What is an altar? It is a flat surface (usually) on which we place items or objects that are sacred to us, to use in the worship of our Dieties. In Wicca, the altar represents your subconcious mind. Thus, when you are working alone, it represents only your subconcious, when working with a group, it represents the group's subconcious mind. Items placed on the altar should always be consecrated, that is, blessed and made holy by your intent and will. The altar itself should also be consecrated.
An altar table is usually made of wood. There are traditions that don't allow any nails to be used in the table, and this comes from the time when most nails were made of iron, and the belief that iron negates magickal energy. However you choose, the altar should please you, and be sufficient for YOUR needs.
How big does and altar have to be? As large or as small as you'd like. Large enough to fit on it what needs to be there, and small enough not to take up the entire wall (unless that's your choice!). An altar doesn't have to be a table, it can be a shelf, the top of a dresser, a TV tray covered with an altarcloth to hide the legs, an empty box covered with a cloth, etc.
Let me give you some examples:
Someone I know used their cooler as an altar when they were out camping in the woods. They had brought their tools inside the cooler, and just carried it to where they were going, laid a cloth on top of it to cover most of it, and put their tools on it, consecrated the whole deal - then did their ritual. Before they put it all away, they also deconsecrated the altar back into a normal cooler again, and went on their merry way. Who would look twice at people going off with a cooler anyway? In this instance, the cooler fit their needs.
I have a shelf on the wall directly opposite the front door of my house, in the little "foyer" area. On the shelf I have a picture of my mother, my grandmother, and my new little grandaughter. I also placed a pair of candlesticks with candles decorated for the season on either side of the pictures, and mine and my consort's special chalices. Above the shelf is a cross stitched and framed picture of a stag, and above that is a mounted pair of stag horns. I choose to see this as an altar, it represents many things to me and I like having it right there as I come in the door. It is home and hearth, and the Lord and Lady all at once. It is not a "working altar" in that I don't use it to do magick on, and some may say it is more of a "shrine" than an altar, but that is not the point. The point is that an altar can be on a shelf, or just about anywhere you want it to be.
A material not recommended for altars is plastic. But there are always exceptions. Our group usually does a "Pool Moon" once a year, in August when it is unbearably hot here in South Florida. We actually do our Full Moon circle in the pool. We will use a plastic round table top, with "noodles" put into the leg openings for stability, and more noodles stuffed underneath, so the table will float with selected tools on it. We have made watchtower candles in bowls that float, and don't dump over easily. We have a wonderful time with this ritual, and it has become a tradition with our group. It is so much fun to do, and such a welcome relief from the heat. This kind of altar, while not normally used, fits our needs perfectly for this ritual.
If you still are unsure about whether a table or shelf can be an altar, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
You may think of other criteria that you need, but these are good to start with. If you can answer these questions to your satisfaction, then go ahead and use it.
This matter is generally concerned with the placement of the altar in circle. Many groups put the altar in the center of the circle and face a direction. There are reasons and advantages to each position, as I have detailed them here:
There are also reasons for putting the altar in the South or the West, and with a bit of research and imagination, you can decide for yourself where the altar should go. Indeed, for some Sabbats we move the altar to different locations in the circle, and that is a choice that shouldn't be overlooked. The altar CAN move, it doesn't have to stay in one spot all the time.
In our tradition, we divide the altar into the Goddess's side and the God's side, for the most part. The right side of the altar is the Goddess's side, and the left side of the altar is the God's side, as you are facing the altar. So, in general, the Goddess and the tools representative of the Goddess will be placed on the right side, and the God and the tools representative of the God will be placed on the left.
Fire is a masculine element, and so the censor and incense are on the left. Water is feminine element, so the chalice, cakes, and water are on the right. Oil and salt are in the front center, and the libations bowl is also in the center.
A good way to illustrate altars is with pictures, but please do not take this as the ONLY way to ever set up your altar! Remember, one of the criteria is that it please YOU - so set up your altar in a way that makes sense to you and pleases you and you will not be wrong. The God and Goddess never set down any hard and fast rules about how an altar should be set up, or what needs to be on it. Traditions started by human beings set up those "rules" because we feel the need to do these things the same way every time. No bolt of lightening will strike you down in circle if you set your chalice in the center on top of your pentacle, or if you are left handed, so prefer to put your working candle on the left so you can easily reach it.
Go ahead and smile, this isn't as silly as it sounds. Many students have the idea that if they don't do everything exactly so, some demon will come and "possess" them! That may be the case in Ceremonial Magick where one is calling on Demons, but this is Wicca - the Lord and Lady love us, and are not going to have fits because we did something different.
Experiment with altar set-ups. Experiment with altar placement. If you are in a tradition, you will have to use the dictates of the tradition when working with the group. But you CAN do your own circles at home, and do some experimenting there. I encourage my students to do at least one circle a month, ususally New Moon, at home by themselves and try different things.
Be Creative! Enjoy it and have fun!
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