I'm a Wiccan priestess and the founder of the Temple of Ara and I am going to give you a quick introduction to setting up an altar. It's the foundational practice and most important because it's a means of shifting consciousness from the mundane which is in fact sacred, to the sacred. It's really a way of getting that blindfold off so that you recognize the sacred that's all around you.
In fact an altar can be made from absolutely mundane things. You can run into the kitchen and grab a bunch of bowls and get to work. You can also work without anything. You don't need any props, you don't need any magical tools, you don't need any altar because you are already the altar. That is the meaning of ara in our tradition, that the altar is in the center of your soul. It's in your heart and each of us is an altar where heaven and earth can join but because the divine speaks to us in symbols the table correspondence which is represented on the altar is the vocabulary that we use in the old religions.
Let's go through it and we'll do it quickly. An altar can be high or low. It can be large or small. It really doesn't matter. Generally speaking you set it up so that it's facing east or north but depending on what you're going to do you can either place it in the direction that is related to the work that you want to do or facing the direction that you want to do. You could have it facing south if you wanted to do a ritual for courage or for inspiration, for strength. If you wanted to do a spell for love you could put your altar in the west or have it facing west because west is the direction of the emotions, the heart.
I know we begin, we begin with purification and the simplest and oldest method of purification is to wash. To wash your hands. You can take an entire shower beforehand. If you can't do that a little salt and water. Salt is purifying. It's cleansing and it's a very simple way of cleaning before.
The other way is with sage. This is an herb that's used by Native Americans for purification and it's also, interestingly enough the same purpose in the Indigenous traditions of Europe. We also use sage for the same purpose, for purification.
In this classic model of a Wiccan altar we have at the center, image of the Divine Feminine. This is a copy of the cycladic nude. It goes way back thousands and thousands of years and for a symbol of the god I have these antlers that came from a hunt by a friend of mine who's a hunter over which I've said prayers of thanks. Also the bowl which is the traditional symbol of the goddess. This is the libation bowl for offerings at the end which is my favorite part, I think of rituals because of the wisdom that everybody shares and reveals and it's a stag bowl. It's got the masculine protecting the feminine.
The east which corresponds with air is here represented by feathers, many of them from a turkey that was living up the block from me, got eaten by a fox. I am using his beautiful feathers to represent the element of air, birds, air, corresponds with the mind, with the direction of east, with the beginning where the sun rises and the powers of the mind both imaginative and rational. Both. We express it in terms of language, speech, poetry, creative thought, analytical thought, laughter, music, birds and birds, flight.
Next is the next point as we move around the circle we move from east and air, from the creatures of the air to south which is represented here by a candle for flame, for fire which is the direction of the south, of heat, of the sun. In the Australian traditions on the other side of the world, on the other side of the equator for them fire is represented by the north so for our Australian friends we say 'Hi' down under and remember that for them north is associated with fire.
In the Northern hemisphere it's the other way around and fire's in the south. Candle and an orange candle because orange is the color of the south, fire and will, energy, power, it's usually associated with the creatures of fang and claw, dragons and mountain lions and the animals of the desert that are able to survive and in fact thrive in the heat, in strong heat.
We're moving around the circle. The next direction is the west which is associated with water and the creatures of the water, the dolphins and the fish and the whales and the otters and all the creatures that play in the water. It's also associated with emotions, with love because it's water and so that's represented here by an oversized shell and in it is a bowl with water.
Then continuing around the circle we come to the north which is for us the direction of the earth and here is, in the form of a fossil and you see the spiral which is the symbol of life and in which there are wonderful mysteries for another conversation. In the center of this I'm going to place a marble bowl which I use, it's mortar and pestle so it serves double duty. Always be efficient with salt which is the element representing the earth. You can also use seeds. I like to use bird seed very often instead of salt then I make that my offering and distribute it outside to birds when I'm done working.
The altar then as well my challis which is the traditional symbol of the feminine, of the Divine Feminine, of the womb, of creation. I have also a wand which was made by a brilliant student and artist who lives in Ferrara with his extraordinary wife, another student and is incredibly lovely and light. I don't often have this out but I have this time. This is my athame which is the sacred ritual knife and is used for the direction of energy because it's a double hilted blade. It has to be oiled periodically only in this direction. This was the first and the only athame that I've ever had and makes me feel like I belong in the woods someplace which is where we all belong frankly. As this represents the feminine impulse the athame represents the masculine.
Then you can decorate your with whatever is appropriate with images of specific deities if you're doing a certain kind of work or seasonally. Fruits, flowers, whatever is in season, whatever is appropriate and what's appropriate for your work.
The final thing that is placed on the altar is the symbol of the faith which for us is the pentacle and it's the five pointed star and it's a symbol of all four of the elements as well as the fifth one which is spirit and has a very profound and gorgeous ancient symbolism which I invite you to explore when you have some time.
This is the essential form of a traditional Wiccan altar and can be used to celebrate a sabbat, and esbat or the making of any magic for any purpose.