For some, the altar is the center of all their magickal power. For others, it’s more of an optional piece of their spiritual practice. Still more aren’t interested in altar work at all. No matter where you fall on this scale, the important thing is that you’re honouring your own preference. But never feel as though you need an altar; if it’s forced, it won’t hold power for your practice.
Personally, I keep several altars, each with its own significance; one is dedicated to observing the Wheel of the Year, another is my “working” altar, where most of my manifestations and workings take place, and the third is an outdoor altar, tucked away in a grove of fir trees, where I go for quiet and contemplation.
If you’ve been guided to create your first altar, or simply to seek out ideas and inspiration for your existing one, here are five steps to get you started:
1. Choose the space/placement
This will vary from person to person – some traditions have strict guidelines about how, when, and where to set up your altar space, right down to the orientation and materials it’s made from. You are free to be as elaborate as you like. I would suggest starting simply with a small set up in whatever space feels comfortable to you. Over time, you’ll figure out your preferences, and make shifts accordingly.
Note: If you plan to burn incense, use essential oils, light candles, or use smoke bundles, make sure your space has good ventilation, and won’t pose any safety hazards with an open flame.
2. Choose what to include in your altar.
This will depend on several factors; if you’re setting an altar space in honour of a specific deity, you’ll want to use symbols and offerings associated with them; for a seasonal altar, you can collect natural gifts from the Earth, and incorporate them in your design as the Wheel turns; for a ritual or ceremonial altar, there is a good chance that you’ll want symbols of each of the elements, a working candle, specific crystals, and incense.
Get a good idea of what your intentions are, then collect the elements that resonate most. If you follow a specific tradition, you’re sure to find some good references in any books or other resources for your chosen path. If all else fails, Pinterest holds a wealth of inspiration!
Note: It is a great idea to have a notebook, journal or binder near your altar, so that you can make notes as you work. There’s nothing worse than losing your train of thought as you dash around looking for some paper and a working pen.
3. Prepare the space and tools.
In order to start with a completely clean slate, it is important to cleanse not just your soon-to-be-altar, but also everything that will be added to it. If possible, open up nearby windows to let the air refresh the room, and consider lighting a candle, incense, or essential oil mister to clear out any remaining energy. If these aren’t options, a spray bottle filled with salt water can be used to spritz a little magick into the atmosphere.
Continue by wiping down the area, as well as each of the elements that will adorn it with a clean damp cloth. To add more punch, drop three generous pinches of salt to a bowl of warm water, as well as three drops of your favourite purifying essential oil (Rosemary is my go-to!). I also love to place a carnelian crystal into the water, then let it sit in the Sunshine for a few minutes to charge up.
For items that can’t get wet, set them in a bowl of salt, hold them over a candle flame, or pass them through the smoke of a cleansing incense stick or smoke bundle.
4. Setting up your altar.
Now comes the fun part. Start arranging your elements on your altar. I generally suggest starting with an altar cloth, if you have one. And by altar cloth, I mean table runner, scarf, old pillowcase, scrap of pretty material – whatever is pleasing to your eye. Of course, this is completely optional, but with the amount of (messy) magicks I work, the surface of my altar needs the protection.
Start with the larger/most prominent items, then work your way into the smaller details and decor. Follow your intuition at first, but also keep in mind that the space should be visually pleasing. It doesn’t need to be Instagram ready, but it should be something that you enjoy looking at – this will ensure that you actually want to spend time in it.
5. Consecrating and dedicating the space.
Once your altar is set up to your liking, and you’ve tidied up the surrounding area after the creative process, it’s time to dedicate your sacred space. I like to take my time with this step over a small pot of tea, and really pour my energy into the altar.
Because the Tarot is so close to my heart, I sift through one of my decks and pick out cards that I feel embody the intentions I hold for the space, and place them in various places on my altar. Other options are to write down your intentions in a journal or on loose paper, speak them into the atmosphere around the altar, or simply sit quietly and meditate on them.
Remember to hold gratitude for the blessing of having this space, and for all of the tools that have been provided to you for your practice. Remain humble, yet recognize that you hold full domain over it, and everything that dwells there. Set boundaries about what energies you will allow in the space, and those that will not be permitted. You may even like to ask for the lessons you wish to learn with your spiritual practice, which could give you a themed lens to look through with future contemplations and reflections.
A few extra notes:
Resetting the Energy.
Over time, the altar will build up energy from the rituals, spells, ceremonies, practices, prayers, and all other sacred activities performed within the space. You may notice that the results of your workings aren’t as potent, that you’re not feeling “into” your practice, or simply are sensing stagnancy when at your altar.
When this happens, refreshing your altar may be the key to reinvigorate the space. To do this, simply clear off the surface, discard any completed spells, debris, dust, spilled wax, and all other tired remnants left behind. This is a great time to switch it up, add new elements, and/or remove old ones that need a break. Once the space is empty, just follow the steps outlined above – this is also effective if you wish to shift the intention you had set during a previous dedication that is no longer resonating.
If you travel often, or you find yourself wanting to take your practice to the park, beach or any other open space, you may like to consider a travel altar. You can purchase complete kits from many pagan shops, or create your own. Just find a container that fits in your purse, pocket, glove compartment, or suitcase, and fill it with miniature elements to use when you set up your sacred space.
Here are some ideas:
- Match, birthday candle, or wood ash in a vial to represent fire.
- A doll-sized cup (or shot glass), small shell, or water in a sealed vial to represent water.
- Small crystals, a coin, or soil in a vial to represent earth.
- An incense cone, feather, or a dandelion seed in a vial to represent air.
Unfortunately, it is a sad reality that some witchy and pagan folk feel the need to keep their practice undercover. In some situations, it would be downright dangerous for them to openly practice. If you feel that you are unable to create a full-blown altar, but still want to have a sacred space, consider these alternatives:
- A special reading nook, where you can sip magickal teas and journal.
- Arranging standard home decor items on a shelf to include symbols or colours of each of the elements.
- Creating centerpieces for your dining or coffee table to reflect the turning of the Wheel.
- Hanging a collection of symbolic art on a wall.
- Arranging your desk or office space with art, items, or colours that are meaningful to your practice.
- Growing houseplants sacred to your deities.
I hope this has inspired you to create (or update) your personal altar; I would love to see your set up!
Share photos of your altar with me on Instagram, or tag me in your post (@tarot_and_thyme).