The word altar has varying definitions in different contexts. In the context of Witchcraft, an altar is generally a Witch’s workspace. A Witches altar serves as a focal point for magical activity. It provides a dedicated space to perform spells and ceremonies with tools easily at hand.
What is on a Witch’s Altar
A witch’s altar is unique to the witch. There are some traditions that specify specifically what should be on the altar and how it should be arranged, but even then the personality of the witch shines through. Altars usually display candles and may also serve as a shrine to the deity the witch worships. Other items may include the tools used for most rituals, such as an incense burner or censer, an athame or wand, a chalice or a cauldron, perhaps a fire bowl. Crystals, flowers, and various symbolic items may also be arranged on the altar for spiritual or aesthetic reasons. Some witches will change the look of the altar to correspond with the season. The altar usually has some storage nearby for consumables, such as herbs, extra candles, string, oils, incense, and perhaps tools that aren’t used as often.
Witches who are more discreet about their witchcraft might disguise their altar as a decorative arrangement, displaying the more decorative items and tucking the more distinctive magical tools into a box or a drawer. More minimalists witches may consider a single candle and enough clear space to do the work at hand a suitable altar.
Why Set up an Altar
Many learning traditions suggest creating an altar as a first step in learning Witchcraft. This makes sense in many contexts. Those learning any craft, whether it be writing, carpentry, or Witchcraft, are well served to create a dedicated practice space. Such a space allows the practitioner to easily practice their craft without spending extra time gathering materials and finding an appropriate spot to do the work. The extra fuss can lead to becoming sidetracked and the work of the moment abandoned. A dedicated workspace also serves as a tool to help a practitioner enter the proper headspace for the work. If you always do the same thing in the same spot surrounded by the same objects, your mind will soon become accustomed to the pattern and quickly slide into focus on the task at hand with less and less effort. The altar then becoming a ceremonial tool in its own right.
Alternatives to Altars
It is not always practical, however, to set up a dedicated altar. Many Witches are limited in space and the same work surface may have to serve several roles. Others may not have a location where they feel it is safe to display their magical items for a variety of reasons. Some witches prefer to work outdoors but want to keep their magical items safe indoors between ceremonies. In these cases, it is often necessary to set up the magical workspace anew for each spell or ceremony. The good news is, the act of setting up your magical workspace is a ritual act in itself. The act of clearing off a surface and laying out your altar cloth (if you have one) and setting up your tools can switch your mind into focus just as easily and possibly more deeply, than approaching a designated altar space.
Without a permanent altar, the greatest need is a place to store your stuff. Although I am moved here to remind the reader that most stuff is really not necessary, most of us have at least some paraphernalia we like to have around when we’re doing spells and ceremonies. In the absence of a dedicated altar, it becomes necessary to find another place to put that stuff and I recommend a dedicated storage area. A makeup case, a briefcase, or a small box is nice for the Witch on the go that might be creating sacred space just about anywhere. If you generally practice at home, a drawer or cabinet in your house is ideal. It is important to keep all of your magical items together because searching around for them can sidetrack you from the work. Some witches do not have designated magical tools but may use these items as often for cooking or crafting. In these cases, the tools should still be carefully stored in their mundane facility so they can be quickly and easily accessed without fuss.
Do you Need an Altar to Practice Witchcraft?
An altar is useful, but it is not always necessary. The lack of an altar should not deter the new student of witchcraft from practicing the skills of the craft. Some spells take place on the move, or in bed, or in other situations where a work space is not needed or would in fact prove a hindrance to the work. The only time you really need an altar is if you need a surface to work on and that can be improvised. See sacred space