When beginning a spiritual journey, you may find that you require a space to perform your magical workings or honour your deities or spirits. A place that is sacred, an area devoted to magic, to divinity, towards making your desires manifest in your life. An altar is just this – somewhere that you’ve dedicate to working your magic, which is separate from your every mundane, non-magical life. What you decide to place on this sacred space is entirely up to the individual practitioner and how you prefer to perform magic. But as a beginner, understanding what to put on your altar to start off with can be a difficult decision. The first thing you might want to figure out is the purpose; what are you going to use your altar for? Are you going to communicate with deity here? Or will you use it to craft spells? Is it just a space for some quiet contemplation and meditation? A combination of a few of these or all of them? Take some moments to decide what you likely see yourself doing with this space as this will shape what you put on it and what it looks like.
In deciding what to put on your altar, it might also involve some introspection on your own personal theological systems of belief. Someone who is a polytheistic pagan may require an altar to worship their deities, so you may want some items that represent one or more of your particular deities. Many people invest in beautiful, large statues that you can find these at some spiritual and pagan brick and mortar or online shops. Nowadays, there are lots of statues and figurines of very popular gods and goddesses such as Hecate, Cernunnos, Odin, Cerridwen, and much more. Many wiccans or soft polytheists will have quite simple god and goddess statues that don’t pertain to any deity in particular, as they want plain representations of that divine masculine and divine feminine. In general, placing deity statues on your altar can be a wonderful way to connect to that divinity, as a votive offering in itself, and many practitioners anoint the statues with blessing oils or dress with jewellery, charms or fabric, to show respect.
But you don’t necessarily need to have a statue on your altar if you’re a polytheist, as these are quite expensive and sometimes more niche polytheistic traditions don’t have their deities represented in the commercial world. Some practitioners dedicate a candle to a deity and will carve symbols associated with that god or goddess or anoint it with blessing oils; sanctuary lights or seven-day candles work very well for this purpose if one has access to them. But a very simple way pagans will represent their deities on their altar is by placing trinkets or objects that are symbolic of the associations of that deity. For example, for my work with Hecate, I have a set of old keys bought at an antique store.
However, if you’re more of an animist and don’t worship any deities, but rather, focus more on the spirits around you, you may decide you want to set up a land spirits altar. Connecting to your local land is a long and rewarding journey, and one of the steps to take is simply just being outside and enjoying your natural surroundings. Sometimes nature blesses us with natural material we may take home, either to utilise in our magical workings or adorn our homes with to be closer to the spirits. You may want to dress up your land spirits altar with such nature, as the animist will see it as a spirit to connect to, rather than simply a decorative material (or both!). Working as an Ecologist, I often find myself being blessing with gifts of nature, from feathers, to animal skulls, sprigs and more, and I’ll often place them within my land spirits altar. Having a sacred space dedicated to the local spirits can be a wonderful way to connect to your land, to show appreciation for the beings which exist all around us that the general lay population have mostly forgotten. We can help build good relationships with the spirits that we’ve disrespected and hurt through deforestation, pollution, and industrialisation by leaving offerings and being sincere in attempts to repair any animosity.
Some animists may also opt to create a house spirits altar, a sacred space devoted to the hidden entities that inhabit your own home or the egregore of the home itself. Many practitioners will leave offerings to the house spirit/s in order to maintain a good relationship, so that mishaps and accidents happen less frequently. On this altar you may want to put items on it to make it feel welcoming and homely, with plenty of space for offerings. Many cultures across the globe have customs for fair folk and household spirits, so it may be worth doing some research into your local folklore and cultural practices first!
Nevertheless, if you’ve decided you’re looking to set up a general magical working altar, then something to consider is what tools you currently or will utilise in your practice. There are several functional objects that the large majority of witches and pagans will place on their altar as they are extremely useful and open up many options for practice. Some of which include incense burners, offering bowls, candle holders, carving tools, a candle snuffer, pestle & mortar, etc. Particular paths of witchcraft may highlight the use of particular tools, so depending on what tradition you follow down, you may want certain items on your altar. Some tools that various paths will utilise are a knife or athame, cup or chalice, besom or broomstick, wand, stang, sword, cauldron, or magical cords. Each tool has a specific purpose that can mildly vary depending on the tradition. But if you’re more of a solitary practitioner and are not in a tradition with requires certain tools, it is really up to you what tools will help you. To use myself as an example, I am an English folk witch and one of the items I use frequently are my horse brasses as talismans or amulets, so I have them in a box on my altar for ease of access.
So as you can see, what you place upon your altar/s will entirely depend on what your beliefs are and what you practice. Our crafts are so personal, so what you decide to do with your altar is all up to you.