ALTAR (Lat. altare, from altus, high; some ancient etymological guesses are recorded by St Isidore of Seville in Etymologiae xv. 4), strictly a base or pedestal used for supplication and sacrifice to gods or to deified heroes. The necessity for such sacrificial furniture has been felt in most religions, and consequently we find its use widespread among races and nations which have no mutual connexion.
Mesopotamia. - Altars are found from the earliest times in the remains of Babylonian cities; the oldest are square erections of sun-dried bricks. In Assyrian mounds limestone and alabaster are the chief material. They are of varying form; an altar shown in a relief at Khorsabad is ornamented with stepped battlements, which are the equivalent of the familiar "altarhorns" in Hebrew ritual. An altar also from Khorsabad (now in the British Museum) has a circular table and a solid base triangular on plan, with pilasters ornamented with animals' paws at the angles. A third variety, of which an 8th century B.C. example from Nimrod exists in the British Museum, is a rectangular block ornamented at the ends by cylindrical rolls. These altars are in height from 2 to 3 ft. According to Herodotus (i. 183) the great altars of Babylonia were made of gold.
Egypt. - In Egypt altars took the form of a truncated cone or of a cubical block of polished granite or of basalt, with one or more basin-like depressions in the upper surface for receiving fluid libations. These had channels whereby fluids poured into the receptacles could be drained off. The surface was plain, inscribed with dedicatory or other legends, or adorned with symbolical carving.
Palestine. - Recent excavations, especially at Gezer, have shown that the earliest altars, or rather sacrifice hearths, in Palestine were circular spaces marked out by small stones set on end. At Gezer a pre-Semitic place of worship was found in which three such hearths stood together, and drained into a cave which may reasonably be supposed to have been regarded as the residence of the divinity. These circular hearths persisted into the Canaanite period, but were ultimately superseded by the Semitic developments. To the primitive nomadic Semite the presence of the divinity was indicated by springs, shady trees, remarkable rocks and other landmarks; and from this earliest conception grew the theory that a numen might be induced to take up an abode in an artificial heap of stones, or a pillar set upright for the purpose. The blood of the victim was poured over the stone as an offering to the divinity dwelling within it; and from this conception of the stone arose the further and final view, that the stone was a table on which the victim was to be burned.
Very few specimens of early Palestinian altars remain. The megalithic structures common in the Hauran and Moab may be entirely sepulchral. At Gezer no definite altar was discovered in the great High Place; though it is possible that a bank of intensely hard compact earth, in which were embedded a large number of human skulls, took its place. A very remarkable altar, at present unique, was found at Taanach by the Austrian excavators. It is pyramidal in shape, and the surface is ornamented with human-headed animals in relief. This, like the earliest Babylonian altars, is of baked earth.
The Old Testament conception of the altar varies with the stage of religious development. In the pre-Deuteronomic period altars are erected in any place where there had appeared to be a manifestation of deity, or under any circumstance in which the aid of deity was invoked; not by heretical individuals, but by the acknowledged religious leaders, such as Noah at Ararat, Abraham at Shechem, Bethel etc., Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel, Moses at Rephidim, Joshua at Ebal, Gideon at Ophrah, Samuel at Raman, Elijah at Carmel, and others. These primitive altars were of the simplest possible description - in fact they were required to be so by the regulation affecting them, preserved in Exodus xx. 24, which prescribes that in every place where Yahweh records his name an altar of earth or of unhewn stone, without steps or other extraneous ornamentation, shall be erected.
The priestly regulations affecting altars are of a very elaborate nature, and are framed with a single eye to the essential theory of later Hebrew worship - the centralization of all worship at one shrine. These recognize two altars, which by the authors of this portion of the Pentateuch are placed from the first in the tabernacle in the wilderness - a theory which is inconsistent with the other evidences of the nature of the earlier Hebrew worship, to which we have just alluded.
The first of these altars is that for burnt-offering. This altar was in the centre of the court of the tabernacle, of acacia wood, 3 cubits high and 5 square. It was covered with copper, was provided with "horns" at the corners (like those of Assyria), hollow in the middle, and with rings on the sides into which the staves for its transportation could be run (Ex. xxvii. 1-8). The altar of the Solomonic temple is on similar lines, but much larger. It is now generally recognized that the description of the tabernacle altar is intended to provide a precedent for this vast structure, which would otherwise be inconsistent with the traditional view of the simple Hebrew altars. In the second temple a new altar was built after the fashion of the former (1 Macc. iv. 47) of "whole stones from the mountain." In Herod's temple the altar was again built after the same model. It is described by Josephus (v. 5. 6) as 15 cubits high and 50 cubits square, with angle horns, and with an "insensible acclivity" leading up to it (a device to evade the pre-Deutero- nomic regulation about steps). It was made without any use of iron, and no iron tool was ever allowed to touch it. The blood
and refuse were discharged through a drain into the brook Kedron; this drain probably still remains, in the Bir el-Arwah, under the "Dome of the Rock" in the mosque which covers the site of the temple.
The second altar was the altar of incense, which was in the holy place of the tabernacle. It was of similar construction to the altar of burnt-offering, but smaller, being 2 cubits high and 1 cubit square (Ex. xxx. 1-5). It was overlaid with gold. Solomon's altar of incense (1 K. vi. 20) is referred to in a problematical passage from which it would appear to have been of cedar. But the authenticity of the passages describing the altar of incense in the tabernacle, and the historicity of the corresponding altar in Solomon's temple, are matters of keen dispute among critics. The incense altar in the second temple was removed by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc. i. 21) and restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. iv. 49). That in the temple of Herod is referred to in Luke i. 11.
The ritual uses of these altars are sufficiently explained by their names. On the first was a fire continually burning, in which the burnt-offerings were consumed. On the second an offering of incense was made twice a day.
In the pre-Deuteronomic passage, Exodus xxi. 14, the use of the altar as an asylum is postulated, though denied to the wilful murderer. This is a survival of the ancient belief that the deity resided in the pillar or stone-heap, and that the fugitive was placing himself under the protection of the local numen by seeking sanctuary. From 1 Kings i. 50 it would appear that the suppliant caught hold of the altar-horns (compare 1 Kings ii. 28), as though special protective virtue resided in this important though obscure part of the structure.
Greece and Rome. - According to the difference in the service for which they were employed, altars fell into two classes. Those of the first class were pedestals, so small and low that the suppliant could kneel upon them; these stood inside the temples, in front of the sacred image. The second class consisted of larger tables destined for burnt sacrifice; these were placed in the open air, and, if connected with a temple, in front of the entrance. Possibly altars of the former class were in historical times substitutes for, and rendered the same service as, the bases of the sacred images within the temples in earlier ages. In this case the altar of Apollo at Delphi, upon which on the Greek vases Neoptolemus is frequently represented as taking refuge from Orestes, might be regarded as the pedestal of an invisible image of the god, and as fulfilling the same function as did the base of the actual image of Athene in Troy, towards which Cassandra fled from Ajax. The second class of altars, called bomoi by the Greeks and altaria by the Romans, appears to have originated in temporary constructions such as heaps of earth, turf or stone, made for kindling a sacrificial fire as occasion required. But sacrifices to earth divinities were made on the earth itself, and those to the infernal deities in sunk hollows (Odyss. x. 25; Festus s. v. Altaria). The note of Eustathius (Odyss. xii. 252) perhaps indicates some customs reminiscent of a primitive antiquity in which the sacrifice was made without an altar at all. He says apobomia tina iera on ouk epi bomou o kathagis mos all' epi edafous - "some holy places away from altars, whose offering is made not on an altar but on the floor." Pausanias (vi. 20. 7) speaks of an altar at Olympia made of unbaked bricks. In some primitive holy shrines the bones and ashes of the victims sacrificed were allowed to accumulate, and upon this new fires were kindled. Altars so raised were, like most religious survivals, considered as endowed with particular sanctity; the most remarkable recorded instances of such are the altars of Hera at Samos, and of Pan at Olympia (Paus. v. 14. 6; v. 15. 5), of Heracles at Thebes (Paus. ix. 11. 7), and of Zeus at Olympia (Paus. v. 13. 5). The last-mentioned stood on a platform (prothusis) measuring 125 ft. in circumference, and led up to by steps, the altar itself being 22 ft. high. Women were excluded from the platform. Where hecatombs were sacrificed, the prothusis necessarily assumed colossal proportions, as in the case of the altar at Parion, where it measured on each side 600 ft. The altar of Apollo at Delos (o keratinos bomos) was made of the horns of goats believed to have been slain by Diana; while at Miletus was an altar composed of the blood of victims sacrificed (Paus. v. 13. 6). The altar at Phorae in Achaea was of unhewn stones (Paus. vii. 22. 3). The altar used at the festival in honour of Daedalus on Mt. Cithaeron was of wood, and was consumed along with the sacrifice (Paus. ix. 3. 4). Others of bronze are mentioned. But these were exceptional, the usual material of an altar was marble, and its form, both among the Greeks and Romans, was either square or round; polygonal altars, of which examples still exist, being exceptions. When sculptured decorations were added they frequently took the form of imitations of the actual festoons with which it was usual to ornament altars, or of symbols, such as crania and horns of oxen, referring to the victims sacrificed. As a rule, the altars which existed apart from temples bore the name of the person by whom they were dedicated and the names of the deities in whose service they were, or, if not the name, some obvious representation of the deity. Such, for example, is the purpose of the figures of the Muses on an altar dedicated to them, now to be seen in the British Museum. An altar was retained for the service of one particular god, except where through local tradition two or more deities had become intimately associated, as in the case of the altar at Olympia to Artemis and Alpheus jointly, or that of Poseidon and Erechtheus in the Erechtheum at Athens. The most remarkable instance of multiple dedication was, however, at Oropus, where the altar was divided into five parts, one dedicated to Heracles, Zeus and Paean Apollo, a second to heroes and their wives, a third to Hestia, Hermes, Amphiaraus and the children of Amphilochus, a fourth to Aphrodite Panacea, Jason, Health, and Healing Athene, and the fifth to the Nymphs, Pan, and the rivers Archelous and Cephissus (Paus. i. 34. 2). Such deities were styled sbmbomoi, each having a separate part of the altar (Paus. i. 34. 2). Other terms are agonioi, or omobomioi. Deities of an inferior order, who were conceived as working together - e.g. the wind gods - had an altar in common. In the same way, the "unknown gods" were regarded as a unit, and had in Athens and at Olympia one altar for all (Paus. i. 1. 4; v. 14. 5; cf. Acts of Apostles, xvii. 18). An altar to all the gods is mentioned by Aeschylus (Suppl. 222). Among the exceptional classes of altars are also to be mentioned those on which fire could not be kindled (bomoi apuroi), and those which were kept free from blood (bomoi anaiaaktoi), of which in both respects the altar of Zeus Hypatos at Athens was an example. The lstia was a round altar; the eschara, one employed apparently for sacrifice to inferior deities or heroes (but lschara Toibou, Aesch. Pers. 205). In Rome an altar erected in front of a statue of a god was always required to be lower than the statue itself (Vitruvius iv. 9). Altars were always places of refuge, and even criminals and slaves were there safe, violence offered to them being insults to the gods whose suppliants the refugees were for the time being. They were also taken hold of by the Greeks when making their most solemn oaths.
Ancient America. - As a single specimen of an altar, wholly unrelated to any of the foregoing, we may cite the ancient Mexican example described by W. Bullock (Six Months in Mexico, London, 1824, p. 335). This was cylindrical, 25 ft. in circumference, with sculpture representing the conquests of the national warriors in fifteen different groups round the side.
Portable altars and tables of offerings were used in pre-Christian as well as in Christian ritual. One such was discovered in the Gezer excavations, dating about 200 B.C. It was a slab of polished limestone about 6 in. square with five cups in its upper surface. Another from the same place was a small cubical block of limestone bearing a dedication to Heracles. They have also been found in Assyria. Pocket altars are still used in some forms of worship in India. See the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1852, p. 71.
1 Bullock also says (p. 354) that the altar in the church of the indian village of S. Miguel de los Ranchos which he visited was "of the same nature as those in use before the introduction of Christianity."
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)