If a religious altar is a doorway for the gods and spirits to come to our world, a magical altar is a doorway for us to enter theirs. Every altar is a physical expression of the spiritual and sacred worlds. That’s what makes it different from a table. And as much as it’s for storage, it also works as a door between worlds.
A magical altar is a personal altar for magical workings and the like. Many pagan homes have religious shrines that are more-or-less open to the public. It could be a shrine to the genius loci. It could be be a family shrine with pictures of deceased family members. It might just be a small but meaningful collection of religiously significant items.
A magical altar is something different. It’s a personal altar used for magical work, and it fulfills several roles. On one level, it’s simply a workbench. Just like a traditional workbench, it’s both where you store your tools and where you do your work. But it’s not simply a work surface, because if it were then you could just as easily use the kitchen table.
The magical altar is more than a simple surface to craft on. For one thing, the work is different. Instead of making handy-dandy repairs and whipping up DIY projects, you’ll be doing your Great Work. Rather than making a birdhouse, you’ll be building your connection to the spirit world. By seeking out guides, mentors, and patrons, you’ll be training yourself for the perilous crossing of the abyss.
Your altar can also be a fortress. There will be times in your spiritual journey when you’re going to get trashed. Life will deal out blows that you can’t imagine withstanding. And even though you fall, you’ll have to get back up. A strong and well-built magic altar can provide some ballast for that.
When you have a place where you’ve stored a couple of decades of magical journals, the results of dozens of projects, and a ridiculous number of tools you’ve graduated from or replaced but don’t have the heart to discard, the altar will provide significant protection. While the journals alone might carry your thoughts and ideas, the altar itself holds much more.
ProTip: Every tool on your altar has its own history with you. The things on, and in, your altar are your magical history, written in objects that transcend the physical and the spiritual. Everything that resides there should have a purpose.
At some level, your altar is part of you. Have you ever noticed how some people get very sensitive about certain possessions and don’t want you to mess with them? Whether its books, a car, a comic-book collection, or something else, it’s almost like those things are an extension of the person. And magically speaking, that’s dead on.
For the magus, it’s the same thing, only with altars. You can’t go too far wrong by treating someone else’s altar as part of them – and a private part, at that. Generally, it’s best not to touch without permission. And for goodness sake, don’t leave things on it like it’s any other side-table, and don’t use the magic mirror to fix your hair!
But the same thing holds true with how you treat your own altar. It’s best to keep it clean and of neat appearance. Remember to dust it occasionally, and never let someone else do it unless there’s no other choice. Part of the altar’s role is to separate the sacred and the spiritual from the everyday. And part of your role must be to care for that relationship personally, even its outer trappings.
I’ve used three different approaches to my personal magical altar. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages. The first option is the bookcase, the second is the trunk, and the third is the sideboard.Since I’m a big fan of books, I’m also a big fan of the altar-bookcase. If you have just a few magical tools but a lot of research material, this is the perfect choice. For the space-conscious magician, the small footprint is a real bonus.
For a decent price, you can probably find a half-bookcase between three and three-and-a-half feet tall, two feet across, and less than a foot deep. I know Target used to sell one made from particle board for about twenty dollars. While it’s not pretty, it’s also not a hefty investment.
On the downside, the bookcase option offers somewhat less than two feet of workspace, isn’t exactly cat-proof-able, and invites people to pick through your books and leave their sunglasses on your altar top.
ProTip: If you’re trading up for a better altar, you might want to perform a spell to move any magical history, spiritual awakening, or other esoteric aspects from your old altar to the new one. Once you’ve done that, a ritual cleaning of the old one would be polite before you leave it curbside or move it to the living room for its new life as a coffee table.
A flat-top trunk is a great choice for an altar. One of its best features is that it’s lockable. If you live with people who are likely to go through your things, then I recommend going for this option. Half of getting along is avoiding awkward conversations. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a lock is worth a million.
There are two disadvantages to using a trunk for an altar. The first is accessibility. Every time you want to get something from inside the trunk, you’ll end up spending ten minutes moving everything that’s on top, finding what you need, and then putting it all back just the way you want it. The second is limited space. A trunk might seem like it has a lot of space, but they usually aren’t that big.
ProTip: It’s hard to Marie Kondo your magical space. These are not your socks; your tools are parts of your magical experience and each one is connected to you. Each item is a link to your memories and a connection to a deeper world. Putting things away can be a tricky balancing act of intuition, more akin to conflict mediation than putting away the dishes in the kitchen.
If you have the space, my favorite option is the sideboard altar. With plenty of room to lay out your tools on top, they also have practical storage. Mine has both shelves and drawers. Some sideboards come with locks as well. If you’re willing to shell out the money, there are some wonderful options available.
Unfortunately, sideboards are relatively expensive and immobile. Speaking from experience, if you live somewhere where space is at a premium, it’s an intense sacrifice to make.
ProTip: When setting up my altar, I almost always end up using the wall space as well. The first thing I ever bought for my altar was a Glen Loates lithograph. I also have a framed copy of my personal synthesis of the Emerald Tablet and a spirit mirror on the wall.
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
The secret ingredient of any altar is that it keeps your practice in mind rather than hiding it away. That can mean a few different things. One thing to keep track of is the direction that the altar faces. Remember, it’s not just a storage space – it’s also a doorway to other worlds. In some traditions, direction is key.
Generally, it’s a bad idea to put your altar in a well-used hallway or similar space. A nook, whether built-in or created by a screen, is a good place to keep your ritual space. Maybe it sounds silly, but people crossing in front of it and ignoring it all the time might be considered rude.
However you choose to set up your altar, try to make it part of your daily practice. Spending a few minutes each day performing a simple act of magic before your magical altar can keep you connected to that side of yourself. It’s worth the effort and builds momentum over time.