Essentially, an altar is a collection of items organized in such a way that they evoke the purpose of your spiritual or magical activities. You can set up an altar right before a ritual and take it down as soon as you’re done or you can arrange an altar that stays in place for an extended period of time.
|My Ariadne altar; it lives on the end of my desk|
Some traditions have a set of requirements or instructions for altar-building. For instance, some varieties of Wicca require you to place representations of the four classical elements in the appropriate directions on your altar. For other paths, you might need to place particular tools on the altar in specific spots or you might need to ‘feed’ some of the items or dress them with sacred oils. If you practice a tradition that has specific instructions for setting up an altar, then you need to follow those instructions. But if you’re not part of that sort of tradition, or if you’re just looking for inspiration, you can ‘free-form’ an altar for almost any purpose. Here’s how:
The first thing to do is decide whether the altar will be permanent or temporary. For a ritual in the woods or in someone’s living room, when all the accoutrements will be cleaned up afterward, you’ll be making a temporary altar. But if you’d like to set up an altar to your favorite deity or your ancestors and have it in your house as a constant reminder of your relationship with those energies, then a permanent altar is the better choice.
All you really need to start is a flat surface – a large stone for outdoor rituals, a tabletop or bookshelf indoors. We make the temporary altars for our seasonal rituals on a picnic table when we’re outdoors and on the coffee table in the living room if we’ll be inside. My Ariadne altar is a long-term installation; it fills up a portion of my desktop in my office. I also have several altars to deities and ancestors in various places around the house – on bookshelves, the fireplace mantel, a little shelf on the headboard of my bed. Most of them look like interesting collections of knick-knacks, so people who aren’t pagan wouldn’t necessarily recognize them as altars.
|My Egyptian altar; it sits on a bookshelf in my living room.|
Once you’ve chosen your surface, you can begin to collect up items to put on your altar. If you’d like to define the space with a cloth of some sort, now is the time for that. A piece of plain fabric, a scarf, a table runner – any of these will work as long as it fits the theme of your altar. Think about the colors that make sense in this regard: blue for a water god, red for the blood of the Ancestors, pink for healing. The color you choose should resonate with you.
Now what goes on top of the cloth? If this is an altar to a god or goddess, you might want to have some sort of representation of them. Some people like figurines and small statues, paintings or other images. Other folks like to focus on the symbols of the deity – Mjolnir for Thor, a labrys for Ariadne, a Brigit’s cross for (obviously) Brigit. Whatever you choose should evoke the central focus in your mind every time you look at it.
Now you can move on to the next selection of items. Are there other symbols or images you could add that will give you more layers of meaning? Stones, runes, wands and other ritual tools can add significance. If it’s an ancestor altar, old family photos or other mementos make a heartfelt addition. If this is a seasonal altar, natural objects such as leaves, flowers and rocks can add to the ambiance.
Speaking of ambiance, most of us like a nice candle or two to gently illuminate the altar. For rituals and spellwork, choose candles appropriate to your purpose. Match the color to the meaning, since the purpose of an altar is to evoke a response in the people looking at it, and pay attention to any scent as well, since that can either add to or detract from your purpose. My Ariadne altar has a candle scented with olive leaf and thyme; to me the aroma instantly evokes the Mediterranean, where my patron goddess hails from. You can add scent with incense and essential oils as well. In addition to anointing yourself and any other participants in the ritual or spellwork, you can anoint candles, statues and other items that will not be damaged by the oil. Wooden objects such as bowls and platters will absorb the oil and provide a gentle, long-lasting source of scent for your altar.
As you decide what to add or leave off of your altar, listen to your inner voice. This is the avenue through which the gods and the ancestors speak to us. Few among us will hear clear directions in actual words, but when you feel drawn toward one particular figurine or become uncomfortable with the addition of a particular stone to your altar, pay attention to those feelings. They matter.
When you’re finished, stand back and look at what you’ve created. Does it evoke your purpose? Does it make you think of the deity, the spell or the ritual you’ve made it for? If it does, then you have successfully created an effective altar.