March 13, 2017 by
An altar is a reminder of the sacred cosmos it represents. By making space in your home, you make space in your life to be a witch. Just by acknowledging its presence, collecting, arranging and lighting it, you’ve renewed your dedication to walk with Spirit. More important than WHAT is on a witch’s altar is HOW you activate it’s powers and then utilize them. With a consecration ritual, the Witch becomes the catalyst that transmutes a table full of arcane tchotchke into a microcosm of empowerment.
To me, an altar is an adaptable workplace, a miniature theater of props and players that is flexible enough to host all manner of productions and the witch is the director of those plays. Magick is then the cosmic poetry enacted upon that stage, and that becomes an art form. The key component is the creativity that ignites the senses and imagination to be in alignment with inherent divinity. Every choice after that is yours to make; there are no other universal requirements.
Heron’s Personal Altar, dressed for Ostara, with current spell workings in progress, on a wooden side-board cabinet.
Please….please, hear this most important message from your friendly magickal shop-keeper: an altar can be made of anything and be put anywhere. Every blessèd atom in the Universe IS Divine…even a crappy, plastic folding table you found at Walmart that easily fits in your car. YOU ARE THE MAGICK that will catalyze these assembled items into a sacred space.
An “altar table” does not have to be a specialty item purchased brand-new at a magickal shop–and the same goes for everything on the altar, too. There are many fine manufacturers of specially made tables that an artist prepared to be a Witch’s altar–and they are lovely, should you choose to invest in one–but I wouldn’t worry about that too much, because the table itself isn’t the point, no more so than the floor of a theater’s stage is important.
That being said, I consider the altar to be one of the grand-tools of Earth. So for my permanent altar in my home, I would aim toward something functional made of wood, stone or metal that actually grew up out of the Earth.
The altar can be an antique, one shelf of a larger bookcase, or a storage cabinet, the mantlepiece, the top of a dresser, or a cheap folding tray table. Trunks are nice so that you can transport your tools to a ritual site, then use the top as the altar. Mine (pictured above) is actually a buffet side-board cabinet that was part of a dining room set. It has storage in which I store my extra altar tools, cloths, incense, candles, etc.
Witchcraft is messy, when thoroughly done, so I’m more interested in the altar cloths, than decorated tables. Altar cloths can be anything, but natural fibers, easily washable and of a substantial weave are a good idea as they will catch spilled wax, herbs, oils and ash, and you’ll need them to lie flat even when there is a breeze.
One kind of altar is set for a single, temporary rite, others are long-term fixtures for general use; some layouts better serve the personal needs of one witch, and other layouts are more appropriate for coven work with many witches.
My current classroom altar laid out by Gender (Feminine on the left, Masculine on the Right), with consecration elements, and altar tools. This one includes dedicated candles to each element, for when we are working with only one, specifically. Heron Michelle
The personal altar is a Witch’s magickal work-place and so it will reflect the style and practice of the individual. Typically, it will hold the elemental altar tools, water, salt, candles, incense, stones, etc. It also holds the symbols of that represent Deity to you, and the Spirits that guide you.
Most witchcraft books will suggest that altars be positioned facing either North or East, depending on the direction from which you feel beginnings flow. Honestly, where the furniture sits, or how it faces, matters not to me. Remember that the importance and assignment of cardinal points is rather arbitrary across traditions and depending on your geographical location–the only thing that matters to me is internal consistency.
I’d be more inclined to position my home altar based on the chinese principles of feng shui, than cardinal directions. Feng Shui (pronounced like fung schway) is “the art of placement” of objects and rooms so that the chi (ki) energy flows through a physical space most effectively. As it happens, my permanent altar is on the south wall of my temple room and has always served me well there. Chi energies flow in through a doorway on the eastern wall (where beginnings lie in my paradigm) and flows deosil in the room, so it’s first pass is my South Wall. I’m happy with that.
Personal Altar Layout by Gender ~ Original Graphic by Heron Michelle
As for altars prepared for rites within a coven setting, I actually prefer the altar set in the center of the circle so that it is visible and accessible from all sides, by multiple witches. I have a standard-sized square “card table” that I arrange with the corners pointing to the elemental gates…so it is a diamond aligned with the axis of the elemental crossroads at point o,o,o. I call this layout the “Diamond at the Crossroads.”
Circle and Altar Layout for a full coven – Original Graphic by Heron Michelle
Intention. Spirit. Power. If the Altar is a stage, and all the items are the players, and you are the director of this production, then you will need to awaken the Spirit within each item, imbue it with your intention by giving them their part in the script and then weave them all together as your cast. The powers of above, below, and between will be channeled through you and held by them. These items are both the spiritual anchors of the elemental energies in your magickal space, and the conduits to keep everything open, flowing and fed while there.
For me, ritual is far more powerful when the whole group is allowed to participate in the ceremonial awakening of the altar, rather than my doing it in advance before they enter the temple. When I lead group rituals, I begin by leading us all in a “tree-breathing” power-flow visualization, and then we all take the postures together. Then I will awaken the masculine elements, while our High Priest awakens the feminine ones. In this way, we reinforce that all energetic gender expression is held in unique balance within each of us, regardless of our biology.
This is written as if done privately. You may adapt it to include coven members as we did in our “Ostara Ritual for the Large Coven,” that I posted previously.
I agree, each to their own, private personal space can be how you want it, no rules and regs to follow.
Different, as you say, when working in a group, but most circles seem to find common grounds to work with.
One of the most interesting public rituals I ever attended was a norse style "hammer rite".
No altar, at all, what-so-ever, just a feasting table to which everyone added to and took something from.
Guess it all depends on what's needed at the time.