Altars have been used for worship and religious rites going back to the Neolithic age. For eons, stretching back into prehistory, people have been making altars where they live, turning their domestic place into a sacred space. Wherever archeologists have discovered evidence of human habitation, the remains of altars have also been found. Sometimes the altars are nothing more than animal sculls honored with flower petals or precious stones. Sometimes they are elaborate affairs with gold fittings and drawings depicting people worshipping the sun, the moon, and the stars.

As the spiritual core of society, the altar represents who we are. It is a way of showing in tangible form what is happening in our hearts. When you look at an altar, you are seeing an outward expression of an inner act that recognizes our spiritual character. An altar in the home is a special acknowledgment of our home as our safe harbor and our sacred space. It elevates the place where we live to a temple, a spiritual location wherein we, spiritual beings, dwell. We do not have to be in crisis to feel the comforts of a home altar. In fact, keeping an altar in the home and using it as a focus for simple spiritual practice may preclude crises from visiting a household.

The first thing you need to decide is if you can have a permanent altar or if you will have to put it away each time. The kinds of things you use for your altar are very much up to your own personal taste and preferences. It’s important that your altar be a reflection of your own spirituality. With all the possibilities, how do you go about choosing what is right for you?

The first item of an altar, permanent or temporary, is a surface to build your altar on. Some people prefer round tables as they are easier to get around in the midst of a ritual circle. Others like a square table that fits easily into a corner when not in a circle. In the Silver Moon Crow Coven, we each have our own preferences. Still, as a group, we construct temporary altars, on any available flat surface or sometimes directly on the ground.

We have used piano benches, tv trays, end tables, the benches of picnic tables, coolers, boulders, and the list goes on. We prefer having storage space under our altars where we can store things we may need, like an extra candle, group activity supplies, a scrying mirror, and an extra lighter so we don’t have to break the circle. Many think wood is the best medium for an altar since it’s from the earth. Whatever you decide on it’s a good practice to cleanse and consecrate it before use. Wiping it down with saltwater or smudging it with sage are quick ways to do this. Also, exposure to the sun or moon will work equally well.

In recent years people have somehow come to believe that all of their ritual goodies need to be on the altar or they lose power and potency. We have never found this to be true, as long as the items in question are stored respectfully, and used regularly, you don’t ever need to worry about their efficacy going into decline. And having too much on your working surface can make some workings far more dangerous, particularly burning candles or any use of fire.

One consideration for your altar is likely whether it can be displayed openly, If you feel that your practices would bring unwanted scrutiny on you, you might decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and find a small cabinet you can hide your altar tools and ritual supplies in, and close. It is often more respectful for the altar tools and ritual supplies to be kept for the eyes of those who would appreciate them rather than gawkers wondering if the athame is used to murder small animals.

Choose which direction your altar will face. Each direction has its own significance. This can be an important choice:

North: Mystery and Constancy.
East: New life, rebirth, and beginnings.
West: Joy, growth, and spirituality.
South: Motion, energy, and thought.

Research and meditate on your element of choice before you begin because that choice will affect how you feel and what you do there. We face East and the Sunrise. You might want to use a compass for this if you aren’t sure which way is which. After this, you need to decide which tools best suit your needs and set up your altar with them and other things which help you in your personal devotions or rituals.

Always First comes the altar cloth. Choose a cloth that is pretty, functional, and not too difficult to get wax off of. You know you’re going to be dripping wax from time to time. It’s inevitable. That’s why many choose not to use very expensive altar cloths. The altar cloth is generally used to protect the altar, and is not “necessary” but can be meaningful (depending on its symbology) or merely functional. Many coordinate its color or pattern with their plans for the altar.

Now down to the nitty-gritty, what is actually going on your altar and where is it placed? The most common altar is divided into three zones resembling the Irish flag, Left for the Goddess or Sacred Feminine, Center or Spirit, and Right for the God or Sacred Masculine.

Next comes the candles. You don’t need to crowd the altar, a simple God and Goddess representation, you can substitute the candles for statues if you like. The God is on the right side and usually white or gold. The Goddess is on the left side and usually red or silver. Signifying the Goddess in her phases red for menstrual blood or silver for the moon respectively and the God with white for seamen and gold for the sun.

A thurible or censor with charcoal in it goes in the center of the right hand, with a small dish or bottle of resin or herbal incense. So we have our Fire (charcoal) and our Air (incense). A shell or chalice of water goes in the center of the left side along with a small dish or bottle of sea salt. So we have our Water (chalice) and our Earth (salt). This is the elemental representation on your altar.

The tools of the Great Rite. Anything that can hold water can be your chalice if it has that meaning for you. As we have said, the chalice holds the element of life that you can use for your ritual symbolic of the mother’s womb and the fountain from which all life came. The chalice is placed on the left-hand side far enough that your libations would spill. The Athame is also a personal preference, traditionally a double-edged blade, symbolic of the phallus of the god that fills the womb of the goddess with the seed or spark of life.

In the Center is where you put those things that are needed but not specifically aligned. Between the God and Goddess candles or statues you place a cauldron or offering dish, then a candle snuffer, bread for libations, and finally the pentacle disk.

The finished product is very simple, remember shaped and colored candles, flowers, decorative candle holders, and especially the altar cloth can add beauty to this simple finished product.