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How to Create a Living Altar to the Dark Goddess: Intention, Tools & Invocation

This article was written by Chandra Alexandre, Ph.D.
posted under Pagan

Many practitioners are afraid of dark goddess energies. Divinities such as Hecate, The Morrigan, Freya, Gran Brijit, Kali, Lilith, Oya and others prove frightening, leaving many without recourse to some powerful help, especially in times of challenge or crisis. Even the most seasoned among us can fear working with these goddesses. Why is that, and how can we create a safe space in which to work with Her and the potent energy she carries? (In my writing, I intentionally alternate capitalization on words such as goddess and dark goddess. I also oscillate between capitalization on pronouns that refer to her, doing so in order to convey that part of Her grace and mystery lies outside the conventions of language as related to gender and personifications of deity through language.)

 
In this article, my goal is to help you activate your personal crafting with the Dark Goddess, however you choose to name Her. Overall, what I offer is designed to help you discern and strengthen your pathway to Her embrace, helping you gain a solid foundation for exploration of the mysteries. Of course, the Mystery is still the Mystery, and we call on Her knowing that Her response may be appropriately intense or sublime, subtle or sweet. Even if she has not yet appeared in your spiritual purview, may this article whet your appetite for engagement with the delicious and difficult work She inspires!  
 
Who is She?  
 
The Dark Goddess embraces everything. Her power—and why so many spiritual practitioners avoid her—tends to lie in our fear of the unknown. And this is not only our individual, personal fear, but also our collective, societal, and cultural fear. The magnitude of her power lies in her claim to what we ignore. When we look at the Dark Goddess, we see whatever we wish to keep out of awareness. Yet, she does not hold back Truth, and for this, we are often terrified of Her. What might she reveal?
 
Darkness, indeed, is a metaphor for a deeper truth. Life, we know, is filled with beauty and pain, ecstasy and horror. Look at Kali, for example, Hindu Black Goddess, Devourer of Time. With her right two hands she presents mudras (hand gestures) signifying the granting of boons and blessings, and with her left two hands she holds a severed head and a machete. To look upon her, we in the developed world might wonder how to achieve the benefits and avoid the blood and gore. But Her revelation lies in and through the acceptance of her totality—for the blade and head are in truth the goddess offering the promise of detachment and release from the constraints of our egos and limitedness. To take only half of Her then, is to miss the whole point.
 
 
Working with the Dark Goddess
 
1. Intention

 
The Dark Goddess can help us find the resolve, dedication, strength, and faith to enter abodes of fear. The first step on the path of engagement with Her is the setting of an intention. Called sankalpa in yogic traditions, this is our resolve, our commitment, our statement of yearning in the dance of free will and determinism. We must be clear in our call, direct and unpretentious in our approach. In one sense, the guidelines are simple:  
 
    I. Discern the yearning  
    What is it that calls to you?
 
    II. Engage willingness  
    Make a commitment to the path
 
    III. Trust the process   
    Surrender yourself
 
This is not a mere matter of reading words, however; this is the reality of taking steps toward the deep end of the pool. The more clearly you can articulate for yourself the nature of your exploration and where you wish to go, the more carefully and precisely you will be guided toward your destination.  With your sankalpa is set, you are ready to begin the work of opening to Her.  
 
2. The Living Altar: Tools, Symbols, and Practice

 
Every Dark Goddess shares five essential qualities. They are: embodiment, relationality, cyclicity, the chthonic, and the antinomian. Through them, she offers us Her gifts, with liberation the greatest of them all. These five qualities are the very core of what it means to be a dark goddess, and thus, in concert they create a vibrational energy evocative of Her essence. In this way, your opening to the Dark Goddess is facilitated by working with them—they set the stage for a personal invocation that allows the Dark Goddess to manifest as you desire to know Her.  
 
Creating your Dark Goddess altar with the tools, symbols, and practices offered here, inclusive of your own inspirations, lets Her know that you are ready, and makes a sanctuary in which She can dwell for the duration of your worship. Study these qualities along with their correspondences. Get to know them inside so that you feel both physical and subtle levels of manifestation; for these can help you not only deepen spiritual discovery and self-awareness, but also come closer to the heart of Her—and through this, the heart of the world.  
 
    i. Embodiment
 
This quality is the root of all others. Literally, it corresponds to the Muladhara Chakra, the energy center at the base of our spine, the root of the body. Without this quality, there is little space from which we can engage Her.  
 
Here, in the realm of matter and our embodied selves, is where the Dark Goddess lives and fights for life-affirming change. From here, She calls upon us to re-sanctify nature. She is in the stuff of our bodies, and in the stuff of our world denied and rejected. She is the dirt under our fingernails, excrement, blood, women’s moon-time blood; she is in the juices of our love making, the burps of babies who come in all the colors of rain-washed Earth, the flesh of our beloved dead. She is the Divine immanent, here among us—and she is neither shy nor embarrassed about it. Rather, she shows up inebriated on the festival offered, drunk from the kissing of wounds.  
 
The first of Her qualities, embodiment is also the power of the body’s wisdom and intuition. It has correspondences in Earth and North. Her tool is a sacred diagram (such as a pentacle, labyrinth, yantra, or mandala) that provides a contemplative entryway to insight and deeper revelation of the inner mysteries. Engage practices such as breath work, meditation, focusing, movement, yoga, and energy raising techniques to enter the arena of embodied wisdom. Draw on the power of your personal experiences to call up corporeal parables. These are the stories our bodies know that cross time and space; for example, childbirth, near-death experiences, and athletic episodes of being ‘in the zone.’  
 
Use resin incense and flowers to help awaken your senses and open the gateways to Her, with mindfulness to both external and internal realities. Find inside yourself the aromas, sounds, sensations, and feelings that arise, and pay particular attention to smells as activators of the subtle body. What you experience, this is an essence of the Dark Goddess.  
 
    ii. Relationality
 
Whether taken literally or metaphorically, the Dark Goddess is the one who shapes reality, creating and filling in spaces where we need to do the hard work of the spiritual journey.  As we do this work, we may come to realize that relationships are our primary reminder of connection. We might not be surprised, therefore, to find the quality of relationality located at the Anahata Chakra, our heart center, a place of balance, potential, and equanimity. Seat of the soul in many traditions, the heart is the place through which we experience the bonds of Creation: from the outside in and the inside out.  
 
The second of her qualities, relationality has correspondences in East and Air.  The tool of the Dark Goddess in the East is the mirror. In it we see revealed our most authentic nature and the heart of all truths reflected through Her. As she gazes back at us, we may delve into the questions—especially those that relate us to our physically-, emotionally-, intellectually-, and culturally-informed notions of who we are—that get at the meaning of our identity and existence. This is the very stuff of soul making, the very stuff of awakening spiritual maturity. Here, She offers us the power of an unconditional embrace.  
 
Practices such as seva, or selfless service, and other efforts that create happiness, deepen heartfelt feeling states, and cultivate compassion (our ability to be with suffering) ignite this quality of hers. Practices you might wish to explore include dream work, scrying, regression, and forms of transpersonal therapy, journaling, walking/active meditation, and conscious loving.   
 
On your altar, use things that you particularly enjoy touching, picking up, and holding. Spend time with the objects of your choosing, allowing the holding to rekindle ancient memories and awaken mythic connections. Choose a variety of tactile delights to incorporate into your ritual environment, such as textured fabrics, wood, stone, and fur. Above all else, bring yourself into love through devotion. What you experience, this is an essence of the Dark Goddess.  
 
    iii. Chthonic
 
The Pavamana Mantra from the Upanishads offers this prayer: from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality, lead us. The word chthonic, from the Greek khthonios meaning "in the earth," denotes that which is of or relating to the underworld. This quality of Dark Goddess, the chthonic, shares resonance with this most powerful and purifying of mantras. Chant it aloud now and feel the movement of sound around and within you:

OM

Asatoma sad gamaya
Aum uh’-suh-toh-maa suhd’ guh’-muh-yuh

Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
Tuh’-muh-soh-maa jyoh’-teer guh’-muh-yuh

Mrityorma amritam gamaya
Mriht’-yohr-maa uhm’-rih-tuhm guh’-muh-yuh
 
To feel the reverberations of the chanting as one speaks, intones, or even listens to these Sanskrit syllables is to know the essence of the chthonic, for through this mantra we are shown the potential to shift the very fabric of our being toward our dreams, our fullest realization, and our ultimate bliss. In walking the path of the chthonic and in heeding the words of this eternal prayer, we are celebrating from our original yearning. We are opening to the journey of the underworld, to the origin of our soul’s passage from energy to manifest reality.  
 
This work is particularly relevant where the chthonic is held psychically: at the third chakra, the Manipura Chakra, which is the seat of our individual will, located at the solar plexus.  

The chthonic is also the third of her qualities, with correspondences in South and Fire. We might laugh to think of the underworld and fire connected together (since we may automatically conjure up images of a Christian Hell), but although often hot and fierce, the fires of the Dark Goddess burn for reasons other than damnation. In fact, they burn for purification and with the elemental power of light—that which gives form to energy and liberates us from misconceptions about phenomena in the material world. The realm of the chthonic is therefore also our connection to individual power and the sacred dance we share with the Divine in working to discover our true nature.   
 
The tool of the chthonic is the flame, that which brings illumination to the shadows, helping us to see the real and recognize the unreal. Practices such as those that induce trance, bring on altered states of consciousness, and assist inner sight are beneficial toward understanding the realm of the chthonic. For example, shamanic drumming, trataka (focused concentration on one point or object), repetitive chanting, kriya yoga, and yoga nidra (practices that cultivate deep aware sleep) are all aids in coming to know this quality and its ramifications on gross, subtle and causal levels. Mudras too can help one focus the transformational energies of inner and outer worlds to great effect.  
 
In working with this quality of Dark Goddess, you may wish to light candles and practice candle magick. Enjoy the play of the light on your chosen ritual objects, and see if you can enter into meditation, eyes open, while focusing about four feet away from you. Explore movement and dance, opening yourself to the physical landscape and the special features and curves of your own body and face. Create mudras spontaneously. Play with colors, sparkles, and eye-catching items on your altar, manifesting beauty and sweet flows of energy all around you. What you experience, this is an essence of the Dark Goddess.    
 
    iv. Cyclicity

 

The power of time, the space between dark and light where the yearning pulls us into the future, the internal mechanisms that reveal the oak tree from the acorn, the strands of our DNA, the ebb and flow of tides. Cyclicity is the fourth of her qualities, with correspondences in West and Water. Its locus is the Svadhisthana Chakra, seat of the self located at the pelvic floor. Some of the mystery may be revealed when we notice that the taste of pure water is unlike anything we know; it is clear, without particular qualities of sour or sweet, pungent or salty. Yet it is utterly refreshing and deeply satisfying to have a good drink. This is the revelation of the Dark Goddess through cyclicity.  
 
Her tool in this place of ancestral knowing and remembrance is a water pot, which taps into the cycles of the moon and seasons, helping us open to the dynamic tension of the universe and the pull of our karmas through life, death and rebirth.  Practices such as gardening that bring us into communion with nature and allow us to literally taste our efforts (as planting a vegetable garden would), as well as those that symbolically allow us to taste the fruits of life, such as devotional prayer, cooking, poetry writing, and other bhakti (devotional) offerings, can aid us in understanding and deepening our connection with this quality of the Dark Goddess.  
 
Bring spices, food, and drink to your altar, on one level remembering and honoring your ancestors within the cycle of life, and on another remembering and honoring the seasons and what it takes to nourish living beings. Food and drink on your altar also provides a remembering and honoring of the work we do and must do to feed the spirit. Cyclicity offers the prasad (blessed food) of the Dark Goddess. Nourish yourself through the virtues of this quality on all levels, heeding the power of the eternal return. What you experience, this is an essence of the Dark Goddess.  
 
    v. Antinomian
 
The antinomian is that which sits outside the normative, the socially acceptable, the so-called rational. It is the quality of the Dark Goddess that makes us think about our assumptions, reveals our internalized oppressions, and forces us to look directly at reality without the blinders of cultural, religious, and social frameworks. The fifth of her qualities, with correspondences in Center/Circumference and Ether, the quality of the antinomian is resonant with the Vishuddha Chakra or throat center. This is the seat of Her unfolding into consciousness through sound, the place where both reality and our karma are created through spoken words.  
 
This space encompasses both sound and echo—the arising from the void into vibration and then into engagement with our sense of hearing, with the phenomenal world and back again. Since all sound is carried on ether, practices such as mantra repetition, chanting, kirtan (call and response singing), and sounding in general (with voice or instruments) are important to help uncover this quality of the Dark Goddess.  
 
On your altar, you may wish to keep a rattle, drum, bell, or other instrument that augments or accentuates your voice or the silence as you do ritual, chant, or sing. To know this quality is to move sound, create vibrations, and make waves in the fabric of your being and the world around you. It is to show up as you fully, authentically are, naked to the impositions of family and society. In this way and in a literal sense, digambara (sky-clad) ceremony can be liberating.  

Her tool is the murti, or image that you will imbue with life-force energy for worship. The murti can be any object you wish to represent Her. Choose a worthy home for Her, allowing this object to reflect aspects of Her that you wish to honor and to which you will make devotions over time. It can be natural, such as a stone or tree; handcrafted; or purchased in a shop. Unlock her secrets in the anointing, decorating, loving and honoring of Her image, this receptacle for the rapture that is her. Delight in that which will be present through it.  If you have selected or created an image with eyes, gaze upon that gateway with intensity of concentration and surrendered self. What you experience, this is an essence of the Dark Goddess.
 
3.  Activating Her  
 
With the Dark Goddess, we can not only discover and work with the transformational powers she possesses, but also find sanctuary in her wisdom, especially in moments of despair, hopelessness, overwhelm, sorrow, and loss. We can find reassurance during times of challenge and crisis because She holds this part of reality too—and holds it along with everything else in loving kindness. Now that you have prepared the space and readied yourself through meditation, contemplation, and other practices, the time is ripe to welcome in the Dark Goddess of your choosing.
 
To activate Her, we begin with activation of Her qualities. Once we feel the power of these essences, we turn inward, to the place of the indwelling Divine. We open to the qualities within ourselves, utilizing a focus on breath to bring us more deeply into present awareness. Place your hands on your heart, left on top of right palm and breathe as though through this chakra, opening your heart as you continue to deepen your breath. In this place of stimulated alignment between the outer experience of the qualities as you’ve represented them on your altar and your inner awareness of them, imagine the coming together of breath and this awareness deep within at your core. Allow yourself to feel the universe of the inner planes together with consciousness fully present here at the root of your connection to all that lies beyond ego attachment and agendas.  
 
Now, before your altar, keeping your internal focus, gently open your eyes and gaze upon your murti, the image of the goddess you have readied to awaken. Tenderly and with intention, turn your hands outward, keeping left palm on right. Bring your palms over the murti, and imbue the image with the energy you have cultivated. All the while, stay centered with long and slow breaths. To seal the activation, place the ring finger of your right hand (keeping the palms together and merely bending the ring finger) at the heart or center of the murti, and say, “Welcome, Goddess (Name); Evam Astu!” (Evam astu is Sanskrit for “so mote it be.” It is pronounced, “aa-vuhm_ uhs-too.” You may certainly use any other form of concretization or sealing of energy that you wish here.)

 
With this invocation and awakening through intentional touch of prana (life-force energy), She is now present and your altar is alive. Take a few moments to return the awakened energy to your own heart and other chakras, feeling Her energy now through this nyasa (placement) within you. Honor Her living presence wholeheartedly, with reverence and respect. You may wish to make offerings to Her (such as food, jewelry, flowers, incense and other delightful things), pray, do spellwork, bless objects, or simply deepen your meditations. The choice is yours.  
 
 
4. Gratitudes & Visarjan (Devocation)
As you feel ready to end, it is only proper to thank Her for being present and to acknowledge the gift of the Divine within yourself. You may wish to offer gratitudes to each of Her qualities in turn, finally returning to the murti She inhabits. Give thanks to the Dark Goddess you have lovingly welcomed, and sing her praises. Then, with your hands again placed left over right, begin at the head or top of the image and slowly and gently move down toward the ground or bottom of your altar, drawing the life-force energy out of the murti and releasing it to serve wherever it is needed.   
 
At this point, you may wish to ground by bringing the thumb and ring finger of each hand together and touching the earth on either side of your body. End with the words, “Evam Astu” again, or choose some version of, “Hail and farewell!”—something that feels appropriate to you as a final devocation. In this way, the rite is complete and your altar is more richly steeped in the energy gifted through Her living presence. Moreover, you are imbued with Her prana through this work in even fuller and richer ways. Know that by this effort and through Her grace, you are also just a little less encumbered; just a little more free.  
 
May Her blessings fill you always.  
 
 
 


Chandra Alexandre is Rashani, clergy of Sha’can (a Western Shakta Tantrick tradition), and the founder of SHARANYA (www.sharanya.org), a devi mandir (goddess temple) based in San Francisco with a worldwide presence through Kali Vidya (www.kalividya.org), an online mystery school. She is an hereditary Witch, Aghori Nath, and the Chair of the Maa Batakali Cultural Mission in Puri (Orissa), India, where she received her first diksha (initiation) into Kali’s mysteries. Chandra holds two doctorates (the first a Ph.D. in Asian & Comparative studies, the second a Doctor of Ministry degree in Creation Spirituality) and an MBA in sustainable management.

 

Chandra Alexandre is also a contributor to both Llewellyn's 2010 Magical Almanac and Llewellyn's 2010 Witches' Companion. Click here for current-year almanacs and calendars.


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