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Building an Ancestral Altar

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Building an Ancestral Altar

Ancestral Altars

“Honouring past and future generations at an altar helps to remind us that life is eternal “

If you decide to create an Ancestral altar is doesn’t necessarily mean that you are worshipping your ancestors - its more like a reminder of the special place of honour that they hold within your life. One way of looking at your ancestors is to see them as a long continuous line of people who have faced and overcome the same struggles that we confront in our lives.

The success and failures of those who came before us helped to shape the reality of our own lives, just as our actions will affect the generations who follow us. By honouring our ancestors and deceased relatives we are reminded that life doesn’t end  when we die.   By using ceremony and ritual in conjunction with an Ancestral altar, we make a visible symbol of an invisible reality that marks our part of linage of humankind.

The Ancestral altar is valuable if there has been strife, turmoil or negative behaviour which has passed down through the generations. It can help make whole that which has been damaged. If you have conflicted feelings about family members, these problems can be addressed and resolved by finding a way to include them in your home altar. If you feel estranged by the culture in which you were raised, you could represent this on your altar. This could sow a seed of emotional resolution, which would eventually lead to healing.Coming to terms with our backgrounds is an important part of personal synthesis and healing. A home altar can be a vital catalyst in that process.

A memorial altar is dedicated to friends, family or even beloved pets who have passed on. It can be in remembrance of someone who is important to you. This altar can be a collections of photos. Or sacred objects passed down. Might be an antique box, perfume bottle, dog or cat collar   or even a simple milk jug. Something precious from the person, or beloved animal who has passed over. It could be a shell you picked up on the beach together, reminding you of their loving kindness and ever nurturing love. This kind of altar can also be a gathering place for associations and memories and symbols from the past, so that they are synthesised into your present life. Beautiful cloths , candles, fairy lights,  incense, flowers and bowls of perfumed waters add a sacred touch .

Your Ancestral altar can contribute to honouring the past, celebrating the present and envisioning a future. It can be a memorial to departed family members in your sacred space in such a way that you are keeping the trust that your predecessors placed in you, which you will in turn pass onto your children and others whom you love. It is an ancient tradition that deserves reviving. 

Altar Construction :

Altar Cloth

This is a very important part of the altar as it provides the foundation and context for the rest of the Altar. They add a depth of dimension and become the base of the altar. Colours and textures are for personal expression and symbolic representation. 

Altar objects

The selection of the objects that you use for your altar is important. Each item you place on its surface should have meaning and significance for you. This is what generates the life force of your altar.

  • Notice your  feelings about every object you choose
  • Pay attention to the material it is made from. Glass has a different feeling to wood.
  • Colour is very important - it can either stimulate you, depress you or create a feeling of joy.
  • Object are influenced by the energy of where they come from ie Africa, Europe etc
  • If an antique or heritage item - what energy does it bring.

Representation for the divine

 Every altar should have a spiritual representation. At least one item. This could be a statue of Mother Mary, Buddha, Angels, Jesus Ganesha, Shiva. No matter what your personal beliefs,  you need something to believe in.  Something larger than yourself. Whatever you choose should be  centrally honoured on the altar.

Object from nature

One way to bring the beneficial energy of the natural world into the home is by putting things from nature on your home altar. These objects symbolically bring the qualities of the outdoors indoors.

* Natural stone suggest a grounding energy

*Stones from the ocean and rivers bring the element of water.

*Stones found near trees and on mountain hikes bring the Spirit of the ancient land.

*Every stone carries with it an energy of its ancestral past.

*Polished gemstones and crystals bring their secret energies with them. These sacred minerals can also be charged with your intentions.

  • Metals like silver and gold represent the moon and sun.  Yin and yang energy.
  • Shells represent the sea, compassion and spiritual attunement.
  • Feathers are the connection between man, angels and supreme beings. They symbolise the flight to the heavens.
  • Flowers and plants bring vibrant energy and their unique properties
  • Dried herbs connect with the essence of the plant ie sage - purifications, lavender protection and so forth.
  • Fruits celebrate harvest and abundance. An apple can signify health and vitality, a peach immortality and marriage.
  • Placing a part of a tree, leaf, stick on your altar brings its unique energy. A pine cone represents purification and simplicity, and oak strength and fortitude.
  • Fragrance from essential oils is important as the natural aromas carry the life force fo the plant and give powerful energy to your altar.

Sacred objects

Whenever you place  something on your altar that represents spiritual ideals you enter into a time honoured tradition. There is power in objects that represent the Divine realms. A Rosary or Prayer beads on an altar serves to focus on prayer. A figurine of an angel indicates an opening to heavenly realms.


The colour you use on your altar can have a very strong influence on its overall energy.Reds, oranges, yellow, warm colours are revitalising and active. They are great for an altar dedicated for taking action. Colours like greens, blues, purples tend to be more relaxing and meditative. These are good for peace and introspection.

Symbolic shapes and patterns

A symbolic shape on your altar serves as a focus point. A circle represents wholeness and completion. A cross is a powerful connection between heaven and earth. Some symbolic shapes could be cultural. Therefore research cultural heritage and what these symbols mean. Spirals are thought to indicate the creative force of the Universe.


The most universal items used on altars are candles. They are not only a source of light but a powerful Spiritual symbol. Candles illuminating the darkness was believed to represent the spiritual spark in human beings that was fanned by the greater light of the divine. They are used for focus and meditations.


Smudge sticks and incense are used to purify the objects , the altar and the space. Incense together with candles should always be lit when in prayer, meditation or simple focus practice.


Sound is used to cleanse the space and if need be - to relax you into your practice and prayer.

“Meditating at your altar strengthens your spiritual path and infuses the most mundane aspects of life with a sacred sense of timing.”

Reference : Denise Linn