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Simply put, an altar is a physical object or set of objects placed in a purposeful way, and in a purposeful place, that have spiritual significance to you, or that represent an element, archetype or energy whose influence you would like to have present in your spiritual practice. Altars are sacred spiritual spaces, however small or large.
Let's be clear right up front: these objects are not worshipped in and of themselves. They may represent spiritual entities that we revere, or gods or goddesses that we commune with, but these objects are not idols.
The objects on your altar represent the elements, spirits, feelings, intentions, even specific goddesses or gods that you would like to connect with in your spiritual practices. Commonly seen on my altars are small sculptures of the Mother Goddess, stones, bones and crystals, a small crystal gazing ball, snake skin, and items that represent the elements, as discussed below.
The sky is the limit here. Altars have been glued to dashboards and have
covered entire dining room tables. You can have one all-purpose altar, or many smaller ones throughout your home. Perhaps you have one on the top shelf in the place where you spend the most time. You can create small shrines in an apple crate turned sideways and nailed to the wall, or maybe your gratitude altar lives on your night stand. We have one in the We'Moon office atop a filing cabinet. A fireplace hearth is much-used altar space, or a living room end-table. You can also create a mobile altar on a ceramic plate or wooden tray that can be moved about where ever you want it. The image above is of the mobile altar we made during the creation of the 2022 We'Moon. Read more about mobile and traveling altars, below.
In the most basic form, an alter can be a single stone or a flickering candle that serves as a focal point for your meditation practice. If your spiritual practice is earth-based, your more formal altars may want to include a nod to each of the four directions. A more elaborate altar could include many elements that bring to focus a different energy that you would like to focus on. If you are creating an altar for group ritual, perhaps each member of the group brings an object to place on the altar to represent a facet of the work you are doing together. If you have a spiritual project that spans many days or sessions, you may want to bring a new object to the altar at the beginning of each session to refresh and deepen the practice.
These elements add an extra dimension such as smell, sound, touch, and they add movement, as in the case of shimmering water, flickering calendar, or vibrational sound waves. They can help bring you into focus more quickly and deeply.
Elemental Minuet © Lindy Kehoe 2019
The uses of altar in spiritual practice are extremely varied and individualized. In this article, I am focusing on altar use in general, not intended for any particular organized religion or practice. The beauty of building your own altar is that you can create one that reflects your own unique style and belief system.
Okay, let's set up a simple, small altar that you can use for an everyday practice, like morning meditation or intention setting, or an evening gratitude shrine. We'll get into some more specifics about these daily practices later on.
That outlines a very simple, dare I say elegant, altar design for any kind of use you may want. You can add items that speak to you, or include gemstones or herbs that amplify the energies of each of the elements. You can even find images that represent the directions or elements and place them in the various corners of your altar. The magic here lies in making this your own sacred space.
Apra-Seed © Mary Ruff Gentle Doe 2011
from We'Moon 2017 © H. Ní Aódagaín 2014
You can use this altar in many different ways. What is a daily practice that you would like to infuse with more spiritual energy? A fun daily jump start can involve something as easy and uplifting as drawing an angel or intention card. Place the deck of cards or a bowl containing them in the center of your altar, and every morning choose one at random. Bring the message you received into your day, and look for synchronicities related to your card.
We've all heard that meditating helps your body, mind and emotions in countless ways, so adding an altar to your ommm is a wonderful way to augment those effects. Place an altar in your meditation space and include objects that remind you of why you choose to come here every day and spend time in deep relaxation. A lit candle is often a good focal point for dropping into a meditative state, or the sound of a resonant bell can signal to your mind "this is your time let go."
The kitchen is often referred to as the heart of the home. We use this space multiple times a day for nourishment and comfort. What we put into our bodies in the form of food has a profound effect on how well we function in the world. So imbuing our food with healthy, clean, soothing energies is the kitchen witches' specialty. But these altars are often stealth. The candle in the middle of the table? Yes, lighting that may be all it takes to gather the energies and give gratitude to the nourishing animals, vegetables, herbs and minerals that made your meal the magical elixer of health that it is. Around that altar may be a vase of flowers, a pitcher of water or juice, a salt and pepper shaker . . . all seemingly mundane objects, but for the energies and intentions that you give them.
In my kitchen, I have hung a wooden rolling pin that was gifted me, and it represents nourishing friendship. I keep a candle on the table that is lit at every dinner, whether alone or with others, and this short moment in time from when the match is struck until the flame catches and dances on the wick, this is a moment in time-out-of-time in which we focus and give thanks for the bounty before us.
One of the most beneficial and simple things you can do is to put a little gratitude out there into your space, every day. An altar for that purpose can remind you to give thanks, and it can also be a visual reminder of all the goodness that your are blessed with. Here are a couple of ideas that can accelerate your practice: If you already have a journal that you use to record what you are grateful for, you can create an altar, as simple or elaborate as you like, as a place to frame your journal. maybe it leans visibly against a wall, surrounded by colorful stones, shells or feathers. Perhaps you have a candle there that you light while you write. You can imagine the energies of those gratitudes floating up with the heat of the flames to imbue your surroundings, your life, with that positive energy.
Another idea is to place a glass bowl in the center of an altar. Again, make your altar as simple or elaborate as you like. Prepare a bundle of slips of paper place those on the altar. Every day use these blank slips to write what you are grateful for, and place them in the glass bowl. Over time, you can watch that bowl fill with all of the good things you have noted, and even refer back to them at random if you need to, in times of stress or hard times.
Back to Basics © Diana Denslow 2001
When we loose someone we love, a way of keeping them in our daily lives is by creating an altar that we can visit as often as we want, to remind us of their presence in our lives, past, present and future. Photographs bring those smiles back to life, and symbols of what they loved, how they impacted the world or touched our lives bring more nuance to those memories. Do you have a note or card that they wrote to you? This is a beautiful and meaningful addition.
Ancestor altars are often created for memorials or funerals to honor the one who has passed for that day, for those attending. If you are designing a memorial for a beloved, you can ask attendees to bring an item to add to the altar for the day's event.
In some traditions, elaborate altars are built to honor ancestors on a particular day, like Dia de los Muertos. Some people choose to have an altar to one who has passed for a specified amount of time, and still others keep an ongoing, permanent altar for all of the gone-befores in their lives. This can be a way to touch in with those who are on the other side when in need of insight, advice or just to reminisce.
Whether you make magic daily, or only on rare occasions, an altar adds focus and sanctity to your practice. Setting an altar sets the tone for the ritual, spell casting, tarot or runes reading that you are getting ready to perform. If you are working with others, it helps everyone get to that sacred place of focus and intention setting together. For instance, if you are preparing to read tea leaves with a friend, place a simple altar on the table between you and ring a bell or light a candle to signify when it is time to focus on the question at hand.
A Prayer © Lupen Grainne 2009
Are you a devotee to a particular goddess, or want to delve into the energies of a specific deity? Bringing together their images and elements or aspects associated with them helps to bring that energy into your life in a more full, layered and multidimensional way. When we experience something through all the senses, the spirit of that experience permeates our lives all the more.
As you research the goddess you want to create an altar to, take note of the specific symbols that are related to her. An altar to Quan Yin, for instance, could center a statue of this goddess of compassion. Around her, one could place a cup of rice to represent fertility and life-giving nourishment, images of lotus flowers, a small turtle toy or sculpture to represent the sea, as she is the patron of fishers, and a vase or bowl filled with water as a symbol of purity and good luck. Change or add to your goddess meditation altar as you become more familiar and intimate with her. By offering her beauty and abundance, those energies and love offerings will flow to you, reciprocally.
Communing with nature can be a very healing and spiritual experience, and bringing an altar on the scene can bring more joy to your garden. Whether you are growing food, herbs, flowers or tree (or all of the above!) creating a sacred place to rest and reflect in nature can magnify the insights you gain from your time. Some ideas for your nature altar can include arranging a birdbath or reflection pond or even a mirror, a small stool or stump to sit on, and plate upon which to leave (and receive) offering. You might be surprised to see what the garden spirits leave you! Use the water or mirror to gaze through as you contemplate a question at hand. Answers may come to you through nature spirits.
We don't all have tons of space to spread out our altars and magical accoutrement. You may want to take your altar with you, if you're on the road, or if you want to bring it to a tarot reading at a friend's house. Get yourself a magical satchel! This can hold your altar supplies for a specific purpose, or you can have a variety of pieces to choose from so you can make a unique and tailored altar at a moment's notice.
For the work we do in creating the We'Moon datebook, we use a mobile altar. We build it on a large wooden platter, and can move it from room to table to office, depending on where it's needed. Every day, we start our creatrix process in sacred circle, and the altar is our focal point as we light the candle and invite the support of the elements, the goddesses and the muses in to help us in our work.
We create altars for so many different events, knowingly or not. Baby showers usually have a centrally located altar upon which gifts are placed, the yule tree takes up a fair share of real estate in many living rooms in the winter months, decorated with symbols of joy and prosperity. Birthday cakes lit up with tiny candles represent longevity and continued joy and prosperity for the celebrated one. Expanding on those altars, or becoming more intentional about them, can deepen the participants' experiences during these special times.
You can find countless ways to bring more altar magic into your life. Are you sending out a request or mailing in a job application? You can build a tiny altar on top of that envelope with symbols of prosperity (some coins?), wisdom (a sculpture or picture of an owl?) and possibility (a doorknob). Not using snail mail? Of course not you can build that altar in front of your computer screen and meditate on positive outcome for the good of all, then send it off. Here is the altar for our 2021 We'Moon send-off, sitting atop the box of files and proofs just before sending them to our printer:
Your altar, like your home, needs constant freshening up. And just like cleaning house, this can look like a full-on overhaul of the set-up, or a light dusting here and there. It's up to you and needs at that moment in time. The simple act of touching the items on your altar energizes them, and reminds you of the elements or attributes that they represent for you. The act of tending to, cleaning, clearing, refilling (in the case of water cups, incense holders, candle sticks, etc) has the effect of rejuvenating the purpose for which you made the altar in the first place. This reinforces your intentions, and as you know, the basis for all magic begins with strong intentions.
I hope this article has been informative, inspiring and insightful. For more articles, visit our Magical Arts blog, and to learn about the We'Moon datebook that we create in our magic cauldron, look no further....We'Moon datebook
Brightest Blessings on your magical journey!
Each phase of the Moon describes a different energy or quality, either building or receding. Creating rituals around the energy of the Moon has been an ancient tradition across cultures. The Full and the New Moon offer potent energy to manifest different goals, release inner turmoil, realize dreams and make magic!
If you cannot be on the frontlines, yourself, do what you can to protect and support those change-makers on the front lines. Use your magic for the good of all, may it harm none.
So Mote It Be. And So It Is.
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