Last month, I wrote about tools for magick and referred to them as props in a play. In a similar way, an altar is the stage. On the surface, an altar may appear to be nothing more than a place to leave your tools and photos of them may look to you like something from an antique shop. As with tools, there are reasons to have an altar as well as a system behind their use and arrangement.
The basic reason for an altar is to have a location to place your tools in a functional way. Secondly, it also serves as a place of focus, a trigger for the emotional state for ritual, a way to honor deities and ancestors as well as an expression of both your individuality and magickal path. Over time, with repeated use, it will become a place of power; the physical focus of your magick and ritual.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the size, shape or placement of an altar. It does need to be large enough to accommodate tools and other items you would normally use such as representations of deity, candles and possibly your book of shadows without being cluttered. I would recommend at least 30 inches across. An inexpensive solution is the three legged assemble it yourself accent table. I have used surfaces that were round, oval and rectangular. Some magickal practitioners advocate facing an altar to the east to face the rising sun or moon or the north because they begin casting a circle in that direction, but unless you have a reason to do otherwise, placing it in the middle of the space available leaves enough room to easily walk around it to cast and take down the circle.
While it is beneficial to have an altar that can be left set up on a permanent basis, this may not be possible due to space limitations as well as privacy. It’s wonderful to have a room dedicated to your craft, with a spacious permanent altar, boxes of supplies and books within easy reach, but for most of us, that is not feasible. Those with small homes or large families usually find it more practical to set up an altar only when needed. If you are in the broom closet with those with whom you live or have someone in your household, especially parents, who forbid you to have a permanent altar, it is necessary to take it down as soon as you are done with it. However, it may be possible to leave a partial altar on a dresser or shelf in the form of candles, incense, crystals, shells, feathers and figurines that would not attract attention such as a dragon, fairy or Kwan Yin. A storage tote or foot locker can serve dual purpose as a storage place for your tools and supplies as well as an altar. Another solution would be to use an outdoor location such as a stump or large flat rock, which gives the added benefit of proximity to nature, but the inability to leave it as a permanent set up, with the exception of garden statuary or a wind chime, even if space or privacy are not issues.
For eleven years, I practiced Wicca with a wife who at first did not know of my beliefs, then frowned upon them when I came out to her. I kept my tools and altar cloth in a bag, setting up on an outside glass table when weather permitted and on the kitchen table when it did not, always in secret. Once this marriage fell apart, I continued to use the same locations, even though secrecy was no longer an issue, especially when I fell in love with a woman, now my wife, who shares my beliefs. After I moved into my current home, I was able to have a permanent altar on the top of a no longer used entertainment center in the basement. Last year, I was over a thousand miles away vacationing at the home of a relative when he had a crisis needing magickal help in the form of protection and banishing a bad spirit. I was able to help using supplies at hand and a makeshift altar on a card table that consisted of two white candles, one black candle, a clear quartz crystal and a depiction of the Morrighan as well as a poem to Her. Sometimes necessity requires “making do” under the circumstances, but I believe that it helped to be able to connect magickally to my altar back home.
Once you have decided upon your altar, you should cleanse and consecrate it before use. Information on this can easily be found online or in basic books. The first item to place upon it is a cloth to decorate it and protect the surface from candle wax and spills. Some Wiccans use a second cloth of a color or pattern which signifies the sabbat or type of magick being performed. There are two systems for placement of tools. One assigns some tools to the God to be placed on the right, namely: athame, wand, incense, and boline, while those associated with the Goddess including: chalice, cauldron, pentacle and bell are set up on the left. 1 The other distributes tools and items among the five directions/elements so that the pentacle (altar tile) goes in the north (earth), incense and wand in the east (air), athame in the south (fire), chalice in the west (water) and deity representation in the center (spirit). 2 Although a besom is associated with air, all but the smallest are more practical leaned against the altar. Any physical representations of the elements such as salt, rock, feather or shell would then be located in the corresponding section. Some Wiccans place candles only in the south to represent fire, while some put them in the middle for central illumination or to honor the Lady and Lord with a silver and gold candle respectively, and others feel that an appropriately colored candle in each quarter honors the elements. Use your own judgment, but remember fire safety by always using candleholders, snuffing candles before leaving the area and making sure that nothing else touches the flame, including your sleeve.
Depending on your path, there may be other items on your altar such as a scorge (Gardernian) or hex sign (Braucherie). Traditionally, the book of shadows occupies a place at least during ritual, but if space is a concern, memorize what you are going to say or have brief notes. I’ve found that the less I look down at something written, the smoother the ritual flows and the more power in my words. Any items used during magick such a herbs, poppets, cords, photos, etc should be on the altar during ritual and can be left for a while afterwards if it does not have to be taken down. You may have a temporary second altar for a specific purpose such as remembering your ancestors at Samhain or showcasing fruits and vegetables of the harvest at Mabon. Avoid clutter as it makes it difficult to reach and use items, interferes with the flow of magick, as well as showing a lack of discipline and seriousness (OK, we don’t have to be serious all the time) regarding your practice. 3 Like your tools, your altar will change over time, but it should always be a place that speaks to you and helps to put you in the mindset for magick and ritual. You can find examples online and in books, but remember that it is your altar and as such is a reflection of your beliefs, practices and tastes. 4
1 The Wiccan Altar http://blessedbe.sugarbane.com/altar.htm
2 What Goes on a Wiccan Altar http://www.wicca-spirituality.com/wiccan_altar.html
3 How to Set Up Your Wiccan Altar for the First Time
4 Altar and Tools http://webspace.webring.com/people/nt/the_spiral_oak/altarandtools.html