We often come across people who are new to paganism and have lots of questions in general, and in particular about what they can do to learn more and integrate this into their everyday lives. Our usual first suggestion is to try setting up an altar, as its quick and easy and provides a physical, tangible reminder everyday.
The next question is usually the obvious “great, but how do I do that?”
There are no hard and fast rules about creating an altar, which is great for the experienced practitioner, but a little unsettling for a newcomer who wants some clear guidance. There are plenty of books that will give this guidance but it can often be muddled up in a particular tradition or practice and has a lot of “do’s and don’ts” specific to that practice.
This piece was written as a very generic intro for new pagans of all stripes. Consider it a starting point on the basics and let your instincts and creativity take you from there!
Altars – Why have them at all?
The basic idea behind an altar is to create a space that is dedicated to this part of your life, whether you call it religious, spiritual, magical or something else entirely. This is a way of helping you to step away from the everyday and focus yourself into this work. When you’re first starting out, it’s a good idea to have a specific place to go to that you associate with ritual energy. This helps flip your brain out of the everyday mode and into the right state.
An altar can be absolutely anything in the physical world. It can be as simple as a candle or a deity statue on your bedside table, to a few household god statues propped up on the kitchen windowsill, to a fully formed magical working altar with elemental markers and ritual tools. There are no size requirements on an altar. The gods won’t ignore you because your altar is squeezed onto a small shelf.
If you do want to work with gods, setting up an altar can be like laying out a welcoming mat. It’s a polite way of welcoming them into your home, by providing a clear space where you can talk with them and (most importantly) listen to them!
Many ancient cultures had what we call household gods: these were the particular deities that had special meaning to those who lived in the house. In the modern world, these deities don’t necessarily even have to come from the same pantheon (the advantage of a global perspective). For example, my household gods include Greek, Egyptian and Celtic deities and none of them have yet objected to rubbing shoulders with one another!
If you’re just starting out and still a bit hesitant about meeting deities, your altar can simply be a space dedicated to magic, where you can focus on your learning and development in this area.
What do you need?
There are absolutely no mandatory items for an altar (anyone who says otherwise is probably selling something). But below is a list of some of the more common objects found on altars to give you some ideas.
- Candles – these can represent whatever you like (gods, elements, etc) and so can stand in for almost anything you’re missing. Candles can also be a focus point for meditation exercises.
- Elemental markers – something to represent earth, air, fire and water. All this stuff is waiting for you right outside your front door!
- Deity representation – something that you connect to a deity you want to invite into your life or work with (a statue or picture can work but this can also be a random object that you connect with this god/dess)
- Ritual tools – chalice, athame, wand, rattle, etc. These can enhance your work if you have a strong connection but aren’t necessary to include just for the sake of having them (especially for those just starting out)
- Divination tools – tarot, runes, ogham, oracle cards can all hook back into a deity or type of energy you might want to call to your altar
- Incense/oils – scents have lots of association so (like candles) these can stand in for other items but I also find scent is a great way to shift your brain into another gear
- Journal or books of rituals – for reference or to record your thoughts as you go
- Offering bowl or plate – if you’re working with a deity, it’s good manners to offer them something in return for their assistance or company. This can be herbs from your kitchen, flowers from your garden, food, incense, or almost anything you can imagine – whatever feels appropriate.
- Altar cloth – this has a functional purpose more than anything. Candles drip! Paganism is messy! An altar cloth can be taken off and cleaned to keep things tidy once you’re done. It doesn’t need to be an expensive extravaganza hand stitched by thirteen virgins on the full moon
Where can you get all this stuff?
There are some truly beautiful altar objects available for sale in local stores and online, and it’s testament to the devotion and skills of those on our path that we have these. But they aren’t necessary! You don’t need to go buy a $100 Cernunnos statue to work with him. You don’t need to fork over cash for a wand or an athame to do any kind of magic (I always recommend making your own tools in any case).
If you’re starting out, you can build an altar from what you already have in your home. Or go for a wander through local second hand stores – I’ve found some of my best altar items from there! You can pick up some truly beautiful chalices, candleholders and offering bowls as well as some truly unique bits and pieces. A bit of a clean or repaint to make them yours and they’re ready to go!
Changing things up
Your altar will change over time – that’s the whole idea. As you evolve, it will too, because it reflects your intent and purpose. You might feel particularly drawn to a specific god and find their presence begins to take centre place on your altar. Or you may find that you just begin to accumulate a lot of stuff and there’s no longer room for all of it on your altar.
Many people have an all-purpose altar but you can also create a more specific altar linked to your magical intent or ritual purpose.
If you’re planning some hearth and home magic, you might set up an altar dedicated to Hestia. For elemental magic, you may not have any deity representations on your altar at all.
You can mark the Wheel of the Year with a seasonal altar that changes at each sabbat. It could be filled with ewes, Brigid’s crosses and saucers of milk at Imbolc, then covered with eggs and spring flowers as the season turns to Ostara the next month.
Ancestor altars are common at Samhain, but if you find you enjoy working with these spirits you might add some ancestor photos into your everyday altar.
In fact, altars don’t even have to be inside! Garden altars can be lots of fun to work with, especially if you prefer to be outdoors. You can make them as complex or as simple as you like.
The one big thing to remember if you’re building your first altar is that it isn’t a recipe. You don’t need to add two deity statues, four elemental markers and an athame, then meditate for twenty minutes to get a spiritual experience.
Having said that, building and maintaining an altar can be a truly wonderful experience on its own. Setting it up before a ritual can become part of the ritual, helping you to get yourself in the right headspace. Spending a few minutes every morning sitting at your altar and meditating, praying, or working with divination tools can help set you up for a day of positivity and connection to the worlds around you.
Your altar will be unique to you and limited only by your creativity – good luck and have fun!