What is an altar? Well I think it can be anything you want it to be…
Let’s start with the traditional idea, that an altar is a flat surface often a small table or the top of a cabinet where you lay out all your ritual tools, offerings and image of deity. It is also a place that you can go to for meditation and connecting with the Divine, it provides a focus. It is also a practical place to put everything you need when in ritual so that you don’t have to run around looking for everything once you have cast a circle.
A ‘traditional’ (for want of a better word) altar for instance has some guidelines – what items to use and where to put them. Goddess items go on the left and God items on the right. Goddess items being a chalice and a cauldron, God items being a wand and an athame. Representations of the four elements are usual as well, salt or soil for Earth, incense for Air, a candle for Fire and a dish of water for Water. A pentacle is often placed in the centre of the altar and either statues or candles to represent the Lord and Lady.
Mix it up
But I like to mix it up a bit…to me an altar is an extremely personal thing, it not only represents who or what you follow, your faith, but also a reflection of you as a person.
I have several altars around the house and I also have one in the garden. If I use deity representations on them I do usually stick to the Goddess on the left, God on the right guideline but generally I go with my intuition.
I like to have altar cloths that I change with the seasons, using colours to reflect the feel of the energy for that period. I love to have fresh flowers on my altars, if possible ones taken from my own garden. And candles…always lots of candles! I sit in front of my altar to meditate so having lots of candles to light for me to focus my mind is important. But then I tend to add whatever I feel is right, it might be particular crystals, it might be an offering dish to leave bits and pieces in when I want to thank or petition the Divine. Mine has magpie wings and a skull along with some rusty nails and hag stones which often appear on my altars. There is also an altar dedicated to my matron Goddess, The Cailleach and a section for the god I am working with (currently Belanos). I like to use natural items to represent the elements, I have shells for Water, pebbles for Earth, feathers for Air and candles for Fire but I don’t have these on every altar.
Anywhere you like
An altar doesn’t have to be on a table or cabinet top, I do have both but I also have a tiny shelf in my kitchen with an altar on and I have seen altars in cupboards that can have the doors closed or on trays that can be hidden away if you don’t want them to be seen or are short of space. Mantle piece or window sills also work very well if you are short of space. They don’t have to be overly obvious either, if you are conscious of other people in your home or still ‘in the broom closet’ then an altar can just be a couple of pretty items sitting on a shelf, a vase of flowers and a crystal perhaps.
Altars can be used for a particular purpose, you could have a healing altar with specific herbs and crystals laid out, an altar to celebrate and honour a particular deity with items that represent them and a place for you to leave offerings. Altars can also be used to represent an element, you could even have four small altars, one at each direction in your home. And faerie or dragon altars can be great fun to create. One of my altars is what I call my ‘working altar’ it is where I leave any candle spells to burn out, or medicine bags and witches bottles to work their magic once I have created them. I also like to represent my totem/power animals on my altar, whether it is with photo of the animal or in the case of my life long totem, which is a wild boar I actually have a little figurine of one, I also have feathers from my bird totems as well.
Altars are an excellent place to leave offerings and petitions to deity. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just a dish that you pop your petition in (a wish or request written on a piece of paper folded up is just fine) or a crystal or two. But again go with your instinct, if your intuition tells you that the deity you are honouring or thanking would like a few chocolates then use them.
Outside altars are really easy to make, they only need be a large stone with some crystals on or a statue works well. Hang some wind chimes above it to make a beautiful sound. Large pebbles can be painted and varnished with element symbols on or pentacles and placed in a group. Sea shells are wonderful to add to a garden altar and little pots of herbs would be perfect.
Nature provides us with all sorts of wonderful items that work well on inside and outside altars. Fallen tree bark is beautiful, unusual twigs and sticks, pretty leaves, shells, pebbles, sea glass, acorns, and seeds can all be used.
Altars can be decorated with up cycled items such as old necklaces, pretty beads, mirrors and buttons. Altar cloths don’t need to be expensive either, I use chiffon and satin from the haberdashery and it’s only a couple of pounds per metre, I also use old scarves that I have found in charity/thrift stores for a few pence each.
Don’t forget about bones too, I know it freaks some people out but I have often found small animal bones when I have been out walking and have been gifted several from road kill. I certainly don’t advocate harming any animal just to get a bone for your altar…however they are available from animals that have passed away naturally or from accidents. The bones of an animal carry a huge amount of power within them, they are wonderful items to place on your altar.
There are some gorgeous statues of the Gods and Goddesses available in all price ranges and styles, but you can also have a go at making them. I have made fairly simple goddesses from Fimo modelling clay, but would also suggest searching the charity shops and second hand stalls for figurines that would suit your purpose. Again it can be quite simple, if you don’t want an actual statue you could use representations, a candle for each using colours that represent the male and female to you. A hag stone could be used for the Goddess and a twig for the God…be creative and use things that have meaning to you personally.
Keep it clean
Don’t forget to dust your altar regularly, it will keep the energy flowing. Unloved and unlooked after altars will block and stall your own energy. Every so often clear off everything from your altar and look careful at each item before deciding to put it back on the altar ask yourself has it served it’s purpose? Refreshing and revamping your altar gives your whole spirit a boost.
Whether you have a tiny shelf in a corner, a cupboard or seventeen grand altars around your home, it is a reflection of YOU, have fun with it, go with your instinct and make if YOURS.