The Path and the Craft
The Tools of Witchcraft (Part 2: The Altar)
Witches often have a dedicated magickal space in their home, usually focused on an altar.. There have been times in my life when I had an altar, even an entire room, dedicated to the craft. At other times, like now . . . not so much. Some keep an altar in their bedroom or another private room. Privacy is nice, especially if you have frequent unexpected guests or small children. I enjoy having an altar near the center of my living space. I like to have a spot to just stop, take a few deep breaths, and perform some small act of devotion to refresh my spirit.
An altar is also a handy place to keep and even display your crafty tools.
Technically, an altar can be set up on any reasonably flat surface. I would not recommend setting one up on plastic or formica. Natural wood or stone is best. Other than that, the requirements are simple: you need a flat space, away from blowing curtains or anything else that can catch fire. (There will probably be candles!) It can be the top of a bookshelf, a spot on your dresser, a chest of drawers with all your witchy stuff stored inside. Keep in mind that you may be spending extended periods of time of with it. I prefer to stand for my spell workings, but many would rather sit on the floor with their altar at the perfect height in front of them. Little tables specifically designed to serve as altars are available. Many of these are portable, which is nice if you want to suddenly pick up your work area and move it to a different spot, or outdoors.
If a special table is not an option (or just to protect that table), I recommend an altar cloth. Again, the options are endless. The point is to protect your craft workings from energies left behind on some mundane flat surface, and also to protect the mundane flat surface from your Craft. You will be dripping wax around and spilling some essential oils from time to time. Choose an altar cloth that speaks to you. Specialized altar cloths often come with delightfully arcane-looking symbols. Others are simple. I have seen one that was basically a huge doily embroidered with golden sheaves of wheat. That was beautiful and personal and just altogether perfect.
God and Goddess
Every tradition and every person has their preference for the actual set-up of an altar. Let's face it, witches rarely agree on anything. There are some items that most will acknowledge as standard. For instance, representations of the goddess and god. Paganism (most witches are Pagan) recognizes and works with both the feminine and masculine aspects of deity.* Christian witches will sometimes have their God and Virgin Mary. Others will use symbols of the sun and moon to represent the god and goddess respectively.** These items can be as ornate or simple as you like. A lot of witches prefer statues of gods and goddesses from a particular pantheon. Many altars are adorned with a statue of Diana or Artemis. An image of Baphomet, an ancient goat-headed god, might catch you by surprise. Others prefer the Green Man, usually represented by a wise, gnarled face framed by leafy vines. My Craft background is Celtic, so I am drawn to god images that are stags, and goddesses that look fae. There is also ancient Egyptian imagery, or Eastern examples such as Kali. Some prefer a simple yin/yang symbol. For several years, when I was keeping my witchy side on the down-low, I kept the simplest, most subtle altar with little more than an acorn and a few heads of wheat.
Another representation of goddess and god that I usually have on my altar are silver and gold candles.. Mine are tapers and placed behind the figures of my choice.
The four magickal elements usually hold space on a witch's altar.*** Many witches place their altar facing north, so as a rule of thumb there is often a representation of Earth near the top, Air to the right, Water to the Left, and Fire somewhere in the direction of you. As I'm sure you can imagine, that fire thing gets tricky. You don't want to be reaching over a flaming candle (especially with long hair or fancy long sleeves), or spending a lot of time leaning over smoldering coals. This diagram is approximately the set-up of my working altar, when I have one. I keep a small bowl of blessed salt at the top, representing North. Salt is important to witches and is frequently used for cleansing and protection. It is also a creature of Earth, so it serves multiple purposes on my altar. My little swirly brass sphere sits to the right, representing air. My cobalt glass chalice will be found to my left, filled with blessed water. I keep a small charcoal burner just below the pentacle altar tile, so it is still toward the top of the altar and out of my way. Most of my spells require herbs and oils, and I often need open space right in front of me to do my stirring and spelling. I keep the athame and small boline within easy reach, and the large boline handy in case some herb gets stubborn on me.
My altar is simple. A Google search will give you examples and diagrams that are much more complex. Some altars are utilitarian, others are ornate and beautiful. Altars may be for only one element or one intention.There are many possibilities and many purposes for an altar. .
If you have a teacher in your life who demands a certain set-up, they often have good reason. Learn all that you can. Over time you may change things around to suit you, or come to see the wisdom of that teacher's way.
Suspended over my altar I keep a "presence lamp" similar to the item pictured here. I've seen very few witches do this, but the habit comes from my own training and means a lot to me. It's a simple hanging candle holder (an oil lamp is more traditional), and when it is alight it symbolizes that this time and place is sacred. I call upon Spirit when I light my presence lamp, and that sets the tone for my magickal workings.
*About that dual aspect of Deity thing . . . to say that all Pagans worship both the goddess and god is an over-simplification. If I don't simplify some things, I'll be writing an encyclopedia. Some traditions, in particular the Dianic tradition, only recognize the goddess. Others focus more on the god. All acknowledge that there is something beyond that, some "All" that we sometimes call the Universe, but we like to work with deities that are a little closer to home. Witches have a more personal relationship with Deity than many other faithful, in my experience. We see them as partners in our magick, not distant unknowable beings with their own agenda. We walk with them and live with them, and work with them on a regular basis.
**Sun and moon representations. In most traditions, the sun is masculine and the moon feminine. In Norse traditions, that is often reversed.
***Elemental directions. Some traditions switch the positions of Air and Water, or Water and Earth. There is simply no way to cover every tradition's preferences in this format. Just remember that what is right for you may not be "correct" for someone else.