This post first appeared on my Patreon, where you can find many other goodies.
I warned my husband when I moved in that I was apt to turn any flat surface into an altar. I believe he thought I was kidding.I am demonstrably a fan of setting up and maintaining an altar as part of your regular spiritual practice. If you’re thinking “Great! How do I do that?” or just like to read about how other people do things, here’s a rundown of different types of altars you might choose to set up and what to put on them.
The Basics You can set up an altar nearly anywhere you can fit the items you want to put on it. I have used a mantel piece, various shelves, an antique buffet, an antique wash stand, a step stool from my childhood, a large rock, and an assortment of tables from a fancy antique corner table to a folding table I bought at Walmart. You can also use a cabinet, which is technically a shrine but don’t let that stop you especially if you have cats. I’ve used a china cabinet where I also stored various herbs and other sacred items I wasn’t using at that moment. Cloth to cover the altar makes it look pretty and the colors will generally be dictated by the intended purpose (or your personal tastes). Candles likewise. If you use candles that aren’t already in glass, or you like to use a metal incense burner, something to protect your altar cloth from wax and singes is good…I often use a ceramic floor tile I bought at Home Depot as a kind of trivet, because they come in lots of colors and designs. If you have a shrine or otherwise can’t burn candles, it’s probably smarter to use electric candles or lights (I’ve used fairy lights to good effect). There are also substitutes for incense which I will go into when I talk about personal cleansing.
Devotional AltarUsually this is for a deity you have a strong relationship with, but you can also set up an altar for your creative muse or for your dreams, which may have some elements of a spell altar (which I will talk about below). I’ve set up altars for several deities, including Ishtar, Hekate, and Lilith. Generally, you include colors that deity likes, an image and/or symbols, stones, flowers and incense that deity prefers, and food offerings if you know what they are. Ishtar likes beer, lapis lazuli, and the best incense you can afford, for example. For her, it’s better to get a small amount of the highest quality of everything you can find. Lilith on the other hand seems to like things that are kind of broken, repurposed, or weird. Your mileage may vary. A witchcraft-style “main altar” is essentially a form of devotional altar. In that case you will have representations of deities (usually a god and goddess, depending on the tradition) and symbols of the four elements (which are usually also your magical tools). If you are lucky enough to have an entire room to do rituals in that isn’t used for another purpose, you might have your tools on your main altar and other representations of the elements on four elemental altars in the four directions. At times I’ve had a ritual room chock full of a main altar, elemental altars, an ancestor altar, and specific separate devotional altars for deities. A singular main altar might take on aspects of the other types of altars when it’s the only one you have room for or you just like having everything in one place.
Ancestor Altar Arguably an ancestor altar is a form of devotional altar, but focused on your ancestors. A boveda both is and isn’t an ancestor altar, and some variants of Espiritismo put photographs or other mementos of the dead on their boveda, while others do not. I’ve described a basic boveda and resources to find out more in a previous post. I generally have both a boveda and a separate ancestor altar, especially at Samhain. For the latter I use a crochet doily that my grandmother made, and sometimes a black or blue cloth. I have photos or other mementos of both my ancestors of blood and ancestors of spirit (the Mighty Dead of my witchcraft traditions, other people I admire from the past), and my Beloved Dead, those whom I have personal connection to whether kin or not. I have a statue of Epona whom I have long associated with ancestor reverence, usually a white candle (sometimes a skull-shaped one), perfume (Florida water, rose or lavender), tobacco, and food offerings. The food offerings are frequently whiskey (corn whiskey, by preference), coffee, or food I know my ancestors liked. I have one plate from my grandmother’s china which I use for food offerings, generally small amounts of whatever I’m having. They get their food before anyone else does. At Samhain I will add more of everything, plus a few things I made special, plus apples.
Spell Altar A spell altar is what it sounds like; an altar set up for a particular purpose, and it may be temporary or semi-permanent. Many people have a permanent money altar or spell going in their house, where they put extra change or cash money and bless it before they spend it. A cloth and candles in appropriate colors to your purpose, incense, flowers or herbs if relevant, whatever seems right. For this kind of thing I often draw the thing I want, or a symbol of it, and I very frequently will set up an altar and use it to bless a spiritual bath or mojo hand that I then use or carry.
Household Altar This can be a combination of several things, and it differs from a main altar primarily in that other members of the household are encouraged to add things or participate to whatever degree they are willing, interested, and unlikely to try to eat the offerings. It also can be a type of devotional altar focused on the well-being of the household. Mine is on our mantelpiece and includes a statue of Juno, our marriage certificate, our handfasting cord, and a spell jar that contains our wishes for our household and relationship. It also has whatever seasonal altar action is going on and is where my big Samhain display goes in October. I put Peaceful Home and guardian angel candles there, and it’s where house blessing items like incense or bowls of salt water go in preparation for use. As such it’s also partially a spell altar, but for spells of protection and blessing of our household.
Outdoor Altars I have a large quartz stone in my front yard where I leave offerings for the Fair Folk. I have also been known to set up an outdoor altar for Lilith near the compost bin (she likes it there). These are often very simple, less of an altar than just a spot, but they serve the same purpose. As mentioned, altars can be an important part of your regular practice. Pick a day (once a week, or when the moon is in a certain sign or phase) and clean whatever needs cleaning and refresh whatever needs refreshing. Altars have an important place not just in witchcraft traditions but in many related practices, and they’re a good way to build up spiritual connection and sort of store it up for when you feel depleted. The physical presence and the familiar act of tending your altar can recharge you when you need it most.