At some point in your practice, you’re going to feel called to set up an altar. If you’re wondering how to start, you’re not alone. A lot of beginning witches and pagans wonder what they’re supposed to do, or feel like they’re doing it wrong. When I wanted to set up my first altar, I definitely had some doubts.
So I decided to get practical. What did I want this altar FOR? What was its function? At the time, I was looking for a quiet space where I could focus during meditation. Where was I most likely to meditate? My office. OK. I needed to find space in my office that would be (relatively) undisturbed by cats. I wanted to be able to light a candle, so I needed a flat surface, and I wanted to somehow incorporate representations of all the elements. The candle covered Fire, so that left Earth, Air and Water.
That was my starting point.
I found an old wooden cutting board that I bought myself during an important transition in my life… it felt like a decent choice. I used a vintage glass someone had given me to hold water, found a wee feather outside when I went for a walk to use as my air component, and picked a few crystals to use as the earth element. I used one of my grandmother’s vintage handkerchiefs as an altar cloth and added a pretty candle holder that was a gift from a close friend. I was choosing items that reminded me of people I loved and admired and periods in my life when I had embarked on new beginnings. That seemed like a good fit.
Now I have multiple altars in various parts of the house, all for different purposes. Each one has its own vibe. Some stay set up for ages with relatively little change, like my Kwan Yin/Magnified Healing altar, others are in a constant state of flux, like my working altar on the screen porch. And that’s fine.
When you’re setting up an altar, you don’t have to go nuts. If a more elaborate altar makes you feel more magickal, that’s great… but it’s not a requirement. Remember, some of the first altars were little more than a piece of fruit set on top of a rock or or a shell placed at the base of a tree… and those got the job done just fine.
Here are a few questions to guide your altar development:
What’s the purpose? How do you plan to use this altar?
Purpose dictates how much space you’ll need, where your altar should be located, and what types of items you may want to include. If you’re creating a meditation altar, you may need less space that you would for an altar where you plan to work magick or conduct rituals. An altar celebrating your connection to a special deity or guide might work best on a shelf or in a quiet corner, while a meditation altar needs to be somewhere you can comfortably sit or lie down. For a working altar where you plan to charge items in sunlight or moonlight, you’ll need direct light and space to spread out your cards, crystals, or other items you want to charge.
Does the altar need to be secret?
Sometimes, your altar needs to stay in stealth mode. Maybe you’re trying to reduce conflict at the office, where you’re still in the broom closet. Maybe you’re hosting a family party and your super-conservative aunt said she’s planning to attend. Maybe you just don’t want to deal with 27,483 questions about your spiritual practices. Whatever the reason, sometimes subtlety rules. No giant sculpture of the Great Horned God: for your work altar, maybe you choose a printout of an inspirational quote, a small piece of sodalite to promote harmonious group communication, and a little bee charm or photo as a reminder of the power of effective teams. Simple, but a focused reflection of your intention… that doesn’t scream “I’M A WITCH! LOOKIT MEEEEEE!”
What items align with your intentions/the altar’s purpose?
Now that you know where your altar is going, what it’s for, and whether or not you want people to recognize its function, think about what you want to incorporate. Some people love altar cloths, others prefer not to cover the top of the altar. Choose whatever feels right for you and supports your work. Here are some ideas.
For a deity altar:
- a photo, drawing, or statue of the god/goddess
- crystals, flowers or foods associated with that deity
- a written petition
- incense, candles, or other offerings
For a meditation altar:
- a framed image of a mandala, mantra, affirmation, or inspirational photo
- mala beads, palm stones, or other physical tools that support your prayer or meditation practice
- incense, palo santo, or burnable herbs for cleansing the space
- a singing bowl, bell, or chimes
- a journal or notebook to record your post-meditation reflections
For a working altar:
- tools: cauldron, cutting or carving implements, matches, items you’ll need for the spell or ritual you’re doing
- protective components or charms: salt, pentacle, crystals, amulets
- representation of the different elements (if that’s part of your practice)
- tarot or oracle cards that represent your goal/desired outcome
Bring your things together, cleanse your space, set your intention, organize your items, and then dedicate the altar as sacred space with a simple chant or incantation. I tend to say something along the lines of “Rulers of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water–bless this altar for your daughter. Make it sacred, keep it safe, so we may work our magick in this space.”
Keep in mind that you can move or change what’s on your altar as you’re called to do so. Your practice will change and evolve… it’s totally cool to have your altar(s) reflect that. As you work different types of magick, you’ll build a range of altars to support that work. It’s OK to start small: think a pine cone, salt lamp, and a few other special items a bedside table. No need for a huge table covered in expensive statues, giant crystals and carvings, tons of feathers, bones, candles, and All The Things. Does looking at your altar make you feel charged up and magickal? That’s all that matters.
For more guidance on altars, check out this post by my friend Jess Carlson.