Claire has worked with crystals and many other aspects of paganism for over 14 years. She has also studied reiki up to master level.
Within paganism an altar is generally considered as a sacred and personal space that can be used for many purposes including making offerings, performing spells, keeping tools and honouring the gods and goddess’ you follow. It can also be used as a space in which you can meditate, practice divination such as tarot or pendulum reading or create charms and crafts.
For many people altars are seen as a space that is used within religions to honour deities. While this is true in some religions and pagan paths, it does not have to be the case and there is no reason why a secular pagan or witch cannot create a sacred space for their practice. Unless your particular path states otherwise there are no items that must be included on an altar and so you are free to decorate it as you choose. This may include statues, tools, plants, crystals, elemental representations or candles. If the term altar doesn’t resonate with you or you feel deterred or put off by the religious connections you may wish to use a different term such as sacred or magical space.
Altars come in many shapes and sizes and how you create and lay out you own will depend very much on your individual path and tastes as well as the space or surfaces available to you. Some people have their space set up in the main room or area of their home whereas others opt to keep it private by keeping it in their bedroom or even a dedicated room.
Sacred spaces do not have to large or elaborate and can be as simple as a few candles and crystals if this is what you feel is right for you. If you are unable to have a permanent altar set up this doesn’t have to mean that you cannot have one at all. You can choose to keep everything in a box and only set it up when you are actively working if you wish. This option can be very useful to anyone who has very limited space or needs to keep their pagan beliefs hidden from family and friends.
Another option you may like to consider is to have several smaller spaces set up around your home. This can be especially helpful if you work with several different deities or would prefer spaces dedicated to different aspects of your path. This can be beneficial to keeping your focus and also means that you do not have to worry about finding a large space or squeezing everything into a small area.
Outdoor Altars and Sacred Spaces
Another option for creating your sacred space is to have it outdoors. This can be in your own garden and take many different forms depending on the space available or can be set up as needed. If you do not have a garden of your own but would like an outside altar, you could carry items to a suitable space in a local park or woodland, countryside or beach when you wish to carry out magical or spiritual practises there. Take care with any items that are left on outdoor altars in case they may be harmful to wildlife.
Some ideas for outdoor altars include:
- In a tree
- Under a tree
- Close to a pond
- Incorporated into a flower bed or other planted area
- Woodland clearing
- Rock pool
- At a fallen tree
- In a tree hollow
Things to Consider When Creating your Altar
When thinking about where to place your altar, there are some things to consider depending on where you live and who lives with you. An altar can be as simple as a shelf in a bookcase, a garden slab or rock or the top of an existing piece of furniture. Altars do not need to be elaborate or large as it is your intent that it is your sacred space and using it that way which makes it so. Some traditions have directions to follow when setting up personal altars such as the direction it should face and whether you should be able to walk all the way round it or not.
If you live with other people you may need to consider this when choosing a space. For example; will you need to keep your altar secret from them? Will other people touch the items placed there or will there be a risk that they may be knocked over or broken? If other people such as housemates or family are likely to touch, rearrange or remove things from your altar it may be better to place it in your own room or other private place. Ideally no one else should touch or handle your ritual tools and keeping it separate from other people reduces the risk that items placed as part of a ritual or spell will be disturbed or removed. Of course this depends on how understanding other people are of your magical work, they may not be fazed by the presence of your altar and respect the need for it to left alone.
It is important to take into consideration that children and pets can be very inquisitive and it is important to remember that items such as plants, essential oils and crystal can pose a danger either as a choking hazard or because they are toxic. If you have children, even if they understand that they must not touch your tools they may be tempted by other items that are not always present or are particularly attractive to them. Athames, matches, oils, some herbs and also items such as berries that can be used to decorate your altar can be dangerous and should be stored safely.
Depending on what you wish to your space for it may important to think about access and the surrounding space. For example, a high shelf or fireplace is a great choice for keeping items safe and out of reach of children but not as practical if you wish to carry out tarot readings there. Also think about furniture and other times that are close by and if they will present any issues. Care will need to be taken with books, curtains and other soft furnishings if you wish to burn candles and incense so that these do not present a fire hazard. Altars should be set up in a place where there is no danger of candles or incense being knocked over or presenting a fire risk. Some rituals require that a candle is left to burn down so it is important to consider how best to do so safely if you or other people will be moving about close to the area. Low traffic areas will be better suited than a busy hallway for example. This consideration also applies to the surface itself as some can be damaged by heat or marked by wax, incense ash or essential oils. If you plant to have plants in your space is there suitable light and heat for the plants and can you easily reach to water and care for them?
Decorating your Altar
Once you have decided where to have your altar you can decide on how you want it to look. Each altar is individual and there is no right or wrong on how it should look or what should be on it. Some people like a minimalist look whereas others like to fill their altar with items that help them get into the frame of mind for spiritual and magical workings. Many people choose to keep their ritual tools on their altars when they aren’t being used. Other items can be added such as candles, crystals, flowers, relevant books, your book of shadows or grimoire, plants, shells and statues.
Once you have decided on the main items to be placed on your altar you can also decorate it with other items to match the seasons or upcoming sabbats. Altar cloths can be used or if possible the surface of the altar can be decorated directly with symbols or other relevant art. These can be customised to fit in with seasons and sabbats and also for specific workings as required. Including items such as crystals and herbs can add further energy to spells and rituals if they correctly correspond to the type of work being carried out.
Your altar should be personal to you. If it feels right to you go with it, even if it is not what is considered traditional or what other people are doing. Your altar is intended as a focal point for you magical work and so the more personal and charged with your energy it is the more effective it will be.
Seven Suggestions for Altar Themes and Decorations
As well as the traditional methods of creating an altar there are many other options for decorating and customising your space. Some examples include:
- Add seasonal items such as flowers, fruits, pine cones and berries
- Decorate with items based on the wheel of the year celebrations
- Use items that correspond to your pagan path i.e. shells, pebbles, water and sea creature figures for a sea witch or plants and herbs for a green witch
- Decorate with statues of the deities you follow and items that are associated with them
- Place photographs of your ancestors on your altar
- Use items that have sentimental value to you such as your children’s drawings or items passed down through your family
- If you are artistic or enjoy crafts, decorate your space with your own creations based on your beliefs and practices
© 2013 Claire
Claire (author) from Lincolnshire, UK on January 31, 2019:
You're welcome :) Itoally agree, it is great inspiration.
Adelaida Black from Canada on January 30, 2019:
Love to read about how others decorate their altars. Thank you for the article!