Not too long ago when I redid my Lab I decided to take a few pictures of my altar just after I'd straightened it out and cleaned everything up. My Lab tends to be on the dusty side, what with all the exposed brick in the walls so I try to give everything a thorough cleaning at least twice a year.
An altar has many purposes. Most practically, it holds all of the implements that are used in rituals so that they can be picked up and used easily. These tools also have symbolic meaning for the person who assembled them. Some objects are more unusual or off-the-wall than others; there is no one way to construct an altar because each person has a different point of view and different purposes in mind for each artifact or symbol. It is worth noting, however, that certain paths dictate certain tools, operations, and interpretations; I cannot give an unbiased or 'orthodox' point of view due to my own eclectic style. That said, the altar also provides a point upon which to focus one's concentration during meditation or the enactment of certain rituals.
I thought that I'd start with a couple of images of my own setup for discussion's sake. Each highlights a different part of the layout. First is the obligatory overhead view (you might want to open this in another window so you can refer back if you like). Farthest to the back is a stack of books that I keep for visual reference, so I can keep specific types of images in mind. From top top bottom: Angel Sanctuary, The Magic Mirror of M.C.Escher, Dancing With Cats, H.R.Giger's Film Design, and the coffee table edition of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Neatly coiled on top of those books is an eight-foot length of category-3 cable (co-ax) with a T-connector forming a complete circuit.
Circles are a common symbol used in ceremonies. They represent the continuity of life, and the similiarity to a shield is more than coincidental. During rituals a circle is used to solidly delineate a region which is under the control of those who created it. That way the energies they raise and use to specific ends are kept isolated from the rest of the world and focused upon the task at hand, similiar to an optical pump in a laser. It is much easier to work with a small amount of something in a particular shape than it is to work with a large amount of something without a particular shape. I find the symbolism of a circle as a literal circuit very much in tune with how I see the connections between things, people, and ideas.
Next to the stack of books is a cinnamon-scented pinecone from a family Yule layout several years ago. For some reason I've got a thing for certain scents, in particular cinnamon and clove. Because scents can be powerful triggers for memories (and the meanings we attach to memories) they're useful for keeping certain images solidly in mind. Farthest to the back is SAL-9000. Yes, that really is a Commodore-64 on my altar. SAL's been with me through thick and thin over the years, and it was on the Commodore-64 that I first learned to program. SAL still runs perfectly and I've got her set up with all of her usual peripherals (1200 bps Commodore modem and 1541 floppy drives). When the mood strikes I haul out the Commodore colour display and a power strip and sit down to hack some code but seeing as how my altar's top isn't all that sturdy I usually have to move her onto the floor to do so. Kept off to the side is a Run Magazine pullout card of commonly used PEEK and POKE commands (which allow the programmer to tweak certain functions of the OS, such as diabling the listing of BASIC code or turning on extended colour mode). To be perfectly honest I tend to do more programming in C or Lambda than in Commodore BASIC but I do like to relive the good old days.
I suppose I should digress for a moment to explain the symbolism behind programming. In many paths the power said to come from the use of certain words is thought to be very real. By using one's voice to intone or vibrate certain words or phrases the will of the practitioner is brought to bear upon the world to bring about a certain result or effect a certain change. For example, practitioners of the quabbalah (Hebrew mysticism which studies the relationship between the Hebrew alphabet, numbers, and facets of the universe; note that this is a very poor definition in limited space) sometimes use a technique called temurah, in which characters within words are substituted for others in accord with known techniques to uncover other concepts connected with that word or to bring about a change in something which is best described by that word (a change by degrees, as it were).
It could be said that a word is simply a data structure which contains an icon for a certain concept or an instance of a certain concept. Data structures can be acted upon by functions or methods inside a programme to read their contents or access them somehow. As anyone who is familiar with the rudiments of programming knows, more than 'mere' words or numbers may be held within a data structure; a struct can hold arbitrary amounts of data in a variety of types (integers, floating point values, text, bitmaps, sounds, pointers to locations in memory, other structs...) and any of these structures can be accessed or changed by functions or even other programmes entirely (I strongly suggest doing a Google search on "shared memory" at this point).
By this rationale, it could be said that everything that exists in the universe can be represented by a data structure of some sort in some programming language. Because data structures within programmes can be made available to other programmes via 'keys' these structures can be read and written to by other software (such as that written by a knowledgeable user); similiarly things that exist in the universe can be examined/read and sometimes changed/written to by other data structures (objects) and programmes (magickal rituals). Just being able to touch something physically is a form of accessing such a shared data structure - the user (you) can reach out and touch, feel, knock over, and sometimes break an object. If it's not too heavy or not tied down somehow you can probably pick it up and move it around (the variables within the data structure that represent its location in 4-space are marked read/write). If it's fragile then it's possible for the user to break or damage it somehow (the variables within the structure which describe its physical state and form are read/write and changes that are made are almost always permanant). If you can't break the object but you can examine it somehow then the variables within the structure are read-only (at least in a practical sense). If a user is particularly knowledgable about the system in which the data structure resides in (the universe in which the object exists) then it is possible to write software which changes the variables of the data structure in a far more subtle manner than simply picking up a lamp and throwing it across the room; it is also possible to sometimes gain access to elements of the data structure which are protected in some way (read-only, for argument's sake). Personally, I see this as taking advantage of loopholes in the memory access functions of the system - exploiting vulnerabilities in the operating system of the universe, so to speak.
Buffers often have hardcoded sizes, for example. If you stuff too much data into some buffers you'll walk past the end of the buffer onto the stack (a data structure that is a part of every running process where temporary variables and records of function calls are kept and released when a function terminates), where you can then insert your own code. The OS can be tricked into running this code that you've just stuffed onto the stack; if the programme taken advantage of has higher privileges in the system than the user does then this user-supplied code will execute with those elevated privileges. Sometimes the process that a data structure is a part of can be tricked into processing input that it was never meant to; gods only know what'll happen but if the user knows enough about the process then there's a good chance that the outcome will be predictable (and thus advantageous to the user). Links in file systems can be followed by accident... sometimes the junk left behind by a failed process (a core dump, in UNIX parlance) holds information that can be used later...
Back to the altar. Sitting on top of the stack of disk drives is an ancient Radio Shack 300 bps accoustic coupler. If you've never seen one before, these were some of the first modems made; the user would dial the number of a computer on the telephone by hand and rest the handset in the rubber cups of the coupler. The coupler has a microphone in one side (for the earpiece) and a speaker in the other (for the mouthpiece) so binary data in audio form could be transferred to and from the local terminal. I picked it up on eBay several years ago as an antique, as a bit of background. Sound is a very important thing to me. I'm a music junkie: I used to be a DJ; I've got literally hundreds of CDs, cassette tapes, records (yes, real vinyl), and .mp3 files around the house. I love listening to sounds of all sorts, from the rush of air through the ventilation ducts to the noise of traffic driving past the Lab. Sound is a means of carring information of all sorts, from basic error checking bytes all the way up to files containing 3d meshes for a rendering package. Just as sound carries information, modems carry the sound that carries information. And modems make it possible for people to build connections between far away places and most importantly each other.
Resting against the stack of disk drives is... you guessed it, magnetic media. You can't really tell in this picture but there's a stack of six reels of nine-track magnetic tape there, along with a box of eight inch floppy disks (manufactured by Wang, Incorporated; still in the shrink wrap), a box of 3M 5 1/4" floppy disks (for SAL-9000 and TARDIS, still shrinkwrapped), and a set of eight inch installation disks for Borland Turbo Pascal v2.0 for CP/M. Magnetic media holds information and executable programmes so that they can be stored for later use. Otherwise data and software just sits in RAM until the power goes out, at which time it is lost. Likewise, knowledge gained from past experience and the memories that we carry with us through our lives is a precious thing and should be recorded so that others can learn from our successes and our failures. Without a record of history of some sort the present has no context; there is no way to know why things are they way they are. Also, without history there is no information which would allow us to make educated guesses about the future.
There is also a plastic disk case with two games from my younger years inside to which I attach great significance: Hacker and Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers by Activision Games.
Also visible is an extra Commodore 300bps modem (the black module below the 3M box) and several wrapped bundles of incense. Once again, certain scents can be used for making it easier to concentrate upon certain memories of events or sensory impressions - I tend to keep clove, cinnamon, cardamom, and sage incense around for use during certain rituals. Also, the smoke produced by burning incense is visible so I burn it during meditation to watch as it wafts through the air. I find it very calming after a long day. If I've pushed things too far with my hands that day it helps me take my mind off of my carpal tunnel syndrome.
Below the boxes of matches and the extra modem is an old network interface card, a 3Com 2012, manufactured back in 1985. It's old enough that there's a veritable forest of discrete components on the full-length card, many more than the handful of chips on today's NICs, and the only interfaces on it are AUI (DB-15 plug) and coaxial cable. It's helped me keep one thing in mind, and that is that somehow, we are all connected to the universe. You can be at your best, you can be at your worst, you can be so far in the hole that you doubt that you'll ever see the light of day again but you're connected to the universe just the same. There's no need to feel alone, because no one ever really is.
Doko ni datte; hito wa tsunagette iru.
The small row of glass bottles are for holding specimins of various substances. Right now only one is in use right now, it holds a small quantity of soil from home, more for sentimental reasons than any sort of magickal use. Given my tendency to want to pick up and leave it's helped keep me grounded over the years.
Continuing to the left is a small silver boot knife that I use more for a tool than anything else. The metal's not top quality and the finish is cheap as all get out - I think I paid $3us for it at a flea market. At one time I used it to focus my concentration upon specific actions or situations but it's fallen out of favour in recent years. Once again I keep it around for sentimental reasons more than anything else. It's seen a lot of use and I'd hate to get rid of it. A couple of incense burners can be seen in the foreground, along with a pair of votive candles. The candles represent two things: When life starts becoming less like an adventure and more like a horror novel a single light in the darkness is all that you need to guide your way out. Knowing my lousy sense of direction it's good to have two so I can triangulate my destination. *grin*
On a more serious note the candles also represent the god and goddess in their less defined forms - not distinct entities but as archetypes of masculine and feminine. Between them is another oddity that I've picked up in my travels, a silicon chip still in its testing harness. I've been able to date it back to the early 1970's, when Texas Instruments first started manufacturing integrated circuits. I can't say for sure but I think that the silicon wafer suspended in the test harness was a prototype of some sort, more likely an early version of some design or other. This chip represents the basic function of each and every life in the universe: To do things. To put it another way, to get stuff done. I think that every living thing has a role to play in the universe of some sort. Everything fills a niche; everything fulfills a function of some sort. Everything carries out some task that the universe needs done as it tries to complete its task, whatever that is, just as the processor core of a computer flips bits and performs mathematical operations on values to solve a problem of some sort. It could be said that each thing in the universe is a sort of CPU in a parallel machine of virtually infinite complexity working on solving a problem of unfathomable scale. Each living thing (and I wouldn't say it's beyond the realm of possibility, certainly not imagination that there are entities in the universe which are not alive as we know it but have a consciousness of some sort) crunches away on some subset of the problem and will eventually return its result to the synchronisation mechanism to be assembled into the solution.
Just above the CPU is a laser pointer which I use in lieu of a knife or sword in some of my rites. I picked it up just after the price of laser pointers crashed a couple of years ago and I've spent the time since then using it almost exclusively for casting circles and in some of my experiments with Thelemic and Golden Dawn-derived rituals. Most of the time I use it for tracing patterns and occasionally symbols on the floor or walls to prepare my mind for the task at hand, for example the pentacles used in the Lesser Banishing Ritual. It's easier than using a knife in that I don't have to worry about accidentally cutting or scratching things around me (like some of the grooves that my sword's put into the tile by accident). While the beam itself can't be easily seen the spot it throws when the beam intersects something (like the bookcase or a wall) is bright enough to be seen under just about any conditions common in the Lab, moreso when the cap that spreads the point into a bar is attached. The concept that I attach to using a laser pointer is that information can travel a very, very long way when it's encoded upon a beam of light (as it is when fibre optics are involved, such as in long distance trunks) and by bouncing a beam of mostly coherent light off of something it forms a temporary connection to that something.
To the left of that is another bottle (this one a pint flask that used to hold Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum) and a small origami box that Graeme made for me some time ago. I havn't found the bottle useful for anything yet though the box reminds me of Grame.
To the left of that is the CPU module from an Apple Macintosh IISE that I dug out of a dumpster at Carnegie-Mellon University in late 2001 when I was out and about one night. For a time it carried the same basic connotations as the harnessed CPU I described earlier but it too has fallen out of favour recently. I'm thinking about removing it but havn't come to a decision yet.
To the far left is a pack of Samporena International clove cigarettes... I had them there for New Years but didn't move them before I took the pictures. Oops.
My altar table itself is made up of a couple of pieces of chipboard laid across a pair of VT101 terminals manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation. the.Silicon.Dragon and I scavenged them from a trashpile on the outskirts of CMU a number of years ago. At first we thought that we could get them to work again but it turned out that the internals are completely wrecked. We dismantled them that night and found lots of burned out components and a couple of melted (!) wires leading to the display tubes themselves. Trashed. Silicon got rid of his but I kept them and made a table out of them... and after a time made it into my altar. Resting against the right hand terminal is what I think is an 8088-class motherboard that I dug out of the dumpsters behind the University of Pittsburgh's engineering building. At first I thought that I'd be able to salvage the cache chips and SIMMs from it but they're frozen on but good - I can't get them off without cutting stuff. So I decided to keep it around for the heck of it, and it wound up next to my altar. I'll probably find a use for it some day.
This is a close up of SAL-9000, highlighting a few things that probably aren't visible in the first image. SAL is framed in the centre of the image; a wooden recorder is balanced carefully across the top row of her keyboard. I don't use the recorder for anything in particular but it was given to me by a teacher for whom I have an immense amount of respect (and not a few fond memories of) and I keep it there to honour her. We havn't spoken in many years, not since graduation; perhaps I'll get in touch with her after this graduation upcoming and reawaken a few old connections. Also in the frame are top-down views of two action figures which I use as deity images - Neil Gaiman's Sandman (for Morpheus) and Hexadecimal from ReBoot, representing Eris in her aspect of chaos in action and decision yet within an ordered structure. Some people have carved or sculpted images.. I use action figures - whatever works, right? Also visible is Dream's raven, Matthew, sitting atop a purple candle and part of a broken mirror that I never took upstairs after an attempt at a pencil sketch.
A better view of the left-hand side of the altar. More clearly visible is the stack of books, the loop of cable, Dream and Hexadecimal, and the Macintosh CPU.
A close up of my primary tools: The pint flask, candle holder (with wickless candle), incense burner, athame, origami box, laser pointer, votive candles, and CPU.
Closeup of the right-hand size of the altar. SAL's floppy drives and the accoustic coupler can be seen at the top left along with another incense burner. The stack of tapes and disks can be more clearly seen here as well as the network card and something that may have escaped notice in other pictures - a sword in its scabbard. I have a twenty-two inch long sword on my altar for rituals which require a more physical, so to speak, approach to focus upon my task. I picked it up some time ago at a comic book convention where there was a knife and sword vendor. This particular sword jumped out at me due to its unusual appearance - the tables were covered with carefully sculpted and shaped blades of all shapes and sizes and then there was a plain black sword in a scabbard stuck off to the side. It struck me in how plain it was, how unlike the others that were so shiny and so well thought out. A pariah.
I bought it then and there.
Since then I've purefied it and now I use it when I have to throw my weight around in the universe, so to speak. If I have to work with fairly large amounts of energies or I find that I must bring every ounce of will that I possess to bear upon something that sword is my tool of choice. It's one matter to simply concentrate upon making a change of some sort in one's life, such as making it more likely that something will turn out, or cutting a barrier inside myself that keeps me from growing in a certain way, that sword is there.