Saturday, July 16, 2011

Samedi: The Altar at Home

We've talked about the white table, or ancestral altar, before.  Simple to do and rewarding to have, it is something I hope everyone will consider.  But what about altars to the lwa specifically, particularly when a person – like myself – has no connection with a Voudon société?  There is nothing stopping you from setting up an altar, or for that matter several, to the lwa as long as you follow some guidelines.

First, decide what type of altar you want to construct.  A large altar to multiple lwa, such as the one shown above, will require a good deal of space.  Consider a spot where you already practice spiritual pursuits like meditation or root work.  Next, think about what lwa you wish to honor and remember their likes and dislikes including those of each other.  Putting sacred space for Erzulie Freda next to sacred space for her sister Erzulie Danto will only bring unrest to your home.  Their bickering is legendary (to the point where Freda once slashed Danto with a knife); no reason to encourage that kind of energy.  My Danto altar is on the first floor of my home while Freda has her niche upstairs. 

If your altar is for multiple lwa, draping it with a pristine white cloth is advised.  Specific lwa altars should be draped with either a white cloth or one in a color that pleases them; light blue or pink for Erzulie Freda for instance.  The cloths should be washed frequently and kept free of stains.

In Haiti, most altars on constructed on the ground connecting them to the earth.  In your home, adding a pebble or stone from around your home is a good way to make that connection as well.  Candles, either white or colored as with the cloth, should be a prominent feature as well.  Some voudonists keep a glass of water on their altar to represent the waters of Ginen to which we will all return.  If this is appealing to you, be sure to change the water frequently.

From there, your imagination and relationship with the lwa can determine what goes on the altar.  Flowers, pictures of saints, offerings of food or drink and myriad other items will be welcome if they are cleansed first with a little salt water and given with sincerity.  Food and drink offerings should be left only until the lwa have had a chance to absorb their energy; rotten substances are not a pleasant addition to your décor.

A few words of caution are in order before I conclude.  First, keeping your altar scrupulously clean is a must in almost all cases.  Dusting and washing of fabric items should be done regularly.  Statues can be bathed in water to which a pleasing perfume such as Florida Water (popular with all the lwa) has been added.  The only exception is a Ghede altar; the Lords and Lady of the Dead seem to appreciate a little dust and even a cobweb or two.  This plays into one of my pet theories about New Orleans where la beauté d’entropie – the loveliness of decay – is so readily appreciated.  Where Baron Samedi rules, the dilapidation of the grave is a beautiful thing.

Another rule in Haiti is to never put a home altar in your bedroom.  Sometimes this can’t be helped but, if you do, make sure that the lwa’s sight line is screened off from you bed.  You’ll sleep better and so will they.

Treating the lwa like honored guests is probably the best way to do right by them.  In turn, as you spend time with them near their altar(s), they will get to know you and begin to work for you just as you honor them.

Header: Multi-lwa altar from the Tropenmuseum via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Good advice, Pauline. Safety first...

Pauline said...

I find it is best to take all precautions when dealing with spirits of any kind. I'm sure I'm not the only one.