In African societies, the object that stands between humans and the divine is often made of wood, clay, stone, or metal. In fact, the altar may also be at the base of an ancient tree or the base of a mountain or giant stone. Of course, most altars are built by humans, that is, they are constructed with the idea of god in mind. The idea is that there is a physical connection between humans and the divine, and the altar serves as a repository of the power of the divine. It is not to be considered the site of god, but rather the place where the power of god can be captured and used for the benefit of the society.
This is so even if an image of the deity is carved and sits on the altar. One does not assume that one is actually seeing the god, but the sacred emblem, symbol, or representative of the god at that place. It is a mistake to assume that the altar is the dwelling place of the divinity; no one knows the place where the divine dwells. The altar is where the human goes to contact the power of the divine. Thus, a priest or priestess is usually the only person allowed to officiate at the altar.
Such altars as exist in traditional African religion are often hidden from the masses. There are occasions when the priest or priestess will go to the altar and then return to the people after having made sacrifices and prayers. Shrines to ancestors located in homes may also serve as altars in some cases. Upon this altar might be the traditional objects that were used by a deceased ancestor.
The most ancient Kemetic tradition has the altar in the Holy of Holies, the sacred place in the sacred grove or temple. It is here that the priest goes before the deity, and it is here that the deity makes known the power and energy that are necessary for the community. For example, the holy bark of the deity may adorn the altar as it did at Edfu or Kom Ombo and many other sacred sites. One cannot determine the extent of the deity's power simply by seeing the altar because it has to be infused with power to have meaning. This power comes from the many years of appeal by the priests or priestesses who officiate in the name of the people and the deity. Sacrifices are left at the altar for the god.
Most traditions understand that the god of the altar will eat the sacrifice, and therefore the sacrifice is left at the altar. In many societies, there may be one major altar where the divine communion is made on special days. When this time comes, the people assemble and the priest and priestess dance before the people in an effort to contact the divinity. This is done with all the ritual precision collected from many years of experience. Once the time is ripe, that is, the deity has been contacted, the officiating religious figure goes to the altar to have communion with the deity.
It is possible that certain members of the community, particularly kings, and elders also might be allowed into the holy place. This usually depends on the nature of the occasion. If it is a national occasion, then the special guests might be invited to view the sacrifice. Rarely, however, will the guests be asked to participate. Otherwise the slaughter of an animal for the sacrifice is strictly a matter for the priest and priestess. Once the sacrifice is made, the priest and priestess may consult again with the deity for information about future activities of the community. Here the deity responds, sometimes through an oracle, and sometimes through the priest or priestess in ecstatic trance. All of this takes place at the altar, the place for sacred things, and the objects that are used by the officials at the altar are also a part of the sacred accoutrements of the occasion.
The function of the altar is purely spiritual. Its shape is according to the priest's capability, interest, or expertise. Creation of an altar may be the work of an artisan who is commissioned to make an object that might be sanctified by the priest and made ready to receive the power of god. Among the Akyem people of Ghana, the great altar is located in a cool valley near a river at the foot of a great Iroko tree. It is protected by the priest, and no one can go there on his own without dire consequences.
Some groups have been known to make the mummified bodies of their dead kings packed in clay their altars in the sense that one is standing on the foundation of the society. Others have used objects such as masks, walking canes, statues, and fine works of jeweled art to decorate their altars.
During the New Kingdom in Kemet, the altar was the place for the deities Amen, Ra, Ptah, and Atum. In one of the greatest achievements of the sacred tradition by a living king, Ramses II, User maat ra, setep en ra, had his own image seated next to that of the gods in the Holy of Holies at the Temple at Abu Simbel. Nothing seemed to prevent African religious leaders from exploring all forms of the sacred, and certainly if one examined the record from the ancient times to the present times in Africa this would seem to be the case. Altars could be erected, and were erected, where the people believed the sacred to be most manifest.
- Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.