The purpose of the altar is to serve as a place of remembrance for those ancestors whose wisdom and understanding has improved the quality of your life.
Again, for those who do not know their lineage, do not let this inhibit the process. The altar may be used to communicate with known relatives, and it may be used to communicate with historical figures who have provided you with inspiration and possibly deceased mentors who have no direct ancestral connection. Ifa teaches that if we trace our ancestry back far enough we are all related.
Place a box or table in the spot selected for the construction of an ancestor shrine. Cover it with a white cloth, and then place a fresh glass of water and a white candle on the surface. Photographs and drawings of relatives and historical figures may be placed either on or near the altar. Ancestor reverence is practised to that we may benefit from the wisdom of those who have come before us.
Simply seeing the image of inspired ancestors can serve as a subliminal reminder of the contributions they have made. Respect for the ancestors is a part of most earth-centered religions. Many of us come from mixed ancestry, and within our lineage there likely to be a wide range of religious belief and practice.
In Ifa there is recognition of the diverse spiritual influences that have made positive contributions to the quality of human life. I have seen ancestor shrines in Africa with pictures of Buddhist, Islamic and Christian prophets. There is no need to limit the spiritual influences that are represented. All that is required is a grasp of the universal principles that have been expressed in a wide range of cultural and historical forms. If you have pictures of ancestors place them on the altar. If your ancestors were devout Muslims you can place a copy of the Koran on the altar but it is not an obligation, if they were Christians place a copy of the Bible on the altar if you want to, if they were Buddhist place a statue of the Buddha or a picture on the altar.
When the shrine is in place, stand in front of it and light a candle. The first statement that should be made to the ancestors at your altar is a commitment to regular use of the shrine for mediation and prayer.
We call this type of agreement self-regulated discipline. It does not matter how often you agree to make use of the shrine, what is important is that you live up to your agreement. It is better to commit to one day a week and keep the commitment than to commit to every day and break the agreement. You are establishing a connection with the ancestors, telling them when you will be available for communication enhances the connections. The white cloth, candle, water and pictures can be thought of as an electron magnet that draws ancestor spirits to the altar. The current that drives the magnet is the prayers directed towards the altar. If you only turn to your shrine in moments of crisis, the current will be weak. If you charge the batteries on a regular basis, the spiritual connection will be strong, making communication clear and accessible.
At this point you may spend some time remembering those relatives and those role models who have influenced the way you see yourself and the world. Begin to examine influences from the past you want to reinforce and influences from the past you want to diminish. Start to identify the positive character traits with specific ancestors. The qualities of courage, honesty reliability and creativity can all be strengthened through inspiration from those who have demonstrated these qualities in their lives. As you develop this connection with the ancestors, you will be able to call on them in the course of a day when the need for those desired qualities arises.
Simply remembering how a particular ancestor would have handled a particular problem is a very effective form of ancestor communication. In Yoruba culture remembering is everything.
As the end of your first session in front of the ancestor altar end you meditation by saying,
Mo dupe Ori Egun, ase.
I give thanks for the wisdom of the ancestors, May it be so.
Mo dew-peway or-re a-goon, ah-shay.