An Autumnal Abundance of Altars and Ancestors

Image of a pagan altar with a green witch influence at RSL’s Altars and Ancestors event. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McAllister)
Ellen McAllister, Creative Editor

Altars and Ancestors, hosted by Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) on Oct. 27, was a time for students of different religious backgrounds to share stories about their ancestors, religious beliefs and why altars are important to them. Students were invited to drink tea while they listened to the presenters and were encouraged to write down any questions on notecards to ask at the end.

         WooCatholic presented their altar first, which was full of pictures of saints and flowers. The presenters shared with the audience the importance of All Saints’ Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the lives of the saints, and All Souls’ Day, a time to celebrate and remember those who have passed away, which take place on Nov. 1 and 2, respectively. They explained what a saint is and the five-step process of becoming one. Three saints that represent youth, students and stress were included on the personal altar.

         The next student presenter was pagan, with a green witch influence from her grandmother. She shared that she began practicing when she was 15 years old. In her family, an altar is made for Samhain, an Irish holiday that marks the end of the harvest season. A typical altar will include white and black candles for protection, tourmaline which absorbs bad energy, pictures of family members and late-harvest plants. However, it is not about what is physically on the altar. Instead, it’s important to focus on what you have.

         The Wooster Coven, a multi-faith religious group for nature-based religions, also created an altar for Samhain. This altar was created by several people and included water and bread as offerings to their ancestors. These offerings are given at least once a week. One student decided to include two tarot cards of cats because their cats are their family. The Coven’s altar included red and green items to represent the Otherworld, which they explained is always around us. There was another smaller altar made in the corner for Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. The students explained that Samhain occurs when the harvest is over and the darker part of the year is about to begin. If you’d like to learn more about The Coven, follow them on Instagram @the_wooster_coven.

         The next student presented a Buddhist altar. Buddhists create altars that stay up all year and are decorated for special holidays. Incense is burned and there are lots of lit candles as a reminder to find the light in the dark. Chakra stones are arranged in a rainbow assortment starting with red and ending with purple or white. The student explained that Buddhist altars are only used for praying and meditating, and only occasionally speaking to ancestors. Tibetan singing bowls are commonly seen on altars because the note they play is the sound at which the entire universe rests.

         An altar was also made for Día de los Muertos as a way to honor students’ culture and families. Altars for Día de los Muertos are set up at home and in cemeteries so the spirits can use them to cross over from the afterlife. Usually, favorite foods are set out and beverages are poured into a cup for the spirits. The altar is also decorated with colorful skulls, clothing from the loved ones and flowers. It is a great place to sit and meditate and remember your ancestors. 

         RSL wanted to provide students with the opportunity to learn and honor other religions on campus, and Altars and Ancestors did just that. Andrew Seifert ’23 said, “it was a very illuminating event that was also very enjoyable. Getting to see the unique traditions that are celebrated at Wooster was a great way to spend a Thursday night.”

         If you want to find out about other upcoming events, follow RSL on Instagram @rsl_wooster.

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