When discussing Witchcraft, the word altar conjures all kinds of images and feelings. What is an altar exactly?
It is a special, sacred surface that holds your tools or ritual items during your work or act of devotion or ritual. It can be as plain or as elaborate as you want. It can be simple and natural, holding a few stones and a candle or it can be draped in colored altar cloths, holding statues and crystals.
An altar is a place where you go that is set apart from the everyday and provides you with a dedicated place to focus your attention on the magical or the spiritual. They can be indoors or outdoors, temporary or permanent. What is important about them is the need they fulfill, not where they are or how much stuff you have on them.
Altars for meditation might look different than altars for sabbat or esbat work, or an altar set up to perform a specific ritual like healing or prosperity. Your need will dictate what goes onto the altar for that rite.
An altar might also be compared to a shrine, though in my understanding, a shrine is something set up just for religious observances. I have a shrine to my ancestors and a shrine to my deities, but my altar is where I go to create magic. I may bring statues or items from one of the shrines to my altar if I think such is appropriate, but with or without these things, an altar is a place where magic happens. I often use my altar when I’m consecrating an item, crafting a mixture, or making a poppet or talisman.
Altars are a focal point for the power and energies raised in ritual, so they should be set up and treated with care.
I often hear questions from people just starting out in the Craft who want to know what they can do to create an altar. Many times, they feel like they can’t really get started because they don’t have the money for all the “cool stuff” they think is supposed to go onto it. I’ve been practicing many years, and all the “cool stuff” I’ve accumulated came to me slowly over that time. To me, that means more than rushing out to buy everything at once that you think you need.
You don’t need tons of stuff to have a functioning altar. All you need is a flat surface that is large enough to hold your working items and representations of whatever energies you are trying to connect with. Typically, for Wiccan altars, this means elemental representations and something to symbolize either the Goddess or the God, or both if you’re working with both of them. My first altar was my bedside nightstand. I kept my ritual items in the drawer and when I needed to use them, the lamp and telephone were moved aside, a colorful scarf brought out that I only used for ritual practice. I placed it over the nightstand and carefully set up my sacred items. It wasn’t until I moved out on my own that I had a fully dedicated surface for my altar. So, for those three years, in the privacy of my bedroom, I communed with the gods and connected with the elements.
If you are just beginning, don’t get bogged down by thinking you have to wait until you have everything you think you need. Your intention counts for a lot. If you put the intention in motion that your coffee table, nightstand, or the tree stump in your backyard is going to be your altar, if you cleanse and consecrate it by performing actions that separate it from the mundane uses it’s gone through into becoming a special surface used for ritual, then you have an altar.
With that said, here’s how I would suggest you cleanse and consecrate an altar surface for typical ritual use.
**This is not how I suggest you prepare an altar for ancestor work, that has its own procedures and protocols.
You will need the following items: (my preferences/recommendations are in parentheses)
Fresh water in a small dish (ceramic, glass, or metal; distilled, bottled, or purified if possible)
Salt (sea salt or kosher salt)
Fire Candle (chime candle, votive, or tealight; color is less important, but I use either white or flame colors like red, yellow, or orange)
Incense (frankincense, sandalwood, or hyssop)and something to safely hold it/catch ashes
Any other ritual items/tools for your work
How to do it:
1. Calm and focus yourself — Take several deep breaths and relax. Set your mind on what you are doing and push all other thoughts away. For these first three steps, I close my eyes.
2. Ground yourself — If you are standing, visualize your feet rooted into the earth, holding you securely in place. If you are seated, visualize the same sort of rooting energy connecting the base of your spine to the earth. Hold this visualization for a few moments until you feel yourself steadied and secure.
3. Center yourself — Place your palms flat on your center (the area just above your belly button beneath your breastbone) and breathe deeply, pulling your focus into that area as your center expands with each breath. Exhale and relax.
4. Take your focusing hand (generally the right hand, but your preferences may differ), extend your index and middle finger together and hold your other two fingers against your palm with your thumb. This is a ‘blade hand’ and is often used in magical and religious work, point the blade hand at the salt and say: I hereby cleanse and purify this salt of all unwanted energies, in all realms of existence, that it be made sacred to aid me in my work. Lightly touch the salt and visualize a bright white light surging into it, pushing out all the unwanted energies. Then remove your blade hand from it.
5. Point the blade hand at the water and say: I hereby cleanse and purify this water of all unwanted energies, in all realms of existence, that it be made sacred to aid me in my work. Lightly touch the water and repeat the white light visualization.
6. Take three pinches of salt and drop it into the water. Stir with your blade hand, clockwise, and say: As earth and water combine, so too do their energies blend to cleanse and purify all they touch.
7. Light your Fire Candle. Point at the flame with your blade hand and say: I hereby cleanse and purify this fire of all unwanted energies, in all realms of existence, that it be made sacred to aid me in my work. Do NOT touch the flame, but visualize the same white light purification.
8. Point your blade hand at the incense and say: I hereby cleanse and purify this incense of all unwanted energies, in all realms of existence, that it be made sacred to aid me in my work. Lightly touch the incense and perform the white light visualization as before.
9. Light the incense from the flame candle and say: As fire and air combine, so too do their energies blend to bless and consecrate all they touch.
10. Lightly sprinkle (this is called asperging) the blended salt-water over your altar, using your fingertips to flick it over the surface. Say: May this altar be cleansed and purified by the powers of earth and water.
11. Waft the lit incense over the altar (this is called censing) and say: May this altar be blessed and consecrated by the powers of fire and air.
You have now cleansed and consecrated your altar for use. You can follow this up with performing a similar cleansing and consecration for yourself, using the salt-water and incense as before and only slightly modifying the words spoken — By the powers of earth and water, I hereby cleanse and purify myself of all unwanted energies, in all realms of existence, that I may be made pure for this work and By the powers of fire and air, I hereby bless and consecrate myself, in all realms of existence, that I may be made holy for this work.
Notes and follow-up:
This act is known as an Altar Devotion. In my personal practice, it precedes all other ritual acts. This means that for me, casting a circle and invoking deities comes after doing this. Not everyone agrees on this sequence. If you prefer to cast a circle first, or want to call in your deities before you perform this devotion, that’s entirely your choice.
This act of Altar Devotion sets you up for any sort of main ritual activity or work you want to do. If you want to cleanse and consecrate your area following this, then you take the salt-water and incense around and perform a cleansing and consecration of your ritual space. If you want to work magic, you sprinkle your tools or magical items with the salt-water and cense them with the incense.
In general, Wiccan ritual follows the format of elements having a place in certain compass directions. Your altar, to attune with that, should also follow that pattern. East – Air, South – Fire, West – Water, and North – Earth.
Some teachings also say that your altar should face east, others that it should face north. I leave that to you to decide. Personally, my altar faces different directions based on the time of year that the ritual is happening. Work out for yourself which altar placement you feel strongest about.
After your ritual or work is completed, you should dispose of your salt-water and incense. Generally, the incense will just burn itself down, then you dispose of the ash. With the water, you should offer it to the ground outside, away from any flowering plants, with appreciation for its help. If you cannot offer it to the ground, you may pour it down a sink while running water along with it. You may snuff or pinch out your fire candle and reuse it again at a later time for this purpose, but not for any other use. It’s also my belief that ritual candles should not be extinguished with breath — that is a ritual action that carries its own uses and connotations. The actions following your rite are ritual actions too — extinguishing flames and disposing of salt-water, so they should be done mindfully and with honor.
So this is Altar Devotion and Altar Work 101.
Please comment if you have any questions.