Beginning Wicca: Types of Altars
In many religions, the altar is the heart of sacred space. It’s the seat of worship, where you lay out the sacred tools, call the Gods, make the offerings or do your magical workings. In most religions, there is a distance between the altar and the general practitioners; it resides at the front of a temple or church, and if anyone uses it, it would be the religious leaders. In Wicca—particularly Solitary Wicca—they altar is a very personal place. You’re not sharing one with an entire community; it’s meant as a place for private communion with your Gods and celebrating the sacred.
Building your first altar can be both daunting and exciting. For some people, it’s so daunting that it gets put off longer than it has to while the person agonizes over where it should go, what should go on it—the fear of doing it ‘wrong’ can be intimidating. Then on the other side of the spectrum there is over-excitement, when a shelf or table get covered in dust-collecting trinkets to the point that it looks like it wants to collapse under the weight of them. Instead of an altar it looks more like a New Age flea market display, and it loses all functionality.
With a little forethought, you can create the ideal altar. One of the first steps is deciding what type you want.
The shrine is mainly a space for veneration. It’s a great place to go for prayers and meditations, or to pay honor to a specific deity, spirit, household guardian, ancestor or the like. A shrine doesn’t need to be elaborate at all since it’s more of a focal point. A representation of the object of worship – such as a statue, an image, a candle, etc. – is a good start. A little decoration, such as a vase for flowers or a plant, is also a nice way to decorate. If you use incense for ritual, a censer is a must. It’s also nice to put out a cup, bowl or basket if you like to give offerings.
That’s all you really need on a shrine. You can always put crystals, herbs, candles and other decorative items if you like, but it’s good to really think through anything you want on there to avoid the risk of it just becoming a junk collection. Is the object you want to put on the shrine meaningful to you? Does it have a purpose? There’s nothing right or wrong, as long as you think it through.
There are times when you might like to make a shrine more elaborate-- for example, at Samhain my family puts up an ancestor's shrine in the dining area on the buffet. It's full of photos and their personal belongings, seasonal decorations, candles, bowls and baskets piled high with offerings and other such items.
Simple, Permanent Shrine to Hermes
Elaborate Temporary Ancestor's Shrine for Samhain Season
Box Shrine to Hecate
Cute little table-top altar
Do you have a shrine?
Esbat Altar Ready to go
A ritual altar is a little bit more elaborate usually because it’s for full-blown rituals, usually Esbats (general moon rituals) or Sabbats (solar holy days of the Wheel of the Year). The full set of ritual tools would be lain out on the altar. A full ritual altar is usually a little larger than a permanent shrine, especially when using the traditional tools like an athame, wand, cup, pentagram, incense, candles, etc—it requires a bit of space.
Some people keep out a permanent altar and use it both as a shrine and for rituals. If you can’t keep a full blown altar set up permanently somewhere in your home, it’s a good idea to make a small shrine for your simple daily prayers, meditations and devotionals, and then set up a temporary altar for big rituals.
Do you keep a permanent altar set up?
Not specifically Pagan, but a lovely book that gives new dimensions to the idea of a shrine or altar.
A working altar is designed specifically for magical workings. Some workings can be done in an evening, but other times more elaborate workings towards long-term goals can require a set up that goes undisturbed for a while. If you’re using an altar specifically for magic, it should be the least cluttered of all. In fact, if all you need for it are the actual components for the working, that’s fine. The fewer distractions, the better.
It’s perfectly fine to have three or more different altars; one or more shrines (some people like to keep different shrines to different Gods or Goddesses in different places, such as putting a shrine to Hestia in the kitchen and a shrine to Demeter and Dionysus in the garden), a ritual altar that they set up specifically for Esbats and Sabbats, plus a working altar for regular magical endeavors.
Of course, one altar can suffice for all three purposes if you have the space for everything you need, and enough privacy that no one will fiddle with your things when you leave them out. But if you don’t have that ability, it’s a good idea to determine your needs first. Knowing its function(s) will help you determine the best place to put the altar and what to get for it.
© 2013 Mackenzie Sage Wright