In these articles I am working through the questions I most commonly get asked about Wiccan practice, either during classes or afterwards through the emails or DMs I receive. As ever, you can take this as advice, or leave it. This is not me flouncing, but its important to understand that the path of the solitary witch is defined by the witch herself. I make an important distinction between my Wiccan practice (what I do with a coven) and my solitary practice (what I do at home).
You can read all the 'how to' books in the world, but in Solitary practice, the important part is the relationship between you and the Divine. (You'll notice I've side-stepped the use of the term 'solitary wicca' there - apologies Uncle Scott, I mean no disrespect, but I prefer not to use it).
Working with the divine is an essential part of my practice, both as a coven-based Wiccan and as a solitary hedgewitch, and part of forming a healthy and loving relationship with the divine can include having an altar.
If you come to my class at Treadwell's on Ways into Witchcraft: Working with an Altar, you'll have seen me lead the class through a whole host of comparative religious studies - we look at the use of altars in each of the world's major religions and assess what they use an altar for. Where is the priest and where is the congregation? What rituals are carried out on that altar? Where is the divine in all of this? Its important to understand the potential an altar has for playing a significant role in your spiritual life. This can be a place where you come to commune, to carry out devotional work and spell craft, and it can also be somewhere you just come to hang out at the end of a hard day. Its important that it is somewhere you are drawn to, and not something that makes you feel like a bad, bad witch.
Dead Altar Syndrome
When I was a newly fledged solitary practitioner, fresh out of the 'How To' section of my local bookshop, I spent some time scouring the books on Modern Paganism to see how I was supposed to lay out my altar. I would look at the diagrams to see just how many candles I was supposed to have, where I was to place them, and what other accessories needed to be placed about them. I then had a beautifully laid out altar, and no idea about what to use it for. I often talk about the fact that Wicca is an orthopraxic religion - we don't get told what to believe, but part of coven training is to teach you the right way of doing things, which in a coven setting is very important. What most 'how to' books get wrong (sorry again, Uncle Scott) is that outside of a coven setting, a beautifully laid out Wiccan altar is about as much use as a poke in the eye. What I apply at home is my solitary practice, and in that setting, my needs for an altar are very different. As this newly fledged solitary witch, I was faced with this altar that started out beautifully arranged, but within a week or so it just started gathering dust and becoming a place where objects went to die.
I had dead altar syndrome.
How to create a living, breathing altar
Don't worry, I am not about to give you a recipe for bringing your altar to life like one of the household objects in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. This is about how to develop a space where you can carry out your devotional work in a way that works for you. And again, you can take this advice or leave it - this is your spiritual life, and you dictate how that is run.
The first instruction is to throw away all of those diagrams that show you how many candles you need and where to place them, and the dish of salt, and the pentacle. If you work with those tools and they mean something to you, by all means place them where you like, but if not, they are no use to you. They will just stare at you and make you feel the imposter syndrome all the more (yes, we all have it). I would recommend that you start by creating an altar for the seasons. One of the tasks we would set an outer-court student is to create a fresh altar for each for the wheel of the year festivals. Then, when that festival has passed, take it down and create a new one.
'But its beautiful,' I hear you sigh. 'Why would I want to dismantle it?'
If you don't take it down, the energy will become stale, the objects will become dusty, and you will cease to want to spend time there, as each time you do it will tell you off for being a bad witch, or a bad housekeeper for not dusting it more thoroughly. If you want to preserve it, take a photo. It, like us and the changing seasons, becomes precious because it is fleeting. Every season has its time, and so does every altar.
What have you got on your altar?
This is where this article gets really shocking. I don't have a main altar in my home. I could do, but I know what would happen. Instead I have many, many altars. Every flat surface has something on it that represents an aspect of my spiritual practice. Instead of having one central altar, I see my entire home and my life in it as one big altar. (It's not a large home). I am my altar. Every window sill has a devotional space dedicated to the deities I work with. Some are represented by statues, and some are represented by objects. Each of these altars has a little candle in a glass holder, to represent my relationship to them, some have a collection of crystals, some have an offering of something they particularly like.
I am very much a kitchen based hedgewitch, so my kitchen table or worktop is my working space. At the centre of my kitchen I have the largest deity representation of them all - a brass wall-hanging to my main guy. He therefore presides over the activities that take place in the kitchen, whether I am making a magical meal, or a batch of magical soap, or a dish of magical incense. Then I have many altars to my creative practice in my living room - the desk where I make necklaces, pendulums, and bracelets. The table that houses my crystals and incenses. The book cases that hold all of my favourite books. The study where I do my main work - teaching, writing and the day job - becomes an altar to that work. It is presided over by a couple of deities that form part of that daily working life.
In every room I have pictures or prints that inspire me and connect me to my spiritual life. I don't have to negotiate sharing the space with anyone (for the first time in my life ever) so I am able to give full rein to my inner formerly-controlled-and-formerly-frustrated witch. Give me a break - I am enjoying my new-found freedom.
I might sound flippant, but there is a serious message to this. If you treat your whole life as an expression of your spiritual life, everything you do carries the current of magical practice to it, and everywhere you work becomes an altar to something. Rather than having one altar that can attract dust and stale energy, approach your life as a sacred act, and every workspace becomes your altar.
What if I just have one altar?
If you are negotiating sharing your space with a partner, family or housemates, and you just have one tiny corner of a bookshelf or a window sill to call your own, its important that the space remains somewhere special, and somewhere alive to your practice. Place on it the representation of the divine being you are forming a relationship with. Arrange on it the objects that inspire you and remind you of those special times where you are communing - either with your gods or your own inner-child, whichever your practice is mainly concerned with right now. Use it for collecting the objects you gather on your walks in nature, or a statue to that favourite archetype, or representations of that wheel of the year festival. Do keep changing the objects. You can give the bits of leaf and bark back to nature when you have finished working with them - she won't be offended.
The important thing is to be guided by your kinaesthetic response to that altar space - does it fill you with glee, or at least an uplifting of energy when you think about working there, or does it make you yawn? If its the latter, clear the space and start again.
There are no rules about what to put on your altar, except one. The objects on it have to inspire you or remind you of something special, otherwise its just a window sill or a bookshelf with a collection o objects on it. What transforms a flat surface into an altar is the feeling it inspires you with when you spend time there. If it connects you to that positive buzzy feeling, then its doing its job correctly.