The altar is often the focus of religious ceremony, and is usually found at the center of a Wiccan rite. It’s essentially a table used for holding all of the ritual tools, and can also be used as a workspace in spell casting.
An altar is easy to make. If you have a small table that’s not being used for other things, great! Will you be doing a lot of rituals outdoors? Use an old stump or a flat stone. If you’re short on space, such as cramped apartment or dormitory quarters, consider an altar space that can be used for other purposes as well – the top of a dresser, a cedar chest, even a footlocker.
Do you live in an environment in which you’d like to keep your altar private? You may wish to just create a “portable altar” that can be put away when not in use. Find a nice box or bag to keep your tools in, and then get them out when you need them. If you have an altar cloth, it can double as a storage bag – just put all your tools in the middle, bundle them up, and tie it shut like a pouch.
You can have permanent altars that stay up year round, or seasonal ones that you change as the Wheel of the Year turns. It’s not uncommon to meet someone who has more than one altar in their home. A popular theme is the ancestor altar, which includes photos, ashes or heirlooms from deceased family members. Some people enjoy having a nature altar, on which they place interesting items they find while out and about – a rock, a pretty seashell, a chunk of wood that looks appealing. If you have children, it’s not a bad idea to let them have their own altars in their rooms, which they can decorate and re-arrange to suit their own needs. Your altar is as personal as your spiritual path, so use it to hold the things you value
So you've decided to perform your first ritual, and you're setting up an altar. Great! Now what?
It's actually pretty simple to set up a basic altar. You'll probably want to include a few things, like your magical tools, but ultimately the altar should be about functionality. It needs to be set up to help you achieve your goal. Here are the things that most traditions of Wicca and Paganism include on altars.
• Symbols of the four classical elements. Typically, these are aligned with the four cardinal directions. Use a bowl of dirt or sand in the north aspect of your altar to represent earth, a stick of incense in the east can symbolize air, a candle or charcoal in the south for fire, and water in the west.
• Candles. You can add a goddess candle and a god candle if your tradition calls for them, or you can use candles representing the four directions. Be sure to have a lighter or matches handy.
• The athame. Most Wiccans and Pagans use an athame in ritual, so you can place one on your altar.
• The wand. The wand is used to direct energy, so if you use one, keep it on your altar.
• Your Book of Shadows, or BOS. If you're going to be doing rituals, it's helpful to keep this on hand.
Add other items as needed, and as space allows. You can include whatever spell components you need, cakes and ale, and more. If you're celebrating a sabbat, you can decorate your altar for the season as well. Regardless, make sure your altar contains all you need for effective ritual work, BEFORE you begin your ceremony.
Inspiration for Your Altar
An altar is a concrete way to connect with your spiritual practice. Whether you are pantheistic, polytheistic, or fall somewhere in between, altars are spaces that can be set apart as sacred among the mundane aspects of our daily lives. They represent the macrocosmic in a microcosmic way.
Altars are as personal as their creators. There are however common setups found throughout different Pagan traditions. Specific systems such as Wiccan covens and ceremonial magic have their own way of laying out the altar and train their members in their own tradition. Some traditions place altars in certain directions such as the east or north. Here are two basic altar setups given as guidelines for solitary practitioners and groups that haven't yet developed their own altar protocol.
The Elemental Altar
The attribution of the four elements with the four directions in figure 1 below is derivative of ceremonial magic which has since inspired the altar setup of Wiccan traditions.
This is a seven-element setup as follows:
• Air in the East
• Fire in the South
• Water in the West
• Earth in the North
• Goddess/Divine Feminine
• God/Divine Masculine
• Spirit in Center
The representations of these elements can be candles or anything that is appropriate according to your practice. The traditional items associated with the four elements are seen in the four suits of the tarot and include:
• Sword for Air
• Wand for Fire
• Cup for Water
• Pentacle for Earth
It is common to use the items above to represent the elements and candles for each direction, the god, goddess, and spirit. Other variations include statues for the deities, a cauldron for the cup or as the goddess, and using a dagger in place of a sword for air. Again, this is up to the individual.
Both altars can be added on to with extra candles, seasonal tools, crystals, and incense. Altar cloths are commonly used appropriate for the season or altar subject. You can build your own altar table if you are so inclined. Inexpensive purchased table, chair, dresser, tree stump or stone serve the purpose as well as laying the altar cloth on the floor during ritual with the items placed on it.
In some traditions, ritual tools including the altar are meant to be stored when not in use. This doesn't have to be the case with your personal altars. In fact, having a devotional shrine in a safe corner is an easy way to encourage daily ritual andprayer in your practice. Jewelry and other items can be placed on your altar for blessing and then used in ritual and magic. Altars are an excellent way for you to creatively connect with different aspects of your personal practice, your gods, and spirit.