The Basics of a Wiccan Altar

So you’re all set to do your very first solo ritual.  You’ve found the perfect one (or, if you’re really ambitious, you’ve created the perfect one), and you have all the necessary materials.  There’s only one problem…

You have absolutely NO idea what should go on your altar!

Don’t worry.  Setting up an altar isn’t as complicated as you may think.  In this article, I’ll explain a few different types of altar setups, list the common things to include on your altar, and share with you what I put on my personal altar.

Altar Etiquette

First and foremost, let me get one thing clear: an altar is a very personal thing to a witch.  It is the space in which you raise your energy, meditate, and practice your Craft.  As such, your altar should be one that reflects who you are and what you believe.  Because of this, I maintain that there is no “wrong” way to set up your personal altar.  I also think that your altar can (and should) evolve over time.  What you find magical and beneficial as a fledgling witch may not be what you find magical and beneficial to you in a year, two years, ten years.

Nevertheless, there is some altar etiquette that I believe serves as a good basis for what should (and should not) be on your altar.

Functionality.

Above all, your altar should be functional for what you’re trying to accomplish.  Depending on where you live and what kind of space you can devote to your ritual purposes, a personal altar can be a permanent fixture or it can be something you set up and take down as necessary.  When I first started practicing, I had limited space in which to work.  Because of that, I had to set up my altar every time I wanted to do a spell or ritual.  This has its benefits.  Setting up your altar helps to put you in a head space of performing ritual.  Indeed, many witches consider setting everything up as part of their ritual.

If you have some space to dedicate solely to your practice, that’s great.  This, too, has some clear benefits.  For one, you can ritually dedicate the space to the practice of magic.  Any time you enter that room, you’re entering a sacred space that is basically “pre-charged” with energy.  You also save time by not having to set up a temporary table.

The last thing you want to consider from a functionality perspective is size.  I’ve found that having a card table for a personal altar is more than enough space to fully function as well as fully decorate.  So a 32-34 square inch table would do just fine.  But I’ve made do with a table that’s much smaller.

Decoration.

Your altar should be pretty.  Unless you don’t like pretty.  Maybe you like simple.  If you do, then it should be simple.  Basically, it should be appealing to you in every way.

But what’s “supposed” to be on your altar?  Well, if you search the Interwebs for “Wiccan altar setup” you’ll be bombarded with pictures diagrams galore, each one slightly different than the other.  Some look beyond complicated, like this one:

Source: naturalpantheist.wordpress.com

Source: naturalpantheist.wordpress.com

Now, if the things on that diagram absolutely appeal to you, then by all means, build that altar to your heart’s content!  Personally, however, I think it’s too busy.  If it were merely a decorative altar and not a functional one, perhaps it would be different.  But if I’m going to be burning candles and incense and working with my tools, I want something that’s a bit less populated.  This picture, from WiccanTogether.com, is a great example of a simple altar:

Source: wiccantogether.com

Source: wiccantogether.com

The reality is, you’re probably going to want an altar that’s in between these two extremes.  Both of them are perfectly fine, if it suits you.  Ultimately, you’re going to want all of the things you’re going to use in your ritual close at hand.  For me, that usually consists of candles, a bowl for ashes, incense, my athame, my Book of Shadows, and maybe some oils.

Occasion-Specific Altars

In addition to a personal altar, you might have altars that are set up for specific occasions, such as a Sabbat.  In that case, you’ll probably want something a little different than your everyday altar.  Unfortunately, for brevity’s sake, I can’t go into all the different details of Sabbat-specific altars (it would be thousands of words long!) but I can give you some high points for how you can go about determining what kind of altar to set up:

  • Think of the “theme” of the Sabbat.  If it’s Yule you’re celebrating, then decorate with mistletoe, candles of silver, green, and red.  If you’re celebrating Ostara, think spring colors, blooming flowers, bunnies!
  • Get ideas from other witches.  I’ve said it before; don’t limit yourself to only using one website or other source as the ONLY source of information.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing “Google research” or checking out some books on Amazon that may have detailed information about Sabbat festivals.
  • Do what feels right.  You don’t have to follow some strict ritual celebration for a certain Sabbat if it doesn’t appeal to you.  You may even need to experiment with a different ritual each year until you find one that resonates with you.  Just remember that it’s a celebration, not a chore.

My Altar

I will leave you with a description of what is typically on my altar.  I have an altar cloth, at the center of which is the triple moon with a pentacle in the middle.  At the bottom of the altar, I have a pentacle disk that is always on the altar when I perform my rituals.  I have votive candles at the top of the altar that light it up (I perform my rituals by candlelight), below which is usually the incense burner.  Then towards the middle I have whatever spell-specific candles I need.  I have a small cast-iron cauldron that is at the upper left hand, the mortar and pestle at the upper right hand, and in the lower right hand I have a tray that I place ashes in (if applicable).  At the lower left is my Book of Shadows and my athame.

Unlike many altars, my personal altar does not have a candle or sculpture for the God and Goddess.  Many Wiccans may sneer at this, but I personally don’t find it useful to have them on my altar.  I prefer simplicity.  When I have more space to dedicate to a decorative altar, perhaps then I can get a bit more extravagant.

So, those are the basics of creating an altar for your magical workings!  Blessed Be!