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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
(Lat. altare, from altos, 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 Nimrild 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 These circular hearths persisted into the Canaanite period, but were ultimately superseded by the Semitic developments.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 &c., Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel, Moses at Rephidim, Joshua at Ebal, Gideon at Ophrah, Samuel at Ramah, 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 (i 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-Deuteronomic 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 i cubit square (Ex. xxx. 1-5). It was overlaid with gold. Solomon's altar of incense (i 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 (r Macc. i. 21) and restored by Judas Maccabaeus (i Macc. iv. 49). That in the temple of Herod is referred to in Luke i. II.
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 by seeking sanctuary. From i Kings i. 50 it would appear that the suppliant caught hold of the altar-horns (compare i Kings ii. 28), as though special protective virtue resided in this important though obscure part of the structure.