Wicca Basics: Designing Your Ritual Altar Layout

Updated on May 29, 2018
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A Wiccan of 25 years, Sage likes to put her background as a writer and teacher to use by helping people learn about this NeoPagan path.

The Wiccan Altar

It’s been said that the altar is the heart of ritual and worship. No matter how elaborate or how simply your rite, your altar is going to be a major focal point. It’s where you lay the sacred tools, components for your spells, things for blessings, offerings and anything else your ritual might be about.

When you’re new to Wicca, you read about a lot of processes, tools and procedures that can be confusing. My goal in my hubs is to help simplify and inform. In this article, let’s tackle the altar—how do you create one for practical use?

For the purpose of this article, I’m restricting to discussion to altars built for standard rituals—Esbats (moon celebrations) or Sabbats (sun celebrations).

Don't Be Confused

You can personalize it! Get creative.
You can personalize it! Get creative. | Source

The Altar Itself

So what do you use for an altar? That depends—what is convenient and serviceable? Any surface can be transformed into an altar. Some things that have served me as an altar in the past include:

  • Coffee tables
  • Dresser tops
  • A shelf on the wall
  • Nightstands
  • A small kitchen table
  • A picnic table at the park
  • Two milk crates straddled by a shelf
  • A large cigar box
  • A trunk
  • A blanket spread on the ground

Your altar can be anything you find comfortable to work with. If you’re erecting a permanent altar, make sure it’s somewhere that’s out of the way so it can lie undisturbed, yet in a convenient place for holding rituals. If you are looking for an altar that you can set up and break down for each ritual use, a good option is to choose something that will also house your tools. It’s convenient to just open up a dresser drawer or side table cabinet, pull out what you need and put it right on top of the altar.

What Goes On the Altar?

I like to consider things in categories. It makes it easier to digest in bite sized pieces. Nothing is mandatory, these are just suggestions. If you don’t have a specific tool yet, just omit it until you are ready to get one and begin working with it:

Altar Cloth

Representations of Deities: picture, candle, statue, etc.

Representations of the Elements: for Air, a censer, fan, feather, etc.; for Earth, a bowl of salt, cornmeal, sand, etc.; for Fire, a candle, lava rock, electric candle, etc.; for Water, a bowl of water, seashell, small mirror, etc.

Traditional Wiccan Tools: athame, wand, pentacle, cup, book of shadows, etc.

Miscellaneous: service candle (a white taper to light all other things); candle holders; libation dish; cakes and ale; spiritual objects (crystals, charms, talismans, etc.); divination tools (if using them); spell components (if doing magical workings); decorations (flowers, holiday decorations, etc.).

An Esbat Altar Draped in Shimmery White

Candles to represent deities; representative of elements; main tools to be used; a little seasonal flora to decorate.
Candles to represent deities; representative of elements; main tools to be used; a little seasonal flora to decorate. | Source

The Layouts

How you lay out the altar is, again, a matter of preference. A lot also depends on your space and what kind of things you’re putting on there. Here are some suggestions (again, not rules). Naturally, the altar cloth would be laid first.

Representations of Deities:

  • If honoring a single deity, the center (maybe a little more toward the back) of the altar. All other things are surrounding it
  • For a God and Goddess, the God representation is usually placed on the right, and Goddess on the left
  • If honoring multiple deities, line up their symbols along the back of the altar

Representation of Elements:

  • Put them in a small cluster between my God and Goddess representations, aligned with their corresponding quarters
  • Place them at the four edges of the altar, aligned with their corresponding quarters
  • Water and Earth can go on the left (Goddess) side of the altar since they are feminine elements; Air and Fire can go on the right (God) side of the altar since they are masculine elements.

Traditional Wiccan Tools:

  • Put them on the altar front and center for convenient handling, aligning them with quarters if desired.
  • Put the pentacle and cup to the left (feminine symbols) and the athame and wand to the right (masculine symbols).
  • Put the pentacle in the center, lay the wand and athame across the edge of the table for convenient grabbing, and put the cup off to the left side.

Sprinkle Miscellaneous items where you like, and where they feel appropriate, and where they won’t be inconvenient. Logic dictates taller things such as pillar candles and vases of flowers are put perhaps toward the back out of the way. Smaller things may be placed to fill in spaces throughout. Large baskets, cauldrons, etc. might be placed in the center, to the side, or even on the floor next to the altar.

There is no real right or wrong here, it all comes down to what works for you. These are just some ideas you might use for inspiration. Check out some of these altar diagrams for ideas and inspirations in designing your own altar set up:

Altar Layout Examples:

This is my standard altar layout for most Esbatas and some Sabbats (some Sabbats I have different rituals that require different tools/layouts). Sometimes I include a cauldron on the floor or above the BOS, depending if I need to use it.
This is my standard altar layout for most Esbatas and some Sabbats (some Sabbats I have different rituals that require different tools/layouts). Sometimes I include a cauldron on the floor or above the BOS, depending if I need to use it. | Source
Here's another standard altar set-up with most tools people can use. It divides the feminine and the masculine.
Here's another standard altar set-up with most tools people can use. It divides the feminine and the masculine. | Source
This is a good set-up for people WITHOUT TOOLS. A candle for deity, a cup, a plate, a small bowl of salt & water, a fire candle and incense burner (cones or sticks are fine). Good for beginners starting out, or when you're away from your tools.
This is a good set-up for people WITHOUT TOOLS. A candle for deity, a cup, a plate, a small bowl of salt & water, a fire candle and incense burner (cones or sticks are fine). Good for beginners starting out, or when you're away from your tools. | Source

Remember, nothing is written in stone. Try it one way, then tweak the layout until your come up with one that you find both convenient and pleasing. Once you have it, don't forget to sketch a diagram into your Book of Shadows.

© 2013 Mackenzie Sage Wright

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      Becky 16 months ago

      Hi I'm new to wiccan and I am yet to set up my alta can I put pictures and sentimental items of a deceased love one on my alta.? Also can I use a silk cloth or does it have to be a proper symbolic alta cloth? Many thanks

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