What’s the purpose of an altar, and do I need one? In this article, we’ll be answering the commonly asked questions about altars.
What is an altar?
Your altar refers to your ritual workspace. This is where your magical tools are placed along with any representations of the ritual’s theme or purpose. They are used in almost every kind of spiritual, magickal, or religious ceremony.
Altars can be beautiful and extravagant or simple and practical.
An altar is defined as “a platform or table used to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion.” You can use an altar to place several symbolic and functional items to honor deity or your ancestors, cast spells and rituals, meditating, or saying chants and prayers.
More abstractly put, I like to think of altars as a sacred area, and by creating your altar, you are inviting chosen energies to protect and guide your rituals, celebrations, or intentions.
Altars are also a place for:
- spiritual growth
Do I need an altar?
To answer this question, you need to take a step back and look at your practice.
- Is it something you’re interested in?
- Do you often practice your magickal workings in one area?
- Do you like decorating according to the different seasons?
If you’ve answered yes to any of these, chances are you would benefit from having an altar. Do you have to? No. An altar, just like everything about spirituality and Paganism, is your choice. You are free to make all the decisions that best suit your practice.
Those seeking freedom from religion often enjoy the eclectic ways of modern witchcraft or other Pagan paths.
There’s no governing body, law, or leader that can decide your path for you. Now that’s different if you’re initiating into a strict coven or tradition as there will most likely be rules that are meant to be followed.
How do I make an altar?
The first thing you want to decide is the location. What surface to use and where to place your altar, which could be either inside or outside your home. I often like to put the altar in the room where I consecutively perform most of my ritual work.
This can also depend on the intention of your magickal working. For example, if you are creating an altar to connect with or honor Aphrodite for guidance in love, you could look at the bedroom or bathroom.
Another example that I use personally is to put my Samhain altar in the kitchen or dining room to ask my ancestors for help with abundance (i.e., food, comfort, security, warmth, light, etc.) during the darker half of the year.
The surface you choose doesn’t have to be anything fancy; I have used tables, nightstands, and tree stumps outdoors. Whatever you decide, it should be somewhere that won’t get disturbed. Be sure to cleanse this space to remove old or stagnant energies before creating your altar.
The next step is to decide what items to place on the altar. Many practitioners consider the following list of items to place on their altars:
- Altar cloth: An altar cloth further designates the space, and allows for an opportunity for color magick. For abundance, try laying a green cloth to see how it supercharges your spell.
- Representation of the elements or directions: You can use candles for fire (south), a bowl of salt or soil for earth (north), feathers or an athame for air (east), and a chalice or bowl of water for water (west). Please note that some consider north to be air and east to be earth. There is no absolute right or wrong, so intuitively decide what you prefer. This decision is often associated with where you begin calling the directions. Those who use east as earth usually start facing this direction to end on north (air).
- Representation of deity: Often, a white candle is used for the Goddess (Lady) while a black candle is used for the God (Lord). But you can use symbols, statues, pictures, or even a representation of a single deity from whichever pantheon you choose.
- Stones and crystals: These are used to invoke various energies in your ritual or magickal workings.
- Incense or essential oils: Used to set the atmosphere, assist with invoking sensory details, and even assist with cleansing.
- Book of shadows, grimoire, or journal: A book to record spells, rituals, lunar events, recipes, or notes is handy for a growing practice. It’s often placed on an altar for protection and ease of use.
It’s important to note that you can always evolve and change the times or intentions for your altar as you become more comfortable in making them.
Once you have these fundamentals, it is time to get more specific with the items on your altar. Are you working with a specific deity, god, or goddess? Research offerings that these particular beings enjoy. Are you calling in your great-grandmother? Place her picture on your altar, or maybe a piece of jewelry she wore. Are you a painter seeking more inspiration in your art? Place your paintbrushes on the altar.
Be specific and authentic to your personality, your goals, and the intentions of the ritual.
Tend to your altar.
Work with or around it every day, lighting the candles, changing the flowers in the vase when they die, picking up items if the cat knocks something over.
The altar is sacred, and it is alive.
The energies you are invoking are coming through it, so be sure to show your devotion and gratitude to them. You wouldn’t invite a guest into your house to ignore them, would you?
Here’s an important tip: If you’ve invoked deity, think about giving one final gesture of gratitude. I often will forage for an offering in nature or bake with herbs that are associated with the deities I worked with.
Whatever you decide, your altar should feel creative and personal to you and your ritual.