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A common question among new witches is, how to set up your first witch altar? Since the altar is key to Wicca and pagan religions in general, and is personal and symbolic, it’s only natural that you want to create a truly unique and beautiful expression of yourself and your Wiccan faith.
We’ll get into the details to teach you how to set up your first witch altar.
What is an altar exactly?
An altar is a personal dedication to Wicca and your practice, and it allows you to create a sacred space within your home or wherever you may be practicing. Essentially the altar is a workbench for you and your craft. It’s where you cast your spells and perform you magick. It’s where your rituals take place.
Really, it’s a sacred space which you create. However don’t be overwhelmed! At its root the altar is a tool, a base, a place to ground yourself. Use it as your “home base” while you follow your Wiccan path.
The altar is basically a table or other flat raised surface where you keep all of your ritual tools, symbols of your belief, and any items you may need for spells, meditation, ceremony, divination, prayers, chanting, etc. It’s a physical representation of your craftwork and is a place for worship and ritual.
Altars should hold what we value. They often contain energies we want to invoke, ideals we want to strive to, the divine we want to channel, and statements of our beliefs.
The altar is a part of your sacred space. Sacred spaces are areas set aside from the everyday world. We create sacred spaces ourselves. We do not have to rely on a religious body or master to tell us what is a sacred space and what is not.
The spirit is everywhere. Simply by declaring a site holy and honoring it shapes it into a sacred space. With an altar, we invite the Goddess and God into our lives and send them our intentions.
Altars are not just decorative pieces. They represent your living workspace. There is no need for elaborate ornamentation or excessive solemnity, unless you desire that of course. A simple, minimal altar is fine. A beautiful, elaborate altar is also fine. It’s totally up to you. Altars need to be big enough to conduct spiritual work. They should also be able to hold all of the tools you’ll need for your next ritual.
Surprisingly, besides Wiccans, many other religions have altars too! Altars have been used for centuries in pagan religions. They are also routinely used in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Altars are just normal parts of religious expression!
Do I need an altar?
No, you don’t need an altar at all! Many Wiccans don’t have one and this is perfectly fine. An altar is a personal and unique element of your craft, and is meant to help you channel your energies and emotions. If it just doesn’t do it for you, don’t use one!
Only keep and use an altar if it enhances and focuses your magickal work. Whether you want to use an altar or not, or what sort of altar you create, is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong way to use an altar (including not using one at all).
There is also no right or wrong way to create an altar if you so choose. Altars can be big or small, simple or elaborate, permanent or temporary. A temple can be as simple as a few candles and one or two other items on top of your dresser. A temple can also take up an entire room. Whatever makes you feel calm and energized in your practice is exactly what you need.
This article serves as a set of ideas, suggestions, and best practices that I’ve found in my own craft. Please use the information you like and ignore what you don’t! Remember, only you know your personal preferences, and that is most important!
Do I need to spend a lot to make my altar?
Absolutely not! The gods don’t care how much you spent on your altar. If you are on a budget, you can create your first altar at little to no cost.
You can easily create most altar items yourself. A cereal bowl can be a chalice. A letter opener can be an athame. You get the picture. Or, many basic items you can buy cheaply at your local supermarket or dollar store. You certainly don’t need to spend much (if anything!) when learning how to set up your first witch altar.
Although I give recommendations in this article on what you can buy, do not feel as if any of these items are necessary to get started.
Where can I set up my altar?
Literally anywhere! As I mentioned, any place we honor and dedicate can become a sacred space. Practically, we want to place our altar somewhere quiet and private. Since we’ll be spending time meditating and contemplating and don’t want to be interrupted. You should feel safe and secure in your altar space.
An easy way to get started is by setting up a temple for yourself in your bedroom. This is small, convenient, and gives privacy to your practice. It’s also where you feel safe and recharge at home. It’s great if you live with parents or a roommate. You can place some of your magickal items on your dresser, desk, nightstand, or bookshelf.
(Please be sure and not place candles on a bookshelf though. And never leave candles unattended! Also please note that having your temple in your bedroom may give you strange dreams!)
Another practical option is a temporary, portable travel altar that you can set up anywhere. This gives the benefit of being able to worship outdoors or while traveling. It can also let you safely store your altar out of sight when not in use, in case you cannot freely share your religious practices with your housemates (or you just want to keep your practice private).
Simply keep all of your altar items in a container, and bring them out as needed. If practicing outdoors, you can set up your travel altar on a tree stump, fallen log, large stone, small folding table that you’ve brought with, or even the ground.
Similarly, you can also set up your altar near a window. Wicca is all about connecting with nature, and what better way to enhance your practice by seeing it right out the window! It’s also great to smell the fresh air and let out smoke while you’re practicing.
As your practice grows you may find that you need more space, especially if you work with other witches or are part of a coven. A permanent, dedicated Wiccan altar table near the center of your home can be a great daily reminder of your spiritual path. As with all things Wiccan, the choice is personal and ultimately up to you. Trust your gut feelings about what’s right for you.
If you think a travel altar might be for you, here are some examples that will get you started.
Which direction should my altar face?
You may have heard that altars should be constructed facing North. Although this is the most common altar orientation, it is certainly not a requirement. Many witches face their altars North because that is the quarter of the Earth element and Wicca is an Earth-based religion. However, you may feel that another direction and element suits you better.
For example, you may wish to create your temple facing the direction of your own personal element. This is the element which you most closely vibrate with. If you need help, check out my article on how to find your element.
Or, you may do many rituals which have you start facing the same direction, and you’d like your altar to also be oriented in that direction. You may also wish for your altar to orient towards the sunrise in the East or the sunset in the West.
Alignments are entirely up to you and don’t need to be exact. It can help to have a compass handy or to use the compass app on your phone to get a feel for which way is which. Don’t worry if your altar isn’t perfectly aligned.
What are some basic altar supplies I’ll need?
Here’s an introduction to some of the basic elements of an altar. If you feel overwhelmed, you may like to purchase a Wiccan altar kit that will give you everything you need to get started. Or, you can purchase one item at a time, learning how to use each tool in depth. In either case, what you need for your witch altar is entirely up to you. Here are a few great altar kits that might fit your needs.
Use: Casting circles and general spellwork
Material: Knife or blade, often with wooden handle
Where to find: Occult shop or repurpose an existing knife
An athame is a ceremonial blade or knife used extensively in Wiccan rituals (and pagan rituals too). It’s one of the most frequently used tools and it’s used to draw circles, channel energy, focus intention, and do spellwork.
Most athames are ornate and have a black handle. You can purchase an athame specifically, or repurpose a tool or blade you already have. For example, a kitchen knife or pocket knife can be given new life as an athame. Or, you can use an implement from your passion or career. Think paint brushes, pens, letter openers, etc.
Whatever you use as your athame, it can be decorated in any way you see fit to personalize. Inscriptions, symbols, runes, sigils, fabric, beads, or any other embellishments.
Use: Channeling intention and energy in spellwork
Material: Usually wood but can be any material
Where to find: Occult shop, make your own, or repurpose a found object (see our guide on How to Make Your Own Wand)
Wands are the quintessential and one of the oldest symbols of magickal power. They harness and direct energy and are key in Wiccan practices. Witches use them to channel their intention when casting spells.
Typically wands are wooden sticks about the length of your forearm, but they can be any size and made of any material. Wands can be metal, bone, or even found objects. Wands are usually decorated in their owner’s taste with stones, symbols, carvings, cloth, etc. When not in use, the wand should always stay on or near your altar.
Wands can be purchased or created yourself. I have an article on making your own wand, or you can check out these gorgeous wands.
Material: Wood, stone, cloth, paper. Any flat material.
Where to find: Occult shop or make your own
A pentacle is any talisman with a magickal symbol. What may come to mind first is an item with a pentagram on it (the Wiccan five point star). However any magickal symbol can be used, for example hexagrams (six point star).
Pentacles can also be made from a variety of materials. Wood is the most common but metal, paper, and cloth are also seen. Pentacles are usually displayed at the center of the altar and are used to consecrate items.
Material: Wood, twig
Where to find: Occult shop, craft store, or make your own (Trader Joe’s has a great cinnamon broom)
Brooms are another very old symbol of witches. The ancient, natural broom consisting of twigs lashed to a wooden handle is called a besom. They are traditionally used to purify and cleanse ritual areas like altars or circles. Brooms, like any other altar tool, can be personalized or decorated in any way.
Use: Cleansing, protection
Material: Wax in a variety of colors
Where to find: Most stores carry these
Candles are a common element in altars from every religion. You will likely need at least one candle in every ritual you perform at your altar. They are useful in cleansing, spells, invocations, and other rituals. They can also be used while meditating or during prayer.
At a minimum you’ll need one all purpose candle to use to set the intention for your rituals. You may want additional candles as desired. For example you may want a candle each for your Goddess and God. You may also want special candles for performing specific spellwork. If you have the budget, a candle set in a variety of colors can be a good investment.
Number of candles, size, color– It’s all up to your personal practice. Please note that for safety you should invest in candle holders, that way your candles are less likely to fall over if bumped. Always be careful lighting and burning candles. It will help to keep matches or a lighter nearby, as well as a container of water to quickly put out the flame (Hint: Your chalice or cauldron containing water can double as this!)
Use: Symbolic uses, mixing, burning, cooking
Material: Cast iron typical but any fire-proof material
Where to find: Occult store is your best bet, unless you are using a non-traditional cauldron like a bowl or cup which you can find in most stores
Cauldrons are vessels used in Wicca for numerous purposes. They can be used to combine ingredients in herbal spells. They can be used for burning incense or herbs during rites.
A traditional cauldron is a huge vessel meant to be used while cooking over an open flame. In practice, you’ll want a small cauldron to complement (and fit onto!) your altar. Cast iron is a traditional choice, but you can use tin, ceramic, or any other material that won’t melt or burn.
Use: Symbolic, mixing, drinking
Material: Any material that safe to drink from
Where to find: You can find something sufficient at almost any store. Specialty stores will have a greater variety
Also common in most religions, a chalice is a ceremonial goblet used for drinking. In Wicca, the chalice is used symbolically or aesthetically in spells and rituals. It is commonly used to summon the Water Element, and it is a key piece of the Great Rite (the other being the athame) for many Wiccan traditions.
Incense / Censer
Use: Cleansing, scent clearing, aromatherapy
Material: Gummy incense burned with coals or incense sticks
Where to find: Many stores sell it. Good varieties at religious and occult stores. Also ethnic stores like Indian grocery stores
Incense smoke is one of the easiest ways to create an atmosphere. Its fragrance is used to cleanse spaces, eliminate negative energy, prepare for circle casting, purify altars, and remove old scents from prior rituals. It’s commonly used during meditation and spell casting.
Book of Shadows / Grimoire
Since your altar is your workspace, you may like to keep your Book of Shadows or grimoire with it. It’s handy to have these items nearby and ready for use in rituals and spells. It’s also great to keep this powerful high-energy item alongside it.
If you’re new to Wicca, you can check out my guided Book of Shadows. It provides structure that teaches you the elements of a Book of Shadows.
If you’re experienced and just want a cool book to write in, or you know how to make a Book of Shadows already, you can find some really cool and earthy journals that give off a witchy aesthetic.
Crystals, Minerals, and Rocks
Use: Charging, healing
Material: Depends on the type of mineral
Where to find: Occult stores or you may be able to find yourself outdoors
Common in spellwork and used in healing, crystals and rocks are a great addition to your altar. They are great Earth elements to place in that quarter. Crystals especially are useful because they have energies we can pull up and use in our practice. Not to mention their shapes and colors are a reminder of nature’s perfect beauty. I have a series of articles specifically on crystals:
Use: Honor nature, cleansing, healing
Material: Your preference
Where to find: Garden, craft, and home improvement stores.
What a great way to remind ourselves of nature and the vibrancy of life with some plants on our altar. Potted plants are great if your altar is near a window that receives enough light to nurture the plants. Otherwise fresh cut flowers (you can purchase or pick a few yourself) work just as well.
There are so many reasons to include plants on your altar. Plants are just a great mood-booster, they create a calming energy, and enhance the air quality in your space.
Specific flowers can be chosen based on their correspondences or the specific type of spellwork you are doing. You can even procure some flowers in advance of a spell. Simply display the flowers while they are fresh, then let them dry for a few days and use the leaves and petals in your spell!
If you have pets, please take note of the types of flowers and plants you are considering. Some plants may be toxic to animals, so please check for the safety of each plant first!
Use: Ritual and spell use, healing
Material: Your preference
Where to find: Grocery stores for common herbs. Occult stores and ethnic groceries for less common ones.
Herbs will be useful in much of your spellwork, rituals, and in some offerings you choose to make. You don’t need to keep every herb that you might need on hand, but it doesn’t hurt to keep a small sample of your most frequently used herbs like peppermint, basil, rosemary, oregano, etc. These can be kept inside your cauldron or chalice.
Check out some of my other articles specifically on herbal magick:
Use: Charging, protection
Material: Metal, jewels, gems, leather, wood, glass, ceramic
Where to find: Occult stores for Wiccan jewelry. You can dedicate any jewelry you already have though.
Most witches tend to have at least one or two precious jewelry items. They can either be pieces you’ve purchased intentionally for your practice, or they can be items of emotional values, for example a ring or necklace that was passed down to you by your grandparent.
Jewelry becomes powerful when injected with intention. Use your altar to cleanse or charge your jewelry, and wear it with you throughout your day. Also, don’t feel that you need to stick to the more conventional items like rings, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. You can include broaches, anklets, toe rings, belts, barrettes, panjas, and body jewelry too.
Use: Reminder of life and death
Material: Bone, teeth, fur, claw
Where to find: Occult and specialty gift stores. You may be able to find for yourself outside too.
Witches embrace the certainty of life and death. Animal remains are a demonstration of the perfect complexity of fauna and the eventuality of death. Keep an eye out for items of interest for which you may like to decorate your altar. Bones, antlers, claws, fur, teeth, etc.
You can find these items when spending time outdoors, or they can be purchased as well. If purchasing, always ensure that the items were obtained ethically– meaning that they were found. Never purchase items from an animal that was intentionally killed for its parts.
Use: Honor deities, celebrate sabbats and seasons, protect altar surface
Material: Any non-flammable cloth material
Where to find: Occult stores give the most variety. Home good stores for tablecloths and placemats. Fabric and craft stores for sewing your own
Altar cloths are an especially striking and personal way to ornament your altar and honor your deities. You can be as simple or as creative as you like.
If you’re on a budget, you may include a single simple and durable altar cloth. You may also like to have a variety of cloths, much like you would table cloths– one for everyday and a few special ones for different holidays. Some witches have a different formal cloth for each sabbat. Some witches have different cloths for different rituals. And some have a single cloth. It’s entirely up to you.
Altar cloths are practical as well. Candlework, incense, blades, and liquids can damage the surface of your altar table. Make sure the cloth covers your entire altar. If you’re on a budget, you can repurpose an existing tablecloth or even perhaps a placemat if your altar is very small. If you’re a crafty person, you can also sew your own with bulk fabric.
Altar Tool Summary
Please note that although there are many items you CAN use, you can also get started with nothing! In fact there are many Wiccans who practice only with their hands. Altar tools are just extensions of our hands. We can still cast circles and do spellwork without them. Only add a tool to your altar if you feel that it enhances your practice.
Setting up Your Altar for the Elements
A basic altar setup revolves around the four elements. The elements are what make up everything in this world, and so in an Earth-based religion like Wicca, they are a part of our altars. See my article here on how to find your element.
Each element is assigned a cardinal point, or quarter. We use the elements’ correspondences when placing objects and symbols in an altar. (Table below for reference.)
Each quarter is marked in its quarter typically by colored candles in each element’s color. However if you don’t have colored candles, white candles are fine too. Light each of the four candles before your ritual begins.
Directions are also marked by symbolic objects of that quarter’s element. Earth can be represented in the North by a bowl of dirt, sand, or a plant. Air can be represented in the East. on the altar by a stick of incense, feathers, or wind chimes. Fire can be represented in the South with extra candles, charcoal, or sun figures. Water can be represented in the West with a bowl of water, seashells, chalice, or mirror.
When first starting out, or if you have a temporary altar, you can arrange everything on your altar table. However if you have a permanent altar in your home, you can consider four small tables, shelves, or wall sconces to hold your candles and other items.
In addition, pagan mythical beings or “spirit classes” are associated with each element. Symbols of each spirit class can also be incorporated into your altar.
Cardinal Point: N
Candle Color: Yellow, black, brown, or another earthy tone
Altar Object: Pentacle
Representation: Stones, fossils, wood, pottery, salt, soil, sand
Spirit Class: Gnomes
Cardinal Point: E
Candle Color: Blue
Altar Object: Sword
Representation: Incense, feathers, wind chimes, fan, bell, lamp
Spirit Class: Slyphs
Cardinal Point: S
Candle Color: Red, orange, or gold
Altar Object: Wand
Representation: Candle, sun figure, dragon, volcanic rock, ash, matches, lighter
Spirit Class: Salamanders
Cardinal Point: W
Candle Color: Green
Altar Object: Chalice
Representation: Water, shells, fish, driftwood, mirror
Spirit Class: Undines (Mermaids)
What are some types of altars?
You can have so much variety with altars! As mentioned earlier, altars can be either permanent or temporary. You can also have seasonal altars as described on the section about changing altar cloths for every turn of the Wheel of the Year. You can also have multiple altars. Here are some examples of multiple altars you might have in your home:
- Primary altar, dedicated to the Lord and Lady. See the section of how to set up your first witch altar.
- Additional altars dedicated to additional deities you may worship. Include small figures, drawings, imagery, or any symbolic items which remind you of the deity.
- Ancestor altar to honor your deceased family. Include photos, mementos, ashes, family heirlooms, clothing, etc.
- Nature altar which honors the divine in nature. Think stones, crystals, seashells, driftwood, plants, animal remains, etc.
- Anything else you desire. Your altar or altars do not even need to be static objects. You can dynamically tweak and change them over time as your needs and practice evolve.
What else can I put on my altar?
Absolutely anything you can imagine is what goes on your altar! It’s totally up to you. Your altar is a place of meditation, introspection, and self improvement. It should be a place you look forward to spending time. Personalize it according to your taste.
It should be uniquely yours and optimized for your own personal spiritual practice! Feel free to include anything which aligns with your goals, lets you focus, and makes you feel at home. Your altar is for you and you alone. Here are some ideas to help your imagination:
- Seasonal decorations or special decorations for each sabbat
- Charms, talismans, and amulets
- Inspiring books you’ve read
- Statues or drawings of your deity or anything symbolic of them
- Figure or drawing of totem/spirit animals
- Pictures of elemental spirits and kings (gnomes, undines, slyphes, salamanders)
- Divination tools like crystal balls, tarot cards, etc
- Witch’s ladder
- Special jewelry
- Witch bottle
- Potpourri or aromatic herbs
- Natural items like shells, stones, sticks, and sand
- Cakes and ale
- Your personal art creations like drawings, paintings, sculptures, etc
- Items from other religions you may practice or feel drawn to. Many Wiccans practice other religions which complement their Wiccan practice, and this is ok! Incorporating symbolism or rituals from other religions expands your mind and lets you embrace the universe in your own unique way.
- Anything that is meaningful to you, reminds you of who you are, and symbolizes your beliefs
- Any object that helps you focus your energy and intention and amplifies your emotion
- Anything that feels powerful and sacred in your space
- Or nothing else at all!
How do I use a Wiccan altar?
So many ways! Your usual activities will be dedications, spells, and rituals. But you can also use your temple for daily meditation and prayer. It can be a place for you to journal and do introspection. It can be a space for inspirational drawing. You can also sit at your altar while you add to your Book of Shadows. In fact, a great way to document your journey is to draw your altar setup in your Book of Shadows. You can also photograph it then paste it into the book as well. Either way, this will be immensely helpful to you. It allows you to:
- Replicate your setup anywhere you may travel with your altar, especially for a temporary altar or to setup outdoors.
- Remember your first and successive layouts.
- Track your altar changes over time. You can even add notes about which placements are more effective to track your results.