I'd like to start with an excerpt from one of the brilliant books we have on altars, The Book of Altars and Sacred Spaces by Anjou Kiernan (mega talented witch - check out their Instagram) and start the conversation with her beautiful words;
"In this world, simple moments of mindfulness can create explosions of magick. Finding space for these moments - sacred space- requires conscious curation of our environment into nooks of ritual and ceremony. Sacred space nurtures our body, feeds our mind, and coaxes energy from our spirit. It dredges up our deepest fears and delves into our darkest desires. It is where we work our magick, unearth our personal truth, and foster our relationship with nature. Sacred space can mean many things to many people, but it's first and foremost a place where we feel safe to connect with ourselves and the world around us."
Questions we're often asked in the shop when it comes to altars: How do you set up an altar? What is an altar used for? What do I need for my altar? And today we are going to answer these questions for anyone and everyone that sought us out or stumbled upon us.
So, let's start at the beginning; What is an altar?
An altar as described by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary is "a usually raised structure or place on which sacrifices are offered or incense is burned in worship —often used figuratively to describe a thing given great or undue precedence or value especially at the cost of something else" or "a table or place which serves as a centre of worship or ritual —often used with the to refer to the act of getting married." And while these are totally acceptable definitions they kind of only scratch the surface of what an altar means to a witch, pagan, or spiritual being.
An altar in witchcraft, Wicca, Paganism, and other spiritual practices is considered sacred space. It is a space where we worship, a space we hold with the utmost respect, and it is often used and tended to solely by the person that created it. Communal, coven, or familial altars can be created as well, but today we're focusing on personal altars. In essence, an altar is where we do our mundane to most meaningful magic. We fill this magical space up with our energies, our love, and our gratitude, so it can flow back out into our rituals, ceremonies, our offerings, and ourselves once again. Carefully and consciously we tend to our altars and turn them into rivers of magic, always full, always flowing. We create a space somewhere, usually in our homes, where we can focus our energy, our intentions, and offer gratitude to the spirits, ancestors, and energies that we work with and within. A space where we can connect to all things and communicate with our higher selves.
Altars can be created for a singular purpose, or multiple. They can be small enough to fit into a travel size box, on top of a board, or take up an entire dinner table. It is where we store our tools for making magic, or where we keep our most treasured possessions no matter how small. You can have one altar and one altar only, or several. They can be dedicated to a deity, your ancestors, the elements, or the seasons. Remember that altars are personal and they vary based on each persons own practice and path. There's no wrong way to create one, they can be minimalist or maximalist, so long as it is sacred to you, it is an altar.
Now let's jump into what we call Altar Supplies in the list below. Please note that this list is to help get you started but by no means are all these things required to make an altar:
Altar Cloth(s): Cloths can be used for many reasons; they help contain the mess that sometimes happens when we're creating, or a soft surface to place fragile items on, a way to protect a surface from dings and scratches, or help decorate a table top or shelf that maybe isn't the most visually appealing. If needed for folks that have to keep their altars tucked away for whatever reason, you can wrap up your altar supplies in an altar cloth and keep it safe when stored away. A cloth can be chosen based on colour correspondence for the seasons or Wheel of the Year, or even for specific intentions; an altar for protection, I'd use black; an altar for prosperity and abundance, I'd lean toward green or gold. There are cloths that are specifically designed for altars with pentacles, Celtic knots, astrological symbols and the like, printed, embroidered or sewn on them. It can also be a beautiful doily, a simple piece of fabric, or a scarf that's too pretty to wear but too magical to let just sit and collect dust.
Candles: A personal favourite item for my altar is a candle, or in my case many candles. Candles can serve as a representation of the element of Fire and should be placed in the South if that is the direction you're choosing to go. Candle colour correspondence can also become a part of your altar. They can be specific to the season or the intention, such as orange and yellow candles for the Summer Solstice, or purple and white for your ancestors altar. Candles are also used in and as spells; they can be dressed with herbs, resins, and oils or placed on top of spell jars for sealing in intentions. You will always find white and black candles on my altar for both protection and purification. When burning herbs, woods, papers, or bay leaves I always use the flame from a candle to do so.
Candle Holders + Snuffers: Of course, with candles come candle holders. You will want something that can catch the wax if you prefer to keep your altar free from dripping pools. Personally, I use brass candle holders that then sit on various metal trays so the wax has something safe to drip on. And when I'm ready to do a wax cleanup after I've burned down all of my candles, it almost always just pops off of the metal surface for easy cleaning. For smaller spell candles you can use chime candle holders. However, when doing larger spells that require many spell candles having several candle holders may not be the most cost effective. In these situations you can use a plate, or a tray, then heat the bottom of your candle safely until the wax starts to melt, place the bottom of the candle down onto the dish, holding it until the wax cools, then it should be safely secured. If not, try again. In a bowl you can use sand or salt as a base to hold your candles as well. You'll likely need enough to cover the first centimetre or two of your candle and that should be stable enough to keep them from falling over.
Cauldrons, Burners, Chalices + Shells: A cauldron, chalice, or shell can be a water element representation and should be placed in the West if that is the intention. Cauldrons can be filled with water for that elemental purpose, but it is also a fire-safe dish that you can safely use for burning incense, herbs, and papers for releasing or manifesting. If a cauldron is not something you can afford any other fire-safe dish will do, such as brass incense burners, soapstone or onyx bowls, and ceramic dishes. When using any dish for burning it is important to have them on a trivet or some surface that won't potentially burn or catch fire, we've definitely left a burn mark or two on a table before. If you're using charcoal discs for burning loose incense or herbs, I recommend putting down a layer of sand or salt to place the charcoal on. This helps to slow down the heat from taking over the entire metal or ceramic dish, or shell getting so hot that you can't touch pick it up.
Chalices or cups are the perfect vessel for holding any and all liquids, whether it be water for the element, wine, tea, or honey for offerings.
Shells are great to represent the water element. Keep in mind that shells were and are often used in many closed Indigenous practices through the Coastal Americas for many reasons and beliefs, as they were more than just a bowl for ashes. I personally do not use them for burning herbs and incense as it does not feel appropriate for my practice. And I encourage you to sit with yourself and decide if a shell is a necessary tool for you.
Crystals: Crystals can be an essential part of your altar, tapping into their energy to further enhance your magical workings is a major reason you'll find these on someones altar. Just remember that you don't need to have ALL the crystals to get started, or big spheres, or huge geodes, or giant pieces that cost a small fortune. That tumbled piece of Rose Quartz in your pocket can hold just as much power as a giant Rose Quartz sphere. Crystals can be your representation of the Earth element (place in the North if that is the intention) but different crystals can also be a representation of each element as well. You can choose which crystal energy best works for the intentions of your altar, for example an altar devoted to self-love and care you may choose Rose Quartz, Rhodonite, and/or Sodalite to amplify that energy every time you tend to it.
If you're new to crystals and would like some help deciding where to start and how to cleanse them, check out our other blog posts for more info!
Energy Clearing Tools: Having something ready at your altar whenever you need to clear away some energy, negative, or stagnant is kind of a must. Though there are tons of options available for everyone that are both respectful and affordable. You can use incense woods such as Cedar, Pine, and Spruce. There are tons of herbal and plant friends that can be used for clearing as well as many other properties, like Mugwort for dreams, Rosemary for protection, Lavender for calm, Sages (yes, there are way more sages out there beyond just white sage) for purifying, Mints for healing, Roses for love, and many more.
A highly underrated but very affordable cleansing tool is a stick or cone of incense. Incense usually comes in single notes or specific scent profiles for certain intentions so you can choose the incense that matches your intent. If you have an altar set up for Yule or the Winter Solstice you can use Cinnamon or Cinnamon incense to amplify your intended Solstice energy.
Lustral Waters and ritual sprays are a great smoke-free alternative for those that cannot burn things at home. They can be easily sprayed around your altar, your home/room, or even on yourself when you're the one that needs some cleansing.
Florida Water and flower waters/colognes are another option, used a lot in Shamanic and specific cultural practices. These waters are formulated like colognes and perfumes so they are skin safe (still allergy test on a small patch of skin to be sure it's safe for you). My go-to for cleansing myself before any ritual work is to sprinkle Florida Water on my hands, rub them together and then use a sweeping motion over my body starting with the feet to clear away any stagnant energy.
Bells are another traditional and fantastic smoke-free alternative. Bells have been used for as long as we can remember to signify a change of some sort, wind chimes letting you know the winds are shifting, a bell tolls at midnight to let you know a new day has started. The changes the sound of a bell can bring are not always physical, but energetic as well. Ring a bell to clear away any unwanted energy in your space, invoking spirits, sealing your spell work, and even as a representation of the Air element and placed in the East.
Personal Items + Offerings: Using your altar space to hold artwork, pictures, old photos, really anything that is especially significant and personal to you is a great way to keep memories, pets, or people close to us. Other personal items like bones, shed skin, feathers, antlers, and more can be added to altars for various reasons; as element representations (ex: feathers are Air, antlers are Earth), to invoke that particular creatures energy or spirit in your ritual work, or even as offerings to deities. Please note that we do not in any way encourage folks to seek out animal or human remains through harmful and unethical means, as these living beings are meant to be treated with respect and kindness, always.
Offerings are gifts of food, drinks, flowers, or things that would be well received by a deity or deities you're working with, your ancestors, animal spirits, or to Mother Nature herself. You just need a dish or vessel of some kind to hold your offerings. If you have little ones or nosy pets we do suggest that you keep offerings of food and drinks away from little hands, paws, or claws that may accidentally (or sometimes purposefully) knock them over. Edible offerings should be cleared away often before spoiling and potentially attracting some other critters and creatures.
Ritual Tools: These can include, salt, oils, resins, herbs, athames, jars, statuary, pentacles or pentagrams, mortar + pestles, candle carving tools, journals or book of shadows, really anything that you may need to have on hand if the majority of your ritual work happens at your altar. A mortar + pestle is an essential on my altar for grinding herbs and resins. A journal may be essential if you like to keep a physical record of your spells so they can be repeated, or to record any thoughts or feelings that get stirred up while you work. Statues for deities can be essential for devotional altars. Whether it's homemade or a tile, a Pentacle on an altar is often used as a symbol of protection and it represents the 5 elements of magic, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit.
Pro Tip: Keep your ashes from any burned herbs or incense to mix with salt and make your own black salt!
No matter where, when, or how much stuff or space you start with it really doesn't matter, so long as speaks to you then it is sacred space. Now go make some magic you beautiful humans!
Feel free to share below what your absolute altar essentials are and any helpful advice for any new witches just starting their journey. 🖤
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