Photo of House of Intuition altar at the Sunset location
Altars are thought to be one of the main connecting lines between different magical traditions. Despite so many traditions having different beliefs and different dogmas, most magical people and religious people can tell what is an altar just by looking at one.
For those of you who are just starting off on your spiritual journey, I’m sure after getting your sage and your crystals, the next term tossed around is “altar.” In essence, an altar is essentially a sacred place where you do your rituals.
Now how does one put together their altar with little or no budget? Not everyone needs to have an elaborate altar, but some people do tend to invest time in their altar to make it more physically appealing. However, a simple altar is just as effective as the most grandiose altar.
Especially for burgeoning practitioners, a simple set up sometimes is all we can put together and so we’ll walk you through.
An altar space, I like to think, is like a glorified table or dresser. Basically it is a physical space that you are placing magical items for usage. Find yourself a sturdy table or dresser that won’t wobble or isn’t crooked. This table is seen as a dedicated space for the magical working and should just be used for this. We recommend that when you first set it up, you cleanse it with sage, blessed waters, even throwing salt on it and sweeping it off. Some practitioners also place a scarf or cloth over the surface if they wish which may be a good idea in the long run to help protect the surface from heavy or sharp objects.
Now that we have our surface, the next step is to gather your representation of the four elements. The elements are Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. Some common representations would be crystals to represent earth, a glass of water for water, a candle for fire, and a feather or bell for air. However if you do not want to use these specific objects for the elements, you can choose what feels right to you. Another option, especially if you are making a small or an altar that’s easily set up is to use 4 crystals to represent the four elements (earth - smoky quartz, water - rose quartz, air - amethyst, fire - citrine/carnelian).
With these objects, we recommend placing them at the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west. Place your representation of earth in the north, air in the east, fire in the south, and water in the west, while leaving some space in the center as that will usually be reserved for any statues or ritual working. Some practitioners also just use the shortcut of north and south being in front of them on their table, east as the right side, and west as the left side. This should create a sort of 4 point pattern just like a compass.
For some practitioners, they may have a favored deity or spirit they wish to work with and so may keep a depiction or statue of their patron on their altar. It is not always necessary to start off with this and as time passes, you may eventually add that to your altar as you see fit. Remember, an altar is not always something set in stone so much as something you can always grow and work on.
As far as basic, this is a very basic set up and in fact some practitioners in western traditions also keep other magical tools on there for their workings like a chalice, dagger, wand, or pentacle but not every magical tradition uses these nor does everyone have access to these tools.
Now a couple of notes that should be addressed. If you are a seasoned practitioner, one of things I highly recommend is setting your altar on top of a surface that has drawers so you can store your items away when they are not in use. This is something that I actually recommend to all practitioners and that is to keep your space as tidy and clean as possible. A lot of people will allow their altar to become a sort of magical dumping ground for their tools. I always say, if it’s not in use or not part of a continuous working, put it away. That is not to say your altar can’t be elaborate and have a lot of things on it, but really sit with yourself and think if everything needs to be on there. In addition, clean your altars regularly of physical debris like dust and dirt.
Some practitioners are very choosy about the placement of their altars and whether they should have it in their bedrooms or a dedicated space. My response is usually for you to logistically figure that out. If you have a five bedroom house, plenty of surfaces, and your cohabitants are fine with your practice then I say why not have your altar in a dedicated space outside of your bedroom. If you however are limited to a single room space then of course you have to make do with what you got. Something that some more seasoned magical people may do is having dedicated altars for specific intentions. For example, some may have a love altar in their bedroom, an ancestral altar in their living room, and a money altar in another part of their living room. Of course that’s if you have the space and are doing magic as a profession.
Another situation when it comes to housing is when a practitioner is practicing in secret. Their partner may think this isn’t something they want in the house, parents who don’t understand, roommates who are a little “particular,” these are just a few scenarios that inhibit the way you have your magical space. When this is the case, a small set up on a small altar cloth may be best so you can easily set the space up, do your working or prayers, then break it down to store it away. Magic and this working is sometimes a privilege that not everyone has access to practice openly and we should be account for that.
Here are a couple of ideas for those who are practitioners and want to have a themed altar. An ancestral altar is great if you want to commune with those who have passed. Something with a white altar cloth, a framed photo of the passed, a plate of bread, glass of water, some flowers, and a white candle is a simple set up that’ll give you time to sit with the energy of the family. A love altar can be set up with a red altar cloth, some flowers like roses, a mirror where you can pretty yourself up, love crystals, and maybe even a few red candles. This can be a place where you sit before you go out on a date, where you do your make up, or even where you respond on dating sites. A great money altar for me would be set with a green altar cloth, a green or gold candle, a dish full of coins and cash, along with a lodestone or pyrite. Again these are just a few basic setups and ideas that you can work with as everyone does their altar work a little differently.
Something that should be reiterated is that an altar is meant to be dynamic and not stagnant. Add to the altar, move something, clean it up, rearrange it, or completely break it down and reset a new altar for a new purpose. The magic of altars is far and wide and there’s never just one way to do it. And if you’re ever in doubt about your altar, follow your intuition.