(I will be posting one post once a fortnight for each letter due to time constraints)
Ok, a very beginner, and perhaps a bit twee, subject to kick this off with, but as a forum mod over on the dreaded Facebook and someone who has not quite given up on Tumblr’s Pagan tag it seems as good a place to start as anywhere.
Firstly let’s just clarify the difference between an altar and a shrine as they are commonly used in Paganism/Witchcraft.
- An Altar is a working area that often changes seasonally or with whatever projects you have going.
- A Shrine is a set up that remains in place where you make offerings to spirits, Ancestors and/or Deities that you work with and nothing that does not pertain to them ends up in that space (unless you have annoying housemates of some kind or cats).
Pagans and Witches I know have (for the most part) 3 ways of doing things – They maintain an altar or shrine/s only, they maintain an altar and separate shrine/s, or they smoosh the two together they have space issues or privacy issues or just because they can. I fall into the latter category which tends to mean I am an absolute shocker for using altar as a cover all term for both altars and shrines.
So the thing 99% of people think when they get into Paganism or Witchcraft is that they need an altar of some form and it needs to have very particular things on it. This tends to lead to a lot of questions and frequently money wasted by people who don’t necessarily have the money and are probably not going to use the things that they buy in the initial layout.
First things first – you do NOT need a dedicated and permanent altar. Or a shrine for that matter. You don’t. Any surface you work on, from your bedroom floor to the kitchen bench, to a piece of cloth on a patch of grass outside, or a rock, can be temporarily dedicated as an altar. If you’re working magic on it then it’s an altar. If you make offerings on it it’s a shrine, in that vein of thinking.
Second really important thing – if you are not part of a specific tradition that has altar and tool requirements then there is actually no must have items for an altar.
It’s easy to think that you must have an altar and it must be huge and awesome or contain certain things because horrible asshats like me tend to post the odd image of ours and they are frequently kind of huge and awesome or contain ‘traditional tools’. That… and every 101 book I’ve ever read demands you have an altar with certain tools or representations on it.
No. Nope. Not at all. In fact for the first decade I practiced I only set up an altar when I needed it for something and otherwise didn’t bother.
Having an altar, as mentioned above, is a personal choice. Should you be like me and for some reason maintain one then what goes on it is HIGHLY subjective. Most 101 books and well meaning experienced members of the communities will tell you that a basic altar should have representations of the elements, deity/Lord and Lady, and a basic offering of some kind. This is a reasonable way to start. I personally do not ever recommend any form of Deity representation, but I don’t work with Deity much, and not conventionally, so it’s not something I’m comfortable advising on.
My original altar contained a photo of my Nanna, a white candle and a glass of water for my Ancestors and that was it. It’s grown organically and vastly as needed which means I’ve never wasted money on unnecessary items. This is important because so very few of us have excess cash to throw around these days.
Let’s take a walk through my current altar* as you can see it below…
- The Fan – a purchase at a festival I attended with the Wolf. It cost me $2 and I use it to fan smoke when I’m using it for cleansing. It’s less likely to attract unwanted attention if I’m working outdoors or travelling than one of those feather/wing fans some people use.
- The Fur – If you read back a bit in this blog I’m working with a Fox entity. She asked for that. As a rule I am indulgent of the spirits I work with provided requests are within reason. As a rule I only work with a couple of them so I can be.
- The Red Bowls – Offering bowls. I believe these were from Thailand, or possibly Bali. Regardless they were a gift from my Mum who thought they were beautiful. I agree, obviously. Gifted items are often perfect altar items for me. It’s a luck of the draw thing.
- Feathers – Collected locally or at places I’ve been. Useful for charms and making things but not elemental representations in my practice. Be aware of any legalities around collecting samples like these in your local laws.
- Rosemary – I use rosemary instead of sage. It’s cleansing and protective and smells better. The rosemary on my altar is harvested as part of one of the Feasts of the Dead and changed at the same.
- Ancestral Setting and Candle – I have an active Ancestral practice and they get regular offerings of water and/or alcohol and food. I HIGHLY recommend a beginner develop relations with their Dead.
- Skulls, and George! (The grey skull) – I work with the dead and entities that have ties to death and/or sex. These are often filled with something or being used as ‘housing’ for entities I’m working with.
- Candles – there are candles on there for two spirits I work closely with, and my Ancestors. On occasion there will be added candles for working, people who are ill, someone who has passed etc. I find candles are useful focal points.
- Roses – These are fake, but they’re again an entity related item. On feast days I will often place fresh flowers on the altar.
- Make-up and Perfume – Ladies, gentleman, and everyone between or outside those arbitrary gender pronouns, masks are magic and makeup is just a type of mask. Useful, very very useful, to have charged makeup.
- The Shells – probably the thing people most often mistake as a representation of elements the shells are there for two reasons. The actual reason is that they whisper and the spirits can and will use them to talk if you hold them to your ear long enough.
- Incense (not visible) – incense is the most useful thing ever. Use it for offerings or to cleanse, to divine in the smoke trail or as a mind-altering substance for ritual purposes… totally the most useful thing if you can have it where you are.
So, yeah, it’s pretty big. It’s more complex when you add items I’ve removed for the photograph and the other two levels my altar has to it. Thing is, as I said, this grew organically. There was the initial few items that then became a few more. Then I started working with that spirit and it wanted a few things. Then I needed a few things to represent that thing I was doing…
And so on and so forth.
What’s resulted is a complex (and kind of cluttered) altar to another persons eyes but one that only contains exactly what it needs to mine.
So feel free to go nuts with decorations and traditional tools and such things if it pleases you, but if you’re unsure then get the absolute bare basics (a candle as a meditation focus for example), if anything at all, and let things come to you of their own accord as you grow into your practice.
*NB: A personal habit that I recommend getting into is never ever posting your full altar or anything you are working on at the time. Take a few things off, wait till a project has reached fruition before talking about it and so on. I’ll explain the reasoning in a later post.