Setting Up Your Magical Altar
The altar is often the focus of religious ceremony, and is usually found at the center of a Wiccan rite. It’s essentially a table used for holding all of the ritual tools, and can also be used as a workspace in spell casting.
Pagan Altar Key Takeaways
Your magical altar is a place for ritual and spellwork, and can be set up anywhere you have the space.
Although many people include traditional tools on the altar, you can use whatever fits your budget and needs.
Be sure your altar contains all you need for effective ritual or spell work before you begin your ceremony.
An altar is easy to make. If you have a small table that’s not being used for other things, great! Will you be doing a lot of rituals outdoors? Use an old stump or a flat stone. If you’re short on space, such as cramped apartment or dormitory quarters, consider an altar space that can be used for other purposes as well – the top of a dresser, a cedar chest, even a footlocker.
Do you live in an environment in which you’d like to keep your altar private? You may wish to just create a “portable altar” that can be put away when not in use. Find a nice box or bag to keep your tools in, and then get them out when you need them. If you have an altar cloth, it can double as a storage bag – just put all your tools in the middle, bundle them up, and tie it shut like a pouch.
You can have permanent altars that stay up year round, or seasonal ones that you change as the Wheel of the Year turns. It’s not uncommon to meet someone who has more than one altar in their home. A popular theme is the ancestor altar, which includes photos, ashes or heirlooms from deceased family members. Some people enjoy having a nature altar, on which they place interesting items they find while out and about – a rock, a pretty seashell, a chunk of wood that looks appealing. If you have children, it’s not a bad idea to let them have their own altars in their rooms, which they can decorate and re-arrange to suit their own needs. Your altar is as personal as your spiritual path, so use it to hold the things you value.
Basic Altar Setup
So you've decided to perform your first ritual, and you're setting up an altar. Great! Now what?
It's actually pretty simple to set up a basic altar. You'll probably want to include a few things, like your magical tools, but ultimately the altar should be about functionality. It needs to be set up to help you achieve your goal. Here are the things that most traditions of Wicca and Paganism include on altars.
- Symbols of the four classical elements. Typically, these are aligned with the four cardinal directions. Use a bowl of dirt or sand in the north aspect of your altar to represent earth, a stick of incense in the east can symbolize air, a candle or charcoal in the south for fire, and water in the west.
- Candles. You can add a goddess candle and a god candle if your tradition calls for them, or you can use candles representing the four directions. Be sure to have a lighter or matches handy.
- The athame. Most Wiccans and Pagans use an athame in ritual, so place one on your altar if you'll need it during a ceremony.
- The wand. The wand is used to direct energy, so if you use one, keep it on your altar.
- Your Book of Shadows, or BOS. If you're going to be doing rituals, it's helpful to keep this on hand.
Add other items as needed, and as space allows. You can include whatever spell components you need, cakes and ale, and more. If you're celebrating a sabbat, you can decorate your altar for the season as well.
Regardless, make sure your altar contains all you need for effective ritual work BEFORE you begin your ceremony.
Once you've figured out what you like to have on your altar, and where you want to actually place those items, add a simple sketch or even a photo into your Book of Shadows, so you can easily construct your altar again the next time you need to.
Your guide to your perfect witch altar
If you’re new to practice Wicca, Paganism, or witchery in general, you might be wondering where exactly to start with all this. A religion/spirituality dating back over a century, there’s a lot of history and especially a lot of variations when it comes to Wicca. So it’s no surprise that it can be incredibly overwhelming when someone is first getting started in their practice and their own personal magic journey.
One of the most basic and simplest things that every witch needs and can easily implement in their practice is an altar. Altars can be as simplistic or as elaborate as an individual wants. It’s entirely up to the witch creating that space to make the altar that best suits them, their home or where they’re worshiping, and their own personal practice.
Witch altars are sacred and special spaces that symbolize your innermost self and spirituality. It a representation of your hopes, your wishes, the things you’re working on improving and/or releasing, and a place to set intentions and celebrate and practice. Altars are also focal points for your practice—they’re a space to send your energy and intention to whatever deity or being or energy you’re currently working with and channeling. As stated before, an altar can be as simple or as ornate as you choose. Some witches choose to have an entire room devoted to their altar, others have a smaller more modest space. The choice is entirely up to the witch making the altar.
Wiccans and Pagans are certainly not the only religions or spiritual beings that use altars in their faith. Altars are seen all across religions in churches, temples, and from religion to religion. But that’s what an altar is—a physical representation of one’s practice. Which is why they can be such a powerful tool for a witch to utilize. Altars act as a physical space for the “regular” world to meet the spiritual world. A place to harness and access powerful source energies, the gods, ancestors and the rest of the spirit world, and even our own higher selves.
Setting up your witch altar
To start setting up your altar you’ll first need to determine what sort of surface you want it to be on, the best location for your altar, and which direction you would like it to face. Remember the four directions North, South, East, and West, each represents a different element:
- North: Earth
- South: Fire
- East: Air
- West: Water
Many witches choose to face their altars North as Wicca is a heavily Earth-based belief, however, depending on your own personal element that you find yourself gravitating towards you may face it in any other direction, or in a non-descript direction if that’s not of particular importance to you. Always remember that altars are personal, so it’s always your personal preference and practice above all else when assembling your altar.
Surfaces for altars can be lots of different pieces of furniture or places. Cabinets, corner tables, shelves, repurposed desks, tables, or even something some like a section of a kitchen counter or a nightstand can all make excellent places for an altar. It can be as big or as small as you choose, and in any room of your house. Many witches also practice with “travel altars” that can be stowed in a basket or container and brought out into nature to practice. Trust your gut and the energy that surrounds you when you’re creating your space. Whatever feels the most right for you and your practice, probably is.
Once you’ve decided on the basics like what surface you’re using and where your altar is going to be, comes the fun part: choosing what talismans, candles, and pieces and things you’re going to put ON your altar.
Because Wicca is such an Earth-based belief, many witches incorporate natural elements into their altar. This can include things like herbs, plants, dirt, sand, shells, seeds, or anything from nature that speaks to you.
If you’re using different flowers and herbs on your altar, here’s a beginner’s guide for what you can use to harness and manifest different energies at different times:
- Thyme: Activation
- Acorns: Life and Immortality
- Sage: Long Life, Good Health, and is frequently used to cleanse a space
- Rose: Love and Affection
- Cinnamon: Healing, Cleansing, is also used in psychic work
- Heather: Protection, Granting of Wishes
- Lavender: Overcoming mistrust
- Basil: Good Riddance and Releasement
- Elder Berries: Strong protectant against evil and negative energy
- Poppies: Pleasure
- Ferns: Sincerity
- Jasmine: Emotional Love, Kindness, and Romance
- Oak: Protection, Power, and Strength
Some may even choose to have an item for each element such as something from nature for earth, a candle for fire, incense for air, and shells or blessed water for water. It’s entirely up to you!
Other sacred items may be tarot cards, books, a tapestry, statues or totems.
One popular item that many choose to have on their altars (as well as around their home an in their practice) are crystals. Crystals, charged by the sun and the moon, attract and hold different energies that can be manifested and provide healing properties.
If you’re using different crystals on your altar (or in life!) here’s a beginner’s guide for what crystal you should use in order to harness the energy you’re seeking:
- Amethyst: Calming and Intuition
- Onyx: Protection, Absorbs and Transforms Negative Energy
- Pyrite: Protection, Shields from Negative Energy
- Clear Quartz: Clarity in Thinking, Improved Awareness and Memory
- Rose Quartz: Forgiveness, Peace and Compassion
- Tiger Eye: Confidence, Strength, Courage, and Good Luck
- Selenite: Clarity of the Mind, Anti-Anxiety, Soothing, Concentration
- Moonstone: New Beginnings, Intuition, Enhancement of Psychic Abilities
- Hematite: Energy and Vitality
- Jade: Emotional Balance, Peace, Purity
- Aquamarine: Closure to Unresolved Situations, Calming, Purity of the Mind
- Obsidian: Deep Psychic Cleanse and Protection
Remember that there are no limits to what crystals or other sacred objects you place on your altar. The design and objects are entirely up to you to create your most optimal sacred space.
Once your altar is set up you’ll need to cleanse your space. It’s important to cleanse your altar because when we bring in objects and crystals that have previously been elsewhere they can bring other energies with them into our sacred space. By cleansing with sage and performing a small smudging ritual, you’re ensuring that your tools and altar are free from external energies and ready for your practice.
To perform a smudging ritual you will need:
- Sage Bundle
- Fireproof bowl, container, or shell
Performing a smudging ritual:
1. Light a candle (or candles) on your altar and set your intention. Take a moment to meditate, say a prayer, or ask the universe to surround your space with love, openness, and to be a guide to your practice.
2. Light your sage from your candle or a match. It will start glowing red and ash may fall, in which case hold your fireproof container beneath it to catch the ash.
3. Say out loud, say a variation of a cleansing incantation. It could be something like either of the following: “With this sage, I cleanse this space and my tools of any negative energy so that they may be used for the highest good and purpose,” or, “Air, fire, water, earth. Cleanse, dismiss, dispell.” Regardless of the spell you choose, make sure to focus on and visualize the idea of your space being cleared of negative energy, and being open to the positive.
4. Gently blow the smoke from the sage over your altar and tools continuing to visualize the smoke cleansing the space of negative energy.
5. Once you’ve cleansed your entire space and all of your tools, you can either allow the sage to burn out on its own on your altar in a fire-safe bowl or container, or you can smother it out or extinguish it in salt.
Now that you’ve cleansed your space the last thing you’ll need to do to finish setting up your altar is say a blessing and consecrate the space. This can be done by simply saying a short blessing like, “I consecrate this space in the name of [insert deity/ancestor/spirit/god here]. May it be a space of spiritual growth. Blessed be.” Or if you’d rather, you can meditate and set your intention silently, visualizing the good work you’ll do there.
Now go forth and practice with your altars, witches! Blessed be!
A Wiccan altar is a "raised structure or place used for worship or prayer", upon which a Wiccan practitioner places several symbolic and functional items for the purpose of worshiping the God and Goddess, casting spells, and/or saying chants and prayers.
Types of altars
There are many types of altars Wiccans may choose to use during ritual. Depending on which rite they are performing, the material used for their altars may vary. Some say wood from an oak tree is best while others argue maple or teak are the only ones should be used. This is because in many circles, different types of wood are believed to carry certain magical qualities. For example, in one Wiccan tradition, oak symbolizes great strength and may be used to strengthen the rite they are performing. In another tradition, maple may be seen as the strongest. Whether that be a coffee table or a tree stump, it is up to the Wicca.
The altar is often considered a personal place where practitioners put their ritual items. Some practitioners may keep various religious items upon the altar, or they may use the altar and the items during their religious workings. According to Scott Cunningham, a popular Wiccan author, the left side of the altar should be considered the Goddess area; feminine or yonic symbols such as bowls and chalices, as well as Goddess representations and statues should be placed on the left.  The right side is designated for the God; phallic symbols such as the athame and the wand are placed to the right side, as well as God statuary and his candle. The left and right associations vary according to personal preference, but the center area is almost always considered the "both" area, or the working area. In the center of the altar are kept the main symbols of the Wiccan faith, such as the pentacle.
Some Wiccans arrange their altars to represent all four elements and directions. In the North the earth element is represented; in the east is air, in the south is fire, and in the west water. These elements can be represented in various ways, but generally do not vary in elemental and directional correspondences. When placing items on an altar or when "calling on the elements" (a practice involving inviting the elements to be a part of the circle and lend their power) a practitioner will move deosil (clockwise or sunwise) and when dismissing the elements they will move widdershins (counter-clockwise).
Common items on a Wiccan altar include:
Some of the items represent the Earth's four elements, but elements may be represented more literally, with gems, salt, water, plant material, insect casings, etc.
Location of altar
It wasn't until 1951 that the last laws against Witchcraft in England were repealed. The witchcraft law repealed in 1951 made it illegal to claim to be a witch or a medium. The last person to be imprisoned under this law was Helen Duncan, a spiritualist medium. The death penalty for witchcraft in England was repealed in 1735. Today, Wiccans are able to practice more openly and share their beliefs across multiple platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Being a religion that reveres nature, it seems most appropriate to practice in nature. Wiccan altars may be set up outside as well as indoors. Some Wiccans dedicate an entire room to their practice while others (especially those who share a living space) use a temporary altar. A temporary altar can be any flat surface that can be moved easily such as a coffee table. More permanent altars are left up for the Wiccan to return to for their rites and rituals.
There are eight Wiccan holidays, known as Sabbats, that celebrate the cycles and seasons of nature. These include the four seasons (Winter, Spring, Autumn & Summer), the mating habits animals and the reaping and sowing of crops. Based on the Sabbat, the altar is decorated accordingly. For example, the Summer Solstice altar cloth should be white and the altar decorated with Summer flowers, fruits and anything else that symbolizes Summer. This goes for each Sabbat. Certain Wiccan traditions may have different colors but universally, the altar is usually decorated to represent the time of year.
- ^ abcBuckland, Raymond. (2002). Buckland's complete book of witchcraft. Llewellyn Publications. ISBN . OCLC 698079111.
- ^Cunningham 2002, p. 108-109
- ^Cunningham 2002, p. 108-109
- ^Cunningham 2002, p. 109
- ^Crowley 2003, p.45
- ^Cunningham 2002, p. 109
- Crowley, V. (2003). Wicca: A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World. Harrisonburg, USA: R.R. Donelley's.
- Altar. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2013, from Merriam-Webster.com: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/altar
- Cunningham, S. (2002). Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
- Buckland, Raymond. (2002). Buckland's complete book of witchcraft. Llewellyn Publications.
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