What is an altar?
Altars are the points on earth where the physical and spiritual meet, where the metaphysical and the concrete are united in a tangible space. Searching across the internet and the wide array of books available points to many possible items that could grace your altar – from athames, to god and goddess statues, candles, pentagrams and many other items – and these are great, but for many of us, space is not as readily available, the budget isn’t unlimited, our lifestyles don’t accommodate due to travel or other requirements, among many other circumstances. For example, for some people it is simply not possible to have a full altar on display because of living conditions – family and roommates certainly complicate things! Whatever your reason, know that altars don’t need to be elaborate or costly to be effective. Altars can be your main places of worship, meditative and reflective corners, creative outlets, places to communicate with and honor deities, or just places you visit to connect with nature or even yourself. Altars are, in a sense, magical points that allow us to communicate with the world beyond that which we see in our day to day lives. As with all magical endeavors, the more personalized and specific the elements on your altar, the more you can hope to get out of it.
What are the necessary elements to include on an altar?
None! There is nothing “necessary” that you absolutely must include unless you feel that it needs to be there. Since this is your personalized portal and connection to the metaphysical, feel free to make it your own 100% of the way – imbue it with your own personal magical and divine energy. The divine energy of the Earth flows through each and every one of us, and you must channel it here as well to make your altar truly your own. Again, there are no necessary components here but sometimes too much openendedness can be just as confusing as too many rules. Here are some elements to keep in mind as rough guidelines as you plan out your altar:
- What function is your altar going to be serving? Is it meditative? Is it going to be the center of lots of ritual and magical workings? Is it dedicated to a god and goddess, an entire pantheon, or certain patron deities? Is it a place to connect with the Earth? Consider these questions first and foremost before proceeding any further. It is okay to change your answer! Your altar may evolve as you continue further along your journey.
- How many altars do you want/need to work effectively? If you have a secondary altar, what kind of elements does it have that separates it from your main one? Is it a seasonal altar of some sort? Do you have different altars for different deities/elements/pantheons? It is perfectly natural to have different altars that serve different functions. Perhaps you have a meditation altar that consists of nothing more than a notebook where you note down any thoughts that pass by, or some incense to help you focus and reflect. Perhaps you have an altar dedicated primarily for Durga Puja and as such include elements and icons that are sacred to her, such as her sword, trident, or lion/tiger imagery. It is also perfectly all right to start with one main altar as you navigate the world of the occult/metaphysical. Planning all this out can be very helpful.
- How important is it for you to include the elements of the Earth into your altar? Typically, the most crucial elements are believed to be the earth (can be represented with salt), water (this one is easy), air (can be represented with incense smoke or even a feather to invoke lightness and airiness), and fire (can be represented with burning incense or candle).
- Consider including things that are important, meaningful and sacred to you, no matter how ordinary they seem. This can be writing, poetry, art, music, special food, elements of nature like plants, flowers and herbs. Do not shy away from going symbolic!
- If you can’t find or use things that represent deities clearly and openly, you might place rocks, crystals and other paraphernalia that represent them best to you. Rock carving can be a meditative and powerful activity, and as always, imbuing your own energy into your craft is the most effective thing you can do. Both magically and psychologically. Think in terms of symbols: more rounded rocks might represent the female aspect, while sharper, more pointed ones might represent the male aspect; carving horns can represent the Horned God, while carving a crescent like shape can represent the Goddess.
How can I make a cheap altar for travel?
Well, whether you are a traveling witch with a main altar back home or just someone who prefers a low maintenance, easy to use, portable and storage friendly altar, read on for some creative witchy ideas to create a clandestine sacred space for yourself!
- Use a shoebox. Really. A shoebox is easily accessible, transportable and easy to store away from prying eyes at a moment’s notice. This might seem odd at first, but it is a special place that you can create and hold in your arms. Fill this shoebox (or any old box, really) with trinkets that are meaningful to you in any way. Don’t have space for big, bulky candles? Consider scented tea light candles to set the mood, mark sacred space and get you in the mindset for ritual, spellwork or meditation. Include anything symbolic that is special to you – your pentagram ring or necklace, a small symbol that you draw yourself (for example, horns to represent the Horned God, moon imagery to represent the goddess – it doesn’t have to be complicated) – don’t forget that colors are magical, too. You can use brown or green to represent the earth, red to represent fire, blue to represent water, white to represent air (or entirely different ones that you associate with the elements).
- Follow the above suggestions with something like a jewelry box, a pencil case, a makeup bag, a food container, storage boxes and organizers that you might use to store things around the house. Trust me, anything goes!
- Create your altar outdoors. During a walk around your home or work, you discover a creak, hiking trail, a small stream, or anything that looks appealing to you – you feel drawn to it, called to the Earth in some way. Don’t think altars must be confined to the home – in fact, the best altars are outside where we can feel the most connection to the Earth. Here you don’t need candles, wands or anything else really (though you don’t really need these things in any other location either!), just sit (have a picnic if you like and are able) and meditate and carry out your magical workings. Make offerings if you can and if it is safe to do so. Feel free to just feel the divine energy around you to reflect upon it later. The best magical workings are carried out outside (and yes, this includes visualization and even just communicating with your deities/the Earth – feel the presence of the divine energy that we have grown numb to and forgotten, let it revitalize you). To mark your altar space, you might choose to use some rocks, sticks, ribbons, flowers, a piece of cloth, or other markers of your choice.
- Make a small closet altar that consists of the bare minimum of items that you think are necessary, placed upon a small piece of cloth, towel, padding, etc.
- Visualize your perfect altar. Visualization is an incredibly powerful technique when it comes to magical working, ritual, and meditation. Find a quiet, decluttered corner of a room and visualize all the elements you feel you need. You can help strengthen your visualization by using your phone to play some setting appropriate music, or to display images you view as necessary to your altar setting at the time (for example: if you don’t have access to a window but are celebrating an esbat, display pictures of a full moon to help direct your energy in an effective manner).
There you have it! Some important things to consider for all your portable and cost-effective altar needs. Blessed be.