There are certain topics that tend to come up again and again – one of them is altars. Thinking about this due to the confluence of teaching our Seeker class focused on daily practice, and some online commentary, I thought it was a good time for a post.
Here’s my personal method for designing personal altars (take them as you will.)
1) Figure out what you want it for. Form follows function.
Do you want to do a daily devotional action like lighting a candle, or drinking a small amount of water that you’ve charged for a goal? Have the right items somewhere easy to get to, whether that’s a candle and a lighter, or a cup and carafe. Do you want to keep flowers on it? Is there room for a vase? Are you honoring a specific deity? What images or items evoke them for you? These may be copies of statuary – but they can also be very simple, commonplace items, or inexpensive objects.
2) Do you have any specific limitations?
Some people get concerned about space. I live in a 400 square foot house (think studio apartment sized) and I still have plenty of room not only for an altar, but to host a small group ritual. (Ok, to do that one, I need to have entirely portable seating in my front room. But it’s possible!)
My primary altar (see the photo above) is a 2 shelf bookcase, about a foot wide and 2.5 feet long. It’s not very big, but it’s big enough, especially if I keep non-daily use tools on the shelves below. Herbs, incense, and other items live elsewhere in my home (where I have more storage space): I take out what I need before ritual work. It’s forced me to think carefully about my tools. I also have smaller shrines and devotional centers in other parts of my home: a carved stone animal here, a pair of charged candles there, a candle for my hearth on the kitchen counter, jewelry or images hung as decoration in various places.
Some people hang shelves (use that vertical space!) or use the front part of bookshelves to get more usable space.
There are many other kinds of limitations – pets, people in or visiting the home that may not approve, small children, allergies. These all will get coverage in later posts.
3) What items do you have?
Some people say that they can’t afford an altar. While there are a few tools that it’s hard to get cheaply (Chances are good you’re not going to get a handforged steel blade or a wand with lots of decorative stones or artwork for $5), there are lots of inexpensive alternatives. Except for my athame, no individual working item on my altar cost me more than $20 – and many were far less than that. I bought some, traded friends for some, and got some as gifts.
You can pick up inexpensive wood, ceramic, and glass pieces at rummage sales, thrift stores, or stores like Cost Plus World Market, Ikea, or Pier One. You can get small carved stones (great for work with specific animals or elements) or decorative glass shapes at many places. Simple tumbled rocks are available both from esoteric stores but also from science museums and natural history stores. Let your friends know that you would really love a particular type of item (ceramic bowls).
A few tools do need some special attention. If you’re planning on burning incense, avoid burns! If you start with stick or cone incense, you can get a holder or simple dish inexpensively. Loose incense will need an appropriate censer (so it doesn’t burn your altar surface), sand, charcoal, and tongs. If you want to burn small items (wishes, things to get rid of), you want a cauldron (or get an old pot and a stand that you can dedicate to that use) for the same reasons.
In general, though, you can make do with a great deal. Wands can be made from local branches – even some simple decorations don’t cost more than a little wire, glue, and stones or beads. A pentacle can be painted or carved into wood that you then finish appropriately. Craft and hobby stores have a wide range of interesting boxes, containers, and other items you can decorate to create storage or devotional spaces.
Also, remember, you don’t need to get it all at once. What one or two things are most important to you right now? Focus on those. Then make a list of the next things you would like. That way, you can keep your eye out for them, ask for them as gifts, or consider learning how to make them (depending on the item.)
4) Do you want to make seasonal changes?
Not everyone does. My personal altar has been used for personal devotions: I don’t change it season to season. As I move into leading my own group, I am beginning to think of more significant seasonal decorations, but I’m still deciding what I want to do. (I do know I want to keep it simple and easy, with minimal storage and cost needed).
Seasonal decorations can be as simple as a yard of an appropriate fabric print for each Sabbat, You might use some seasonal foliage (evergreens in winter, flowers in summer, pussywillows in spring, dried leaves in fall.) You might add a single item that relates to that Sabbat: a blown out and decorated egg, dried corn or a bowl of grains for Lammas, a green man face for Beltane (you can make some great masks with a cheap mask base and a few sheets of different colored green felt.)
You don’t need to do this all at once either: maybe you spend a year with one single simple item, and then begin to collect fabric or more elaborate items.
- Dealing with specific issues (like disapproving family, or the presence of small children and pets.)
- Allergies and your altar
- Travel altars.