An altar is any structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices or rituals are made for spirituality. Altars are usually found at shrines, and they can be located in temples, churches, homes and other places of worship. Today they are used particularly in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, as well as in Neopaganism and Ceremonial Magic. Many historical faiths also made use of them, including Greek and Norse religions.
Alters hold a central place in history of many cultures. When it is used, it is regarded as a place of contact with the deity, set apart as sacred. Some are small and simple, a shelf with a bowl and a stone. Some are large and elaborate, a whole room decorated in sacred images and a clay table etched with symbols and bronze or copper. Others yet have multiple alters, featured in homes, car, office, yard or other divine locations. It is a place to pray, ritual, celebrate, meditate, read and/or write with a sacred connection.
The first thing you need to decide is if you can have a permanent altar or if you will have to put it away each time. The first item of a permanent altar is the table. Some people prefer round tables as they are easier to get around in the midst of a ritual circle. Others like a square table that fits easily into a corner when not in circle. Some people use a large wooden chest or basket. They can store everything inside and then use the top of the chest as an altar when in use. Many think wood is the best medium for an altar since it's from the earth. Others create a space outside using a stone table, piled stones or a fountain for rituals and energy. Whatever you decide on it's a good practice to cleanse and consecrate it before use. Wiping it down with saltwater or smudging it with sage are quick ways to do this. Also exposure to the sun or moon will work equally well.
It’s important to remember that when we talk about altars, we’re not referring to the sort of heavy, ornately carved wood or stone structures you might see in churches. The big tables that sit at the end of the ‘business’ end of church, often draped with beautifully worked and complex tapestries or embroidered linens, weighed down by brass, silver or gold candelabras, bowls and other donated antiquities and artifacts. This is for your own temple with a home alter.
It’s not uncommon to meet someone who has more than one altar in their home. A popular theme is the ancestor altar, which includes photos, ashes or heirlooms from deceased family members. Some people enjoy having a nature altar, on which they place interesting items they find while out and about – a rock, a pretty seashell, a chunk of wood that looks appealing. If you have children, it’s not a bad idea to let them have their own altars in their rooms, which they can decorate and re-arrange to suit their own needs. Your altar is as personal as your spiritual path, so use it to hold the things you value.
Your home altar is really a place where you can place your ornaments and any pieces that represent your Gods and/or Goddesses. You might also have a candle or two there to honor the fire element, perhaps a shell you found when on the beach to represent water, some nice incense or a feather for air and maybe a bowl of salt for the earth element. Your altar can sit on an East or North facing wall depending on your preference, but it can be anywhere that feels right for you.
After cleansing the surface, scrub down the walls, ceiling and floor or pull the weeds. Make sure to pick up the clutter, and organize the room as best you can. The less clutter and mess, the easier it will be to control the energy that collects. Then take a broom, or use your arm to clear out the space and push any negative or dark energy away. You can hang meaningful posters, fabric, hang bird feeders and wind chimes or pictures. The decorating can be simple or elaborate, whatever evokes strong feelings inside of you.
Once you've selected a foundation for your shrine, you may want to choose an altar cloth to cover it. There are many beautiful altar cloths that you can purchase from supply stores. Some have symbols of the God and Goddess, others portray symbols. You may just want to use a plain color cloth that changes with the season or you can choose not to cover the shrine at all. This is strictly a matter of personal taste.
After this, you need to decide which tools best suit your needs and set up your altar with them and other things which help you in your personal devotions or rituals. Some divide the Altar in half with the Left side being related to the Goddess and feminine tools associated with the elements of Earth and Water. The Right side is related to the God and the masculine tools associated with the elements of Air and Fire. Oils, herbs and other candles can be placed anywhere convenient. You may also want to include your Book of Shadows, Runes or Ritual Pen for inscribing.
Another popular altar set up is based on the Elements and their associated tools and directions: North Earth with salt or stones; East Air with feathers or bell; South Fire with oil or candles; West Water with bowl of water or seashells; Book of Shadows or Runes in the Center. You might want to use a compass for this if you aren't sure which way is which.
Add other items as needed and as space allows: chalice, ritual knife, statues, plants, ax, bell, helm of awe, candle, small dish, offerings, pentacle, mead, crystals, wand, hammer, incense, bones, cooper, feathers, shells, cauldron, song books... Do what feels right!
You don't need tools, altars can be simple. Tools are useful. They help to focus our mind and our energy. They speak the language of symbols. Do not feel that you have to go out and buy all of these things at once. Improvise and make do with what you have. I have a friend with two rocks from his old home and a candle from his new home in the kitchen, this is his alter. Over time, you will be able to slowly buy or make your tools when you have the money or time. In addition, as your family and friends learn more about your religion and as you acquire more Pagan friends, your chances of receiving Pagan items as holiday or birthday gifts will increase.
Whether we do intentionally or not, each or us creates an environment in our homes that nurtures us through our sight, sound, touch, taste and/or scent. An alter can nurture you through your senses, add meaning and beauty to your life, assist in healing and remind you that the holy is present wherever we call home.
While a personal, permanent altar at home is a wonderful way to keep your practice constant, please remember safety. If you have sharp objects (like an athame) or candles and incense burning on your altar, always remember that while the Gods and Goddesses will be attracted to your place of honor and respect, so will small children and your pets. NEVER leave candles and incense to burn when you’re not there and always make sure your altar items are safe from small children, animals and even non Pagan prying eyes who may not understand or appreciate how much you value your tools of respect.
Of note, I do not partake in human or animal sacrifices with blood. Some do, but you would have to ask them about the setup. I also use a candle snuffer: blowing out a candle is equal to letting air finish fire, not a very nice honor. But again, this is just my notes, do what speaks to you as long as no one is harmed.
Divine Friends! Assist thy loved ones
to be firm in thy faith,
to walk in thy ways,
to be steadfast in thy effect.
Give them thy grace to withstand
the onslaught of self and passion,
to follow the light of divine guidance.
Thou art the powerful, the gracious,
the self-subsisting, the bestowed,
the compassionate, the almighty,
So may it be.