Altars can be used by any and all people. That’s right—altars aren’t unique to Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, or any other religious practices. The beautiful quality of altars is their adaptability to your personal spiritual practices and even your secular practices.
Ahead, we dive into all the details you’ll need to learn how to build an altar from the types of altars to finding the perfect location for your altar.
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What Is an Altar?
Altars are sacred places, often raised, where people can honor their ancestors and deities or practice spiritual rituals. Altars can be made up of different selected objects that represent the purpose of the altar. Some will also leave out offerings of wine, food, seeds, or coins for the ancestors or deities being honored.
Altars can be completely customized to your spiritual practice. Buddhist altars will often have a statue of Buddha whereas a Neo-Pagan altar might include a statue of the Goddess or God that the individual honors. You’ll see many small differences but at the end of the day, altars serve the purpose of being a way to honor and focus spiritual energy. Altars can even be secular. A secular altar may serve as a focal point of gratitude or meditation.
Where to Place an Altar
Where you place your altar depends on the purpose of your altar and the space you’re working with. It will also depend on if you’re in the broom closet or not (in the case of my witchy altar makers). Let’s take a closer look at where you can place an altar in your home (or outside around it).
Visible Spots in Your Home
The majority of people creating an altar will want it to be visible in their homes. If you’re looking for a visible spot to place your altar in your home then consider a bookshelf, table, mantle, or windowsill. You can even purchase an altar table specifically for your altar and keep it in a central location in your home.
Hidden Spots in Your Home
If you want to keep your altar private or hidden for any reason then you’ll want to think about spots that are both easily accessible but also easily stored. This could be a drawer in your dresser or desk.
If you wanted to invest in a new spot for your altar altogether, consider getting a secretary desk with a roll top. This will give you plenty of surface for your altar than can be easily tucked away. You’ll also have plenty of drawers and cubbies to store your altar supplies when not in use.
You can actually set up an altar outside of your home. If you go for an outside altar, look for a tree stump that has an even flat surface or any other flat surface in your garden. This could be a table, bench, or other flat structure either natural or manmade.
If you live with others or travel frequently then having a permanent or semi-permanent altar may not be a good fit for you. Luckily, portable altars are definitely a thing. You can keep your altar in a shoebox or folded up in a cloth. Portable altar kits are available for purchase if you’re unsure where to start.
How to Build an Altar
Before we dive into the steps taken to build your altar we want to emphasize, and we can’t emphasize this enough, that there is no right way to create an altar. Altars come in so many sizes for dozens of purposes from celebrating holidays to honoring loved ones. If your altar feels right to you then you’re doing it right—never let someone tell you that you are required to make an altar a specific way or that you must buy specific items to make your altar correct.
1. Select a Location (It Should Feel “Right”)
The first step to building an altar is selecting an altar. As mentioned above this can be inside or outside your home in a number of places. You’ll want to find a space within your home that feels right. It should be a place you want to frequently visit and spend time in. It should also be functional.
Consider the space requirements of your altar and if you plan to actively meditate or do ritual work at it. In these cases you want the altar to be easily reachable. Not, for instance, at the top of your bookshelf and out of reach.
2. Determine the Purpose of Your Altar
If you haven’t yet, determine why you’re building an altar, to begin with. We get into more details below about altar purposes but the long and short of it is, altars can be built to honor sabbats, ancestors, deities, and loved ones or they can be used for meditation and ritual work.
As you build your altar, ruminate on the purpose of your altar and what you would like to get out of building it. This is you establishing your intent.
3. Cleanse Your Space
Before you begin placing items on your altar, you should cleanse the space. You can do this with a sage smudge stick, Palo Santo, or Florida water.
4. Allow Yourself to Be Called to Items for Your Altar
You will have likely already gathered items for your altar, however, if you are still searching you should allow yourself to be called to the items you’ll use. Building an altar is all about connecting with yourself and using your intuition to build something that feels right.
If you’re not sure what items to add to your altar, check out our complete guide to altar objects.
Note: You should never feel inclined to purchase a ton of items simply because articles or videos online talk about what items should go on an altar. You also shouldn’t allow others in your community to tell you there are right or wrong objects to include on your altar. Do what feels right to you and the altar you’re making.
5. Place and Arrange Your Objects
Now it’s time to place and arrange your altar objects on your altar. You can set up your objects as you wish. (Get this, it’s whatever feels right. Seriously, you can’t mess it up.) If you have images of your loved ones you might want to put larger images at the back in a frame. Often people will put a central piece in the middle, be it a flower, statue, or offering.
6. Work With Your Altar
Working with your altar will look different to different people. Perhaps you use it to give offerings to your deities, ancestors, or loved ones. If you use it for meditation then you will spend time at your altar meditating. If you’re using it for ritual or spellwork, you will complete that work at your altar.
7. Maintain Your Altar (We’re Talking Dusting!)
This is the boring part, for sure. You need to maintain your altar. Altar maintenance includes tasks like dusting and replacing perishable offerings. You may also consider swapping out cut flowers for fresh ones if you’ve incorporated those into your altar.
Maintaining your altar shows your care for it which should fuel the intention behind creating it.
8. Adjust Your Altar With the Changing Times
As times changes, be it seasons, circumstances, or something else, your altar too should change. Check in at major points throughout your life and rearrange your altar to fit your current intention. This could align with sabbats or general life milestones. It might include completely redoing your altar from scratch or simply adding or removing a few pieces here and there. It’s entirely up to you.
Supplies You’ll Need for Your Altar
Altars are never stagnant — don’t stress it if you don’t have every piece your want for your altar at the start. You will build and accumulate items for your altar over time. Below, we get into the four elements being represented at your altar and common objects to add to an altar.
Remember, you can accumulate everything at once but it’s not a requirement to building a functional altar.
The Four Elements
Representing the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) is an important part of Pagan altars. You can approach this in one of two ways, if you want to represent the elements in your altar.
First, you can use the canonical tools used to represent the four elements in Paganism. These are a pentacle or disk for earth, a sword (athame) or wand for air, a candle or wand for fire, and a cup for water.
If you want to represent the element of earth at your altar, consider using one of the following objects:
- Disk (bowl or saucer)
If you want to represent the element of air at your altar, consider using one of the following objects:
If you want to represent the element of fire at your altar, consider using one of the following objects:
If you want to represent the element of water at your altar, consider using one of the following objects:
- Bowl of water
Common Objects for Your Altar
There is an incredibly long list of objects you can use on your altar. Here’s a brief list of some of the most commonly used objects:
- Altar cloth
- Candle holder
Altars Through the Seasons
I’m talking specifically to witches who recognize the wheel of the year when I cover this next section. (Although, you can absolutely change your altar to honor changing seasons and holidays from your own spiritual practice.) You can adjust your altar to honor each sabbat. This will pull on color correspondences, herbs, and other items that align with each sabbat.
Reasons to Build an Altar
There are a number of reasons to build an altar, which we touched on briefly above. Here’s a more in-depth look at those reasons.
Honoring Your Ancestors and Loved Ones
You might decide you want to honor your ancestors or loved ones by building an altar. This could be tied to your religion or it could simply be the direction you want your altar to take.
If you want to honor deities with your altar then this will inform the type of items you include on your altar. If the reason behind your altar is to honor a deity then you’ll generally be giving offerings via your altar.
Practicing Ritual and Spellwork
Ritual and spellwork as a reason to build an altar is Pagan and Wiccan exclusive for the most part as this is generally a key area of the path. What rituals or spell work looks like to you with depends on your personal practice but this is definitely a common reason why people build altars.
You can build an altar in honor of a holiday or sabbat, like Yule. These altars will be guided by the intentions and symbolism that come from the holiday in question.
What to Do at an Altar
So, what do you even do with an altar besides admiring it? There are a few ways you might interact with your altar and utilize it. The major uses of an altar are as prayer and meditative spaces or as a location to do ritual work.
Altars can be used as a place to say prayers. This is common for Buddhist and Christian altars more so than Wiccan altars.
Perform Rituals or Spellwork
Your altar can be used as the location where you do your ritual or spellwork. This will depend on the style of your altar and the available space. You may find that doing your spellwork in an alternative location and transferring the completed physical remnants works better. This is how I utilize my altar as it is tucked in an area that doesn’t make for easy spellwork.
Honor Ancestors and Loved Ones
If you’ve set out an ancestral altar then the obvious use is as a place to connect with your loved ones and ancestors. You can honor your ancestors with offerings of food or items. (Just be mindful of four-legged friends or young family members that may get into any edible items that have been left out.)
You can use your altar as a place to express gratitude. You can do a secular altar with your family to identify areas where you are grateful and show physical representations of them in your home at your altar.
Meditation is another common way to use altars, especially secular altars. If you want to meditate at your altar then you may consider having a pillow on hand to make sure you are comfortable when you are meditating.
How Many Altars Do You Need?
The number of altars you keep in your home will depend upon your personal desires and what feels right for your space. (Sound familiar to our previous advice?) Some people keep a number of altars throughout their home that might include a self-care altar, ancestor altar, and kitchen witchery altar as just a few examples. On the other hand, some individuals will only want one main altar in their home.
Personally, I currently only keep one altar in my home in my library which is a quiet and peaceful spot central in my home. Where you place your altar and how many you set up will likely change over the years depending upon your intuition, moods, and the seasons.
With all this being said, it’s time for you to get started setting up your first altar. Remember, this is a personal and individualized practice with no correct answer. Don’t allow yourself to get frustrated if it doesn’t look aesthetic enough or you can’t invest in all the pieces you want from the start. In fact, we really recommend focusing on personal totems and mementos over store-bought items.