Altar Preparation

 

Omit what you don't have or don't need. Add what you do what to have or need. You can arrange the altar any way you like, this is just a suggestion.

There is no one right way to create an altar and how you construct one will be based solely on your purpose. You may, also, have multiple altars for different purposes.

In traditional witchcraft, altars do not serve a decorative purpose, rather each item on the altar adds something to the power of the work you do there. You must first decide what you plan to do at your altar. Will you cast certain types of spells? Will you use it to connect to a particular spirit or spirits? Then, you will place the items on the altar that are useful to you in this endeavor.

So what do you use for an altar? That depends—what is convenient and serviceable? Any surface can be transformed into an altar. Some things that have served me as an altar in the past include:

  • Coffee tables
  • Dresser tops
  • A shelf on the wall
  • Nightstands
  • A small kitchen table
  • A picnic table at the park
  • Two milk crates straddled by a shelf
  • A large cigar box
  • A trunk
  • A blanket spread on the ground

Your altar can be anything you find comfortable to work with. If you’re erecting a permanent altar, make sure it’s somewhere that’s out of the way so it can lie undisturbed, yet in a convenient place for holding rituals. If you are looking for an altar that you can set up and break down for each ritual use, a good option is to choose something that will also house your tools. It’s convenient to just open up a dresser drawer or side table cabinet, pull out what you need and put it right on top of the altar.

What Goes On the Altar?

I like to consider things in categories. It makes it easier to digest in bite sized pieces. Nothing is mandatory, these are just suggestions. If you don’t have a specific tool yet, just omit it until you are ready to get one and begin working with it:

Altar Cloth

Representations of Deities: picture, candle, statue, etc.

Representations of the Elements: for Air, a censer, fan, feather, etc.; for Earth, a bowl of salt, cornmeal, sand, etc.; for Fire, a candle, lava rock, electric candle, etc.; for Water, a bowl of water, seashell, small mirror, etc.

Traditional Wiccan Tools: athame, wand, pentacle, cup, book of shadows, etc.

Miscellaneous: service candle (a white taper to light all other things); candle holders; libation dish; cakes and ale; spiritual objects (crystals, charms, talismans, etc.); divination tools (if using them); spell components (if doing magical workings); decorations (flowers, holiday decorations, etc.).

Colors

Colors of candles, altar cloths, gemstones, flowers and other items are important in many spells and rituals. If you have an altar for a particular purpose, you may leave the items of the corresponding color there, however, if you use one altar for multiple purposes, you may change the colors based on your purpose at the time.

In the modern Western witchcraft of English-speaking countries, some of the colors and their associations are as follows (Color associations differ in folk magic concerning other nations in the West and the East.):

Black: Banishing; to repel negativity; revenge; reversal of spells and curses

Blue: Communication; telepathy; focus; concentration; healing; wisdom

Brown: Court cases; contracts; legal affairs

Gold: The sun; masculine energy; wealth; happiness, especially family happiness; success

Green: Abundance; prosperity; good luck; success; growth; financial concerns

Orange: Cleansing; healing; harvest season; abundance.

Pink: Affection; family; love; selflessness

Purple/Violet: Spiritual energy; healing; advanced psychic abilities; peace and calm

spiritual protection and healing, psychic ability, protective energy.

Red: Love,; vigor; aggression; strength

Silver: The moon; feminine energy; abundance

White: Protection; healing; exorcism; peace

Yellow: Knowledge; learning; focus

Shrine

The shrine is mainly a space for veneration. It’s a great place to go for prayers and meditations, or to pay honor to a specific deity, spirit, household guardian, ancestor or the like. A shrine doesn’t need to be elaborate at all since it’s more of a focal point. A representation of the object of worship – such as a statue, an image, a candle, etc. – is a good start. A little decoration, such as a vase for flowers or a plant, is also a nice way to decorate. If you use incense for ritual, a censer is a must. It’s also nice to put out a cup, bowl or basket if you like to give offerings.

That’s all you really need on a shrine. You can always put crystals, herbs, candles and other decorative items if you like, but it’s good to really think through anything you want on there to avoid the risk of it just becoming a junk collection. Is the object you want to put on the shrine meaningful to you? Does it have a purpose? There’s nothing right or wrong, as long as you think it through.

That’s all you really need on a shrine. You can always put crystals, herbs, candles and other decorative items if you like, but it’s good to really think through anything you want on there to avoid the risk of it just becoming a junk collection. Is the object you want to put on the shrine meaningful to you? Does it have a purpose? There’s nothing right or wrong, as long as you think it through.

There are times when you might like to make a shrine more elaborate-- for example, at Samhain my family puts up an ancestor's shrine in the dining area on the buffet. It's full of photos and their personal belongings, seasonal decorations, candles, bowls and baskets piled high with offerings and other such items.

Ritual Altar

A ritual altar is a little bit more elaborate usually because it’s for full-blown rituals, usually Esbats (general moon rituals) or Sabbats (solar holy days of the Wheel of the Year). The full set of ritual tools would be lain out on the altar. A full ritual altar is usually a little larger than a permanent shrine, especially when using the traditional tools like an athame, wand, cup, pentagram, incense, candles, etc—it requires a bit of space.

Some people keep out a permanent altar and use it both as a shrine and for rituals. If you can’t keep a full blown altar set up permanently somewhere in your home, it’s a good idea to make a small shrine for your simple daily prayers, meditations and devotionals, and then set up a temporary altar for big rituals.

Working Altar

A working altar is designed specifically for magical workings. Some workings can be done in an evening, but other times more elaborate workings towards long-term goals can require a set up that goes undisturbed for a while. If you’re using an altar specifically for magic, it should be the least cluttered of all. In fact, if all you need for it are the actual components for the working, that’s fine. The fewer distractions, the better.

It’s perfectly fine to have three or more different altars; one or more shrines (some people like to keep different shrines to different Gods or Goddesses in different places, such as putting a shrine to Hestia in the kitchen and a shrine to Demeter and Dionysus in the garden), a ritual altar that they set up specifically for Esbats and Sabbats, plus a working altar for regular magical endeavors.

Of course, one altar can suffice for all three purposes if you have the space for everything you need, and enough privacy that no one will fiddle with your things when you leave them out. But if you don’t have that ability, it’s a good idea to determine your needs first. Knowing its function(s) will help you determine the best place to put the altar and what to get for it.

There is no one right way to construct an altar, but the main thing to keep in mind is your purpose in doing so. An altar is a place where energy and power for a particular purpose accumulates. It is a device and a tool, in itself, which you can use to achieve your goals.