10.1.14

Altar Arrangement

For the second week of the Pagan Blog Project, I decided to write about altars, their roles in Paganism and Wicca and primarily their arrangement as their very layout has deep symbolism and can define the type of ritual you are doing, as well as its atmosphere. 

There were many posts written on the topic of altars for the first week of the project, and all of them were original and wonderful in their own way. I admired the fact that most of them were quite personal. I did notice though that none of them focused on altar arrangement. This is thought by some to be a very textbook topic, but its one worth covering in my opinion. This post isn't going to be as personal as some of the other ones on the topic, but it will provide a substantial amount of applicable information for Pagan practitioners.

The reason why I chose to write a not-so-personal post on altars is because I remember them being something completely distant to me when I started practicing my faith. I was concerned with practical questions like: "What is the altar used for?", "What should I put on it?", "Do I even need an altar?" and so on. These dilemmas, which I now perceive to be small, are in fact very large for anyone new to Pagan practices. It is normal for the beginning of any path to be a little bit bumpy and for the practitioner to come across dilemmas such as these. Nevertheless, they can still cause a great deal of confusion which can easily be avoided with just a bit of practical information. It is exactly this kind of information that I will try to convey through the following text. :)

Before I begin, it's worth noting that I'm Wiccan, which means I incorporate Pagan symbolism into my altar arrangement. Other occult traditions and other religions/spiritual paths may have completely different layouts. This is completely acceptable. The main thing is that you understand what the altar is and how you can use it and that its arrangement is symbolic, logical and practical to you. After all, you are going to be the one using it. The arrangements which I will suggest are by no means the only possible ones, or the "right" ones. They are simply arrangements that have a deep symbolism for Pagan practices and that have become widely accepted due to this (as well as their practicality). You can modify the arrangements to suite your own needs, or even choose not to use them at all. But whatever you decide, I hope that you at least learn something new from this post. :) 

What Is an Altar?

The world "altar" is often connected to the Latin word altare which can be translated into "high altar/altar for sacrificing to the gods" or the Latin adjective altus meaning "high". This definition is widely-accepted, but less valid than the following one. A more accurate theory would be that it comes from the Latin verb adolere meaning "to burn" which relates to the notion of sacrifice in the previous definition as a sacrifice doesn't have to be a blood sacrifice (e.g. animals in ancient times) but rather a burnt plant of piece of food. 

It is often defined as a raised place on which sacrifices and gifts are offered in some religions. The Pagan concept of the altar differs slightly from the Christian concept. Of course they vary in decoration and the object placed on them, but an important thing to note is that Christian altars are simply "always there" (they are usually made of a certain stone which isn't moved, but always stays in the same place and is rarely left unadorned). Pagan altars are usually movable and are prepared for occasions (i.e. before a ritual). 

The altar is often placed in the middle of the sacred circle and is thus the focal point of the ritual. In this sense, the altar serves as a sort of repository for energy which can be channeled when the need be during the ritual. It is also serves as a bond between the physical and spiritual world (in many ways, but primarily because its very presence and energetic strength changes the mindset of the practitioner and makes them aware of being in a spiritual place). 

First of all, I have to repeat that the altar is usually placed in the center of the circle (although in rare occasions at the north, but that's not important now). In Pagan traditions, it usually faces north (which is connected to the element of earth and symbolizes a connection to the physical plane), while some prefer to face east (because the Sun rises on this side). This is a matter of personal preference and neither way is wrong, but you have to be aware of why you made this decision and what it symbolizes for you. By the way, when I say that the altar faces, for example, north, then that means that the practitioner should be facing north when they stand at the altar.

Apart from having great spiritual value, the altar also serves as a very practical ritual tool (if it can be called a tool) because most objects used during a ritual are kept on it and because all works, both religious and magical, are done at the altar. 

What Should An Altar Look like?

There really are no exact rules as to what an altar should look like in Paganism. There are many suggestions and good ideas, but none of this is obligatory and unquestionable. I would like to give you some recommendations, but feel free to disregard them if you feel that none of them are right for you.

Your altar can be anything from an old tree stump or rock somewhere in nature, a box covered with a cloth, a highly decorated table, an old chest or even the floor itself (although it is recommended for practical reasons that the altar be slightly higher than the ground; this makes it easier for you to pick up objects and also looks and feels more solemn). It can be store-bought, found and restored or hand-made. This all depends on your time, resources, finances and other factors. 

The material of which it should be made isn't specified, although wood is most traditional and metal is typically avoided because metal conducts energy and the altar doesn't serve this purpose (whereas a sword, knife or wand do serve this purpose and often are made of/include metal). Basically, the better a material conducts electricity, the better it will also conduct energy and the "worse" it will be for your altar material. Although the material is less important for religious rites where the energy is stored and channeled in a different manner. The altar material will have more influence of magical rites.

As I said, wood is the ideal choice, but you will also come across altars made of stone, brick, cardboard and so on. Of course, you won't have a stone altar if you intend to move it around a lot, and a cardboard altar is a great choice for those who need to camouflage it. If you choose to get a wooden altar, traditional choices would be oak and willow. Also, the use of glue to construct your altar is not recommended (although natural glues are ok). Metal fixtures are also best to be avoided. Again, these are all just suggestions. 

The shape of the altar is not all that important. It depends on what you prefer and what you find more practical. The most common altars are round (because Pagans work in a circle; so this is both practical because you circle around the altar and it fits into the space better, but also because of the symbolism of the shape itself and its connection to female/Goddess energies). Rectangular altars are also very common (they usually bear the symbolism of the four elements and are connected more with male/God energies). Of course, other top shapes are also acceptable; a polygon or a completely organic shape. Choose what you find best. 

There are no rules as to how many legs it should have (if any), bu it is very practical to leave some space underneath your altar for placing things that you may need during your ritual. In stead of this many Pagans choose altars that have drawers and keep secondary tools there. 

The height of the altar also depends on your preference. If you do your rituals sitting or kneeling down, then the altar should naturally be lower, but if you do them standing up then it is very impractical to keep bending or crouching down to get what you need. In this case, a higher altar would be a better choice.

When choosing the size of your altar, it's important that all the necessary ritual tools fit on it. I worked for a while with an altar about 30 x 30cm in size (it was basically a wooden box). I made a new altar a few years back which is much larger (about 1m x 50cm). If you decide to have a circular altar, then I recommend a diameter of at least 1 meter. Of course, if this is too large for you, then simply choose according to how much space you have/need.

Your altar can also be decorated, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Many Pagans cover their altars with a cloth of an appropriate color (depending on the festival) because it looks very solemn but also protects the surface. Some choose to decorate it with greenery, but again, that's your choice.

In any case, the altar is used for keeping your ritual tools which can be arranged in many different ways depending on what you want to achieve, what you find aesthetically pleasing and what you find more practical.

Altar Arrangement

When I say "arrangement", I mean the arrangement of your ritual tools on the altar. Of course, not everyone has the same tools (this depends on the tradition, personal preference, financial situation, the individual's situation etc.). Some don't have any ritual tools at all (in which case there is no practical need for an altar), some have only a few, while others have every possible tool there is because they feel most comfortable having them there.

You will typically find some of these ritual tools on a Pagan altar: the representations of deities (God/Goddess figurines, other figurines/paintings/natural objects which symbolize the deity or even one/2 candles), an athame and/or wand, incense (and whatever goes along with it), food and drinks (and also a plate, goblet and libation dish to go with them), two bowls (one filled with salt, the other with water), a bell, a candle snuffer, a book of shadows or other book/papers from which the practitioner may read (if necessary), an altar candle (which isn't needed if you represent the deity/ies with candles) and so on.

Large object such as cauldrons, swords, brooms, staffs and additional items such as spare candles should be left beside or below the altar so as not to crowd it too much but also not to put too much weight on it. 

The altar is usually divided into "zones", each of which corresponds to something and which holds object corresponding to that same something. There are two ways of dividing your altar (I will use a rectangular altar as an example, but the same can be done on a circular altar):

1. Vertical partition

The altar is vertically divided into three sections:
  1. The left section - belongs to the Goddess and is connected to emotions. Objects connected to her and with "female" characteristics are placed here.
  2. The right section - belongs to the God and is connected to the rational. Objects connected to the God and the masculine (or otherwise thought of as "male") are placed here.
  3. The middle section - it is also called the working area and is used to place other objects which are used in magic or have a practical purpose (such as the Book of Shadows for reading and so on). Magical objects can include candles (if practicing candle magic), cords (for cord magic), poppets, divination tools, objects that are going to be consecrated and so on.

Note: the objects mentioned in these diagrams under "Goddess" and "God" (or in the diagonal diagram under a certain element) aren't necessarily the only objects corresponding to them. I will give you a full list of ritual tools and their "gender" later on to help you out with this. The tools which are listed are only examples (or really very essential tools).

The items can be placed about in various ways though a very practical way would be the one in the following diagram.


2. Diagonal partition

The diagonal partition divides the altar into four parts, each one corresponding to a certain element. This is more typical for rectangular altars but can also be used on circular ones. If you have a rectangular altar, it is typical for the corners of the altar to point at the cardinal points (so upper right corner pointing to east, lower right to the south and so on). This would result in a normal horizontal/vertical raster on the altar such as the one below.

Note: the four quadrants are colored appropriately. The yellow quadrant is for air, the red for fire, the green for earth and the blue for water.


If you decide to place your altar so that you face a certain way (e.g. north/east), then the partition will really be diagonal (as the name suggests). This kind of partition is more common because facing towards a certain cardinal point (e.g. north) is more common that, for example, facing north-east. 

This is what the altar would approximately look like:


Of course, there are other ways to divide your altar. One such example can be found in Raymond Buckland's book Wicca for One in which the author gives an example of how he would set the altar. This partition is mainly practical in nature because the candle(s) is/are placed at the back so that it isn't knocked down, all the bowls are gathered in one place and the objects most often used are placed at the front of the altar.


As I promised, here's a detailed list of altar tools with gender and element correspondences (although it is far from complete because some traditions and individuals add/remove/replace certain tools). Hopefully, it will help you distinguish which tools to put where according to the above mentioned altar arrangements. :)

Note: not all tools have a gender or element correspondence, so don't let this confuse you. Some of them don't require any explanations (e.g. the altar cloth), while other such as a snuffer are simply neutral in terms of gender and/or have no element correspondence so they can be placed anywhere on the altar. The neutral items will be symbolized by a Ø symbol. The forward slash symbol (/) simply means "or". For the "neutral" tools, decide for yourselves where you want to place them (if you decide to use them at all). Also, not all the tools are obligatory. You can find a less detailed list of tools in a previous post entitled "Ritual Tools". The ones that are commonly thought of as obligatory are underlined. This should clear things up a bit.

Ritual Tool
Gender
Element(s)
altar cloth
Ø
Ø
God representation
male
all
Goddess representation
female
all
candles
male
fire
candlestick
male
Ø
snuffer
Ø
Ø
incense
male
air
censer/thurible
male
Ø
incense charcoal
Ø
Ø
bowl with water
female
water
bowl with salt
female
earth
bell(s)
Ø
Ø/air
spoon (for the salt)
Ø
Ø
feather
male
air
libation dish
Ø
Ø
wand
male
air
athame
male
fire
chalice
female
water
plate/pentacle
female
earth
broom
both
Ø
cauldron
female
water
boleen
Ø
Ø
staff (usual or forked)
male
air
priapic wand
male
air/fire
scepter
male
air/fire
cords
Ø
Ø
sword
male
fire
scourge
male
fire

Of course, other tools can be included. Some of them which are used rarely can be placed beside the altar or under it (e.g. matches/a lighter, a compass, a water bottle, CD player if playing music etc.). 
Some of the tools are too large to be placed on the altar itself so you can place them by the altar on the side which corresponds to their gender/element. These items include: the broom, cauldron (although small ones do exist), staff, scepter, sword etc. So, for instance, the cauldron, which symbolizes the Goddess and the element of water, would be placed either to the left of the altar (in a vertical partition), or on the west side (in the diagonal partition). 
Like I have already said, this isn't a full list of ritual tools, but it should be enough for now. :)

What If I Can't Have an Altar?



Some of you may find yourself in an awkward situation where the people you are living with don't know about your faith and practices. In this case, having a visible altar somewhere in the house is a dead giveaway. This doesn't always have to be the case. You may simply not have the room or finances for an altar at the moment.

It will come as a relief to you that there are alternatives! :D
You can also use the following objects for you altars:
  • a box (of any material and size) turned upside down and covered with a cloth
  • the ground (preferably have a cloth underneath your tools, though)
  • a modified table/chair/bedside table/coffee table/chest of drawers and so on
Modifying an existing piece of furniture is a great idea because you don't have to spend any money on a separate piece of furniture for you altar and you will have extra room in your house. Besides, the fact that this table (or whatever it is) will be used regularly doesn't effect its religious function because it can always be cleansed and consecrated before each ritual. If this is a bit tiring, then you can always have an altar cloth which will be used only for religious purposes and use it to cover the table. This is also why I recommend placing the tools on the cloth in stead of directly on the cardboard box or the ground.

To illustrate my point, here are some pictures of modified altars (disregard the altar arrangement though because it's not the same as in this post).




I'm sure you'll be able to find many more examples on the Internet. :)
Anyway, I hope this post was of some use to you and that you enjoyed reading it! :D
Expect another Pagan Blog Project post next Friday. Yours,

Witch's Cat

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