The first step you’ll take is choosing where the altar will go. Although big altars are striking, you may find you lack the space for such a thing. No problem! Altars can be any size as long as they work for you. A small altar is no less effective and can be just as beautiful as a more elaborate one. A side table, an empty shelf, even some spare room on your desk can be home to your altar if you use the space wisely. It can even be used to your advantage by forcing you to make sure that every inch of your space is filled with purposeful and useful altar objects. Of course, if you’ve got the space — and budget — to create the altar of your dreams, by all means have fun with it!
Another thing to keep in mind when finding a location is how visible you want your altar to be. If it’s meant to be a showpiece you don’t mind sharing, then placing it where there will be a lot of foot traffic in your home is fine. However, if you’d like to keep it more private, then place it in a room guests won’t be visiting often. You’ll want to put it where you visit often, though. The altar shouldn’t be placed up in an attic or down in a basement only to gather dust if you won’t make the trip regularly. An abandoned altar is not a good thing. Pets are another consideration. If you have curious cats or dogs, you won’t want to put the altar somewhere they can get to it easily. Certain oils, herbs, smoke, incense, and other altar accoutrement can be toxic to pets, so keeping them safe and the altar out of their reach is essential.
The type of witch you are and the kind of magic you practice should also be considered while planning the location of your altar. If you’re a green witch, and feel more connected to the earth, the altar should be closer to the ground, near a window that is opened regularly. Witches who practice more spiritually focused magic or divination, should make sure their altars are raised, preferably on a shelf or table. Altars should reflect you as a witch and the type of magic you work with, so make sure its location is well thought out.
It is said that altars should be north facing, but I’ll leave this up to you. The north’s element is earth, so this will be a good choice for green witches and witches seeking grounding, protection, and understanding. If your preferred method of magic uses a lot of herbs, stones, and earthy components, then this is the direction you’ll want to face your altar. It’s little wonder most witches will tell you to face your altars north — there are countless connections to witchcraft associated with north and the earth itself.
In many cultures, west signifies the end of the day with the setting sun, and therefore is associated with death. However, storms come in from this direction so the west has ties to water as a source of life. This belief is echoed in Wiccan culture as well as Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, and Celtic traditions. The west equals water, and all the emotional and spiritual enlightenment that is linked with this element.
An eastern-facing altar will be for the witch working with air. The sun rises in the east and signifies new beginnings, ascension, light, and understanding. This is also the element associated with communication and speaking to your gods directly. East is the direction of wisdom and witches who wish to delve deeper into the mysteries of their creativity or psychic ability will want to face their altars east.
Lastly, we have south and its associated element, fire. This direction, like its element, has ties to passion and life, which makes it a natural fit for witches who work spells centered on love, marriage, and conception. The south-facing altar will be a place to explore new magic and perform spells of success, abundance, and courage.
As you can see, picking the perfect place for an altar requires some careful thought and shouldn’t be hurried. The goal is for the altar to be established in one place for a long time, as long as you need it. Thinking through all aspects of the location before you start to build your altar will save you some headaches later. Trust me when I say that moving an altar is no picnic.
The room containing the altar will need to be cleaned, and free of debris with careful attention paid to the location of the altar specifically. Dust, vacuum, sweep, and air out this room. Marking this space as sacred, as an area that should be respected, starts with keeping it organized and tidy. A smoke cleansing with sage or a cleansing by other magical means should be completed after the room is clean and before the altar is constructed.
After your altar is in place, you’ll need to continue to keep the area clean and regularly cleanse your altar. This will be your time to remove and add things to the altar, as well as make sure the altar isn’t dusty and is free of unwanted negative energies. Make a weekly ritual of this. Keep a journal and note successful items, unsuccessful spells, and whether the altar in general is working for you. Does the altar need to face another direction? Do you feel you should visit it more often? Charting your progress in this way will keep your altar “fresh” and ensure it continues to work in your benefit.
Now that you have chosen a space and cleansed it, it’s time to assemble the altar. Many witches will simply build altars on top of shelves or small tables. I’ve seen shadow boxes used and altars that fit into Altoids containers. Travel outside and see if you can find a piece of wood or a stone that would make a nice base for the altar. Or, if you’re more inclined, visit your local hobby store, Etsy, or thrift shop and look for a unique altar set-up. For a long time, I used a secondhand chip and dip serving plate! It was made of wood and I cleaned it thoroughly, but its design was perfect for holding candles, loose stones and statues. You definitely do not need to spend a lot of money to get your altar set up. Often using secondhand, upcycled, and found items leads to some gorgeous results.
Material hunts are great fun, and can be a source of inspiration. You never know what you’re going to find and what may be absolutely perfect for you. Although we will cover quick altars in more detail below, most altars come together slowly. Like birds feathering their nests, witches add to their altars and take things away all the time, as their needs change or certain items become more and less relevant. Witches discovering new magical paths may also need to adjust their altars to fit their new focus. So, don’t rush! Your altar will soon be a crucial part of your craft, give it time and find something for the base that’s just right.
Common altar tools include athames for focusing and directing energy, candles, chalices, pentacles, wands, incense, salt and an altar cloth. Witches will also add statuary and photos of idols, tarot cards, and the elements or symbols thereof, to round out their altar’s intention. Skulls, bones, mirrors, oils, herbs, pendulums, and bells are also common. However, there are no set rules for what needs to be on your altar. After all, it is yours, and it should represent you as a witch. If you don’t use wands or athames or chalices, don’t add them. It’s important to remember here is that the items on your altar serve a purpose.
Although certain things can make an altar look more witchy or feel more authentic, if you aren’t going to use the tool and it has no purpose, it shouldn’t be in this sacred space. Add things that YOU want, that YOU use for your craft. Pens for sigil making, crystals, paintings, photographs, grimoires, mementos from your travels, feathers you find the ground, clippings of pet hair, string lights, favorite books, music, etc, can all be added to altars to make this place feel more magical and special to you — while serving a purpose.
Now that’s not to suggest that the altar is a sort of scrapbook, where you can just chuck on anything you like. Add things you will need and that make you feel strong while performing spells. Dust should never gather on your altar, and if you find you aren’t using a particular item, remove it. Add something new or keep the space clear until you find something that truly belongs. Keep the altar free of debris, cleanse regularly, and visit often even if it’s only to walk by and touch the corner with your fingertips. While out in the world, keep your eyes open for anything that could be a good addition to your altar. Even if you aren’t using your altar, actions like this keep the altar in your thoughts and keep the space from becoming stagnant.
Choose your altar location, use the answers from the previous lesson to guide you as you consider the appropriate place. Don’t worry if your options are limited and you can’t have your ideal altar space. Witches are resourceful and have always made do with what we have available to us.
Physically clear off this space and give it a quick wipe down. If you can tidy up the rest of the room as well, do but if you don’t have the energy or time right now, it’s ok to just focus on your altar.
Now comes the fun part, it’s time to build your altar. There are two main approaches you can take to collect your altar items.
Survey what you have: This is the quickest way to get your altar up and functional. Bring together everything you have that might work for your altars needs and take a discerning eye to it. Choose the things that support your intentions and build your altar around them. You don’t need to go out and get anything new for this method, you just work with what you have on hand.
Build you ideal altar: This is a mental exercise. Sit down with pen and paper and start listing all of the things that you think would make your alter perfect for you. I like to use bubble maps for this. Start with your intention/s as your main bubble and branch out from there with aspects that relate to it and items that can represent each aspect. Once you’ve generated lots of ideas you can start to narrow it down to those things that you think would really suit your altar and personality and start hunting.
My personal favorite method is to combine these techniques. I’ll start by figuring out what I’ve already got and then brainstorm what more I might want to add. This way I can start using my altar immediately while I’m still collecting items.