How to Set up a Wiccan or Pagan Altar for Beginners on a Budget
Altars in Wicca, Witchcraft, and Paganism
New to the worlds of Wicca, witchcraft, and paganism? The whirlwind of ideas and inspiration surrounding the craft can be almost overwhelming at first, but a well-appointed altar can help keep you grounded as you explore your practice. Best of all, most of the necessary components of a Wiccan or pagan altar can be acquired or made from scratch at very little cost.
Wiccan or pagan altars are raised surfaces (tables, shelves, desks, stumps, etc.) that serve as loci of ceremony, invocation, spell-casting, worship, chanting, prayer, and other practices. In addition to the chosen surface and optional cloth covering, the traditional elements of a Wiccan altar, in alphabetical order, are the following:
Traditional Wiccan Altar Tools
While these altar adornments are some of the most commonly used items in the Wiccan and pagan traditions, they are by no means required. Every altar is unique, and should reflect the personality, interests, aesthetic, and goals of its creator. Your altar is for you, and should be assembled, customized, modified, and changed according to your needs. It is a place that should make you feel relaxed and invigorated all at once.
In addition to the traditional components, many other materials are commonly used in the assemblage of altars. These are unique to each individual and can be changed based on the current season, upcoming sabbats, or any deities with which one is currently working. Some of the more commonly used optional altar adornments include:
Optional Pagan Altar Components
- Minerals, Crystals, and Rocks
- Live Plants
- Dried Herbs, Flowers, and Plants
- Animal Remains
- Drawings and Crafts
- Anything Else You Want to Include
Create Your Own Altar on the Cheap
Now that you are familiar with the types of items used in the creation of an altar, you can begin to assemble your own! With a little creativity and innovation, you can create a highly personal, supremely functional altar at little to no cost.
Step 1: Choose What Will Serve as the Surface of Your Altar
The first task one must undertake in the creation of an altar is the selection of an appropriate base, or surface. In most cases, this is some variety of table, but in theory, it can be anything flat enough to harbor the tools of your trade. Size is is important here, as the surface you choose to assemble your altar upon must be spacious enough to accommodate each of the items you wish to include. The following make great free or low-cost altar choices:
Depending on your living situation, you may have access to a variety of tables in your home. If not, garage sales, thrift stores, and Craigslist’s “free” section are all great places to acquire a table that can serve as your altar. The older, more weathered tables you might find from these sources tend to have more character and charm than newly purchased tables, and are definitely cheaper. Note: When selecting a table, make sure the height is appropriate for the manner in which you prefer to practice (e.g. sitting, kneeling, or standing).
Milk crates, mail bins, dresser drawers, and other sturdy but frequently discarded items can be effectively used as altars when inverted. If the base of a single milk crate doesn’t provide enough surface area for your tools and practice, try placing four of them in in a square and covering them with a cloth to create a larger surface. A piece of card stock cut to size and placed atop the inverted milk crates under your chosen cloth will help you achieve a flatter surface.
Connection to nature has always been a strong tenant of Wicca and paganism. Using a stump with a flat top lends your altar a more natural look, free of the hard lines typically associated with manufactured furniture. Best of all, stumps are cheap or free if you know where to get them. If you have access to a chainsaw, you can create your own stump from a felled tree trunk or discarded log. Always be careful and take recommended precautions when using tools (magical or otherwise)!
Step 2: Decide Where You Will Set Up Your Altar
The location and directional orientation of an altar is a matter of both choice and convenience, and varies greatly between practitioners. The following factors can be considered when deciding where to set up your altar:
Indoor or Outdoor?
Outdoor altars are very popular with individuals who frequently commune with nature and natural elements as part of their practice. If you choose to place your altar outdoors, you will likely need to transport and assemble/disassemble it each time you practice, as items left outside for extended periods are subject to damage, loss, theft, and any number of other eventualities. If you’d like to keep your altar set up on a more permanent basis, an indoor location would be the best choice. Some choose to keep a permanent altar at home and compile a small, portable altar kit for outdoor practice.
Many individuals choose to orient their altar in a particular cardinal direction. A lot of rituals involve the practitioner facing north, so this has become a popular altar orientation. Others choose to have their altars face east or west, to embrace and honor the rising or setting of the sun. You can also choose your altar’s orientation based on which of the four traditional elements you resonate most closely with. North is associated with earth, east with air, south with fire, and west with water.
Step 3: Adorn Your Altar With Some Classic Wiccan Altar Tools
An athame is a ceremonial knife or blade used in a variety of Wiccan and pagan rituals. Most athames feature a black handle, and some are inscribed with images, runes, or other symbols. Ceremonial blades are used for channeling energy or intention, drawing circles, casting spells, banishing negativity, and a host of other magical tasks. When assembling your altar, any blade or tool you have access to can serve as an athame. There is no need to purchase a new implement unless you so choose.
A pocket knife passed down from a relative would make a great athame, especially if there is meaning or significance attached to it. A dull kitchen knife with a wooden handle can be embellished with spare fabric and old beads to create a custom athame. If there is a certain type of tool you use frequently in your life, work, or art, use it as a personalized athame! If you are a writer, choose a pen or pencil. If you are the handy type, a retired wrench can be used. If you are an artist, choose an old paintbrush. Whatever implement you choose to include on your altar as your athame, feel free to personalize, decorate, or otherwise embellish it your liking.
Brooms, also known as besoms, are usually made from a bundle of small twigs secured to stouter branch that serves as the broom’s handle. In Wicca and other traditions, brooms are frequently used to cleanse or purify areas in which a ritual is to be conducted. These can include rooms, circles, or altars themselves.
While small, altar-appropriate, miniature brooms can be purchased from various makers on Etsy and in specialty stores, they can also be easily constructed on one’s own using found materials. For new practitioners, the act of gathering twigs and assembling a personal broom can be an excellent introduction to the craft, not to mention a great excuse for a walk in the woods. Simply gather a handful or two of twigs from the forrest floor and a single, thicker, longer branch to attach them to. Use thread, twine, or natural material to securely bind the smaller twigs around the bottom of the larger branch. You can research the magical associations of various tree types to inform your selection as you gather materials. Once again, feel free to personalize your creation with any decorations or embellishments that make it your own.
Candles are one of the most common items seen across all variety of altars. They are frequently used in spells, rituals, invocations, cleansings, and other rites, and can cast a lovely, flickering glow over your alter during moments of rest or reflection.
Start by checking your attic, basement, closet, junk drawer, or other household nooks and crannies known to harbor disused junk or forgotten detritus. You may posses more candles than you realize! If you do not have any candles in your possession, thrift stores will once again prove to be a valuable resource. Most thrift stores have the odd candle or two in stock, and most Goodwill stores have an entire shelf or section devoted to them.
Use your intuition when picking out candles—choose shapes, sizes, and colors that appeal to you. If your budget is particularly prohibitive, small candles known as tea lights can be purchased in bulk at big-box retailers like Ikea or your local hardware or catering store. Remember to always use caution when lighting, burning, and extinguishing candles.
Cauldrons, originally designed as cooking vessels for use over open fires, are employed both symbolically and practically in Wiccan and pagan practices. They are functional components of many popular rites and spells, and are often used to combine the component ingredients involved in certain rituals. Many practitioners also use them to burn incense, herbs, or dry flowers during moments of meditation.
When it comes to altars, space is limited. Unless you plan to prepare home-cooked meals over an open fire atop your altar (not recommended), you should try to acquire something a little smaller in scale. Miniature cast-iron cauldrons can be purchased online or at specialty shops, but any appropriately-sized vessel will do. Do you have an old tin camping mug imbued with the energy of the forest from your countless childhood excursions? What about a piece of ceramic ware you fabricated and kiln-fired in an art class? Don’t worry if nothing is coming to mind, just scour thrift stores and flea markets until a small, beautiful, forgotten vessel calls to you from the corner of a dusty shelf.
The term chalice chalice often conjures images of beautifully crafted, ornately decorated, oversized goblet fit for royalty. As it pertains to your altar, a chalice is simply a ceremonial drinking vessel that can, like the rest of the items on this list, be imbued with intention and used symbolically in a variety of spiritual tasks.
As a vessel, a chalice can be filled with herbs, ashes, flowers, and other materials at your discretion, either for use in a specific spell or ritual, or simply for your aesthetic delight. In this way, the chalice is very similar to the cauldron in both function and appearance. To save space and money, many practitioners select one vessel to use symbolically as both a cauldron and a chalice on their altar.
Incense is used for a variety of purposes in Wiccan and pagan practices, and the fragrant smoke it exudes makes it a pleasure to work with! Incense smoke is used frequently by practitioners to cleanse circles, altars, and other areas of lingering energy in preparation for a task or ritual. It can also be used to make any stale odors emanating from any ill-scented materials you use in your craft (e.g. valerian root, gathered furs or bones, etc.).
Luckily for us budget-conscious pagans, incense is extremely cheap, widely available, and comes in an endless array of scents. While certain brands are more expensive than others, quality incense can be found at any number of common retailers including head shops, convenience stores, natural grocers, and online marketplaces like Amazon and Ebay.
Contrary to popular belief, a pentacle is not necessarily a five-pointed star. Rather, a pentacle is any talisman upon which a magical image or symbol is drawn. Pentacles tend to be flat and disc-shaped, and may be composed of any number of materials. Some pentacles are simply paper or cloth discs, while others may be made from wood or metal. While the five-pointed star or pentagram (inspired by images from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck) is the most commonly used symbol on Wiccan pentacles, any magical symbol may be used. Hexagrams, or six-pointed stars, are also popular.
There are many ways to create your own pentacle at little or no cost. Cut a circular disc out of a spare piece of durable fabric, then draw your chosen symbol on it with fabric paint. Alternatively, you could use a soldering iron to burn a symbol into a wooden drink coaster. Disposable card stock coasters from bars and restaurants can also be painted and repurposed as pentacles. The pentacle is one of the easiest altar tools to make yourself, so get creative!
Wands are used by magical practitioners to cast spells, direct energy, and channel intention. Among the oldest of the classical altar tools, wands were used by occult practitioners long before the advent of Wicca in the late 19th century. Traditionally, wands have been made of wood, but in practice they may be composed of any material strong enough to withstand frequent use.
Like brooms and pentacles, wands can be created by the budget witch using found objects and salvaged materials. To use a fallen branch as a wand, first make sure it is both hard and tenacious. Brittle woods may break when used, and soft woods are more likely to degrade over time. You may select a branch from a particular plant due to its magical associations or simply use your intuition to select one you feel drawn to. Make sure to select a branch that has already dried out, otherwise its strength and hardness may change over time.
A fallen branch of appropriate size and quality may be used as-is if you feel particularly connected to the natural world in its unaltered state. Conversely, you may whittle, carve, and sand your chosen branch such that it appeals to you aesthetically and feels comfortable in your hand. Whether you shape your new wand or leave it in its natural state, feel free to make it your own by wrapping the base with your favorite cloth, carving symbols into its surface, or adorning it with stones or jewelry.
Your wand does not need to be composed of wood. If you are drawn to animals and feel invigorated by nature’s endless cycles of life and death, use a scavenged raccoon tibia as your wand. If you love earth’s metals or obsess over the countless invisible light waves used by modern technology to transmit information across the world, use an extendable antenna from an old radio.
Step 4: Add Some Optional, Personal Elements to Your Altar to Make It Your Own
Once you’ve outfitted your altar with some of the traditional tools discussed above, you may enjoy personalizing your new space by including some additional elements of your choosing. These additions are part of what will make your altar uniquely yours, so be sure to choose items whose aesthetics, significance, and meaning align with the goals of your practice. These items should make spending time at your altar something you look forward to during your day.
1. Minerals, Crystals, and Rocks
Many practitioners choose to display crystals and rocks on their altar. Crystals’ exquisite natural forms and colors highlight the transformational power of nature, while their age and durability remind us of the fleeting nature of our own lives.
Rocks and minerals can be purchased at specialty shops, but you can also gather them on your own as a part of your practice. Start by searching for agates and jaspers on beaches and river beds, then move on to looking for signs of quartz, calcite, and other common minerals on public lands such as those managed by the BLM.
2. Live Plants
Live plants add health and vitality to any space, and altars are no exception. If you have a green thumb, situate a one or two small plants on your altar to breathe life and oxygen into your practice. If your altar is situated such that it receives sufficient light, succulents and air plants are two great options due to their small size and low maintenance requirements. Small plants can be purchased at plant shops, or you can ask a horticulturally-minded friend for some cuttings or propagations.
3. Dried Herbs, Flowers, and Plants
Dried herbs and plants may be used in a variety of spells, rituals, and offerings, so keeping a selection on hand is always a good idea. Wander through natural areas and keep an eye out for useful herbs like rosemary and mint. These can be placed in your chalice or cauldron and left for few days to dry. Hang gathered flowers upside down to dry, then place them on your altar for decoration and as a nod to the current season.
4. Animal Remains
When outside gathering materials for some of your other altar items, keep an eye out for the remains of fallen animals. Bones, shed antlers, teeth, fur, and other remains may be found anywhere animals live and die, but wooded areas in public lands away from main trails are your best bet. Animal remains make for great altar adornments as they commemorate nature’s diverse array of life while reminding one of the certitude of death. Be aware of your state and country laws when collecting—remains of certain protected species are illegal to collect or possess.
Jewelry may be included among your altar tools at your discretion. Amulets, rings, brooches, and other adornments, particularly when imbued with intention or passed down from family, can make powerful additions to you magical arsenal. Cherished jewels can make your altar feel more personal, and add a degree of elegance to its aesthetic.
6. Crafts and Drawings
Because creation is such an important part of magic, anything you’ve drawn, painted, sculpted, assembled, or otherwise brought into being deserves some prime real estate upon your altar. If you are an artist or create things frequently, you can change your display periodically to your newest piece, or display older pieces to reconnect to forgotten times or feelings. If you don’t have many personal creations at the moment, take this opportunity to make one of the classic altar tools like the wand, broom, or pentacle.
7. Anything Else You Want to Include
When it comes to the assemblage and decoration of your altar, there are no rules, so feel absolutely free to include anything and everything not mentioned in this list, so long as it contributes to your altar in one of the following ways:
- It makes you want to spend time at your altar.
- It makes your altar look and feel the way you want it to.
- It helps you direct your energy or intention.
- It holds significant meaning in your life or practice.
- It reminds you of your goals.
A Final Note on Budget Altar Assembly
Cheaply and freely created altars can be just as stunning and magical as those that cost a fortune to put together, and may also have a smaller environmental impact. I hope this guide will be of help to any new witches, Wiccans, and pagans who want to make their altar a special place regardless of their financial circumstance. If you found this guide helpful, let me know in the comments!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
How can I start to collect items for a Wiccan/Pagan altar so no one else knows?
Maybe consider choosing small, inconspicuous items. You can keep them in a small suitcase, hatbox, or old typewriter case, then take them out and set them up when you want to use them. When you're done, just pack everything away again and keep the suitcase/box somewhere discreet.Helpful 35
Is there a need to bless each item for the wiccan / pagan altar?
You do not "need" to bless each item per se. It is never a bad idea, however, to cleanse any altar item prior to using it in a spell or ritual. Some of your altar items can be used to cleanse others. For instance, some individuals burn sage, cedar, or other dried plants in their cauldron or chalice, then hold an altar tool they plan to use over the smoke to cleanse it. My personal favorite plant for cleansing is rosemary. Other practitioners might place a mineral (or any other altar tool that would not get damaged if wet) into a bowl of water and leave it outside under a full or new moon overnight to cleanse it prior to using it in a spell. I hope this helps answer your question!Helpful 23
I'm drawn by the cycle of life and death. My beloved cat passed last year and while reading my immediate pull was to use HIS bone as a wand or whatever else I could. Would this make the connections stronger? What else could I use him for?
I am drawn to the cycle of life and death as well! I think celebrating mortality and the oneness of living and dying by incorporating your cat's remains into your practice is a great way to move forward. If you still have your cat's remains, I would recommend getting in touch with a professional bone processor who has a colony of dermestid beetles. These beetles will consume the soft tissue so you can obtain relatively clean bones. Hopefully there is someone with this resource in your area.Helpful 14
Do I need to have a god/dess to have an altar?
Certainly not! Many altars include totems dedicated to specific entities, but this is certainly not a necessity. Build your altar around your own practice, and include items you want to use. If your practice does not involve the invocation of a specific deity/god/goddess/spirit, you can totally still have an altar.Helpful 10
I feel power when close to dragons, can I add these to my altar?
Absolutely! You can add whatever you like.Helpful 12
© 2019 Tannis Phidipus