Originally published September 27, 2012
I’ve seen pictures on the internet, and I’m sure many of you have, of beautiful altars that take up the entire wall of one room, or take up the entire room itself. We’ve seen pictures of these beautiful altars, and think we need those at home. Right?
Wrong. A lot of the images of Vodou altars posted online are those that belong to Houngan and Mambo who lead their own house and maintain their own temple. They are going to have big altars, because they need to accommodate all the spirits of that entire house. They have the space to do so, and they need to do so because that is what is required of them as the head of a Vodou society. You might see an image of a table that takes up an entire wall but not an entire room… That might be the altar of an Houngan or Mambo. The problem is, a lot of newbies look at those altars and decide they want one just like it.
They don’t need one.
Someone who isn’t even initiated doesn’t know their permanent escort of spirits. They don’t know who needs to go on that altar. They certainly don’t need a huge space for all their spirits AND room for travay (magical work), offerings and whatever else may end up on an altar.
So let’s take a look at what the average new to Vodou person wanting to build an altar for their lwa is going to need.
You’ll need an altar for your ancestors. In Vodou, our ancestors are very important to us. If you skip ahead to building an altar for lwa, you are missing out on creating a crucial connection with your ancestors. Don’t skip them. Their space is important, their elevation is important. They are close to you, they want to help you, so start with them. You can find more information about ancestors and how to serve them here, on the ancestor page.
Assuming you have an ancestor altar already set up, if you haven’t had a lesyon from an houngan or mambo to determine your escort of spirits, you’ll only need to build an altar to Papa Legba. Instructions on how to do this are also conveniently located on our website, right here.
Otherwise, your Houngan or Mambo will have given you a list of spirits to start serving, maybe only one or two. You’ll have just started serving them, so you won’t need a huge space. You’re just beginning to integrate them into your life, so it’s better to put them somewhere you can make them a part of your life. In a separate room, on a giant table, that’s not going to work for you. On the top of a bookshelf in your living room, on a side table in your study, that’s much more likely.
You only need a small space. You can’t recreate, in one week as a non-initiate, the kind of altar that an Houngan or Mambo has spent years building. An altar is an evolving thing. It will grow and change over the years, but it needs to start small.
To start with, you might only have a few pictures you printed off the internet of saint images, maybe a few small trinkets, statues or other items you picked up for your lwa. You might start with a few keys, a pipe and some tobacco for Legba, a bottle of sparkling wine and some lipstick for Ezili Freda, a bonsai tree for Gran Bwa. That’s fine. You can get statues later. You can purchase items made specifically for those lwa, such as decorated bottles. But you still don’t need a big space!
Vodou is not a religion that one practices in the home by oneself. Vodou is about community. The Houngan and Mambo that head their own houses have such large altars because they need them, and because they’re able to be visited by members of that house. They need space to make ceremonies, to do work with the lwa, and places to put all the items they have collected for their spirits over the years they have been practicing Vodou.
For example, I consider that my altar at home is larger than it needs to be. It’s the top of a sideboard. It has machetes for my Ogou spirits, a large porcelain doll, four statues, three wanga paquet, some govi style pots, a large skull and some small halloween bits for gede, and several other trinkets that I’ve collected for the spirits that walk with me over the nearly two years I’ve been serving them. The space I have is larger than I need it to be to fit everything that is on my altar. I also don’t use the altar at my house a great deal, because I have access to the altars of my Papas at Hounfo Racine Deesse Dereyale.
All you really need is enough space to put the items you’re giving your lwa, enough room to light candles on the altar and put down a couple of coffee cups. Any more room than that is just extravagant. You don’t need to cover an area the size of a dinner table with a giant altar to just one spirit. It’s not about the stuff. It’s not about having the biggest, flashiest most photogenic altar. It’s about connections with the lwa that walk with you.
Building an altar brings you closer to the lwa you are building it for. It gives you a space you can go to spend time with them. It shows that you’ve made room in your life for them. It brings the lwa into your home.
So what do you need? One space, with enough room to fit what you have to put there. Not one altar for each spirit. Not a whole room dedicated to the lwa. Not a table that runs the length of a wall. Just a space where your lwa can have their objects, and where you can go to spend some time with them.