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ALTAR, a base or pedestal used for sacrifice or prayer to a deity.

Mesopotamia.—Altarsare 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 has stepped battlements, corresponding to the Hebrew "altar-horns." An altar also from Khorsabad (now in the British Museum) has a circular table and a solid base, triangular in plan, with pilasters ornamented with animals' paws at the angles. An 8th century B.C. altar from Nimrud (also in the British Museum) is a rectangular block with cylindrical rolls at the ends. These altars are 2ft. to 3ft. high. According to Herodotus (i. 1 83 ) the great altars of Babylonia were made of gold.

Egypt.—InEgypt 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 (with drainage channels) in the upper surface for receiving libations. The surface was plain, inscribed with dedicatory or other legends, or adorned with symbolical carving.

Palestine.—Recentexcavations, especially at Gezer, have shown that the earliest altars, or rather sacrifice hearths, in Pales tine, 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 These circular hearths persisted into the Canaanite period, but were ultimately superseded by the Semitic develop ments. To the primitive nomadic Semite the presence of the di vinity was indicated by springs, shady trees, remarkable rocks and other landmarks ; from this 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 the stone came finally to be used as a table on which the victim was to be burned.

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. These primitive altars were of the simplest possible description—in accordance with the regulation preserved in Exod. xx. 24-26, that in every place where Yahweh records his name an altar of earth or of unhewn stone, without steps or other 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 in the tabernacle in the wilderness.

The first, that for burnt-offering, 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, hollow in the middle, and with rings on the sides into which the staves for its transportation could be run (Exod. 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 taber nacle altar is intended to provide a precedent for this vast struc ture, 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 5o 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, 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 (Exod. xxx. 1-5) . It was overlaid with gold. Solomon's altar of incense (I. Ki. vi. 2o) 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 Solo mon's temple, are matters of keen dispute among critics. The incense altar in the second temple was removed by Antiochus Epiphanes (I. Macc. i. 21) and restored by Judas Maccabaeus (I. Macc. iv. 49). That in the temple of Herod is referred to in Luke i. i 1.

On the first of these altars was a fire continually burning, in which the burnt-offerings were consumed. On the second an offer ing of incense was made twice a day. The use of the altar as an asylum is implied in Exod. xxi. 14. From I. Ki. i. 5o, ii. 28, it would appear that the suppliant caught hold of the altar-horns (compare I. Ki. ii. 28).

Greece and

Rome.—According to their respective uses, 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, before 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. The second class of altars, called (3wµoi by the Greeks and altarici 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) seems to suggest survival of a primitive custom of offering sacrifice without an altar at all. 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 considered as endowed with particular sanctity; notable instances are the altars of Hera at Samos, of Pan at Olympia, of Heracles at Thebes and of Zeus at Olympia (Paus. v. 14, 6; v. 15, 5; ix. I 1, 7; v. 13, 5) . The last-mentioned stood on a platform (rpoOvvcs) measuring I 25ft. in circumference, and led up to by steps, the altar itself being 2 2 f t. high. Women were excluded from the platform. Where hecatombs were sacrificed, the irpoOvQCs necessarily assumed colos sal proportions, as in the case of the altar at Parion, where it measured on each side 600ft. The altar of Apollo at Delos (KEp6.nvos j3wµ6s) was made of the horns of goats believed to have been slain by Diana; at Miletus was an altar composed of the blood of victims sacrificed (Paus. v. 13, 6). The altar of Phorae in Achaea was of unhewn stones (Paus. vii. 22, 3) ; that 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 festoons like those used to ornament altars, or of symbols, such as crania and horns of oxen, referring to the victims sacrificed. Altars apart from temples usually bore the name of the person by whom they were dedicated, and the name, or a representation, of the deity in whose service they were. An altar was usually retained for the service of one particular god, but joint dedications occur, 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 ; at Oropus the altar was divided into five parts, one dedicated to Her acles, Zeus and Paean Apollo, a second to heroes and their wives, a third to Hestia, Hermes, Amphiaraus and the children of Am philochus, a fourth to Aphrodite Panacea, Jason, Health and Heal ing Athene, and the fifth to the Nymphs, Pan and the rivers Archelous and Cephissus (Paus. i. 34. 2). 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 xvii. 23) . An altar to all the gods is mentioned by Aeschylus (Supp. 222). Other exceptional classes of altars are those on which fire could not be kindled (03wµoi alrvpoe), and those which were kept free from blood ((kiwi avaiµaKToe), of which in both respects the altar of Zeus Hypatos at Athens was an example. The Earta was a round altar ; the EaXapa, one employed apparently for sacrifice to inferior deities or heroes (but EQXapa Ioi(3ov, 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.

Ancient America.

Asa 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, P• 335). This was cylindrical, 25ft. in circumference, with sculpture representing the conquests of the national warriors in i s different groups round the side.

Portable altars

and tables of offerings were used in pre-Chris tian as well as in Christian ritual. One such was discovered in the Gezer excavations, dating about 20o B.C. It was a slab of polished limestone about 6in. square with five cups in its upper surface. Another from the same place was a small cubical block of lime stone 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.

altars, temple, square, paus and sacrifice