Altars & Tools
An Altar is an elevated place or structure, as a mound or platform, at which religious rites are performed or on which offerings are made to gods, ancestors, etc.
Altars are as every bit unique as a person is. They can reflect both our spirituality and our personality. It can become our sacred space where we leave the mundane behind to create something magickal. But it also is a key place of worship for our Deities as well as our Ancestors. That being said, there are some different types of altars and shrines. An altar is generally for any magickal workings, the space a witch sets up for an Esbat, Sabbat, Rituals or permanently for all sorts of practices (examples: divination, meditation, etc.). It is the place for transformational change. In contrast, a shrine serves to honour a person, deity, or concept. Offerings and prayers may be given here. People tend to create shrines after a passing or tragedy as well. It is more of a place to connect rather than to do magick. There are many items you can place on your altar; just remember there is no right or wrong items to include!
Most noted in witchcraft, Wicca and other occult magick, the four natural elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water are commonly represented on an altar. A common example would be; dirt or salt to represent the element of earth, a feather or incense to represent the element of air, a candle to represent the element of fire and a dish of water to represent the element of water. The placement of these representations of the elements varies depending on traditions and personal preference. In some traditions It is customary to have the altar facing North as this direction symbolizes stability and focus. There are however people that choose to face the other directions. There are also times when a witch could change the direction the altar faces dependent upon the working being performed. An example of which would be during a funerary ritual in which the altar could face West which is the direction of death and rebirth. Another example would be for a "wiccaning" or the blessing of a newborn child. In this case the direction of the altar would commonly be East because this direction represents new beginnings. Again, all this is dependent on your path and your situation or space limitations.
Divination / Tools
If you practice divination, you may decide to add your divinatory tools to your altar such as runes, crystal ball(s), oracle and/or tarot cards, etc. Adding one oracle or tarot card (or more) to your altar can be used for magickal and/or meditative purposes. If you are new to magick, don't get caught up in the belief that you have to have every magickal prop or tool on your altar for it to be complete. Tools are great to have, but many of them can be substituted with what you already have at home and in your garden.
Adding things from nature to your altar can help you connect to the land around you, get to know your surroundings, the land and the environment in which you live. As the seasons change, bring items from outside to your altar to reflect the turning of the wheel. Branches, leaves, acorns, flowers, stones, rocks, snow and rain are just a few things that you can add to your altar that cost nothing! Popular for altars are crystals to add and amplify the energy of your altar. If you have a big enough altar, you can create crystal grids for certain workings. If you design an altar to be a working altar, where spells and magickal workings are done, instead of an altar for only honouring and devotion, you will find that the altar will get dirty. There most probably will be candle wax on it and if you work with powders and/or oils, it's going to get messy! If your altar is a working altar, like mentioned before, whenever you feel the need to rearrange and clean your altar is up to you. Cleaning your altar on the new or full moon can be a good way to remember, if you want to regularly attend to cleaning your altar and preparing it for the next moon cycle or month.
several common features of modern Pagan Altars.
Altar Cloth ~ Some people use them while others don't. They can be decorated with symbols or images that add to your sense of magick or spirituality. plain works just as well, there are no rules as to what they should look like.
Athame ~ The witches' ritual knife. Modern Witchcraft books almost always state that the athame is a "black handled double-edged iron blade. "the classic" But many other practitioners now use athames made from stainless steel, copper, silver and various other metals, or even carved stone. The athame is used to cast the magick circle, call the "quarters" or elements, and is part of many an opening ritual, handfasting (wedding) or initiation rite. It is associated with the element of Fire and the South. It is customary in some traditions to have your blade given to you as a gift. Often the blade is left "dull" or unsharpened because some feel that the ritual knife shouldn't be used for anything but ritual work.
Bell ~ Tool of invocation and banishment. The bell is a feminine symbol of the creative force, which is of the Goddess and in turn the left side of the altar. The bell can be rung to indicate the start of a rite by banishing negative influences before the spells or ritual begin. Bells can be used to guard the home by warding off evil spirits or evoking good energies when placed in cupboards or hung on doors. There is no one way to use the bell.
Besom ~ used to ritually cleanse an area before magick is performed by symbolically sweeping away negative energies and astral build up. used to guard the home and persons within against psychic attack or evil curses, this by placing it across the threshold, windowsills, or doorways. Traditionally and perhaps the use which most people identify it with, are the old wedding ceremonies, where a couple leapt over the broom to ensure fertility, domestic harmony and longevity. Today pagan hand-fasting rituals often include a broom jump. Â The besom is not featured on the altar normally because of its size but can logically be associated with earth and air. It can be associated with Earth because of the material it's made from and its energy dispelling properties. It can also be associated with Air because of the wind it causes when you sweep the air or ground but also because its winds sweep away negative energy. The broom belongs on the Eastern side of the Altar. Whichever direction you choose, the broom should always remain bristles up when not in use. This is to keep good energy. If you are having a bit of bad luck, then place your broom bristles down in the northern corner of your house till the streak passes; then return it bristles up.
Boline ~ The Boline or White-Handled knife as it is also known, is the practical knife of the craft. Traditionally it was used to harvest herbs and had a blade in the form of a small sickle. Today it is normally a knife used for cutting and carving. It has a white handle to differentiate it from the Athame, which has a black handle and is used only for magickal purposes.
Bowl of Salt ~ symbolizes the element of Earth and is used in circle and tool consecration. The salt can be added to water to create blessed or "holy" water. It doesn't need to be a bowl, but it is a practical choice.
Book of Shadows ~ Workbook of the Witch. To some a representation of Spirit for the Altar and have held space in the centre.
Cauldron ~ The cauldron is the tool most associated with witchcraft and is steeped in magickal tradition and mystery. In ritual the cauldron is used as a container for making brews and potions, or to hold a small fire for use with spells. It can also be used for scrying (divination) by filling it with water and gazing into its depths. If you manage to have a small cauldron that fits on the altar, then it is best placed in the West on the left side of the altar. Large cauldrons are usually placed to the left of the altar. I however, have seen cauldrons atop a fire placed in the North.
Censer ~ Incense burner used to hold burning incense during ritual. Any type of censer can be used, even a simple bowl filled with sand will do. The censer represents the elements of Air and is normally placed on the eastern side of the altar. Witches use many types of incense from sticks, cones, and especially resins and herbs that are burned on special charcoal briquettes.
Chalice ~ The chalice to represent the element of Water. Salt is added to the water in the chalice and is then sprinkled around the circle to purify the area. There are people that use the chalice in lieu of a cauldron and there are people that choose to just use a bowl. This ritual item is never to be used for drinking.
Deity Representation ~ representation of the God and Goddess on our altars if it's part of your pathway. This is can be by using what is known as the God and Goddess Candles. Traditionally, witches use silver for the Goddess as it symbolizes the moon and femininity. For the God, we use gold because it symbolizes the sun and masculinity. The Goddess Candle is usually placed to the left on the altar and the God candle to the right. The moon and the feminine has been traditionally associated with the left side of the body and is internal and receptive. The Sun and masculine has been traditionally associated with the right side of the body with activity and what is outgoing. Some have statues of their deities on their altars. This isn't mandatory, but some like to use statues of the god and goddess in lieu of or in addition to God and Goddess candles.
Wand ~ The wand represents the element of Air and the East. Its length should be approximate the crook of the elbow to the middle of the index finger. The wand can be used to cast the circle or direct energy in other magickal ways, such as in spells and incantations. There are wands of glass, copper, silver and other metals, but the "classic" material is still wood. Various woods have different magickal associations and uses. Witches who do not use athames often use a wand instead.
Pentacle, Incense, Offering Bowls, Candles, Candle Snuffer, Lighter, Crystals, Herbs, plants and spices, Smudge sticks, Photographs and Ornaments are all other things which can be added to your Altar.
Ultimately, it is up to which if any of these tools you decide to use. You may want all of them or you may want just a few. Tools find a way to come to you naturally when you need them. Forcing yourself to settle for a tool just for the sake of having them will render them ineffective and leave you wanting. There are other tools used by different people that were not listed here. The tools presented above are the most commonly heard of or recognized tools.