Altars have long been used by witches for varying purposes — spellwork, meditation, and worship, most commonly. I’ve personally built a lot of altars because I find the process so enjoyable, but as I gained more experience, I learned that by “streamlining” altars and narrowing their focus, they turn from beautiful, witchy ornaments into powerful tools for the practical witch. Today, I’ll be introducing two new ways to use altars that will hopefully make your spells stronger and more effective over time.
An Altar From Scratch
When building a new altar, your first step is picking a location — somewhere quiet and out of the way that won’t get a lot of visitors. Consider placing your altar near a window. You can open the window during spellwork for some fresh air and natural light. This also allows any smoke an exit path. If you’ve got a private yard, outside might be a good idea as well, as long as you can protect your altar from the elements and you’ve got some privacy. There is a lot to be said for working in a natural environment.
The second step is your altar foundation. There are so many beautiful altars you can buy in shops and online. They are built of dark wood and have drawers for your herbs and candles. Some even have brass pentacles already included. The problem with these and most things we want to buy is that they’re too expensive and strictly speaking, not essential. You never need to spend lots of money on your craft. It’s tempting, and it’s fun, but the power that infuses your spells comes from you and there are always great alternatives for pricey supplies. For example, if you’re driving around and catch a garage sale, pull over! There may be a funky little table from the ‘70s available that would be perfect for an altar. Another option is to head online and search for wood slices. These are fantastic and can be found pretty cheap in lots of different sizes. These are just two suggestions, but the possibilities really are endless. Think creatively! Think about your altar’s vibe. How do you envision it? Now go hunting for the perfect foundation.
The Spell Shrine
When I built my first altar, I went a bit overboard with decorating it. I was thinking in terms of aesthetics and not function, and the result was that my altar was less effective. When you work a spell, you build a well of energy. Your intent is crucial in directing this energy, and your intent is reinforced significantly by the symbols you use. So, by having a lot of unnecessary extra items on my altar I was not as effectively directing the energy — I was confusing it! This can spell big trouble if you’re trying to do something really specific. After some experimenting, I finally learned that less is more. For whatever spell I was trying to accomplish, I would only use symbols and devices on my altar specific to that spell.
Over time, I noticed that when I would perform little spells with sigils or candles, I didn’t bother setting up my altar at all. For one, I like working outdoors and my altar was inside. Secondly, these spells were very quick and didn’t necessarily require the exaggerated ceremony that comes from working with an altar. I also realized that I only really had one spell that I took the extra time to perform routinely on my altar and the altar was already perfectly set up for this spell. Disrupting it in any way felt backward, as if I was undoing the important work I’d spent so much time on, and for what? A quick sigil spell? No way.
This is where the idea of the “spell shrine” comes from and it simply means building an altar that serves one purpose, that continuously refuels one important spell. Each week, I anoint the candles on my altar with oil and I let them burn for hours. I add new stones occasionally and take others off. When my sister got me a beautiful tarot deck for my birthday, I lined my altar with the cards that held exact symbolism for this spell. I have continuously added symbolic offerings to the altar and I have paid my respects and said my thanks weekly for years.
No spell has ever worked better for me than my altar spell. I believe that by building a shrine to one intent or spell and maintaining it, you increase its potency tenfold. I always say effort equals effect, and it is a lot of effort to make an entire altar to one spell. But the effects are worth it.
So, how do you build a spell shrine for yourself? The hardest part is figuring out what you want your altar to do. Think about it like this: What is a spell you perform often? What is a spell you’d like continuously recharged and working for you? Remember, there is no reason you cannot have more than one!
Now that you have decided what your altar will do, it’s time to direct its intent and that means symbols! There are lots of available resources that will give you lists of herbs, crystals, tarot cards, colors, candles and their various meanings. The only problem I have with these lists is how often one item can represent many, many different things. I personally feel that when you have too many meanings attached, it either dilutes all of them or pulls the energy you’ve called forth in too many directions. I refer to these lists, but I don’t rely heavily on them. Instead, I think it’s a far better idea to think of things that are important to you and that represent specific ideas — ie, find your personal symbols.
Say you’re doing a spell shrine for love. Instead of sprinkling your altar with herbs traditionally associated with love, think of a particularly romantic moment or period in your life. Maybe you went to the movies or out to a restaurant. Did you save your receipt? Did you save a rose from a Valentine’s bouquet? Maybe you have no souvenirs from the day, but you can recreate this moment in some other way. If you went to the beach, get some sand or shells for your altar. If you went for a long walk with a lover, revisit that spot and gather some stones. These visual representations of what you want from your spell work far better at underlining your intent because they actually represent something to you. They call forth memories and help you focus on what you want, and why. It’s all about your intent and you only add to the strength of the spell by using symbols that boost your emotion and focus. Dig deep and you will find the perfect symbols for whatever spell you’re doing.
Sacrifice And The Importance Of Gratitude
Historically, altars were places of sacrifice. Modern witchcraft has moved beyond this, and today instead of sacrificing animals or people, we can sacrifice things of importance to us in exchange for the Universe’s help with our problems. When working at your altar each week, ask yourself what your spell means to you and what you are willing to part with in order for it to be a success. Soda is a huge problem for me, so one week I’d vow to give that up for a few days in sacrifice. Other days, it’s giving up the internet for three days or my music. By making these small sacrifices, I give my spell value. It is important enough to me that I will pay for it with these sacrifices.
One thing that is so important, but I don’t really see mentioned much, is being thankful. A lot of spellwork is asking and waiting, but where is the emphasis on gratitude? With an altar, you must say your thanks as soon as you complete your weekly ritual. I suggest even picking a day and time each week to light some white candles or incense or play some music near your altar, to continuously show respect and thanks. Don’t just take from your altar, remember to give as well!
- As always, using natural elements is fantastic, but be respectful when collecting from living things. Use what’s already on the ground or ask permission to harvest natural elements and make appropriate offerings in return.
- If you have pets, be sure and keep your altar out of reach. Certain oils and herbs can be harmful to them, not to mention how easily an altar can be destroyed by a properly motivated critter.
- Don’t clean your altar with unnatural products. Try to keep this space as chemical-free as possible. Cleanse routinely.
- Journal, journal, journal. Take pictures of your altar when you make changes and be sure you keep track of which items got better results. This will make your toolkit much stronger in the long run, and therefore, make you a better witch.
- If possible, place some potted plants or flowers near your altar. This generates peaceful energy and having something living nearby that you have to tend to is a great offering for your altar. Bonus: You can use the dried leaves and flowers in spells and rituals!