SUNLIGHT ON THE ALTAR

SOLAR-CALENDRICAL MARKING IN THE HOME

Not everyone can live in a classical Greek temple, perfectly aligned to its environment. Even a new home, beautifully designed to take advantage of landscape features and astro-calendrical turning-points, is beyond the reach of most of us. Still, when working with an extant building, the placement of furniture, pictures, moulding rails, etc. can produce interesting and "meaningful" sun-and-shadow effects that emphasis the "scared" character of the living-space. .

To give one example, from my life:

I live in an 11-room farm house, built in 1875. Like many similar American farm houses of its kind and era, it is 2 storeys tall with 10' ceilings, made of wooden boards covered with cove-moulded wooden siding, has sharp "gothic" gables and paired sets of double-hung sash windows, and was placed on a slight rise in the ground so that its four major faces are aligned to the cardinal points and the front door opens due East.

My particular farm house was remodelled in 1892 by grafting another, almost identical 1875-era 2-storey farm house (dragged here by horses) onto it at right angles, producing a 7-gabled oddity with a back door opening due south. What had been a straightforward "gothic" style farm house became a pseudo Queen Anne farm house due to the odd corners and multiple gables that resulted from the grafting process -- except that the pile lacks the decorative elements of the Queen Anne exterior, being composed of older, plainer "gothic" wood work. The building was again remodelled in 1954, when a gas cook stove was installed in the kitchen, allowing the owner to wall in the back porch, where firewood had been stored for cooking, with rows of small windows for use as a sun-porch-cum-greenhouse.

Now that i've set the scene, everyone who lives in the USA or has seen rural-genre movies made here will have a pretty good idea of the kind of old place i'm talking about.

Short of tearing the building down and starting over (bad choice!) there's nothing that can be done to produce precise astronomical or solar alignments here -- but i can still take advantage of some of the broader, more obvious features of solar geometry to create "sacred" places.

My bedroom is upstairs on the gable end of the house that faces south. It is 12' wide by 20' long, oriented north and south. Light is provided by a pair of double-hung sash windows along the south gable end. The ceiling is one of those cut-corner affairs, common to many old farmhouses -- the central "spine" of the ceiling runs the full 10' high and 7' wide, but there are sloping roof-lines that run down to join the walls at the 6' high level along both the eastern and western sides of the room.

In the center of the room there is a free-standing brick chimney, about 4' feet square -- a remnant of when this space was two smaller rooms and the home was heated with fireplaces. A heater stove in the form of an antique-looking dark green enamel fake wood-stove with burning gas "logs" stands on a low brick platform on the northern side of the chimney and vents into the chimney through a standard black stove pipe that enters the masonry about 6' off the floor. The bulkiness and central placement of the picturesque old chimney forces the division of the room into two halves, north and south. The northern end -- with book cases, cupboards, a small couch, and so forth, is used for lounging, reading, and eating in front of the cheerfully burning fire. The southern end is the "bedroom" proper.

For many years i had my bed in the south-western corner of the bedroom, the head at the west, the foot at the east. Early morning shafts of sunlight from the south windows would come in and strike me in the face, waking me up. During the course of the year, the sun path travelled from one side of the bed (and the western wall) to the other and back again, but there were no markers to commemorate its passage or turn-around. No use was made of the setting sun light; it fell on a clothes bureau on the eastern wall. I did maintain a "sacred space" in the bedroom -- a small altar to Siva / Jesus / Frogs on one of my two nightstands -- but it was in the extreme south-west corner of the room, were no sunlight ever fell.

When tyagi and i got togeher, changes had to be made in the layout of the room. He maintains an altar to Kali / Durga / Kwan Yin / Snakes / Scorpions / Slugs, so he needed a place for that; he also needed one of the nightstands for his own use, meaning that my altar to Siva / Jesus / Frogs would have to be moved to a table-top of its own.

Because our relationship is grounded in the study and practice of tantra yoga, karezza, and other forms of sex-mysticism, and we both have had some prior experience with temple and altar design, we thought long about how to effect the changes. The answer came to us through reading a book on Taoist sex alchemy called "The Art of the Bedchamber," edited by Doulgas Wile. Wile has complied 22 Medieval and later Chinese texts on achieving longevity (or even immortality) through a form of sexual union described in a so-called "shadow language" comprised of alchemical and zoological-mythological terms (e.g. the green dragon is the man, the white tiger is the woman; the crucible is the woman's vagina, "setting up the stove" is chest contact, "heating the stove to warm the crucible" is arousing the woman's genitals through breast-play, etc.) [I know, i know ... those silly Chinese poets!!!! :) ]

Anyway, in this book there is a very interesting piece of feng shui theory on the proper layout of a home where sexual mysticism is to be practiced. I don't have room or time to quote the whole thing, but here is some of it, which you can also find -- with lots more about Taoist sex alchemy -- at our page on tantric partnership.


From "Summary of the Golden Elixir" by Chang San-feng (The precise date of authorship is in dispute but the work is conceded to have been written during the 15th or 16th centuries C.E.)
Choosing a Location

Some prefer to live in the countryside. The earth should be red or yellow and without ancient graves ... A place where the mountains and rivers are pure and beautiful is auspicious indeed. Otherwise I am afraid it will not be suitable for your work.

Choosing Comrades to Assist in Practice

One must choose like-minded comrades for a relationship of deep commitment. They should be by nature poised, loyal, filial, friendly, and fraternal.

Setting Up the Elixir Platform

The altar table should include pure water, incense, candles, flowers, and vases. Arrange the ancient ritual implements ... One should worship here both morning and evening .... [At the] east is "the chamber of the green dragon," [the man] and [at] the west is "the chamber of the white tiger" [the woman]. In the center is the altar for making offerings ... Due north and south should be precisely aligned ... The windows should be clear and the tables clean. Fences and barriers ensure peace and seclusion. Plant flowers and shrubs and raise cranes and deer to provide an area for the gentlewoman to relax.

(Excerpted from "Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women's Solo Meditation Texts" compiled, translated, and annotated by Douglas Wile, and published by the State University of New York Press, 1992.)

According to Chang San-feng, a couple engaged in sex-mystical practices requires three bed chambers: one for each alone and a third between them for the enactment of the sacred rites. Few of us can afford such an arrangement. but a man who wishes to worship a female goddess such as Kali or Mary would do well to place Her altar ("the chamber of the white tiger") in the West, while a woman who wishes to worship a male god such as Siva or Jesus would do well to place His altar ("the chamber of the green dragon") in the East.

As each devotee symbolizes to the other the sexualized deity of choice, so each devotee might stand at the altar to Himself or Herself in deified form and turn in the direction of preferred worship -- he at the East turning to face Her in the West, she at the West turning to face Him in the East. Then each will see the other, flanked by deific imagery.

Their meeting place, the alchemical crucible or bed ("the altar for making offerings"), might be in the center of the room between the two wall-altars. Toward the North of this central space might be an altar to the invariant pole-star around which the union of the two sexualized forces entwines. To the South, where the beauty of the day and night take form, might be placed a window onto the created garden-world, the peaceful, flowery, and fenced area in which the "gentlewoman" and her consort may relax, perhaps laying together in a hammock, if the weather is warm.


After having placed the above material on the web, tyagi and i moved our bed to the center of the room, its long axis running due north and south, under the taller portion of the ceiling, with the head at the north, backing up against the old chimney at the center of the room. On the rugged bricks we hung a painted plaster Nepalese representation of the sun and moon in embrace.

Affixed to the center of the headboard is a circular engraved brass reproduction of the so-called "Cretan" labyrinth, symbolizing that activities conducted in the bed -- sleeping, dreaming, copulating, reading, eating crackers ;) -- are the path to the symbolical center of life.

On the flat surface of the headboard, we placed a small terra cotta reproduction of a Doric (Greek) temple facade, within the central pillars of which we set a Bolivian (Quechua Indian) munachi of terra cotta. (The munachi is a magical amulet representing a copulating couple, used in love-magic; the word munachi means "to cause to love.")

Above the munachi we hung an ivory scrimshaw pendant of an open hand in the palm of which a sun and moon are smilingly conjoined. (Note: we used sun-and-moon iconography here instead of the "pole star" mentioned on our web site because, to briefly venture into astrology, tyagi's moon and my sun are conjunct (in Taurus), an aspect that is traditionally said to signify "a happy marriage;" thus we decided to personalize the cosmic focus of our "invariance." in a way that might not be appropriate for all other couples, but works well for us.)

Along the eastern wall, as prescribed by the feng shui of Chang San-feng, we put my altar to Siva / Jesus / Frogs, to which i also added a small bronze statue of Siva's vehicle, the bull Nandi. On the wall above the statuary and altar paraphernalia hangs an array of colouful prints and bas-reliefs: a gilded print of Siva meditating; a poster of a black Siva linga (phallus); a large Nepalese papier mache mask of Bhairava (a wrathful form of Siva); and a chromolitho of the cute Baby Jesus with his Mom, his Step-Dad, and his Cross (a strange Victorian image in which the Adorable Infant is wearing a crown of thorns!!!).

Along the western wall, again in line with Chang San-feng's recommendations, is tyagi's altar to Kali / Durga / Kwan Yin / Snakes / Slugs / Scorpions / general weirdness. Above it hangs an array of prints depicting Kali in her wrathful and corpse-striding forms. Behind Kwan Yin a sentimental Victorian print depicts a spray of Cecile Brunner "Sweetheart Roses."

And now, the magic of the sun comes into play:

The morning light, falling from east to west, strikes the Goddess altar on the western wall, lighting up the gilding on the corpse-striding prints, the lovely lifelike plastic scorpion and slug, and the tiny brass demons who stand before a large Nepalese bronze of Kali in her wrathful, tantric-Buddhist form. Kwan Yin remains in complete shadowed sihouete, but behind her, the delicate pink roses briefly glow with light. When the sun has fully traversed the altar, it is time to arise.

The reverse takes place in the evening when the setting sun illuminates the God altar. The sunlight plays on the hands of the large bronze Siva, glimmers on the jewelry with which i have bedecked the statue, falls across the Crucifix, and sets the gilded prints aglow, before sinking to the floor.

Now that tyagi and i have the basic set-up in place, we can mark the solticial extremes and equinoctial points that the sunlight-paths make as they traverse these altars -- which will allow us to perhaps reposition the objects to take advantage of these special moments in the yearly cycle

What i want to convey here is that with a basic knowledge of solar movement and a willingness to rearrange furniture, one can produce, in one's own home, some of the same "thrill" that a better-designed and more precisely engineered sacred structure would have. For further ideas, please read Anthony Lawlor's "The Temple in the Home," an excellent reference on the history and practice of sacred architecture in various cultures.

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