Four Considerations for Building Your Altar
Many traditions and practices incorporate the use of altars. For some, they serve as simple shrines, focal points, for worship in the home. For others, an altar is a space in which ritual and magickal workings occur. Incorporating an altar into your home can be super easy and a fun way to bring your spiritual and magickal life into the everyday.
Purpose: Your Why
Before going too far in, take a moment to think about why you want or need to create an altar for your practice. Did a book on witchcraft tell you that you should? Did you see someone’s cool Instagram picture of their personal altar and thought it would be fun to create? Or do you feel drawn to having a specific space dedicated to your personal spiritual and/or magickal practice?
Whatever your reasoning, it is enough. You may not even feel inclined to have an altar at all and that is fine too. However, where else are you going to put those amazing crystals or that neat new tarot deck?
At its most practical, your altar can serve as a storage place for your magickal tools and resources. You may use a portion of a bookshelf to not only hold your magickal and spiritual books, but also your crystals and any other tools you have.
In its more elevated status, it can be a full table dedicated and decorated to the turning of the Wheel of the Year, your deities, and serving as your workspace for your magickal workings and rituals. You may even have multiple altars and shrines in your space for various sorts of purposes.
Be sure to consider your tradition in your altar creation. Research what your tradition recommends for what to include, exclude, and how to arrange an altar and try your best to create your altars in such a way.
However, there is no right or wrong way to set up your altar or altars. Do what works for you and your practice.
Placement: Picking a Location
After you have thought about your tradition and your personal reasons for setting up an altar, you will want to think about how much space you want to take up, where it will go, any pets or children, and other people in the home.
Consider Space Available
How much room do you have to set up and dedicate to being an altar? Is it just a small corner of your desk? Or do have a whole bookshelf that can serve as storage and shrines and working altar spaces? Or maybe you have an extra room in your home to dedicate to all your magickal work?
Look at how much space and rearrange accordingly. Over time you may be able to dedicate more space to your altar(s).
Once you know how much space you have available and are going to need, you can think about where you are placing it. A larger altar set up will require more space and rearranging rooms, but a smaller space or single bookshelf altar can be easily incorporated without much room rearrangements.
Some people will find it helpful to have their altars near sunlight. For crystal grids, it is considered beneficial to set up your grid where a plant would thrive. This principle is also a good one to apply to setting up your altars. Having good air circulation, fresh air, and natural lighting can be ideal. But consider your crystals in this as some can fade in direct sunlight (amethyst, rose quartz, citrine, etc.).
For others, it may be necessary to tuck away an altar in the closet or in a corner of the room that doesn't get much light. The space available might determine this or any of the following considerations.
Consider Pets and Children
Wherever you place you altar, be sure to think about any pets or children in the home. Are they going to take things off of it? Are they going to jump on it and knock things off? Are there things on your altar that may be toxic to pets and animals?
If yes to any of those questions, you will want to set the altar somewhere out of reach.
Consider Other People
Think about other people who live in the space with you or who visit regularly. Some people's attitudes and energy can affect the energy of your altar, so think about this before setting your altar out in the open.
An altar in a high traffic space of your home can accumulate a lot of outside energies as well. In these cases, be sure to cleanse your altar on a regular basis.
Image of a decorated altar space
Decoration: Tools and Equipment
Once you find a location for your altar, you will want to think about decorating it. For many people, altar spaces can double as not just a place to work magick or serve as a shrine, but also as storage for some key tools and equipment in their practice.
Keep in mind, you do not need to include all of the following things. When starting out, start small and over time you can add more.
One of the first things I like to include on my altar is a cloth. You can use scarves like pashminas or table runners or ones specifically made and designed for altar cloths with sacred symbols on them.
Practically, altar cloths serve to protect the surface beneath from wax or scoffing. Magickally or spiritually, they shift the space into a new vibration level by bringing it out of the mundane. Aesthetically, they look really cool.
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Candles and Incense
One of the simplest tools to include on an altar to elevate it from mundane to magickal is the candle. Whether it is one or twenty, candles serve as an excellent way to focus when using your altar and also making it more than just a tabletop supply holder. A simple white candle is perfect, but you can use any color that serves your intent.
Incense or essential oil burners can also do the same. Choose scents that you like and serve the purpose you are looking for.
If you are sensitive to certain smells, either get unscented candles and avoid incense and oils or pick your scents carefully to avoid issues. Also be sure to get appropriate holders for both candles and incense. Nothing sucks more than incense ash or candle wax getting all over your altar cloth.
Do not leave burning candles, incense, and herbs unattended. You never know when an errant pet or wind might knock a candle over or a cloth into the flame or a spark from a charcoal to fly and catch something on fire.
Statuary and Imagery
If you worship specific deities or spiritual teachers, you may want to consider including statues or imagery on your altar. Select these based on your practice and tradition. If you are artistic, you can always create your own artwork and have it framed on your altar.
You can even include affirmations and quotes, pictures of your ancestors and loved ones, pictures of your coven if you are a part of one, natural elements like pine cones, or even a weekly or daily tarot card to focus yourself at your altar.
Crystals and Divinatory Tools
A common element to an altar space is including crystals or tarot cards. You can include all your crystals or just specific ones on your altar. You may have them laid out as a crystal grid or just a collection.
You can lay out your tarot or oracle cards on your altar too. Maybe it is a single card or a three-card spread. Or maybe you just keep your decks there to charge when not in use.
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Depending on your tradition, you may have a selection of ritual tools that you want to be sure are included on your altar. You may have your athame and chalice there. You may have your wand placed there. You may have a cauldron or other such vessels for incense. Certain traditions require these items to be placed in certain spots on the altar.
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For some altars, including offerings to the spirits and gods is key. You will want to be sure to have simple dishes that will hold the appropriate offerings there. A little bowl or small cup for liquid and small plates for food offerings are perfect.
Pick offerings appropriate for your tradition, spirits, or gods. Dispose of them when they are old and in a way recommended in your tradition.
Tending: Taking Care of Your Altar
Once you have found a place for your altar and decorated it, you will want to be sure to tend to it on a regular basis. First and foremost, this includes cleansing it initially and then dedicating it. Secondly, it means you will also want to cleanse on a regular basis afterwards and periodically update your altar space.
Photo by Brittany Colette on Unsplash
Choose a cleansing method that works for you for this step. If you prefer smoke cleansing, pick cleansing herbs or woods that work for you. Sage, rosemary, cedar, palo santo, or resins like frankincense and myrrh are all appropriate options. Light them and let the smoke waft over the area. You may want to cleanse individual items placed on the altar too.
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If you don’t like smoke cleansing, you can use a cleansing spray to spritz the whole area. If you have books or items that could be damaged from the liquid droplets, be careful with the spray. Some sprays mist well enough that it will not damage the item, but others can be a bit heavier.
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You will want to cleanse your altar periodically. Outside energies may invade your space that need cleansed. Other times, if you do a lot of magickal working in the space, you will want to cleanse to start with a clean slate for your next magickal working. This way you won’t have contradictory spellwork energies clashing.
Choose when you will want to cleanse regularly. It might be after every spell. It might be before a new spell or ritual. Or you may decide every full moon is the time.
Dedicating and Blessing
Once you initially cleanse your space, you will want to consider dedicating and blessing your altar. This can take the form of a full ritual to call in the powers of your tradition and fully blessing all items and aspects of the space to your practice. Or it can be as simple as calling in some gods and spirits and praying over the space, essentially announcing this is your altar.
The very practice of setting up an altar can announce that this is a sacred space, so don’t sweat too much when it comes to dedicating or blessing your altar. Again, whatever works for you in your practice is what you will want to do.
Another thing to consider when it comes to taking care of your altar is regularly updating and physically cleaning it. I consider this a bit separate from cleansing above, but it does have its overlap.
Take time to regularly dust and move items on your altar. If you have cobwebs and dust all over your nice statue of the Triple Goddess, it makes it seem a bit neglected. So physically dust your altar. Clean up incense ash. Dispose of old offerings or candle remnants.
Reorganize too. Maybe you are feeling a bit stagnant in your practice and the arrangement of your altar is just blocking the flow. Move things around. You will be surprised how moving things around periodically can drastically change your ability to focus and concentrate during ritual or meditation.
If you observe seasonal changes, consider updating your altar at those times of the year. This allows you to refresh you altar and shrines while also honoring and observing the holidays of your personal tradition or practice.
Make changes when it seems appropriate or if you get stuck.
Using Your Altar
Now, most important of all, is what to do with your altar once you have set it all up. They can serve as a workspace for your magick and spellcasting, a shrine dedicated to your gods and spirits, or a place to meditate and pray. The more frequently and regularly you use your altar, the more it becomes a part of your everyday practice.
One of the ways to use your altar is as a space to hold a ritual or to work magick and cast spells. Some will refer to these as working altars. These are spaces that serve as an area to set out any tools and supplies you need to cast a spell or perform a ritual.
You will generally collect all your supplies you will need and place them where appropriate on your altar. From there, as you perform your working, you will use the supplies as necessary. Afterwards, you clean up and return any supplies and tools to their original location.
Shrines and Offerings
Another way to use an altar is as a shrine and place to present your offerings, worship your deities and/or spirits, and honor other aspects of your tradition. Shrines will be a good place to visit daily to remind yourself of the presence of your gods.
As mentioned previously, leave offerings according to your tradition. Change them out as necessary.
Meditation, Prayer, and Divination
Whether you have separate shrines and altars, you can use these sacred spaces as a place of meditation and prayer. You may choose to meditate each morning before your altar by lighting candles and incense. Or you may say a quick prayer before it each evening. Your altar may be where you perform deep trance work and do journeying meditations. Or you might use your altar daily as a place of divination.
While this post served to discuss how to set up a formal altar and how to use it, there are other more subtle ways of creating altars. These we will talk about at a later date.
But for now, play around with creating an altar for yourself and your practice. No matter your spiritual practice or whether you are a magick practitioner, altar spaces help create an everyday sacred space for you in your home to help you focus your practice.
Include what works for you and your personal practice and leave out the things that don’t work for you.
Look at other’s altars for inspiration, but don’t compare yours either. Yours will and should be personal to you.
Don’t include everything but the kitchen sink just because you have it. Use storage for off-season items or items that don’t fit for the time being and rotate them in later.
Your altar should change and grow as you change and grow in your own practice. That change can always be downsizing and minimizing too in order to focus on elements that are more important.
Best of luck in setting up your altar or rearranging it! Share what your altar looks like with us on social media if you are comfortable sharing. We’d love to see what you have going on. <3