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Altars 101
Some Basic Information About Altars by Maggie Shayne

What’s an Altar?

In the Craft, you’ll often hear the word “altar” and no doubt you feel you, too, ought to have one.  The word itself has an exotic and mystical feel to it.  But in truth altars are incredibly simple. 

In brief, an altar is the surface that holds your ritual tools and sacred objects. 

The altar itself can be any flat surface with enough space for the items you want to use.

It can be a wooden box, turned upside down.  It can be a small table.  It can be round or square or rectangular.  It can be an old coffee table or a shelf mounted to the wall.  It can be covered in a beautiful fabric or painted or plain. 

What goes on the Altar?

A Wiccan Altar typically holds some or all of the following items.

  • Something to represent Air, such as incense, usually in the east.
  • Something to represent Fire, such as a red candle, usually in the south.
  • Something to represent Water, such as a chalice with water inside, usually in the west.
  • Something to represent Earth, such as a rock, dish of sea salt, or pentacle usually in the north.
  • Something to represent Spirit, such as a cauldron with a candle inside, usually in the center.

Tools are also kept on the Altar. 

  • The tool typically associated with the north is the pentacle, a round disk on which the five pointed star is painted. 
  • The tool typically associated with the west is the chalice.
  • The tool associated with the east depends upon your tradition.  Some groups place the Wand in the east, and others use the sword or dagger (athame) there.
  • The tool associated with the south also depends upon your tradition.  Some groups place the sword or athame in the south, while others use the wand. 

Other items you might find on a Wiccan altar:

  • An offering plate or bowl
  • A candle to represent the God (often red, gold or white)
  • A candle to represent the Goddess (often green, silver or black)
  • Candle snuffer, long snouted lighter
  • Ritual Scourge (in some traditions.)

Where is the Altar Placed?

This is another matter that depends on the type of witchcraft you practice.  Many traditions attribute the north as the place of power, and so place the altar in the north side of the room or area in which they practice.  Some place it in the east, the place of the sunrise.  Others may place it in the center, the place of mystery.  I often place it in the North for outdoor rituals as I have a bonfire in the center, or in the center when in the house because it’s easier to work around.

Altar Devotions

Typically, every ritual begins with some form of grounding and centering exercise, followed by an altar devotion.

In the altar devotion, one pushes the intention of “cleansing” and “charging” from one’s hands or ritual tools, into the representations of the elements on the altar, while reciting an incantation.

(In our trad we cleanse ourselves in each of the elements, rather than cleansing the item itself.)

After the incense, fire candle, water and salt have been cleansed in this way, the symbolic Great Rite is performed, the elements are mixed or stirred, and the altar may be tapped on the lower left corner to seal the spell.

Sample Altar Devotion Ritual & Symbolic Great Rite

Hold your hands or your Athame (ritual dagger) over the burning incense and say:

Creature of Air, I cleanse and consecrate you by the powers of the East.  I cast out all negativity, and leave you pure and fit to serve the Gods for the good of all.  So mote it be.

Hold your hands over the lighted, burning candle and say:

Creature of Fire, I cleanse and consecrate you by the powers of the South.  I cast out all negativity and leave you pure and fit to serve the Gods for the good of all.  So mote it be.

Hold your hands over the water and say:

Creature of Water, I cleanse and consecrate you by the powers of the West.  I cast out all negativity and leave you pure and fit to serve the Gods for the good of all.  So mote it be.

 Hold your hands over the salt and say:

Creature of Earth, I cleanse and consecrate you by the powers of the North.  I cast out all negativity and leave you pure and fit to serve the Gods for the good of all.  So mote it be.                     

Using your Athame, scoop a bit of salt on the tip of the blade and dump it into the chalice of water.  Put in three dips.  Then raise the Athame, point up and say:

As the rod is to the God....

Raise the cup and say:

So the chalice is to the Goddess....

Turn the dagger point down and lower it slowly into the chalice of water, as you say:

And together, they are one.

Feel energy glow from the cup as you symbolically create life within it.  Remove the dagger, be sure to wipe the blade dry, and place the chalice back onto the altar.

Stir the energies by moving the Athame clockwise, over it, then tap the lower left hand corner.  It is done.

What’s Next?

In many traditions the next step in ritual is to walk clockwise around the area in which you will cast your circle, in order to cleanse the space.  You walk around wafting the burning incense, then walk around with the candle flame, then the water, asperging with it, and then the salt. 

When that’s done, it’s time to cast the circle.

Other Stuff

Some people have an altar on each side of their ritual room or area.  They have an Altar entirely devoted to Air in the east, and it’s often covered in items they associate with air, such as feathers, incense, wands or daggers, fans, butterfly or fairy likenesses, wind chimes.  It’s associated with sunrise and spring.  Pastel colors are often used in the east, yellow being very common. 

They might have a Fire Altar in the south, and naturally its colors would be fiery shades of red and orange.  On it they have items they associate with fire.  Lava stones, rubies, and garnet, candles of every shape and size, and oil lamps and lighters, swords and daggers or wands if they swing that way.  Images of dragons, salamanders.  It’s associated with midday and summer.

There might be a Water Altar in the west.  Its colors would include the rich jewel-tone blues and greens of the sea.  It would include watery things, mermaids, fish, a fountain, an aquarium, floating candles, seashells and so on.  It’s associated with sunset, the moon, and autumn.

Some keep an Earth Altar in the north.  It might be green, or brown, or black.  Earth tones.  On it there might be rocks and crystals, salt, images of gnomes, or turtles, soil, plants, pine cones, and so on.  The north is bound up with midnight, and winter.

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