An altar is a designated sacred space for you to work your craft from. It provides a focus for worship in the same way Christian churches or Jewish synagogues do for their followers. As such, both solitary witches and coven witches usually have an altar of some kind in their homes.
Some witches prefer a private area in their home for their altars, such as a cupboard or separate room, while others prefer to have it in a common area where anyone can see it. Some have a permanent altar set up and yet others use a portable altar, setting it up only when needed. What you choose is a matter of preference although you may find, though, that having an altar to work magick can help you keep your focus, especially when you are new to the craft. A coven will also set up an altar when its members meet. You may choose to work magick over an altar all the time, some of the time, or none of the time, depending on what is most practical as well as most fitting for you and the magick you are working.
Here are a few tips regarding keeping an altar:
If you are setting up a permanent altar, it should be in a location where it won’t be disturbed. The middle of your kitchen probably isn’t the best area if you have a family of eight that gets together for a meal or two daily. In the case of a portable one, it should be in a location where it won’t be disturbed during use.
The altar itself does not have to be large or ornate. Inside, it can be a small table or console, a deep windowsill, a fireplace mantle, or any other flat surface you have available that gives you sufficient space to work your magick. Outside, it can be a large flat stone, a bigger tree stump, or a flat area of cleared ground. A portable altar can be made from wood or a sturdy box or even a suitcase.
Prior to setting up your altar, make certain that it and the location are physically clean and that it is kept clean thereafter. Clutter or anything else that doesn’t belong can detract from your spellwork, producing less than desirable results.
Pagan altars often face east but this is a preference, not mandatory. In actuality, magick can be more effective if you face the direction of the element you will be working with predominantly at the time.
Although there are general guidelines for setting up, you do not need every single magickal tool available for your altar. It’s best to just buy or make and put out those that you personally use and need to work your spells.
Have your altar completely set up with everything you need prior to casting a circle or spellcasting. You don’t want to have to go find a pen and paper once you’ve started working magick.
Your altar should reflect who you are. As such, you might find that you enjoy less traditional items on your altar, preferring those that resonate with you. These objects can be anything from a pine cone to a photo of a deceased ancestor you still feel a bond with. Anything that you feel a magickal connection to is fine.
Some magickal tools are called altar tools because pagans customarily keep these tools on their altars as they use them regularly when working magick. You might choose to use some or all of them, depending on what works best for you. For example, some witches have several wands that work for different purposes but do not use an athame at all. Time and practice, as well as trial and error, will guide you as to which of these tools best enhance your spellwork.
ALTAR CLOTH: A cloth used only to cover your altar, if you choose to do so. It can be embroidered or printed with one or more pentacles so you wouldn’t need a separate one if choose not to. Some witches have several altar cloths and change the colour their using based on the sabbat, season, and/or the magick they are working./p>
ATHAME: Pronounced ath-uh-may. A symbolic ceremonial dagger or knife with a double-edged blade, used in spellwork and rituals to cast circles and direct energy. It can also represent the element of fire. It is not used to harm or kill anyone or anything. It can be made from various different materials, with steel, wood, and/or stone being the most common. Traditionally, an athame had a black handle but this is no longer the case so a handle of any colour is completely acceptable.
BELL: A small metal hand-bell that is used to summon as well as to dismiss. In a coven, it is used to call members to order. Solitary and coven witches sometimes use a bell to begin a ritual and some spells as well as to open and/or close the circle. Lastly, it is can be used to summon deities or benevolent spirits as well as to dismiss negative or malevolent ones.
BESOM: A broom used to sweep away negative energies especially during spellwork. It is customarily made of natural materials such as wood for the handle and corn husk or straw for the skirt’s bristles. The broom represents the union of female and male energies: the handle, male, and the skirt, female. A besom is used only for magick work and not for day-to-day cleaning of your home or business. In fact, since the ritual sweeping is ceremonial, your besom doesn’t have to make contact with the floor. A larger besom works best in larger spaces such as your home or a large circle while a smaller is best for work in a more confined area or for travel. Some Pagans keep their besoms skirt-side up in honour of the Goddess.
BOLINE: A knife with a crescent-shaped blade that is used to harvest herbs, flowers, and other plants as well as to inscribe candles. It typically has a metal blade and wooden handle. Traditionally, a boline had a white handle but this is no longer the case so a handle of any colour is completely acceptable.
BOOK OF SHADOWS: A personal journal or notebook in which you record your own magick work. It’s a good idea keep detailed records the spells and rituals you’ve performed, as well as other notes pertaining to your spellcrafting such the tools you used, the moon phase during a spell, etc. Also, noting the magickal outcomes helps you learn what works and doesn’t work for you as well as your progress in the craft throughout the years. Although a regular notebook will do just fine, most witches choose something a bit fancier because a BoS is a record and keepsake for years to come. That said, though, your BoS can be as simple or ornate as you like. It can be very methodical or whimsical. There’s no right or wrong as it should be a reflection of you and your personality.
CANDLES: On your altar, candles are used to represent Goddess and God, as well as the element of fire. The smoke of an extinguished candle can represent the element of air. Candles are also customarily used to represent colours during spellwork. Candles may also be used in a form of divination called scrying. Learn more about Candles.
CAULDRON: A three-legged cast iron pot that has a curved handle. It is used during spellcrafting to burn herbs, powdered incenses, and resins but can also serve to make drafts, elixirs, infusions, and potions. During spellwork, the cauldron is associated with the element of air when used to burn incense or resin or with the element of water when used with a liquid. A smaller one is usually sufficient for working magick since most witches don’t mix up large batches of potions or infusions during spellwork. Your cauldron will get very hot during use so it should be placed on a trivet or potholder to protect your altar’s surface. As well, a potholder or oven mitt should be used to pick up a hot cauldron to prevent you from burning yourself.
CHALICE: A cup or goblet with a stem and foot, a chalice represents the element of water and is also used to drink wine during rituals. As such, your chalice should be made from a food-grade metal, glass, or ceramic. A chalice is sometimes paired with an athame during fertility magick.
LIBATION BOWL: Also called an offering bowl. This is a small, often shallow bowl typically used for offerings of foods or liquids to the divine. It also represents the element of water. A libation bowl can be used for cleansing and charging magickal items such as crystals. It should be made of food-grade material such as glass or wood. It can be as plain or ornamental as you like.
MIRROR: This is typically a small mirror with a black reflective surface, although some witches prefer larger ones. The most common use for this magick mirror is scrying, a form of divination. Some witches use them to scry to guide them when writing a spell. Although you can purchase one at your local metaphysical shop, you can easily Craft a Witch Mirror.
PENTACLE: Although the terms pentacle and pentagram are often used interchangeably, the pentacle is a five-pointed star (a pentagram) that is enclosed in a circle. The pentacle dates back thousands of years and has historically been a positive symbol of different religions throughout history. Today, it is a Pagan religious symbol of protection, in the way of the Christian crucifix or the Jewish Star of David. The top point represents you, your spirit, and the remaining points represent each of the four elements, with the circle representing the circle of life. As an altar tool, a pentacle is typically made from a flat disk of wood, metal, or ceramic. Despite its having been erroneously attributed, it is not a symbol of satan or satanism. In fact, most Pagans do not believe in the existence of satan, which is a construct of Abrahamic religions.
SOIL: Although not a typically Pagan altar tool, many green witches choose it as it can represent the element of earth on your altar. Some witches will keep a small potted plant for that purpose. Others keep a some in a small bowl. It’s simply a matter of personal preference. Soil is also used as an ingredients in spells and rituals. Some traditions prefer to use cemetery dirt when working magick. However, in green witchery, any rich fertile soil can be used unless your spell specifically calls for cemetery dirt.
WAND: A long thin implement used to summon and direct energy as an extension of yourself as well as to represent the element of air. Wands are classically made of wood but can also be crafted from crystal or metal or combinations of two or more materials, all of which will have unique magickal properties. They can be straight, braided, curved, or wavy. As such, some witches have an assortment of wands, depending on the type of magick they work. Traditionally, the measurement of a wand was determined by the length of one’s arm, from inner elbow to fingertips. However, many people find this length a bit awkward to work with, choosing instead wands that are 10 to 12 inches long. What you choose is a matter of personal preference.
WITCH BOX: A box for you to store tools if you do not have a permanent altar space or cupboard or if you don’t want to leave all your tools out on your altar. A witch box is customarily made of wood and serves to protect your tools from getting dirty, damaged, and/or broken in between uses, as well as to protect your privacy when you have visitors if you aren’t open about being a Pagan. These boxes can be as simple or ornate as you like. If your box is large enough, it can be used as an altar space when needed or as a portable altar.
WITCH CUPBOARD: This is a designated cupboard or cabinet in which to store tools and ingredients when not in use. Even if you do have a permanent altar where you keep your altar tools, this is a great space in which to store other tools and ingredients, especially those that should be stored in a dark place such as essential oils.