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How To Create a Pagan Altar

Updated on November 19, 2014

Once created, your altar is a sacred and personal space that can be used for many religious purposes such as making offerings or performing spells and other rituals. It can also be used as a space in which you can meditate and where you can keep tools such or other items for religious or spiritual work.

One example of a pagan altar. From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury.
One example of a pagan altar. From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury. | Source

Choosing an appropriate place for your altar

Altars come in many shapes and sizes. How you decide to create and layout you own will depend very much on the space or surfaces available to you and if you wish for your altar to be a permanent part of your house or something that you can set up only when specifically needed.

An altar can also be created outside. If you do not have a garden of your own but would like an outside altar instead or as well as one at home, you could carry items to a suitable space in nearby countryside or woodland when you wish to carry out magical or spiritual practises there.

When thinking about where to place your altar, there are several things to consider, including:

  • Who else uses the area?
  • Will people touch items or them be at risk of being knocked over?
  • Access and space around the altar
  • Will children be able to touch/reach the altar? Some items maybe unsafe for them
  • Do other people know about and are accepting of your beliefs?
  • Surface type, in case of spills of wax or the placement of potentially hot items such as oil burners

An altar can be as simple as a shelf in an existing bookcase, a garden slab or rock (for outdoor altars) or the top of an existing piece of furniture. Altars do not need to be elaborate or large to be effective. It is your intent that it is your sacred space and using it that way that will bring success to your workings. Some traditions have set directions or suggestions to follow when setting up your personal altar. This can include details such as the direction your altar should face and whether you should be able to walk all the way round it or not.

If other people such as house mates or family are likely to touch, rearrange or remove things from your altar it may be a better choice to place it in your own room or other private space. Ideally no one else should touch or handle your ritual tools. Keeping your altar away from other people also reduces the risk that items placed there as part of a ritual or spell will be disturbed or removed. Of course this does 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.

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. This is particularly important if you or other people will be moving about close to the area. The corner of a room will be better suited than a busy hallway, for example.

If you have children, even if they understand that they must not touch your tools they may be tempted by other items. Items that are not always present so less familiar are more likely to attract their attention. Athames, matches, oils, some herbs and other items, such as berries, that can be used to decorate your altar can be dangerous and should be stored safely.

Where you chose to place your altar may be influenced by how well the people around you are accepting of your beliefs. If you know that your parents, friends or other visitors may be disapproving or ask awkward questions and you wish to avoid this, either place your altar in a private space or only set it up when you are going to work with it. Although this may seem awkward at first, in some circumstances it is the better choice. It many cases you may find that people will not see your altar as anything more than a collection of decorative items.

Any surface used as an altar should be stable and preferably flat or at least have flat areas where candles and incense can be burned safety. It is vitally important that this are not able to fall or be knocked over and risk causing a fire. Be wary of the area around the altar space as well: curtains, books, paper, bedding, soft toys and many other household items should not be placed or be able to fall near burning materials.

Decorating your altar

Once you have decided where to locate your altar you can decide on how you want it to look. Each altar is individual and there is no right or wrong way to arrange one. Some people like a minimalist look whereas others like to fill their altar. You may wish to include items that help you get into the frame of mind for spiritual and magical workings and/or that limit distractions from the rest of the world. Many people choose to keep their ritual tools on their altars when they aren’t being used but this isn't essential. Other items you my wish to add include candles, censer, book of shadow, a small table top cauldron and figures or statues to represent the god and goddess. Any of these can be a permanent part or placed and removed from your altar as needed.

Once you have decided on the main items to be placed on your altar you can also decorate it with other items. This is often done 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. Crystals, flowers, herbs and divination tools can also be added. These can be customised to fit in with seasons and sabbats and also for specific workings as required. Adding items such as crystals and herbs can help to 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 your magical work and so the more personal and charged with your energy it is the more effective it will be.

An altar decorated for Imbolc.
An altar decorated for Imbolc. | Source
Herbs such as thyme (Thymus vulgaris) can be planted round outdoor altars or picked and placed on indoor altars. Thyme is associated with health, courage, purification, attracting faeries, the element water and the goddess Venus.
Herbs such as thyme (Thymus vulgaris) can be planted round outdoor altars or picked and placed on indoor altars. Thyme is associated with health, courage, purification, attracting faeries, the element water and the goddess Venus. | Source

Outside altars

Altars can be set up outside and used in the same way as those indoors. You probably will not want to leave your tools outside but other methods of representation can be used. You can bring your tools out when you are actively working at your altar.

If your altar is on the ground herbs and other plants connected to deities, planets, spiritualism, the elements etc. can be planted around it. Stones, coins, feathers, herbs or food items could be used to decorate an outside altar. Try to choose biodegradable materials when possible or be careful to clear away all other items once they are not needed to avoid pollution the environment or posing any danger to wildlife.

© 2013 Claire

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