What's the Purpose of an Altar?
Altars are used in almost every kind of spiritual, magickal, or religious ritual and ceremony. They are reverent and beautiful, often created as if in an artistic way. Though we can always recognize them, many folks beginning their spiritual praxis are often left asking: what are altars, and why are they so important in our rituals?
Simply put, altars are is a "raised structure or place used for worship or prayer," upon which a practitioner places several symbolic and functional items for the purpose of worshiping the Gods and Goddesses, honoring ancestors, casting spells, and/or saying chants and prayers. More abstractly put, I like to think of altars as sacred spaces or portals, and by creating the altar, you are inviting particular beings and energies to protect and guide whatever ritual, celebration, or intention you are working with at that time.
Many get nervous when first making altars, but as I stated before, they are a place for creativity and gratitude, a place to build an outward expression of self-exploration, spiritual growth, and guidance. Though there are some essential items that you’ll likely want to include on your altar, this can always evolve and change as you become more comfortable in making them.
The first thing you want to decide on is the location. What I mean by this is where you will put your altar, both what surface and the physical location in your home. I often like to put the altar in the room where I do most of my ritual work, that way the deities or energies I am inviting can easily guide that work. However, this also depends on the intention of the altar or ritual itself. For example, if you are creating an altar to Aphrodite for guidance in love and/or sex, it should likely go in the bedroom. Another example that I use personally is to put my Samhain altar in the kitchen or dining room somewhere, in order to ask my ancestors to help with abundance (i.e. food, comfort, security, warmth, light, etc.) during the darkness of winter.
The surface you choose doesn’t have to be anything fancy; I have used window seals, tables, nightstands, and even an old suitcase. Whatever you decide, it should be somewhere that won’t be too disturbed, and is displayed or set aside in some way. Be sure to cleanse this space with sage before beginning to create your altar.
The next step is to decide what items to place on the altar. Many practitioners consider the following list of items the fundamentals that should be placed on an altar:
- Altar Cloth: an altar cloth further designates the space, and allows for an opportunity for color work. For example, lay down a green cloth for abundance rituals.
- Representation of the elements/directions: this often looks like candles for fire (south), bowl of dirt/rocks/sticks to represent Earth (north), feathers or the Athame for air (east), and a chalice or bowl of water (west). Please note that some folks consider north to be air and east to be Earth. There is no definitive right or wrong, so intuitively decide what you prefer.
- White tapered candle: this is to light all other candles.
- Stones and crystals: to invoke certain psychic or physical qualities into the altar.
- Incense and/or essential oils: to invoke certain psychic or sensory qualities into the altar.
- Book of Shadows or journal: if you have a grimoire that you work with, or are doing any sort of written work with the ritual, keep your book on the altar to absorb the energy.
Once you have these fundamentals, it is time to get more specific with the items on your altar. Are you working with a specific deity, god, or goddess? Research offerings that these particular beings enjoy. Are you calling in your great-grandmother? Place her picture on your altar, or maybe a piece of jewelry she wore. Are you a painter seeking more inspiration in your art? Place your paintbrushes on the altar.
Be specific and authentic to your personality, your goals, and the intentions of the ritual.
Lastly, tend to your altar. Work with or around it every day, lighting the candles, changing the flowers in the vase when they die, picking up items if the cat knocks something over. The altar is sacred, and it is alive. The energies you are invoking are coming through it, so be sure to show your devotion and gratitude to them. You wouldn’t invite a guest into your house just to ignore them, would you?
When done with your altar, be sure to first send love and gratitude to the spirits, energies, or deities that guided that ritual. I often create some sort of final gesture, like creating a meal with the spices or food the deities are associated with, or burying the candles that were on the altar under the Oak tree.
Whatever you decide, your altar should feel creative and personal to you and your ritual.