In this post, you will learn what an altar is, why it is used and how to set up your altar for practical use.
When new Wiccans begin the journey of this religion, there are usually questions about the altar that are difficult to answer. Here I want to cover what an altar is in Wicca and what it is used for. It is also important to understand how to set up your altar. There are many descriptions in various books that try to describe how an altar can be set up.
When I first began in Wicca, the whole concept of an altar was foreign to me. I wasn’t sure of how it was even used. I didn’t truly understand the purpose of the tools used in Wicca and I didn’t get the reason they were used in Magick. I am going to go over how the tools are used on the altar and when they should be placed on the altar.
I will continue here within three separate topics because I feel it is important to understand each part. I grew up Christian. Fundamental Baptist to be exact. There isn’t much talk of altars and things like incense were frowned on. There was an altar in one church that I went to that had a saying carved on it although I don’t remember what it said. There was not much of a big deal about that altar and usually, it just had some fresh flowers sitting on it like an ordinary table. No one prayed before it and the Preacher didn’t do anything with it or light candles on it. It was never mentioned or recognized during the church service.
In the few Catholic services I have been in, there have been lots of candles and incense, wine, and crackers. The smell of the charcoal they would burn the incense with was unfamiliar with me and the experience left me reeling with questions. Although I was not Catholic, I have to say out of all the Christian services I have experienced, Catholicism is the closest experience that is very ritualistic much like Wicca.
There is a real reason to have an altar for rituals and even magick and no it doesn’t have to be something super expensive or fantastic. There are some ideas on how to set up such an altar for Wicca until you become more familiar with the practices and can decide where you want stuff and what you should use. Knowing the tools is the most important part of setting up your altar.
With that said, Let’s move on to the first Topic. What is an Altar?
What is an Altar?
If you are like me and have not had much experience with altars, this is a good question to ask. In general terms, an altar is a table or block where work is done. These things are things like Consecrations, Blessings, giving offerings to Deity and in some cultures mostly ancient cultures Sacrifices are made.
In Wicca, there are sacrifices that are done but not blood sacrifices. These sacrifices are usually in the area of giving something up. I just wanted to be clear on this before any innocent animals die unnecessarily or rumors get started that Wiccans Sacrifice animals.
Altars are usually a table that has been set up to be used for ritual. I have a travel altar that I keep in a small box. It is a one-time use of supplies and only has a few basic needs in it. It is considered the heart of the ritual. It is like any of the tools used. It is a sacred place where the consecrated tools set to be used for the purpose of ritual and magick.
It is a place to be respected and that means that it is not a place for your water bottle to set. It is only for what is going to be used in the ritual for the purpose of ritual. It is considered to be a sacred spot in sacred space. Anything that you can sit stuff on can be an altar. Some ideas for altars that I have used and seen are T.V. Trays, Night Stand, coffee table, easily assembled wood plank on bricks, Television stand, foldable card table. picnic table, stone block shaped like a table and even shelves on a bookcase or entertainment center.
It can be elevated off the floor or ground to designate the particular altar. It can be round, oval, square or rectangle. It can be small or large depending you what you have available and what you are putting on it.
Just keep in mind that there are two types of altars. One that works as a shrine and one that is set up and broken down as needed. Some people keep their altars up all the time and others only set their altar up when a working is intended. It depends on your life.
Some people feel that altars should be kept hidden to keep people from touching their stuff and some people feel that it is out of respect for their deity to keep one open and on display.
Why Use an Altar?
I’m sure by now you may have figured out why we use altars in Wicca. It is a very simple reason why we do that. I don’t think I really need to go into very much detail here but I want to answer this question anyway.
The whole reason to use an altar is that when we are in sacred space we need a place to work with our sacred tools. In Wicca, we honor and commune with Deity. Because the whole sense of purpose and honor adds to our power because everything in our craft is sacred and has its own meaning we can move through our minds with our emotions and Psychological connections to that which is in our sacred space. As human beings, we need to psychologically connect to everything we work with including the table we are working at.
Because of how magick works through our mind, our thoughts, our feelings, our imaginations, and willpower, it is important to create that sacred altar where we honor ourselves, our Deity, and our magick. It not only serves the purpose of a working space but it helps to prepare us for the work we are about to do. Because of how Ambience works with our very human psyche, having an altar actually helps to boost our personal power.
Here is one concept on how we use an altar. As you can see, there are several things in front of me. There is a purpose for all of them and each tool or object is placed nearby for the purpose of the working.
Setting up my altar helps me to get into the mindset of ritual as well as help me to focus on the work at hand. The dim light, the smell of sage and incense and even the sound of light drumming and rattles help set the mood. The altar is where we work.
It serves two purposes.
Helps to set the mood and prepares us for ritual
serves as our workstation for ritual and magick
How to set up an altar
There are so many different ways that people set up their altar and there really isn’t a wrong way of doing it. How you set up your Altar depends on what you have such space, how many people attending, what you are going to do and your particular traditional requirements.
In many traditions of Wicca, an altar is generally set up in the East or the North but can be set up in the center of the circle. It really depends on what is going to be happening. Some Covens have disabled or older folks who can’t dance or move around a lot and some are simply constricted when it comes to space. Some Wiccans prefer the altar in the center because the cone of power moves through the center of the circle and it also gives each member a unique perspective.
Altars generally have burning candles and incense along with water and some sort of wine or juice and can be a hazard if it gets knocked over. Safety is the number one concern when setting up an altar with incense and candles and no one wants their carpet stained with wine or juice. Sometimes, accidents happen. Be prepared by having a fire extinguisher close by. We have 3 strategically placed fire extinguishers that are ready for use at any given time in our home.
An altar cloth is placed over the surface of the altar. This helps transform the table or whatever you are using into something sacred to the mind. It signifies to our psyche that this surface is now going to be used for something sacred and separates the surface from the tools and prepares the space for the consecrated tools. Your altar can be as simple or as elaborate as you want it to be. Obviously, the larger the surface, the more objects you can place on it. For Sabbats, the altar may be decorated with flowers and fruit or other objects with the theme of that particular Sabbat.
In General, a few of the basic tools and items that are commonly used in ritual is an Athame, Candles, matches, incense and holder, chalice, water and salt, a bell, a wand, and often a pentacle tile.
Items are generally placed according to the element they represent. God and Goddess candles usually go in the center because the God and the Goddess are the centers of it all. Goddess candle on the left the God candle on the right. The Salt and water can go on the north and northwest side of the candles. The Pentacle tile is often used as a working spot on the altar and is usually placed in front of you. The Athame and wand are placed on the south side of the altar while the chalice is placed on the west side. The incense is generally placed in the east section of the altar. Everything that is not decoration but a working tool that you are going to use during the ritual should be placed where it can be easily accessed.
The basic idea that isn’t written in stone is that each item is placed in its elemental corresponding section.
North = Earth
East = Air
South = Fire
West = Water
When consecrating items such as salt, water, incense, wine, and cakes, bring each item one at a time onto the pentacle tile. The reason for this will be explained in the lesson about Rituals. That is the reason that the pentacle tile is kept in the west or the south because you want to face the north or east when performing the ritual.
There are a few things to keep in mind. You want your altar to be stable so candles don’t get knocked over easily and wine doesn’t spill with a slight bump. Candle wax ruins altar cloths and it should be properly contained. I use a plate to collect wax drippings when using tapers. Altar cloths should be fire resistant or not highly flammable. Acrylic yarn is not recommended for altar cloths. Incense and sage drop hot embers and caution should be used because it can damage furniture and carpets as well as it being a fire hazard. Never leave incense or candles unattended while burning.
Don’t use lighter fluid or other highly combustible substances and when using incense open a window because the smoke is not good for you. Proper ventilation is necessary. At all times, think safety. Accidents happen and people get injured and sometimes seriously.
What you put on your altar is up to you. Some people want their altars to look beautiful and some just want them functional. It is a luxury to have both.
Building your altar is the first step to setting up for a ritual.
I hope this answers some common questions. Take care and live well.