The altar is one of the most important spaces for a witch. I remember when I was first making my own space, I pored over so many texts, blogs, and websites including YouTube to find the best way to set mine up. What I learned is that while there are elements that are similar for every altar be it Pagan or Wiccan, over time, the space becomes one that is unique to you and the gods, energies, or spirits you work with. Some people choose to keep their altars simple and minimalist while others opt for a more elaborate approach. I have known some witches who devote their entire backyard gardens or have a dedicated room for their altar. On the other end of the spectrum, I know of many witches who don’t have a whole lot of space or, for whatever reason, aren’t ready to have their altars out in the open.
When I began, I started small, converting a space on top of a dresser to devote to my altar. I found the nearest spiritual shops and tried to buy all the things the internet told me I needed, and the things I couldn’t find, I ordered online. As you can imagine, this took quite a hefty toll on my bank account, and I found that it just wasn’t practical for me to get everything at once. This was a hard pill to swallow because, as I stated in previous posts, I am a very list-oriented person. I had this vision of how I was ‘supposed’ to do it, and now my empty pockets were serving as just another obstacle. So, rather than wait for my next paycheck, I began to scavenge for materials that I could put on my altar instead.
Candles acquired over the years, a small dagger I purchased when I took a vacation to China, flowers from the garden, stones and sticks I picked up when I went on hikes through the wooded areas around my home. I remembered sea shells I brought back from visiting family in Australia and a bag of stones my late grandfather tumbled for me when I was a child. Not only was this all far more cost effective, the items were more personal and thus, my altar was starting to take the shape of something that was wholly me rather than a check-listed, clinical space. Of course, there were things I didn’t have laying around my home or could be found in the environment, so I eventually made peace with the fact that an altar is a thing that evolves over time; that just because you don’t have everything you want doesn’t make the space less special.
I am going to explain the basic altar set up and go through what the different things symbolize. But, as I said, this is meant to serve as a starting point because, honestly, altars are something that should be meaningful to you.
How to set up a basic altar:
- Find a space to set up your altar. This step seems obvious, but it is also important. Some people prefer to have their altar outdoors as they feel more connected to nature. But this isn’t always possible depending on where you live. The most important thing is that the altar should be in a place where you are able to relax or feel most at peace. Mine is in my bedroom because I am most comfortable there, but for those of you who consider yourself kitchen witches, you may find it better to place yours there.
- Determine what you will set it up on. My very first altar was on top of my clothes dresser. This was fine, at first, because it was a simple space, and I was just beginning. But as I delved deeper into my spiritual journey and my needs grew, my space evolved as well. I wound up building a table out of a wooden board I purchased at a craft store and four thick candle holders. I stained them and then glued them to make legs to create a table that I could move as I needed. I like the mobility of it as some spells require me to face different directions, but not everyone will want a movable altar. I have seen people set up their altars right on the floor, bookshelves, end tables, dining tables, and even a repurposed baby changing table.
- Where you altar goes may depend on what direction you want it to face. A common direction for many is East (air) because that’s where the sun rises. Another common direction to face is North as it represents the earth and, for many, magical practices are rooted deep in earth-based energies. Though my altar is mobile, I like to face the south as I feel a deep connection to fire and work often with flame and smoke in my spells. Facing west works better for others, particularly if they work closely with the more feminine or water-based magics.
- Goddess and God candles are used to represent the masculine and feminine energies that occur in the natural world and therefore within magic. You do not need a patron god or goddess to incorporate these candles (nor do you necessarily have to believe in any particular deity, instead using them to symbolize energy if you use them at all). Typically, the Goddess candle is white, silver, or a soft, cold color. The God candle is warmer so reds, golds, yellows are common though some people may also use black. Variations may differ if you have a patron God or Goddess and know what colors represent them.
- In addition to the candles, depending on the beliefs of the practitioner, symbols, statues, or other items may be put upon the altar to represent their goddess/gods. This also serves to organically determine the aesthetic of your altar as somebody who predominantly follows Hellenistic, Buddhist, Norse, Egyptian, and so on will model their altar in the appropriate styles
- Symbols for the four classical elements are included in the basic altar set up. North (Earth) is generally represented by salt, but stones, plants, and soil may also be used. East (Air) is represented by incense (smoke), feathers, and athame (a blade used for rituals), boline (a knife used to cut herbs or etch sigils on candles), or wand. South (Fire) is symbolized by candles, ash, oil burners, and a wand or athame. West (Water) can be represented by water bowls, seashells, mirrors, a chalice, or a cauldron.
- Stones or pieces of wood that have the symbols painted or engraved work well.
- The athame is traditionally black-handled while the boline is white-handled.
- If the athame represents fire on your altar, your wand should be used to represent air.
- The placement of these items depends on your preference. I like to arrange my items in correspondence with their cardinal direction, but some people like to put the items that represent water and earth on the Goddess side and air and fire items are placed on the God side.
- The middle of your altar should represent the element of spirit. For me that means a pentagram, but for others it may be crystals or an homage to their God/Goddess (or a combination).
- The following are other items of note that can be included in your altar set up:
- Offering bowls or plates
- A mortar and pestle to crush herbs
- Crystals and stones for protection, that have deep meaning, or are useful for a spell being used
- Divination items such as a crystal ball, a scrying mirror, tarot cards, runes, etc.
- Book of Shadows or Grimoire
- A bell
- An altar cloth
- Spell box
- Any item that holds a sentimental meaning to you.
- Decorations for particular holidays or Sabbats
As you begin to build your altar from the ground up, you will find yourself taking more liberties with it, going with what feels natural or right. Mine has gone from simple to more elaborate, extending well beyond the mobile table I put together. I expect it will continue to evolve as I grow in my spirituality, and that will probably be the same for you. Also, it is important to remember that the altar is a personal, sacred space for you. For that reason, I do not share pictures of my altar or the items on it. In fact, many within the magical community would caution against doing that for various reasons. Ultimately, how open you wish to be with your altar is up to you.