Altars in Latin America
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The history of altars in Latin America is complex and is often deemed paradoxical; as its original purpose was for the worshipping of gods and human sacrifice. The altar transitioned from being a symbol of non-Christian worship to a worldwide symbol of Christianity.
The history of the altar begins not in Latin America, but in ancient Rome. The altar held a prominent place in family homes and was adorned with personal household gods or spirits called “lares,” which were worshiped daily. In addition to altars being used for the worship of household gods, they were also used for blood sacrifice and various other rituals involving the suspending of wreaths, in the hopes of evoking one’s genius, or “tutelary spirit of a person or place.” In 392 AD, with the banning of other religions, Christian ruler Theodosius I forbade the use of altars for non-Christian rituals.
Just as altars revealed the rituals in which Romans appeased their gods, altars reveal a great deal about rituals of the gods in Mesoamerica as well. Altars positioned atop great temples were used for human sacrifice and animal sacrifice to appease the gods and allow for a fruitful crop. A special altar to the sun was used for sacrifices in coronation rites, a fact that signifies the importance of the god. The east-west path of the sun determined the principal ritual axis in the design of Aztec cities. Thus the altar held great importance in determining the design of the city.
One of the most explicit visual depictions of ritual associated with an altar is evident in an altar unearthed in the ruins of El Cayo. This altar, commonly referred to as “Altar 4” portrays a man, seated before a table altar, scattering grains of incense. In the carved image, the altar supports an incense burner as well. This imagery is associated with underworld deities and rites of fire starting. Altar 4 is also important in part for the sense it communicates of the altar as the site of an assemblage of offerings and ritual items: the incense burner contains kindling sticks, as well as an arrangement of feathers all clustered around a cloth bundle. According to many archaeologists, "the altar is seen as a locus of a piling on of ritual goods is a constant theme in the programs of iconographic decoration worked into Maya pedestals and table altars."
The image of the altar being used as a piling for ritual goods is reminiscent of one of the other purposes of the altar: to honor the dead. On Todos Santos, or All Saints Day, people welcome back the souls of their departed loved ones by offering altars or ofrendas, commemorating them (Read 158-161). These altars include pictures of the deceased, food they enjoyed in life, statues of the Virgin Mary, pictures of saints, marigolds, paper cut-out figurines of skulls, and many other items. The size of the altars varies; some rise as high as 10-12 feet, while others are significantly smaller. They are covered in white satin or plastic, which could be representative of a shroud (Castro 10-11).
Ironically enough, despite the altar’s origins, it was later adopted as a symbol of Christianity. Pagan Caecilius asked the question, "Why do the Christians not have altars, temples, images, just as everybody else? Why must they worship in secrecy?" (Benko 12).However unbeknownst to non-Christians at the time, early Christians hidden underground in their intricate Catacombs actually made use of altars as places in which to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. The earliest scriptural reference to the altar is found in 1 Corinthians 10: 21, in which St. Paul contrasts the "table of the Lord," also referred to as, “trapeza Kyriou” on which the Eucharist is offered, with the "table of devils,” or altars (Benko 12).
Just as Christian altars served as a place on which to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, they also served as the tombs of the martyrs interred in the Catacombs. The practice of celebrating Mass on the tombs of martyrs can be traced to the first quarter of the second century. St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City is an example of dual uses of the altar; tomb of the martyr and for celebrating Mass. The custom itself perhaps was suggested by the message in the Apocalypse, "I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God" (Benko 10). The image of the altar commemorating those who gave their lives for the one Christian god, is in striking contrast to the thousands upon thousands who were (mostly involuntarily) sacrificed to the multiple gods in ancient Rome and Mesoamerica.
The Christian altar was elevated from underground and remains one of the most visible, tangible symbols of Christianity. This rising up from underground is reminiscent of the Maya, who after being persecuted went underground and in similar fashion, rose up later for the entire world to see.
- Benko, Stephen. Pagan Rome and the Early Christians. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. Sunshine for Women Press. 16, March, 2006 .
- Castro, Rafaela G. Dictionary of Chicano Folklore. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Inc, 2000.
- Read, Kay Almere, and Jason J. Gonzalez. Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.