The word altar comes from a Latin word that translates to “on high” and a variety of meanings could be understood from these words; a seat in the stars or perhaps a consecrated sacred space. The basic purpose for the altar was to request the presence of deity whether that was through sacrifice or worship. Ancient altars were usually constructed of stone with symbols carved or painted on it. They were usually found at shrines, within temples, churches and at other locations where deity was and is currently worshipped. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, Wicca, and many other religions use altars in their practices today and many historical faiths such as Greek and Norse spirituality made use of them as well.
Within witchcraft the altar is the focus of ceremony and ritual. It usually is found at the center of a cast Circle facing North which corresponds with energies of power and manifestation, however there is no strict doctrine that dictates this positioning and the individual witch can determine which direction the altar should face within their own practice.
The altar has many uses for the witch. It is the focal point, anchor, and vessel for the gathered energies raised during the ritual or spell casting, it is a “home” for the gods, spirits or other entities that the witch works with, it is a surface where the ritual tools used during a magickal working are kept, it is a sacred workspace for the witch, and a representation of the witch’s intentions and beliefs. It is because the altar has so many uses for the witch that it should be alive and pulsing with energy, this can be done by tending and maintaining it so that the energies do not become stagnant. Doing daily devotionals at the altar, setting daily intentions, and placing offerings to familiar spirits while lighting a candle are simple ways of keeping the energies of the altar flourishing.
Altars can be made of any material though wood is preferable as it is natural. Oak is a favorite of many for its power and strength however whichever material is chosen by the witch the surface space should be large enough for conducting magickal workings. Remember the altar is a practical workspace and not just a table with pretty magickal things displayed on it, never to be touched or used. Everything placed on the altar should have a specific purpose and should be placed with intention, by doing so the witch empowers his or her altar. This does not mean that the witch cannot keep a statue of Hecate or Baphomet, bones found while walking through the woods, or a beautiful crow feather gifted to him or her on the altar. This is a sacred space where the witch should represent his or her intentions and beliefs. Just be cautious that the space does not become cluttered or muddled.
An important part and first step in establishing an altar is the cleansing and consecration. Everything that is brought into a cast Circle, including the altar, should be cleansed of negative energy and be consecrated as a sacred tool. There is no one established way of doing this, the witch is able to follow his or her own established personal practice. Once the altar has been cleansed and consecrated it is ready for use. There are many different theories and descriptions as to where things should be placed but again there is no one “true” or “right” way of setting up the altar. The most important piece of information to remember is that the altar is a reflection of the witch’s personal relationship to the gods, spirits, and other entities that he or she works with and his or her beliefs and practices.