon, 1967, 157, n.6). This was in memory of ancient times, when altars were made from sod. A “grassy altar” (aras gramineas) is mentioned in the Aeneid (12.117-8). In Calpurnius Siculus (2.60) we read: “Often my lamb shudders on the purified turf, often at the festival of Parilia the lamb is sacrificed” (quoted in Vangaard, 1971, 99). When the Capitoline temple was being reconstructed after a fire, a sod altar was used (Tacitus, Histories, 4.53; in Scheid, 2003, 65). The poet Calpurnius Siculus tells us (Eclogue 5.26) that at the time of Parilia (an extremely ancient and pastoral festival with clear Indo-European reflexes), as well as propitiating Pales, tum caespite vivo / pone focum geniumque loci Faunumnque Lareque / salso farre voca (in Palmer, 1974, 148); “Then set up a focus of living sod and call the genius of the place, Faunus, and the Lares with salted spelt.” Sod altars are mentioned in Horace (Odes 1.19.13, 2.15.17-8, 3.8.1-4.) In one of the rituals in the Iguvine Tablets a turf altar is specified (Poultney, 1959, 208).

The altar of Zeus on the top of Mount Lycaeüs was a mound of earth (Pausanias 8.38.7). There was a mudbrick one at the fifth century BCE Sacred Spring shrine in Corinth (Bergquist, 1998, 62).

Classical writers tell us that the Sarmatians did not have stationary altars (Raevskii, 1987, 73). We are not told what their altars were made from, but other Indo-Iranians had grass altars (Skt. barhiṣ, Av. barezish). This grass might be strewn on the ground, or placed on a small structure of earth or brick. The barsom, later wires resting on a stand, were originally grass or other plants on which the sacrificial animal was laid (Boyce, 1970, 25). The ancient Iranians placed the pieces of meat from the sacrifice on a pile of grass (Herodotus 1.132; De Jong, 2002, 137), or myrtle or laurel (Strabo 15.3.14). The same word, vedi, is used in Vedic rituals for both the pile of grass and the structure on which it might be placed. The grass is anointed with ghee and the gods are invited to seat themselves on it, thus serving as both offering place and place of the gods.

Finally, there are the Scots, who in the eighteenth century were recorded as building their May Day fires on a pile of turf (Frazer’s note on Ovid’s Fasti, 417).

From this evidence, we can suggest the material used for altars in Proto-Indo-European days. The western two examples both use sod, and the Indo-Iranian use grass. The grass is most likely a result of the separation of the fire of offering from the seat of the gods in Vedic ritual. Grass is not suitable for a fire base, of course, but it is very suitable for a seat. Zoroastrianism has reversed the offering and seat attributions as a result of the worship accorded to the fire.

It is reasonable, then, to suggest that the Proto-Indo-Europeans made their altars of sod. Fires were lit on these altars, which were then considered to be both the place where the gods came to be with their people and the place where offerings were to be made to the gods.

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Pausanias. Description of Greece. tr. W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926.

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Raevskii, D. S. Scythian Religion. The Encyclopedia of Religion, v. 13. ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1987, 145-8.

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Vangaard, Jens Henrik. On Parilia. Temenos 7 (1971), pp. 90-103. Vergil. The Aeneid. tr. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books, 1961.

York, Michael. Toward a Proto-Indo-European Vocabulary of the Sacred. Word 44:2 (Aug., 1993), 235-54.

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