A Sacred Personal Space
By Lucy Karswell
Say the word ‘altar’ and what do you think of - a decorated and/or decorative table at the front of a church? Think again. Why should Christians have all the fun? In theory, an altar can be set up anywhere: at home, at work, in the garden, or even all three. In practice, however, when constructing an altar, consider several things: do you mind whether the altar is obvious to other people using or visiting the area? Will you want to do work – whether magick, meditation, or both – at your altar?
If you don’t mind if other people can see your altar, and you’re not fussed about doing any work at it, then you have free rein to put your altar wherever you like: on your desk at work, in your front room, in your back garden, or all three – you decide. You can also make your altar as obvious as you like. What do I mean by obvious? Let’s look first at the opposite: the subtle altar.
If you saw a work computer that had a small feather, a shell, a pebble or crystal, and a little figurine of a dragon on its base, what would you think? Since you’re reading this on a Pagan website, you might say: “Ah! Air, water, earth and fire.” Non-Pagans, however, and even some Pagans wouldn’t bat an eye. They might think: “Ah, nature lover.” And let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t be far wrong. Such an altar, given that it is in a work and therefore public place, would be difficult (though by no means impossible) to do magic at, and practically impossible to do full blown rituals at, unless of course you own the company, and have a key to the building.
An obvious altar is easy to construct. Many Pagans would want to represent the four elements, but with free rein you can scale up from the simple feather, shell and pebble to incense and incense holder, bowl with water, pentacle, and candle(s) in candleholder. Such items needn’t be expensive, however. Joss stick holders are now plentiful and relatively cheap; a ceramic dish and bowl for incense cones and water are even cheaper. Candlesticks are widely sold, and often available in charity and second hand shops. Pentacles from occult shops vary in size and price, but a workable pentacle can, and has, been constructed by incising a five-pointed star on a round wooden cheese board.
Let’s put aside for the moment considerations of what you can have on your altar, and consider the altar itself. Here practicality as well as expense should be a consideration. There are almost as many possible altars as there are altar builders. Some people like to build their own, with at least one book suggesting the construction of the perfect cube. For the less crafty among us, many everyday structures can serve just as well, if not better. Fireplaces – whether the mantelpiece, the hearth, or both – make a lovely focal point. My partner uses an old coffee table made out of a roughly hewn plank: a beautiful, natural object. A friend uses several shelves in her home office. A large box or chest with a flat top can make a practical, portable altar in which to store your altar tools when not in use.
My own altar is a chest of drawers, which has the advantage of allowing for storage of items like candles, incense, silk squares, altar items not currently in use, and the like. I’d like to say that my choice of a chest of drawers arose out of such practical considerations, but really that choice – and the practice of having an altar – came about almost accidentally.
I live a long way from my blood family, so travel to funerals and other family events are often out of the question. When my grandfather died, I was naturally distraught, but also at a loss how to mark his passage, given that I couldn’t afford to travel to the funeral. Although he was Christian, I wasn’t, so lighting a candle in a church was not something I was entirely comfortable with. My partner suggested lighting a candle at home, and keeping it – or a replacement candle – burning until the funeral took place. The chest of drawers was a legacy from the previous owner of our house, and little used by us. It was also in our bedroom, so I could spend time looking at the candle in privacy. It was only after I marked another family member’s passing in this way that my partner suggested constructing a permanent altar, to be used for other purposes besides acknowledging the loss of family. The question then was “Where shall we put it?”
Some books suggest setting up your altar so it faces north, the direction of earth and the material plane. Others suggest east, the element of air. Mine faces north, but really this is mostly a happy accident: the alcove that seemed an out of the way place to position the altar happens to face north. I suggest letting practicality rule the day, and placing and aligning your altar in whatever room and facing whichever direction best suits you. Personally, I like having mine in the bedroom, as this is the least public room in the house. If I want to do some work there or just have five minutes with a candle and some joss, I can do so without worrying about someone barging in. Similarly, it means I can have as obvious an altar as I like without incurring comments or sideways glances.
Wherever you set up your altar, I do suggest that you work out what direction it is facing, particularly if you follow a Wiccan path or one which works with the four quarters. That way, if you wish to perform a ritual at your altar – whether elaborate or simple – you can acknowledge the elements as you draw your circle (assuming you are of a path or inclination which takes in circle casting).
As to what to put on your altar – here you have free rein indeed. From statues of god forms to found objects such as shells and stones, your altar can be as simple or (if you’re like me) crowded as you like. Using an altar that has some storage, like a chest of drawers, means you can rotate items to suit the seasons, the festivals, your mood, or all three.
Over the years, my altar top has expanded, contracted and (shamefully) even gathered dust. I now own several altar clothes, only one of which (a large, fringed purple one with several pentagrams) cost me much money. At the moment, I’m using a small, home made tablecloth: a gift from a relative, which, due to its embroidered flowers, seems suitable to the spring and summer. I also have a white cotton cloth I use for winter; a black silk square for Samhain; and an orange silk one I picked up on sale in Glastonbury, and which I use at autumn.
I’ve also built a collection of cards and postcards: some purchased, some given, which I use to set the mood and or season. For every one I’ve picked up in Pagan shops over the years, there are many more from regular card shops, or which friends have sent. I also have a collection of nuts, dried berries, feathers, shells, stones, and other ‘found’ objects. One of my favourites is a small branch with dried oak leaves which I picked up in a Huddersfield park, and which sits in my altar vase at the Autumn Equinox. During spring and summer, that same vase (purchased from a charity shop) holds flowers, sometimes from the market, occasionally from the garden. At Yule, it holds holly from the garden. So, your altar is limited not so much by your pocket book, as by your imagination, your purpose – and your storage space. Happy altar building!