There are about as many kinds of altars as there are uses for them. There are personal altars, couple’s altars, community altars which are used as main altars, elemental altars, healing altars, seasonal altars, lunar altars, ancestor altars and more. The purpose of an altar is to connect one to the sacred, as s/he conducts a spiritual practice. It links one to the divine and/or the universe and is a place to make offerings, communicate, meditate, do divination, create magick, celebrate when magick goes well and more. A lot of decisions need to be made when raising a tool as important as an altar.
A good question to start with concerns where the main altar will be located. It’s best to put it up with no hurry. First will this altar be inside or outside? Communing with nature under the sky and most likely with trees can be very spiritual. The sun and the moon may shine down on the individual, the altar and the things put out on it. One can easily create moon water on it, charge items and do so much more. Outdoors the altar will be exposed to the elements and so will the practitioner. Note that a lot of bad weather, and it is up to the practitioner to define “a lot” and “bad weather”, may preclude him/her from using that altar. Another consideration is that things put out on the altar out may be moved or taken by other beings. Think about the tricksters out there. The structure for the altar will have to be weather proof and sturdy if outdoors. Having the main altar outdoors can be very refreshing and spiritual, but there are considerations.
Indoors the right space for an altar has to be found. What the right space is will be up to the individual. The altar may be located in the living room, bedroom, hallway, kitchen or another type of room. Privacy may be one question when determining where to put the altar. Another consideration are any little beings in a household that may get onto the altar, be they animal or human. The decision may be made to keep the altar out of reach of these beings. Simply deciding where an altar will fit in a living space is important. Finding that just right space can be a challenge, but it is worth it.
If an altar is outdoors, purifying the space requires minimal attention. However an indoor altar purification is used to clear the space of negative energies. Before placing the altar structure where it will stand, purify the space with frankincense, copal incense or rosemary smudge. The structure could be a chest of drawers, bench, table, trunk, wooden box or something else. With items like liquid in a chalice and lit candles, stability needs to be addressed. Height is both a very individual taste but important for comfort and therefore concentration. With an altar cloth the altar could be on the floor, but feet may find it quickly. The height of a trunk or coffee table could be pleasing to those who like to sit on the floor. Others are more at ease with something higher like a table before which they could sit or stand. Still others prefer a height which they could stand before like a chest of drawers. After the structure is put into place, it is a good idea to do an altar blessing. One could bless the altar in honor of what s/he plans to do with it. Preparing the space and structure of the altar properly it is very crucial for its anticipated use.
What goes on top of an altar structure? Usually an altar cloth is laid. Figures representing the divine often go up on an altar. The deity figure could be representational art with a face and maybe a body. Something nonrepresentational like a candle make be used for a deity. Frequently the female and male aspects of the divine are on an altar, and often the goddess goes on the left side with the god on the right. Sometimes an image of the triple deity, usually goddess is on the altar. To represent a number of deities, a multifaceted crystal might be used. Tools can be put up on an altar such as a dish of salt or earth, flowers, plants, incense burner, candles, bowl or chalice with water, crystals, athame, bell and more. How much goes on the altar is dependent on your space. I have seen people show me their altars as if they are finished products. The altar is not useful for long as a finished product. As one grows and changes, the items on the altar should change. Things also need to be refreshed every now and then. Different people change the items on the altar at different rates. Some change things once a moon and others once a year. A lot of thoughtful decisions need to be made about what goes on the altar and its maintenance.
Using space vertically is something to contemplate when horizontal space is at a premium. Altars may have shelves or drawers below them within which altar related supplies are stored. If the altar is near or up against a wall, a photograph or a print may be hung on the wall as part of the altar. For example a picture of the divine may be on that work of art. These are ideas that can help with limited space.
Not only should an altar enhance one’s spiritual practice, it should enhance the beauty of the space. It is a place to commune with the gods and goddesses and/or the universe. There are suggestions but few hard and fast rules when it comes to creating an altar. It is up to the practitioner to make the decisions, which is what is so liberating about this religion. A lot of work can go into erecting and maintaining an altar, but much good use can come from such an important tool.
Raymond Buckland, Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, Llewellyn, 2004.
Scott Cunningham, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Llewellyn, 1994.
Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary Network Podcasts, “Personal Altars”, February 9, 2020, Encore from 2014.
Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary Network Podcasts, “Healing Altars”, February 16, 2020, Encore from 2014.
Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary Network Podcasts, “Altars Through the Seasons”, February 23, 2020, Encore from 2014.
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