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Raised structure or place used for sacrifice, worship, or prayer. Altars probably originated with the belief that objects or places (e.g., a tree or spring) were inhabited by spirits or deities worthy of prayers or gifts. Sacrifice to deities required a structure on which the victim could be killed and blood channeled off or flesh burned. In ancient Israel, the altar was a rectangular stone with a hollowed-out basin on top. The ancient Greeks placed altars (seebaetylus) in homes, marketplaces, public buildings, and sacred groves. Roman altars were similarly ubiquitous and were often decorated with relief sculptures. Christians at first did not use altars, but by the 3rd century the table on which the Eucharist was celebrated was regarded as an altar. It became the focus of the mass in Christian churches and in Western churches was often adorned by a baldachin and an altarpiece.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on altar, visit Britannica.com.