Thursday, September 13, 2007

Building an Altar

I love building altars, and have often found fulfillment, revelation and joy when I engage in this process. My best ones are very personal, and contain items that have a deep, quiet meaning for me, a meaning which might not be apparent to the casual observer. They have included some 'stealthy" altars that I had on my desk at various workplaces. To some in my office they were the simple collection of trinkets that everyone has on their desk, but to me they had meaning. They gave me comfort on difficult days and offered a discreet place to center and connect with my best self. At other times, I have also built many altars at home, and contributed to altars in sacred space that were joyously free in their use of sacred images as well as mystical, earthly, sexual, shamanic or cultural symbols. Each kind of altar was special to me, each had a purpose and a power. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject of building altars, along with what I hope are useful links. As always, take what you need and leave the rest.

Why We Build Altars

Different people build altars for different reasons. Some build them to honor their ancestors or remember a friend. Some use these as a creative kind of therapy. They build altars to support them in building a new life for themselves or to help them get through an illness or other challenges. Some altars are built for support, others are for release.

Some people use altars as center points for mediation or ritual. Other people build altars which are artistic or activist in nature. Some altars are memorial, while others are subversive. Some altars are built to honor deity, and some to honor self. Some altars are built at demonstrations, events and marches and can take on a very political tone. Some are built in natural areas to celebrate and connect with Gaia, and these contain nothing foreign to that space.

Some altars are meant to last the length of a ritual or holiday season, while others are with us for years.

An altar is not merely a construct that sits above us on a h
igh, square, flat table. Some altars are small and fit into our closet. Some altars are large. Some are round and some have several levels. Some altars are built indoors and others can only exist outdoors. Some are in temples and some are in trees. Some altars are so large that we can stand within them. They are not only a part of sacred space, they actually are sacred space itself. Some of these installations become a kind of shrine.

A Wealth of Possibility and Purpose

When you build you altar, let your mind open up to the possibilities it offers. Your altar can be just a few pieces on a window ledge and even a simple stone on your desk. Or it can take up a large space in your home or backyard. It's up to you.

The first step in building any altar is deciding it's purpose. Once you know that, you can take it from there. Building altars can be a
sacred, spiritual, emotional, creative or philosophical process depending on your need and intent. If you wish, it can be all of those things.

When we build altars we embark on both a personal journey and a quest. Please remember to stay present and aware. Let yourself enjoy the act of building and tending to your altar, as much as the you enjoy the end result.

Making It Uniquely Our Own

The act of building altars can be fun and creative and moving. It is Deep Play in the best sense of that term.

I've included some links below to pictures of various altars from a variety of faiths and traditions. I have also included a guide to symbols, including symbols from Celtic, Native American, African, Nordic, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. These can serve as both guide and inspiration.

We do not have to copy the altars of other people. Our altars will serve us well if they grow organically from the soul of our imagination and are authentic to our being. Honor your own heritage as you build your alter, and respect the culture and traditions of others. Trust your instincts and don't be afraid to make changes to your altar as you need to. It may chaotic at times, and that's OK. Sometimes our life is that way. At other times, it may be peaceful and plain or bright with the colors of life, love and gratitude. If an altar is meaningful to you, that is all it really needs to be.

Building Your Altar(s):

Building and working with altars is an ongoing creative process. It does not have to be a one time event.

If you are having trouble finding the "right" things for your altar don't worry, they will come to you. Most of the things earthwise folks put on their altars do not come out of catalogs. They come to us as gifts, wildcrafted treasures, serendipitous finds, things we make, etc. They can also be
carefully chosen pieces purchased from artists we admire or stores, galleries or websites, we wish to support, but that tends to be the exception, not the rule. I once found a wonderful Ganesh figure at Target. I still have that.

If you want items for your altar and you work with diety or energy, then ask that source to send you things that are meaningful and that fit into your budget. Think about it. Wasting money on supplies we don't need is just as bad as tilling the land endlessly without replenishing the nutrients or resting the soil. In such a case, neither the ritual nor the land can bear fruit.

Do you have too many items left over? Then trade or freecycle these items or sell them and use the money for other things.

Altars Alter Us

Among many wise teachings is this one: Change the inside, and we change the outside, as well. Building altars will help us tap into our creativity, our dreams and our will. It will make us face our fears, as well as our desires. It will change something on the inside, and that will manifest as a life change, as well.

Shiny Things

Most Pagans buy too many altar and ritual supplies in the beginning of our practice. We're like magpies; we like shinny things and we bring them back to our nest . Don't beat yourself up if you do this, but do try and remember that less is more. These days I tend to keep my home altar rather simple.

A complex exception to that was the altar my colleagues and I built every year for our charity event called The Witches' Ball. Different volunteers who worked on this event would bring in different things that fit that our theme and well as our intent to support Pagan pride and raise money for our local animal shelter, and this altar just grew and grew. That kind of community altar can be great fun to build, as well, and very effective.

By the way, if you want to go and get into some excess for Samhain or your birthday, then I say have a blast. Personally, I tend to overdo it at spring time. Those little bunnies figures just keep multiplying.

Buying and Using Supplies

Fair Warning: If someone tells you that you absolutely must have something in a particular ritual, check to see if they are trying to sell you something.

If you wish to purchase supplies,I do recommend using the purest oils and incense you can find. It's like cooking, the best ingredients make for the best results. So buy one good organic oil you can afford that speaks to you, instead of 10 cheap ones from a cheesy Head Shop. And please don't worry too much about having the "right" oil. I don't care what the books say. These are guides, not dogma. The oils, incense, colors, and stones that speak to me, are the ones I choose to use.

Sense and Sensibility

If you like to use incense, by all means use it as suits you. It's not absolutely a necessary, but it can be useful tool. By the way, you will find that Japanese incense (which is made differently then American or Indian incense) will not give one a headache. But it's much more expensive. It's your call.

Some people love to burn sage and some find it effects their allergies or produces an asthma attack. If you wish to use sage but cannot burn the leaves, I recommend using sage oil, instead.

Books and Such:

If you are just getting started, Scott Cunningham has some nice, basic books on incense and oils for use in earthwise practice. You can get these books used at or Amazon for great prices. That said, I strongly recommend supporting your local Pagan/New Age store if you have one. These are our gathering places, our classrooms and our lifelines, and they can't stay in business if we don't support them. (1)

We Are The True Altars

In my tradition, we teach that anyone can do powerful, meaningful rituals with just her head, heart and hands. All that other stuff is nice, but it is mostly used to focus concentration, our concentration. I don't do ritual to make the universe notice me. The Goddess as I understand Her is with me always. She doesn't need any props or potion or incantations to make Herself known. These ritual are done, when they are done at all, to prepare me. In other words, these rituals open the doors of my perception. Once I had done this for a while I could access that connection whenever I wished.

One of the great mysteries is that we carry the most powerful and sacred space in our hearts.

Blessings on your journey,


Related Articles:

Altars and Rituals Throughout the Year by Heather

10 Benefits to Building Altars by Regina Paul

Steps in Building Altars by Besty

Altars: Everywoman's Sacred Space

Excavating the Dinosaur Altar by the Rev. Wren Walker


Altar photos at Sacred Source - These pages include altars to Kuan Yin, Hera, Hecate, Bast and others. They also included pictures of holiday altars and altars from various faiths and traditions, such as Hindu and Buddhist altars.

Project: Altar Your Life by Heather (on-going)

Recovering She:
An example of
a very simple altar by a self described witch-y Christian, who is working to recover the She in her practice.

Full Altar with Notes at Flickr

Plain Altar with Notes at Flickr

Hecate Altar with Notes at Flickr

Goddess Altar at Flickr

Yule Altars at Flickr

Some seasonal & elemental altars at Flickr

Check out the picture of this altar at the Cats of Witchcraft Series at The Witches Voice. The altar was built by Fritz Jung and Wren Walker, and features their kitten, Dixie. The series includes a number of pictures and stories about cats. It is an attempt to show that Witches and Pagans care deeply for these animals and do not hurt them as some others claim. To say that they care for their cats is putting it mildly. Most Pagans I know are Cat Slaves.

An altar to Thor

Offrenda - Altars to the Ancestors

The Altar Show - Grass Valley, CA - Based on The Day of the Dead

Mexican Home Altars

History & Symbolism:

A brief History of Altars

A cultural and historical overview at Wikipedia

Directory of Symbols from various cultures

Pagan Shopping:

When you look at photos of Pagan altars, you will see a number of recurring pieces. Many of the most striking of these come from the good folks at Dryad Design.


(1) When it comes to purchasing items for my alter, I try not to use the Goddess as an excuse for unhealthy spending habits. If I did, I would be a very silly rabbit indeed. I would also be begging for a lesson about true abundance. On the other hand, when I have the money, I spend it freely and joyously on things that make me happy. (And I try and give a bit to a good cause, as well, in gratitude for the prosperity I do enjoy.)

Painting: Destiny by John Waterhouse

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