I grew up fascinated by ancient myths and legends. I started studying paganism seriously in 2013 and was initiated into a coven in 2016.
Not all pagans perform formal rituals, and that's fine. There are plenty of informal—and often underutilized—rituals that pagans can perform daily. But that's a list for another day. Practitioners who do perform formal rituals need to have an altar to hold both practical and symbolic items. Traditionally, the altar should be placed in the center or northern quarter of the ritual circle. The left-hand side of the altar is generally considered feminine, while the right-hand side is considered masculine. In a perfect world, the items on each side should be aligned with these energies and the sides should be reasonably balanced. However, this isn't often practical. The items on your altar can, and should, change depending on the purpose of the ritual and your personal preferences. In this article, I'll list and explore the basic items that should be on a southern hemisphere altar, and how they can change for different rituals.
This should come as no surprise for anyone—since man first discovered fire, it has held an important place in the collective unconsciousness of our species.
Apart from looking really pretty, a candle symbolizes two of the five basic elements; fire and spirit. Some people also add two more candles (you can never have enough candles!), one for the God and one for the Goddess. Fire is considered a masculine element and south is the direction of fire. However for safety reasons the candle/s are usually placed to the center or north of the altar. A single, or spirit, candle should be placed in the center while a Goddess candle should be to the north west (left hand side) and the God candle to the north east (right hand side).
Fire is the element of strength and rebirth, candles however are used in almost every pagan ritual in one way or another. Not just those relating to the properties of fire.
When used the Goddess candle should be white or silver, the God candle should be white or gold. The spirit candle should be white, or can be changed depending on the ritual being performed. For example a ritual for prosperity could have a green candle, a ritual for healing could have a blue candle.
Anything that holds water can be used here but traditionally a chalice is a decorative metal cup. A chalice symbolizes the water element and should be filled with fresh water prior to the ritual. Water is considered a feminine element and west is the direction of water so the chalice is generally placed on the western (left-hand) side of the altar. Water is the element of healing and cleansing so the chalice is usually used in such rituals.
This can be any small dish or plate which holds salt and is traditionally engraved or painted with a pentacle symbol. A pentacle symbolizes the earth element and should be filled with your chosen salt prior to the ritual. Earth, like water, is considered a feminine element and north is the direction of earth. As mentioned earlier there are usually candles in the northern section of the altar so the pentacle is usually placed in the northwest. This is also convenient as often the salt is combined with the water in the chalice during rituals. Earth is the element of protection and prosperity so is used in such rituals or as mentioned can be combined with the water in the chalice to combine their respective properties.
Symbolizing the air element the incense is important for cleansing the ritual space. There are multiple forms of incense to choose from including sticks, cones, resin and dried herbs. It doesn't really matter which form you choose. Air is considered a masculine element and east is the direction of air so the incense should be placed on the eastern (right hand) side of the altar. A form of ignition (matches or gas lighter) and extra incense should also be placed here. Air is the element of intellect and creativity, and while incense is used in such rituals it is also utilized in almost every other ritual as well.
The incense is one of the most flexible items on the altar. Research should always be done to determine the most appropriate incense for the ritual being performed. For example dragon's blood can be used for a protection ritual or lavender used in a ritual for anxiety.
5. Representation of Deity
Often this is two statues, one of the God and one of the Goddess, in which ever form you associate to them. However no one can tell you how to perceive deity so this item can be in any form that works for you. The statues should be placed on the northern edge of the altar, Goddess on the left and God on the right. The God and Goddess candles, if you have them, are placed directly in front. If you are an agnostic pagan this item can be left off the altar completely.
These items are usually entirely symbolic and rarely used during a ritual.
Another representation of the fire element the athame/sword is important for directing energies and cutting the boundary of the circle. Whether you use an athame or sword is a personal preference; while swords look more impressive, athames are easier and safer to use in small and/or crowded spaces. As mentioned earlier fire is considered a masculine element and south is the direction of fire so an athame should be placed on the southeast of the altar while the sword can be placed underneath the altar where it is easy to access.
It is custom to share a 'meal' with all ritual participants, including the God and Goddess, before closing the circle. It is a good way to formally conclude the ritual, provide an offering for the deities as well as help ground the participants after raising energy. The offering chalice should be filled with a drink of your choice prior to the ritual, usually it is a wine or mead but a non-alcoholic drink can also be used. The offering chalice is located on the left hand side of the altar in front of the water chalice. The offering plate should hold a cake of some form cut into enough pieces for all participants plus one for for the God and Goddess. The offering plate is located on the south side of the altar.
This is a basic list of the items found on southern hemisphere pagan altars for those beginning their journey into formal rituals. But remember, an altar is an individual expression and should be unique to you or your group. More experienced practitioners will add and change the items on their altars to what works best for them and their particular ritual. Some additional items that could be added include a book of shadows, anointing oil, crystals, seasonal cuttings, statues and paintings.
Remember: while the items will remain the same for northern hemisphere altars, their locations on the altar will change, so do your research prior to commencing a ritual.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can a mirror be placed on an altar?
Answer: Short answer; yes. You can put whatever you feel is appropriate on your personal altar. Mirrors are useful divination tools so definitely have a place on altars.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on May 06, 2020:
Interesting. This was a very informative piece about your religion and how to approach rituals. Thank you.