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by Louisa Chisholm-Kelly

The Oxford English Dictionary describes an altar as "a table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity."

Almost every recorded religion across the world uses, or used, an altar of some description. Most are used within religious buildings or at religious sites, both modern and ancient. There are Roman altars with clear inscriptions and dedications to specific Gods and Goddesses that have been found all over the North of England. Most of the originals have been moved to local museums to preserve them. Some of them, especially those along Hadrian's Wall, have replicas placed where they were found.

Historical records and archaeological finds, mostly Roman, suggest that having a home or garden altar was also a regular practice. This practice has endured throughout time and across many religions. These altars are often used as a place to focus and pray. They often display pictures or statues of Jesus, Mary, Gods or Goddesses. Many include photos of, or items belonging to, departed loved ones. It is also usual to find candles, crystals, incense, flowers, food, drink, and other offerings. In some religious practices the altars are dedicated to the spirits or creatures of the land that the home stands on.

Within Pagan circles, and in a lot of Pagan books, you will have seen people talking about altars. A lot of Wiccan books will give you a list of what is deemed necessary to place on your altar, while other denominations will often be more vague. Some state that certain things must be included, and they must be in certain places. Others say that you should use the altar at set times and for all, or certain, magical practices. It can get very confusing, and with the levels of secrecy that some adhere to, sometimes people are unwilling to help those that are new to the craft or their Pagan path.

In the spirit of education, clarity and helpfulness, here at Pagans of the North we thought it was time to demystify the use of altars.

Most importantly there is only one rule that everyone should remember when thinking about setting up a Pagan altar: There are no rules!

When there are no rules, you are free to make your altar exactly how YOU want it to be!

Want to put crystals on it? Great!

Want to include photos? Excellent!

Want to include God/Goddess statues? Brilliant!

Want to change it with every season? Wonderful!

Want to have a large altar? Awesome!

Want to have a tiny altar? Marvellous!

Want to have one that lives in a box? Fantastic!

Don't want to have an altar at all? Fabulous!

Louisa's Altar

My altar is very little. It is a silver metal tray that has a candle holder built in. It was a lovely little IKEA find, and it sits on the corner of my TV unit. On it I have crystals; a small bowl with a goddess figure on it; rose quartz carved Willendorf Goddesses; found magpie and crow feathers; dried flowers; found acorns and conkers; a pine cone that is sprayed gold that came from a bouquet my husband bought me at a tough time in our lives; items that belonged to my late mother; candles; a tiny glass that we pour mead into; and the collars that belonged to my dear late doggos. Just behind the tray is a cup filled with seeds that has a deer head on it. It doesn't change very much, sometimes sentimental things are added to it, and sometimes things are moved to a memory box.

After my mother, Carol, died, we left her altar as it was. It had served as both a personal and a family altar, so it felt right to keep it. When I visit my Dad I still use it. It is laid out across a large table, and the adjacent windowsill. Just outside Mum had bird feeders. It has her favourite large crystals, representatives of her animal guides, statues of Diana, Quan Yin, Isis and Sekmet, along with candles, cups, wands, and more. In the drawers beneath she kept various magical tools and extra candle supplies. She would add seasonal flowers and plants, at one point even decorating a small live fir tree with crystal earrings and necklaces!

Quinn's Altar

A picture of my last ever altar from two years ago. I don't use altars anymore, but this one looks the way it does from building it up over the years, adding more pieces to it gradually.

There are symbols of all elements on it, including shells, candles, rocks, incense, and I even have some older remnants from when I was a Wiccan, including a little cauldron and a chalice. I even had a crystal ball that was gifted to me!

Nowadays I don't use an altar in my practice; it's not necessary to have one as part of my own personal path as a witch and pagan, but maybe one day in the future I might create a smaller space with a couple of crystals and some incense with pictures of my relatives that have passed on so they have a permanent space In my home for remembrance.

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