So You Want to Set Up an Altar

photo of altar with plants, Cernnunos idol, candles, feathers, and other elements

I drunk-posted photos of my altar a couple nights ago on Facebook, and several folks made comments that they want to set up an altar but haven’t done it yet.It got me thinking that maybe I could share a few thoughts about altars.

Where to start, how to go about it, the purposes of an altar, ways of using and building relationship with your altar.

The first thing to know is that altars are highly personal and can serve many purposes and roles, and are approached differently in different cultural, religious, and spiritual contexts. Use this article, if you wish, as a launching point for your own relationship with your idea of spirituality, not as a text for determining what that relationship should look like.

Where to Start

If you feel drawn to keep an altar, you needn’t delay or overthink. Getting started is really quite simple.

  • Choose a space. Don’t overthink it. You can always move it later. Any space will do. An end table, a desk, a curio cabinet. Literally anything. In some traditions, an altar is portable, carried bundled in a rug or cloth to be set up anywhere at any time. If you want an altar, just… Start.
  • Add things. Again, there is no need to overthink this. Add some things that feel special, important, beautiful, fun, or sacred to you. If there is a particular god or animal or plant energy you feel drawn to, seek out images or elements that represent that for you and place them on your altar.
  • Arrange. Altar arrangements can be made for aesthetics, symbolism, to create specific energies, or according to formulas. Any of these approaches is valid. Just do what feels right.
  • Iterate. An altar, at first, can simply serve as a focal point to begin a journey or practice. Over time, let yourself follow and study what calls to you, and update your altar according to new learnings. If you found yourself including a particular stone on your altar, for instance, you may wish to read more about the physical and metaphysical properties of that stone. As you learn more about it, you may understand more of why you were drawn to it. This may lead you to other realizations and other avenues for exploration. You may find that there is an animal that embodies similar energies and find that you want to include an image of that animal. Then you may learn that a particular spiritual community focuses on that animal, and you may want to study that community’s teachings. Maybe you seek out a teacher in that community and learn and follow that path for a while, and add elements from it to your altar as well. “Iterate” means to continually update and rearrange your altar to reflect where your focus is right now, what is guiding you, and the lessons and energies you want to embody.

The Purposes of an Altar

There are as many reasons for keeping an altar as there are altars. The same person can have multiple altars for different purposes, even. But at its core, I believe, an altar is a way of creating a physical focal point for a spiritual purpose.

Your purpose may be as specific as calling on the assistance of a god energy. For instance, I am working with the energies of Pan (in Pan’s many forms) at present. I have a small statuette of one of Pan’s representations, the Celtic Cernunnos, at the center of my altar… For now. Many other elements of my altar complement this energy… Its profusion of natural elements, its orderly chaos, the deer antlers in the center behind Cernunnos, etc.

Many people have multiple gods they build relationships with. You might eventually want smaller altars in different places, one for each of the gods you work with. Some god traditions have very specific formulas for how to set up the altar (for instance, a god of order like Saturn) while others (like the wild god Pan) are much more fluid in their observance.

Another common purpose of an altar is to commemorate, honor, and include the energy of someone beloved who has died, and/or our spiritual ancestors. My altar has a candle holder in the left front corner with a candle that I have dedicated through ceremony to the memory of a particular mentor and friend. When I especially want to call his energy into my focus, I light that candle. Some people keep altars dedicated exclusively to a specific loved one, or to all their departed loved ones, or to all their ancestors.

But the purpose of an altar can also be much simpler, and simplicity is perfectly valid. Your altar can begin with “these are things I love that make me smile.” In fact, if you’re not sure where to begin, this is where I generally recommend. Such an altar is ultimately an altar to the divine self and your right to love life. It’s an altar to joy, and joy is our divine right and a powerful agent toward goodness and justice and beauty. My altar, though it holds elements of the various specific practices I engage in, is primarily an altar to my love of life. I put things there that I love, that make me happy, that I can wake up to every morning and think, “oh, yes, this is why I’m still here. Yes. This is good.”

I don’t question whether something “belongs.” If it makes me smile and I want it there, I put it there. Very often, I later come to an understanding of the metaphysical WHY of its belonging there. But my conscious mind doesn’t need to know the why. It just needs to know that I want it there. That’s enough.

How to “Use” Your Altar

The ways to “use” an altar are as varied as the altars and the people who keep them.

I do want to make clear that the word “use” is utilitarian here, but also a little problematic. Your relationship with your altar becomes much more if you do not think of it as a “thing” that you “use” but rather a place that you are in relationship with. For me, the altar itself develops a consciousness, a life of its own, that is reciprocal and intertwined with my life, but that is also separate and valid in its own right.

I don’t use the beings that I am in relationship with. Therefore, I don’t use my altar. I interact with it.

One of the key ways I interact with my altar is to smile at it each morning. This is so simple, and so profound. I highly recommend it. Just… Smile at it each morning. You may be amazed what grows out of this simple practice.

I also meditate while facing it. For this reason, you may eventually want to move it to a location where you can sit comfortably while facing it. My meditation is enhanced by the energies contained within my altar, and my altar in turn is charged with the energy of my meditation.

Because I am working strongly with Pan right now, I focus energy on that central figure. If you’re working with a god energy that has traditional prayers or mantras associated, you may find it valuable to repeat those before your altar. In my case, I have come to understand that a portion of the Deer’s Cry, a remnant of an ancient song of my spiritual ancestors, which I repeat every day, is the song that (along with my actions and alignment with the wilds, and my own inner alignment) called Pan into my life. As such, I repeat it as a way of continuing to align and learn from and channel that energy.

At other times, however, different elements of my altar call me. I have a rendering of a spider also in the center of my altar. Often, I meditate upon the teachings of Spider, who is one of my Great Teachers.

Other times, I simply listen to the plants I have arranged there, or I commune with the spirit of Nettle (there are dried nettles on my altar) or alder (I have alder seeds there too). Sometimes I burn incense or do a smoke cleanse.

Sometimes I sit there and say, “help me. Please help. Please. Please help me” which, in the words of the immortal Anne Lamott, is one of the world’s most powerful prayers. Sometimes I request certain types of help, like courage or peace. Sometimes I just ask for help, any help.

Any of these ways of honoring your altar are good. Light a candle. Say a prayer. Sing a song. Think about a lesson you are learning. Express gratitude. Tidy up. Smile.

For one small part of your day let your heart and your spirit guide instead of your head.

See where it leads you.

A Word on Christians and Altars

My writing comes from my heart, and as such it naturally partakes of a pagan, pantheist, polytheist, animist view. But I was born Christian and I know that my writing may feel inaccessible to some in the Christian community. And that is okay.

But if you are Christian and you want to engage in the practices but aren’t sure if they’re compatible with your religion, I want to encourage you in saying that these practices are not exclusionary. You can have an altar no matter your religious or spiritual practice, so long as your tradition doesn’t prohibit it.

If you are Christian, you may wish to make the altar center on God-as-you-understand-God, and frame all the elements of your altar as appreciation for the gifts of God. You can include saints and angels, if those are part of your practice.

Altars are a physical manifestation and focal point for spiritual experience. As long as the spiritual practice allows for and honors the experience of others and all the fantastic diversity of life, it is valid and worthwhile.

We are all rivers running toward the same ocean, and thank goodness we’re not all the same river. How boring would that be?

Regardless of how you set it up, interact with it, and develop it, your altar has the potential to become a powerful agent for internal change and growth, as well as a bridge between what you know and experience internally and how it manifests into the material world.

Wherever you are, whatever your path, I encourage you, if the idea of an altar calls to you, to begin today.

See where it leads you.