Last week my post was dedicated to the beginner and the start of building an altar. As I said building an altar can seem very overwhelming to a beginner. The same problem can be seen to occur with people have have been on their path for a while or have finally chosen their specific paths after a lot of exploration. This post here is going to address how a more advanced pagan can develop altars specifically dedicated to their paths.
Path specific altars and specificity
Last week I mentioned that some paths have very specific altars and there are some times reasons why you may need to change your altar for a specific sabbat, spell, rituals or activity. The more you read and research the more ideas and concepts you may want to try. For this reason it’s important to understand the rituals and the magical practices you are exploring . You may need to have different supplies from those supplies that you started with.
This post will cover a few specific points on the topic of seasonal, magical, and path specific points. Each one of these points will illustrated why there really is no wrong way to set up your altar unless you are on a very specific path. Like I said in my previous post exploration, trial and error are going to be all you need.
The topics covered here will be:
- Eclectic witchcraft altars
- Brittish Traditional Wicca altars
- Traditional witchcraft altars
- 8 sabbat altars (Wicca and witchcraft)
- Ceremonial magic
- Asatru altars and items used
- Hellenic (Greek worship)
- Religio Romano (Roman worship)
Each of these paths have very specific altars and ritual tools. Each of these paths have specific ritual forums for which their altars are designed. Each of these altars has a different use and different specific ways to be used in the altars. I’ll start with what I practice myself. That way I can ease into the paths I have explored but have little to no personal experience with. I am always studying and I am always willing to try something new, but lets start with that which I know.
Eclectic Witchcraft Altars:
As an eclectic witch there are really no real limits and style for the altar. However there are some common themes in the altar set up. Ultimately each witch has to choose how to make their own altar based on what works for them and how they worship the God and Goddess or the spirits they work with. This is where the comments of my last post and directions of my last post come into play. I will however list a few of the common traits and guidelines I have come across for more dynamic and specific worship set up.
One of the most confusing things about an altar can be what direction it’s supposed to face in ritual. Some authors say the altar should face north. Other say it should face east or west. Very few authors I have encountered over my studies have suggested that the altar should face south for fire. When a seeker or an advanced practitioner may set out to set up their altar for ritual they still may ask themselves where they should place the altar in the circle and if they want to have the altar face a certain direction.
I have found for myself that ideally my altar would be placed in the center of the circle facing no specific direction. While yes the altar will ultimately be facing a direction I find no reason for me to be worrying about if my altar faces the wrong way. For me the altar is the center of my worship structure. It is there where I place my offerings and where I place my tools during the altar. Which is why I would prefer to have it in the center of my circle. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work when you have limited space for ritual and moving all the furniture is not a reasonable option.
One of the other reasons I like having the altar in the center of my circle is that during ritual if I am going to use ecstatic practices such as dance, scourging, movement, or even the basic circle dance it becomes much easier to move around. It also makes it easier for me to define a very specific ritual area and I’m able to work ritual with in that area thus creating such a special sacred space. For many reason this makes it easier for worship and magical practices.
Elemental symbols on the altar
Most of the books out there mention that as part of ritual and practice there should be some basic symbols of the elements on the altar. Much of the modern witchcraft philosophy plays into the thought that each of the elements is involved in every part of magic and worship. Many witches believe in the Gods and elemental spirits that rule the winds and the powers of those elemental. This practice was firs seen in the Golden Dawn. Since modern witchcraft as we know it has its origins with the OTO and other forms of ceremonial magic as well as the local natural magic and folk practices of the Isle of man I can understand how Gardner (father of the witchcraft renaissance) formed the practices together. I appreciate this practice and have come to my own understanding of the elemental spirits and guides.
As a witch or magician there are many ways to work with the elements in magic and ritual. For many people there is a red candle for fire, a bowl of salt for earth, a bowl of water for water, and some form of incense for the representation of air. In my early days on my path this was something I had chosen to do on my own. It was simple and it was a very effective mode for my early years and some of my time when my living arrangements were less than grand for my religious and spiritual practices.
Aside from symbols that are literal representation of the elements there have often been tools used in ritual to invoke and call in the elements during the practice of circle casting. Sometimes the water and salt mentioned above are used in the invocation, but more often than not there are other tools involved within the rituals. Typically these are the athame (ritual dulled dagger), the wand, a bell, and occasionally the drums. There will be more talk of the elements and the common elemental tools when I make my post on the elements. For now I’ll post an altar that has the elements mentioned and get on to the next type of altar, a traditional Wiccan altar.
My semi typical Eclectic witchcraft altar
British Traditional Wicca Altars
There are only a small collections of BTW traditions. The traditions that are identified as BTW are:
It is the orthopraxic nature of Wicca which is addressed in this post. The set up a BTW altar is going to be very specific. While they may change with various rituals in general the set up of BTW altars is set up a specific way. This plays largely into how they work rituals and how it’s vastly different than how eclectic practice rituals and use their altars. BTW is a coven based religion as such there would only be the coven’s set of tools on the altar and personal tools would be on your person.
There are different set ups for initiation and different sabbats. The Farrar’s in their book A witches Bible they had diagrams for the various altars that they were using. While it’s true that there are oathbound practices and lore, the Farrars gave enough information to get the concepts needed behind the placement and purposes of the items that a seeker would be able to have some concepts behind what they were exploring.
I have never been initiated into a Wiccan coven. So I have nothing more than the understanding of a seeker. I have a few friends that are initiates and I have been seeking more and more. While I am not specifically seeking Wicca at this point I am seeking truth and wisdom found in witchults and witchcraft traditions.
Traditional witchcraft is yet another form of witchcraft. The basic difference between those who identify as Wiccan and those who are practice the common form of Eclectic witchcraft is that Traditional witchcraft is more focused on the practices of witches that occurred pre-Gardner. Traditional witchcraft focuses on folklore from various cultures and the central theme is ancestral worship (which is discussed in my other blog). In many ways the tools and the actual worship is more land based and more nature oriented than the typical eccelctic path as it explores in depth all aspects of life and creation as well as death and destruction and the relationships between them.
This is reflected often in their altars. There are two ways traditional witches can set up their altars. The first is:
altar in a more traditional sense
The second type of altar is the prefered style of many traditional witches. Traditional witches in many ways prefer to have their worship outside as the conection the the land is much more powerful. Even a few of their sacred space techniques would be much more powerful outside than inside. It’s the nature of their practice:
The third image is what the second image often starts out with during the initial prep. Instead of a table the Stang (the forked staff) when planted into the earth is used to hold ritual tools and items as well as be the center of the worship. The stand is often associated with the world tree and thus is a central part of the worship in traditional witchcraft.
I have a stang and a staff. One day I will use them in ritual together. For now I have other influences from traditional witchcraft in my path which I will get into little by little in these posts or in my other blog. My main influence from traditional witchcraft now aside from my underworld views, is having an ancestral altar:
My ancestral altar
Now I am on the last topic that is directed specifically towards the nature of witchcraft religions and practices. This last practice is tied directly into the lore of each of the sabbats and how each witch practices those sabbats. So here we go,
Altars for the 8 sabbats
The 8 sabbats in the various forms of religious witchcraft are one of the primary ways they connect with and worship their deities. Each sabbat leads into a key point or mystery of the nature of the universe and the cycle of life from birth to death to rebirth. The sabbats also go over the nature of the dynamic relationship of the God and Goddess they worship.
Each sabbat will there for have a unique altar setting. In many witchcraft traditions the winter solstice or Yule is considered to be the start of the cycle. I however feel that the cycle actually begins with the midwinter holiday of Imbolc.
Imbolc has always been associated with the birth of new animals. There is the symbolsim of milk being the first food for mammals and it’s prcesseses. Here we are able to really plan for the start of the year and the growing season to come. Its where in ancient times Farmers would finally start to have a source of income from the milk and cheese which would provide needed nutrition and additions to the diet that has been upon them since the last harvest.
I see this as where the God is born of the Goddess. That is why I believe the wheel of the year starts here at Imbolc. The altars at this time of year are decorated with signs of the light really returning and plans for the future.
Ostara: Spring Equinox
The next sabbat in the cycle is the sppring equinox. The sun has really returned. The day and night will be of equal length. The light has been increasing slowly since Imbolc but now it has returned. Here is really the symbol of rebirth. The trees have spread their leaves and there are more buds coming from the ground. Planting is in progress and the animals born at the time of Imbolc are starting to be more independent (baby chicks and bunnies for example).
Here at Ostara the Goddess is as a maiden young and innocent and the God is a boy of around the same age (I typically picture between 4 and 7). They are just starting to explore and understand the world. This sabbat is essentially about the freedom of inspiration and imagination that is often lost after childhood. Its about growth and development hopefulness and a zest for life.
This is one of the highest holy days in many of these traditions. Here sex and sensuality are explored and celebrated. In the cycle of the year the God has reached sexual maturity and is going to be taking the maiden he met at Ostara and enjoying the nature of sexuality and sexual contact. This is also known as May day. Here the God will give the Goddess his seed and she will be carrying his child (to be born at Imbolc).
Litha: Summer solstice
Litha is the height of summer. Its the summer solstice. The light is in full swing. Crops are starting to be grown and some are being harvested already. The Goddess is pregnant with growth and glowing with maternal pride. The sun gives her fertility for growth every day. As the sun heats so do the crops grow and develop.
Summer solstice altar
Lammas or loaf mass:
This is the first of the three harvest festivals. The summer is reaching it’s end. The grains of the summer are ready to be harvest at this time. This will be ground and separated into feed for the animals and flour for bread and biscuits and the like. Some fruits are enjoyed and loved at this time. The rituals here are typically around harvesting the first hard work of the spring and enjoying the fruits of that labor. There are a lot of rituals involving the sacrifice of grain and the blood of the “sacrificed king”. It is believed that the God is sacrificed here so that the land will remain fertile between now and the end of the growing season.
The lord of the grain has been given up so that the lord of the animals and winter could take over the land slowly. The blood spilled will nourish the land. This can also be seen in how the sun seems to be dying at this time of the year. The difference in light has started to be more noticeable with more night starting to be more in control.
This summer I experienced that change and power during the camping trip that I mentioned in my welcome back post. I was able to forget everything and just revel in the power of nature and the dying of the sun enjoying the last of his life before the darkness takes control and his real underworld journey to be reborn begins.
The wheel continues to turn and we turn to where the light and the dark are equal.
Mabon: The Fall Equinox
Mabon is the second harvest. The majority of the harvest is being harvested and enjoyed. There is plenty of food to go around. In many ways this harvest has been described as the witches thanksgiving and I wold have to agree that that is true. The god’s essence is being given to the people through the food they eat. The Goddess is mourning the loss of her love and is nurturing his son growing with in her womb. Here the focus starts to be more on the animals. This is the time of year when hunting and gathering would truly begin. This is why we have hunting seasons to this day.
This is the most famous holiday of witches. Many of the traditions associated with the Halloween stories and decorations have roots in various witch lore and history. The green skin, the crooked teeth, the hat, and many more come from witch trails and lore as well as other folk lore. The dressing up as goblins or other “scary” spirits was done when traveling from place to place at this time to scare away malevolent spirits crossing over. The essence of the “haunted season” is in that spirits of all sorts are more active on this week.
This is also the last harvest festival. It also the night where the ancestors can cross over and visit their living loved ones. This is why there are so many traditions relating to crossing over at this time of year. The veil between the underworld and the world of the living and life as we understand it is at its thinest.
As you can see the altar both represents that which is alive and that which is dead. The seeds of the harvested plants can be gathered and prepared as the stalks and leaves fade and dye. The seasonal leaved trees have almost all lost their leaves while the evergrees are still vibrant. Life and death are equal here and now.
The God has descended into the Underworld and is ready to start his journey to be reborn. Part of his essence remains in the land and in the forest as the Lord of the wilderness and in the Goddess as the Lord of the sun and grain yet to be born).
Yule: Winter solstice
This is the final sabbat in the wheel of the year, This sabbat is the day when the night overcomes the day. Here we are now in a time of the underworld. Nothing can really grow at this time of year and we are dependent on the food that was stored during the harvests. The animals have been slain so that now only the strongest and best remain. It is the time to reflect on everything that was done that year and to start thinking about how the new year will bring new opportunities and will be a time for changes of what will be needed.
In essence the spirit of the God is reborn with in the people. They feel the sun and inspiration and hope for the future growing with in them. They also start to understand that even though some real tough times are ahead until planting begins they can get through it. It will be the last time they can really celebrate and renew themselves for the next year.
The sun is reborn on the morning after the solstice as it is from that that we know the sun will overcome the darkness. This is how we know the God lives and will exist again. His shadow is still slightly in power as the symbols of this time are reindeer and evergreen forests. These are symbols of the God as the Lord of the Hunt and the Lord of the animals and how they live together.
The first altar will be one of my own Yule altars and the next altar will be one for a generic concept of the season
My Winter Solstice Altar
Now the wheel turns and brings us back to Imbolc which was the first seasonal altar I posted. I hope this gives you and understanding of how different altars can be made and created for specific holidays and celebrations, Now I will get into the last real magic and directly Occult type of altar I planed to discuss.
Ceremonial magic is one where the altar has direct symbols for the elements and is focused on a connection with the God head. In many ways it is often connected with Christianity and Christian mysticism. The truth is the early forms of ceremonial magic were based on Christian Occult and mystery practices. Here was where you could find the practices of “Christian Magic”.
Many of the rituals are based on calling in the arch angles and the invocation of their power into the magical space and to help empower the magical actions being taken. This rite can be traced back to the Ritual in short hand known as the LGBRP which means the Lesser Greater Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. I am trained in this ritual and have used it many times. This is a complex ritual which I will go over in length when I have my post on ceremonial magic. In essence you call in the four arch angles to protect the space while vibrating the various names of Yaweh to sanctify the space and prepare it for magical ritual and practice.
I have said before that I practice a form of dragonic witchcraft and magic. This is very true. That practice is very ceremonial. The opening ritual is very much designed after the LGRBP. I call upon the dragon guardians and guides that I have a relationship with rather than angels. The symbolsim is in the structure of the ritual, the tools used, and the altar.
The tools mentioned in the eclectic witchcraft altars can trace their origin to the LGRBP and many other rituals performed by the OTO. Gardner who was the one who crafted the new form of religious witchcraft as we know and see it to day was a member of the OTO and other occult practices. This played into how he crafted the religion of Wicca.
The altars I have shown above may very much resemble this altar:
Diagram of ceremonial magic altar
It is what I would use more often than not in the presence of a Christian friend who wished to attend my ritual. This is also where the heremetic philosophies of the Kyballion allow for there to be witchy changes and views. All of them are essentially the same practice, but the rituals are designed to be related to be specific to that path and that practice.
Finally I can start getting into some of the more path specific altars regarding more culture specific altars. This next section is directed more towards those who have found the deities and the paths they follow. Some of these are more recon style (recreating in modern day to the best of their ability the ancient religions of various cultures) and some are still semi inspired by previous eclectic practices.
Asatru & Other Germanic faiths
Asatru is the recon of the Norse beliefs and religion. The focus is typically on the Aesir. The primary sources of their lore is the poetry and the sagas of the Norse and Germanic people. These inclde the Poetic and Prose Eddas, the Sagas of the Icelanders, The Vinland Saga, and many more. The altars and worship style is very simple and elegent. Their rituals are known as a Sumbel or a Blot depending on the content and the like. Both of those are other topics I will bring up over the course of this year.
I have two sample altars to show you:
This is an altar that some one shared online. The tools are simple and the ritual is still rather joyous and intimate. The next altar shows what each item is called and as I said I’ll be going over this in more depth when I discuss Blots.
The next two religions are often discussed together as they are very much associated. The first is Greek reconstruction often known as Hellenismos and the second is Religio Romano which is the reconstruction of the Roman paths. There are some very substantial differences between the two paths. To be honest I haven’t explored either of these paths as indepth as I would like. While I do have an interest in both of those as they were the first deities I met and worked and worshiped as a teen my path and practices have lead me in other directions.
Both altars are dedicated to the Olympic or Cthonic Gods. There are very interesting cleanliness restrictions of these rituals and in their worship that in some ways to me is ridiculous. However they also had the most sophisticated sanitation and irrigation systems than any other cultures of their time.
Religio Romano: Roman Reconstruction
The altar in the traditions of ancient Rome was called the larium, There are specific designations for what goes on the larium and in the practices of their religion. They also have very strict cleanliness requirements. They also hold that if there is any mistake in the performance of a ritual they must cleanse themselves and the larium and start the ritual over from the begining. It is a orthopraxic religion much like Wicca though they focus on any and all of the Roman Gods.
As you can see there are some very different altar structures and set ups for the different paths one may encounter as they seek. You may find yourself attracted to one culture and want to learn more about how they were worshiped in ancient times and then find that you may find it’s to strict for you so you do something inspired by them. That is why the first post was about seeking and basic introductions and the second post was mostly directed at specific paths and how they are different.