Setting up an Altar for the purposes of your personal practices is, well… personal.
When you ask mother google “How do I set up an Altar” you usually get one of two things. The first is an overly specific set of parameters and an overload of information, while the other is a nebulous an unspecific “do whatever you feel” approach, which isn’t wrong but it also doesn’t offer much guidance.
Have you ever asked someone what time it is and they try to tell you how to build a clock?
The truth is – there’s no wrong way to set up your spiritual practice. I encourage you to make choices that help you SPEND TIME with your altar OFTEN if not every day. I think two things to consider are What is an Altar and How do you intend to use it?
What is an Altar?
I often describe an Altar in short as a “Spiritual Workspace”. To this end an Altar could be a yoga mat, your fireplace mantle, a small table top, or a special spot on a bookshelf. It could also be an outdoor space, a circle of stones or a picnic blanket. Temporary or permanent, one of many or singular and significant, general or specific it’s literally where the magic happens.
When I say “Spiritual Workspace” the most important factor in declaring something an Altar is that it isn’t used for other things than for spiritual work—and spiritual work is personal. You are the main ingredient. So unless that cup of coffee is an offering — let’s just put in on the coffee table, and if you’re using a coffee table as an Altar, you’re gonna need a new place to set down your coffee.
That being said – there are a few guideposts to offer some inspiration, I wouldn’t leave you floating like like that! My suggestions are exactly that and you can take from them what you will. I encourage you to be creative with your altar. And if you’re a member of the Ephemeral Experiences Magic Camp I encourage you so share your creation to help inspire others with your approach. The more magic shared – the better.
How do you intend to use it?
Many people with a religious affiliation will place sacred objects on their Altar for use in rituals. The consecrated Altar of the Catholic Church is a prime example. The Priest uses the Altar to perform the Sacrament of the Eucharist at Mass (that’s a ritual within a ritual)
In a Temple or Shrine altars feature statuary and attendants might burn incense or place flowers, prasad, and other devotional items to focus their intentions.
If you’re new to the whole Magical Altar thing I’d like to suggest placing some items that are sentimental to you, remind you of loved ones or inspire hope and resilience. A lot of spiritual work should offer a sense of peace and clarity. I’d suggest keeping it simple.
Will you meditate with your altar? I like to sit in front of mine and reflect on the objects placed there. I sometimes write myself notes or pull tarot cards for insight. I like to burn candles and incense if I’ll be able to attend to them while they are burning. Most of the time I write in a journal and keep in on the Altar (I call this my book of days)
Think about what your “Spiritual Workspace” might need if you were going to spend at least 15 minutes a day connecting with with your Higher Purpose, even if you don’t know what that purpose is (most of us don’t). This is the sacred spot you make to focus your attention.
Make sure anything you put there has a reason. Even if it’s just because you love it.
Here’s a tidied up version of my Altar as just one example:
Here’s what I recommend to get started with a pretty solid altar
This can be a specific color or the fabric itself may have some personal history. I have one piece that I use that was a scarf a friend brought to me as a souvenir from her trip overseas.
Safety First! Flameless candles totally work. Your altar should never pose a safety hazard to you, your family and your pets. Full stop. Candles are used for all kinds of Magical purposes and they are rich with symbology. In the Experience Community we do a deep dive into Candle Magic.
Pen & Paper (always comes in handy)
Some might say that Sacred Parchment and Blessed Ink are the only way *Dogma Alert* – I love fancy paper and quills and I feel really connected to that sometimes, other times a notebook and a ball point pen serve the best purpose. You’re better off with tools you can use instead of not writing down your thoughts, spells and intentions because you didn’t make it to the witchy poo market in time for the perfect parchment sale.
Something that Creates Sound
Bells are great. It’s phenomenal how sound and vibration can focus the mind in an instant! I also have a noise maker made of shells that one of my favorite spiritual influences gave me at a ritual years ago. It sounds like a rainstick – so soothing. I know someone who has a small harp. It’s a perfect way to set the tone (pun intended) for your Spiritual Work session.
Fresh Flowers, Herbs, Aromatherapy, & Insence
These awaken your olfactory senses and, in the case of flowers, your visual senses. But activating a your sense of smell is a proven way to help you associate your magical work with a particular state of mind. Our olfactory senses are directly linked to memory.
Vessel and/or Bowl
I think it’s good to have a bowl around to place offerings in. Sometimes I put a little rose water in (see above) and other times I fold little notes with prayers or hopes. Sometimes I’ll hand the flowers upside down to dry out and make a potpourri in my bowl (Especially if the flowers were a gift)
A Sacred/Sentimental Item
This could be a picture of a personal hero or deity. A gift from a loved one or ancestor. Something that helps you see the larger picture of your lifetime and helps remind you of your inherent meaning.
We talk about this a LOT in the Magic Camp Community discussion, perhaps you’d like to join the conversation?