Being pagan usually involves significant levels of involvement. Many pagans put a lot of effort into religious devotion, magic, or both, and most of that activity takes place at some kind of an altar or shrine. As a focus for worship, devotion, or magic ritual, and altar can be one of the most significant places in a pagan’s life. So, how do you get one?
Most pagans I know have improvised some manner of altar from what they have available, but some – myself included – have undertaken to design and build their own. As with any project, magical or mundane, building an altar is a fairly involved project, and has many elements that need be taken into consideration. While everyone does things a little differently, here are some ideas on how to approach the task of constructing your own altar.
Altars can be used for many different purposes, but most of them can be reduced to two basic functions: magic and devotion. Magic would include any ritual function involved in the performance of magic or the consecration of magical tools. Devotion can involve a focal point for contemplation or mindfulness, a place to offer prayers to a chosen deity, a place to leave offerings for a deity or spirit, or any of these. Any altar can be adapted for any combination of these roles as needed or desired. Each of these roles, however, may have design requirements that could conflict.
Before designing your new altar, some basic considerations should be taken in regard to space requirements. Where will your altar be located? Are you blessed with an outdoor space large and private enough to locate a permanent altar? If it must remain indoors, will your altar reside alone in a designated temple space, or will it occupy a commonly inhabited space? Do you wish or are you able to keep the altar permanently established in an open area, or will you want to have it hidden away somewhere, or perhaps even mobile? Will space limitations restrict the size and use of your altar, or can it be as large as you want it to be? All of these considerations will impact design factors such as materials, size, symbols and adornments, and what tools the altar can accommodate.
While sizing up your available space, you should keep in mind what the primary use of your altar will be, especially as this may be relevant to the size and shape requirements of your altar. For example, an altar for use in Qabalistic ceremonial magic should be a double-cube with a height roughly equal to the magician’s belly button, which is pretty large, and is probably best left indoors. A devotional altar to Ceres, however, might be comprised of a simple flat stone on the edge of your garden. As you can see, different functions may require different sizes, or even different amounts of space around the altar.
Who your altar is devoted to, if anyone, will also have an impact on design. Aside from obvious features such as symbols, basic features may be adapted for different devotional roles. An altar for offerings to ancestral spirits should include some means of containing proper representations of those ancestors. An altar for incense offerings should obviously include a space capable of properly and safely containing the kind of burner you want to use, especially if you are using a charcoal burner.
Many pagans include representations of their gods on their altars, and you need to consider how you want to present such images on the altar space – will they be simple candles at the back of the altar, or a statue on a raised section? How do you think the gods would want to be depicted or otherwise have their altars decorated? Maybe an altar to Demeter could include a flowerpot with growing herbs in it, or for that matter may even be set into a large pot and surrounded by plant life. You’re designing your altar – make it as creative and personal as you like.
By this point you should have a good idea of what you want to use your altar for, where you want it, and how big it should be. These factors will weigh in on what materials you should build your altar out of. When considering materials, indoor and outdoor altars obviously have different requirements.
Outdoor altars have the advantage that they can make use of natural features such as large stones and boulders or old tree stumps, which can add much to magical and devotional workings. Care should be taken with outdoor altars, though, that the materials they are constructed of are properly protected from the elements if they need to be – you wouldn’t want a wooden altar to rot because you forgot to varnish it.
You may also want to think about whether or not you will cover the altar somehow when not in use, or if certain objects should be brought in during inclement weather or certain seasons. Perhaps moving your outdoor statue of Persephone to an indoor site in the fall may allow you to ritually enact a powerful myth and strengthen your connection with the goddess.
Indoor altars can be made of almost any available material that you are capable of working with, but wood is probably best. You may want to choose a wood that matches other furniture on your house, or you may decide to work with something on the basis of its magical or religious associations. Either way, it is fairly easy to work with, the tools for such work are easy to acquire, and many people are out there who can teach or advise you on how to undertake such a project. Lightweight woods would also more easily facilitate a portable altar, and even a full-sized wooden altar can be fit with wheels or sliders so it can be moved around.
Full-sized furniture pieces will obviously be more difficult, and you may want to consider adapting pre-made furniture to your uses. I once installed doors and a spice rack onto a waist-high bookshelf and turned it in to a nice altar, but I’ve also hand-built an entire double-cube Qabalistic altar as well.
An armoire might be easily converted into an altar that you want to close off for when company (or your roommate) come by. I haven’t encountered (or made) too many altars of such size and complexity, though. Most of the altars I’ve made have been small pieces that can set upon shelves, dressers, or desks, usually featuring two levels.
Stone can be more challenging to work with indoors, but I suppose it can be done. It may be easier to set stones upon a wooden base. Most pagans will probably not wish to use artificial materials such as plastic. Ceramics may offer an alternative for those wishing to maintain an earthy feel for their indoor altar, and if you have access to the appropriate facilities, may allow for innovative organic designs that would be highly difficult or even impossible with other materials.
The religious or magical system you will use your altar with will also affect your design. As mentioned above, a Qabalistic altar should be a double-cube of a certain height, and it should ideally be painted a specific color and bear certain symbols.
Does your tradition have such stringent requirements? Could you build your altar in certain shapes, or with a symbolic number of levels to it (and what would you use them for) ? What color should you paint the altar, if at all? What symbols do you wish to have on your altar, and how do you want to put them there? Can you engrave them, or will paint (or marker!) be okay?
Do you even want to have such symbols on your altar, or will they limit its use in way you wish to avoid? Or will your altar be covered with a cloth instead?
My first altar had three levels, and symbols were engraved into the wood on each level, but the specificity of the symbolism prevented me from using it for more general applications. It all depends upon what exactly you want to use your altar for, and how specific you want it to be designed for that purpose.
Once you have decided upon the materials and basic design you want, you might want to consider what you’re going to put on your altar. Most altars will include candles, so you may want to be sure that there’s enough room for them and their holders. Candles can also be incorporated into altar designs in interesting ways – the altar I spoke of before had tall taper candles that sat on the second level and poked through holes in the third level.
Incense and incense burners are also popular, so you may want to think of where you would put a burner on your altar. Stick incense can also be accommodated on an altar – several of mine have had pre-drilled holes to place stick incense in without the need for a long burner. Stones and crystals are also very commonly used on altars, and how many, what kind, and how big are all questions you should consider.
Figures and sacred objects can also be included on altars, depending on the intended use of said altar. As mentioned before, candles can stand in for deities, but statues, pictures, and other figures can also be used. Small plates for offerings could be places before such figures, and other appropriate decorations, like flowers, coins, or jewelry can be included, depending on how gaudy you want your altar to be.
Your last considerations for your altar should be practical ones. How much will all of this cost? Can you locate the materials and tools to construct the altar? Do you have a suitable space to build it, especially if you’ll be using power tools? Do you have the knowhow to undertake such a project on your own, or will you need help?
It also helps to have reasonable expectations. My first altar was not pretty – it had off angles, rough edges, and a few minor wobbles. Such undertakings get easier with practice. It may not be a bad idea to build a small, simple altar first before taking on your grand design.
Who knows – you may get good enough that you end up making altars for your friends.