The altar is often the focus of religious ceremony, and is usually found at the centre of a Wiccan rite. It’s essentially a table used for holding all of theritual tools, and can also be used as a work space in spell casting.
An altar is easy to make. If you have a small table that’s not being used for other things, great! Will you be doing a lot of rituals outdoors? Use an old stump or a flat stone.
If you’re short on space, such as cramped apartment or dormitory quarters, consider an altar space that can be used for other purposes as well – the top of a dresser, a cedar chest, even a footlocker.
Do you live in an environment in which you’d like to keep your altar private? You may wish to just create a “portable altar” that can be put away when not in use. Find a nice box or bag to keep your tools in, and then get them out when you need them. If you have an altar cloth, it can double as a storage bag – just put all your tools in the middle, bundle them up, and tie it shut like a pouch.
You can have permanent altars that stay up year round, or seasonal ones that you change as the Wheel of the Year turns. It’s not uncommon to meet someone who has more than one altar in their home. 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.
In shamanism you learn fairly quickly about the constant presence and influence of the ancestors, their legacies — both gifts and wounds — and why it behooves you to pay your respects and enlist their help. Yet no matter what path you’re on, a relationship with your ancestors can benefit you.
Building an ancestor altar in your home is a time-honoured way to connect with departed loved ones, both physical and karmic, known and unknown, and ask for their blessings. The altar is their home within yours; it is a place for them to stay and a place you’ll know where they are. You can give thanks here, while giving back ancestral influences that don’t serve you. It functions in a similar way to a cemetery tombstone, a locus for attention and remembrance, a place where you can talk with your ancestors and build or continue a connection from the comfort of your home.
The altar itself can be as elaborate or simple as you want, as big or as small. Use your imagination, and don’t be overly concerned with form. Intent is what counts. After using my sewing table, I moved my altar to a snack tray, and then the top of my bedroom dresser. Some say that the altar should be set up in an enclosed space, such as on a shelf in a cabinet that can be closed, so the spirits won’t roam around and cause mischief. I myself have never experienced this — or maybe I have and didn’t know it was them!
The altar can include anything meaningful to you or the ancestors: photos, figurines, jewellery, offerings, flowers, food or drink. You might want to refresh it seasonally to mark the passage of time, or to mark birthdays, anniversaries or other special dates. I once placed acorns and red and orange leaves on my altar to commemorate an autumn walk in the woods and a particularly meaningful conversation with an ancestor.
It’s important is keep your altar current; as you feel shifts in your energy see if items are calling to be removed or added, or if the ancestors are directing you to place or remove certain objects.
Once the altar is set up, work with it regularly. The power of an ancestor altar (or any altar) consists in the interaction you have with it. It will build energy according to how much attention it receives. Interact once a day, or once or twice a week, but try to be consistent. As with all ritual objects, it’s up to you whether you let others touch your altar or interact with it. I feel it’s best not to allow this, so no one else’s energy gets on the objects. The exception is a family altar in which all members contribute to its construction and care.
If you feel squeamish acknowledging spirits in your home this way, realize that we have a societal, Hollywood-induced phobia against spirits of the dead, thinking they always mean us harm. I’ve found in my own experience and practice that nothing could be farther from the truth.
Our ancestors want to help us lead the best possible lives and keep us from making the mistakes they did, and they are eager to assist. Try setting up your own altar, and see what happens.
BASIC ALTAR SETUP
So you’ve decided to perform your first ritual, and you’re setting up an altar. Great! Now what?
It’s actually pretty simple to set up a basic altar. You’ll probably want to include a few things, like your magical tools, but ultimately the altar should be about functionality. It needs to be set up to help you achieve your goal. Here are the things that most traditions of Wicca and Paganism include on altars.
- Symbols of the four classical elements. Typically, these are aligned with the four cardinal directions. Use a bowl of dirt or sand in the north aspect of your altar to represent earth, a stick of incense in the east can symbolize air, a candle or charcoal in the south for fire, and water in the west.
- Candles. You can add a goddess candle and a god candle if your tradition calls for them, or you can use candles representing the four directions. Be sure to have a lighter or matches handy.
- The athame. Most Wiccans and Pagans use an athame in ritual, so place one on your altar if you’ll need it during a ceremony.
- The wand. The wand is used to direct energy, so if you use one, keep it on your altar.
- Your Book of Shadows, or BOS. If you’re going to be doing rituals, it’s helpful to keep this on hand.
Add other items as needed, and as space allows. You can include whatever spell components you need, cakes and ale, and more. If you’re celebrating a sabbat, you can decorate your altar for the season as well.
Regardless, make sure your altar contains all you need for effective ritual work BEFORE you begin your ceremony.
Once you’ve figured out what you like to have on your altar, and where you want to actually place those items, add a simple sketch or even a photo into your Book of Shadows, so you can easily construct your altar again the next time you need to.
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~The Wyrding Wytch