OMGs! I’m supposed to have an altar?!?!
One of the positive effects of the COVID pandemic has been an increasing awareness among many religious folks of the need for developing a personal spiritual practice: daily prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and so forth. One of the first questions many people who engage in a personal devotional or ritual practice ask is how to create a sacred space, more specifically, how to set up an altar. If you go online, you’ll find that there are as many ways to build an altar as there are people who use them for their spiritual practice. Orthodox Christians will often have a corner or cabinet in their homes filled with various icons, while Catholics may have a space dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary or a particular saint. For some Protestant Christians it may be a space set aside for daily Bible reading and prayer. For my mother it was always the living room sofa early in the morning before getting ready for work. Many neo-Pagan practitioners have a variety of altars or shrines dedicated to one deity or another or to their ancestors. While some people have a space dedicated to devotional practice, others will use the same chair they watch TV from. For some that space may be the car, bus, or train on the way to work; I’ve played recordings of morning prayer from various sources during my 30–45-minute drive to work on several occasions. The takeaway from this is that there is no one correct or proper way to do this, so if you’re getting hung up on “the rules” you can breathe easy and concentrate on finding something that works for you.
Some General Principles
What religion or tradition are you practicing?
This may seem obvious, but it bears thinking about. Are you practicing Gardnerian Wicca, Russian Orthodox Christianity, ADF Druidry? If that’s the case, those traditions may have very specific guidelines for setting up your altar and you should follow those. But what if your path isn’t as clear? What if your practicing eclectic witchcraft or, in my case, Christian Druidry? Following on that, what element is dominant in your religious practice? Are you an eclectic Witch with an emphasis on Alexandrian Wicca? Are you a Christian doing Druid things or a Druid doing Christian things? Taking some time to ponder this question may help clear up any confusion. In my case, I’m a Christian doing Druid things; to complicate things a little more, my Christianity is a mashup of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Celtic. What follows will be from this perspective since that is my experience and I cannot presume to speak for someone with a different experience.
Why do you want or need an altar?
When I first started exploring Wicca, I was tied up in knots when it came to doing rituals or magical workings. I was so scared of setting up my altar the wrong way or using the wrong color of candle or any number of things that I didn’t do anything for a long time. While decorated altars, candles, wands, athames, incense, and the like are great tools for focusing your prayer or ritual workings, you don’t need any of it. Everything you need is already within you. Don’t get so caught up in the external trappings that you don’t actually do anything. I’m a visually oriented and artistic person whose best experiences of church involved lots of color, symbols, as movement, so these things are important to me in my own practice. In fact, creating the physical space for my work is a key part of my practice. Other folks find all my stuff distracting. My partner actually commented that I have “way too much shit.” If you fall into that category and just having a quiet space is enough for you, then that’s all you need and you’re good to go. If you’re like me and find the visual aspect important, that’s great, too. In either case, please read on.
Where will you have your altar?
I have a room that I can set aside as a sacred space, but I’m aware that’s a luxury a lot of people don’t have. Regardless, here are some things to think about.
- Is there a dedicated space for a permanent altar setup? This can be a table or cabinet in a corner, or a shelf in a bookcase?
- If you live in a small place where space is at a premium, if you like to go out on a balcony or to a park, or if you travel a lot, you can create a “portable altar” by keeping a small box that is easy to carry around with you, a wooden box with a hinged top or a cigar box work well for this. It’s actually possible to use something as small as a mint tin or a small sewing notions box. If you’re crafty, you can use decoupage, paint, a wood-burning tool, etc. to personalize it. I keep a cloth, some LED candles, a small standing cross, a set of small icons, and a vial of holy water in mine.
- It would be great if we lived in a society where everyone accepted everyone else unconditionally, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Maybe you live with others who might not understand or approve. I live in a hotbed of red-state fundamentalist evangelicals who are convinced that everyone who is not them is practicing devil worship, even other Christians. What they think of Druidry or witchcraft is pretty evident, so I understand the need to be somewhat careful with how open you can be. In that situation you might want a set up you can hide. This is easy to do by using a cabinet with doors or even a trunk or storage ottoman.
What’s important to you?
Everyone has different emphases for spiritual practice, even those who follow traditions with specific rules. When exploring what items to place on your altar, keep in mind those things most important to you.
- Is devotion to a deity, saint, local spirit a priority in your practice? If so, you may want to place statues, drawings or paintings of and/or symbols associated with them on your altar. Some people have several altars, each dedicated to a different being or purpose.
- If your altar has a devotional focus, you may want to think about using objects that help you focus your prayers and/or other offerings. Such objects might include candles, incense, water, journal, prayer book, bell or chimes, or a singing bowl.
- Are there particular symbols that are symbolic of your faith? For example, Wiccans may want a pentacle, Druids an awen symbol, and Christians might want a cross of some sort.
- Other items might include some sort of altar cloth and seasonal decorations or symbols. This can be anything and it’s fun to think outside the box. For altar cloths, I’ve used tablecloths, table runners, decorative towels, and placemats. Seasonal elements can include flowers and other plant material, a cornocopia in the fall, gnomes, Tarot cards or saint cards. Again, it’s fun to think outside the box and let your creative impulses run wild.
What’s the purpose?
Altars can be permanent with changes made according to season or they can be temporary, like a memorial altar to honor ancestors at Samhain or All Souls. They can be dedicated for a specific intention and dismantled when that intention is satisfied. If you’re setting up a space dedicated to praying and/or making offerings for a special intention, you might want to do a little research into colors, crystals, incenses, and so forth associated with that purpose.
What does this look like?
What follows are some photos of my space as it currently exists. These photos are from shortly before the Fall Equinox (Alban Elfed or Mabon).
My primary altar
This is my main indoor devotional altar, constructed on the top of a shelving unit with drawers that I use to store supplies. On the wall in the top center is an awen symbol I made using a grapevine wreath from a craft store and three feathers. Under the awen symbol is a Celtic cross. The four pictures are saints that are important to me. On the top left is Hildegard of Bingen, Holy Wisdom is on the top right. The lower left is occupied by an icon of my personal patron, St. Francis of Assisi. And on the lower right is a print of Brigid.
The centerpiece of the altar is a diptych of the Theotokos and Christ Pantokrator. An icon of the Holy Trinity sits to the right. That icon changes according to the season or occasion. My communion cup and plate are beside that. At the very front I have a vessel of holy water and a smaller bowl with salt, both symbols of purity. Other than a lot of candles (I may have a problem), there are seasonal decorations, in this case a cornucopia and a fall floral arrangement. I’m using a red tablecloth as an altar cloth. Not in the picture is a stand holding my prayer book and a Bible.
The elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth are an important part of my spirituality and figure prominently in my devotions and rituals. Each element is associated with a direction – Air/East, Fire/South, Water/West, Earth/North. A quick search will reveal many concepts and objects that correspond to each element. My directional altars are small shelves I’ve hung on the walls in the four corners of my room and have at their center an icon of an Archangel surrounded by various symbols and objects I associate with that direction. [Disclaimer: I have the Archangels in different places than the “traditional” directions; basically, I swapped Raphael and Gabriel because their traditional placement doesn’t make sense to me.]
Starting in the East, this altar represents Air. Among other things, Air is the realm of communication. It also represents wisdom and intellect. At the center is an icon of the Archangel Gabriel, who most often shows up in the Bible delivering messages. I have a feather and several musical items: egg shakers, a tuning fork that belonged to an aunt, and various music-themed prints hanging on the wall around the shelf (including an image of St. Cecilia, patron of musicians).
I have a small owl figurine as a representation of the sacred hawk of dawn (because I found a hawk yet), the animal associated with the East in Revival Druidry. There is also a yellow-ish dragon, yellow being the color corresponding with Air and because I have a thing for dragons. I have a large singing bowl on a shelf in an adjacent bookcase.
Moving clockwise around the room, we come to the South, the realm of Fire. The Archangel Michael centers this altar. I have a representation of the Sun hanging above, an incense burner, two stones – citrine and sunstone, and a playful little lizard who never made it out to the garden this year. A red dragon and a stag, the Druid animal association, round out this altar.
Continuing on, we enter the realm of Water, the West. The Archangel Raphael, the healer, is here. In the West, Revival Druidry calls upon the Salmon of Wisdom who swims in the sacred pool. A glass fish and a fish windchime made by one of my aunts represent her. I have a couple of seashells, a piece of rose quartz, and a blue dragon. The moon lamp was not originally part of my plan for this space, but after thinking about it, it makes sense because the Moon is associated with inner working and intuition, both qualities of Water.
The North is the realm of Earth, watched over by the Archangel Uriel. Druid symbols include a couple of oak leaves, an antler, and a black bear figurine. There are also a couple of small stones and buckeyes, along with a green dragon. Hanging above the shelf is a pyrographic print of the Celtic Tree of Life. On a table underneath (not pictured) I have a small statue of Cernunnos and a print of the Green Man.
Some concluding thoughts
Sacred spaces are very personal, and there are myriad ways to construct one. The important thing is that your space, whether permanent, temporary, camouflaged or otherwise, works for you. There is no right or wrong way. What I’ve shared here is fairly elaborate, but I’ve only recently been able to do this. I used multi-function, camouflaged spaces and kept my supplies in a box in the closet or in a drawer for a long time. Experiment and play around. You’ll soon find out what works.
One final pic – my Nerd Shrine, just for fun. My collection of Star Wars, LOTR, and Harry Potter knick-knacks with Marvin the Martian front and center.
Bright blessings and may peace be with you!