©1992 Coven of the Rowan Star - All Rights Reserved

Altar (n) "a usually raised structure or place on which ... incense is burned in worship" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)

Sounds simple. And yet what an inadequate description of all of the various and wonderful ways in which altars are commonly used in Wicca. From the stump of a tree in the forest with a bowl of salt water to a large slab of stone piled high with symbols of divinity and offerings; from a coffee table covered with a white tablecloth to a precisely measured double cube painted with alternating black and white squares; altars come in various shapes, sizes, material, construction methods, and functions. Here the concern is with the two broadest types of altars in Wicca: Devotional and Working.

Devotional Altars

Walk into the home of someone who is on one of the many earth-based religious or spiritual paths and there can be found a devotional altar. Often, it is very apparent what this altar is, sometimes not. Often it is in the 'public' spaces of the home, sometimes it is secluded in a private room. It is very difficult to generalize about devotional altars, because they are free-form, personalized, and represent an individual relationship with the Universe. Generally, however, a devotional altar is characterized by:

  • Permanence. Usually such an altar is laid out at all times, whether it is in 'use' or not.
  • Symbol of Divinity. This can be an image of the Goddess, the God, both, or something less anthropomorphic such as candles, pieces of nature (stones, shells, feathers, etc.), or whatever calls to the individual.
  • Candles. These can be in any combination of number, color, scent, and preparation.
  • Anything else that might call the the individual. These items are usually things that represent some part of the Path, some experience of the individual, or gifts from other important people.
  • MEANING. Everything on a devotional altar has meaning. From the simple "oh, pretty" to feelings more complex, meaning is possible the most significant aspect.

From this, it is apparent that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to set up a devotional altar. It is, ultimately, about a person's individual relationship with the Universe, and how that relationship is represented on the manifest plane. There are some decisions for setting up such an altar that can make a very big difference:

  • Public or Private? This has a big influence on the "where?" and often on the "how big?" Is such devotion a purely private matter, not to be shared, or something to be shown to and shared with anyone (including the plumber) who comes into the home?
  • Touch or Don't Touch? Some people are very particular about others handling their altar items or tools from a energetic or privacy standpoint. Others are only concerned with things being broken. And some really don't feel it is an issue at all. Are there small children, or adults that act that way, in the household or that come to visit often? They will pick stuff up (and put it in their mouth) if they can get to it. Cats? Jumping up on things is often their biggest pleasure, and if something gets knocked off, well, it shouldn't have been in their spot in the first place. Remember, this is not a public or private issue. A Public / Don't Touch altar can be in a cabinet in the living room with locked glass doors, while a Private / Touch altar in the bedroom can have the cat sleeping in the middle of it.
  • Lots or Little? Is the idea to have a few simple items, or to display everything that ever had meaning since the first step on the Path? A devotional altar can get quite cluttered (if that is the right word) with many tiny items over time. Is this OK, or should there be a place to store items that are not needed or wanted at the moment? Is space limited, so that too many things are piled or high that nothing can really be seen and appreciated? Is that OK?
  • Working or Not? Will magick or ritual be performed at this altar as well? If so, how much 'stuff' will be added or taken away? Or is it only for meditation, or to burn incense to the gods, or upon which to light a candle for someone special? Or any of a dozen other uses including not being 'used' at all. Sometimes, such an altar is a place for the gods in the home, their place, and not for other's use.

The wonderful thing about devotional altars is that they can grow and change over time, even as the individual grows and changes. Nothing forbids changes in an altar at anytime. Whether it is change of location or focus, if it is done in a respectful and honorable way, it will be blessed.

Working Altars

One the other end of the spectrum are the working altars. Anyone who has gone to a public ritual, performed ritual with a group, or worked magick alone has probably used an altar. Such an altar was, in general, a one-shot deal. It was set up specifically for the Rite at hand, and then taken down after all was done. The items on the altar were specific to the ritual being performed, and usually do not include extra items. This can vary quite a bit, depending on the Rite. For example, a ritual which involves offerings can have an altar filled with all kinds of things, such as flowers, fruit, stones, etc., in addition to the items specific to the Rite. But the other things are all offerings, so are still specific to the work at hand.

There are also a number of different types of working altars. One used frequently within the Tradition of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel is the Elemental or Quarter altars. Four in number, one in each direction, they usually are simple altars with a cloth and candle in the appropriate elemental color, and several symbols of the element. Occasionally these are not used if the ritual will have a great number of people. Such smaller altars are hard to see, and will add little to the flow of the ritual if there is a large group. In that case the altars are not used at all, or some larger markers, such as banners or pillars, are used instead.

Usually all rituals have a Main altar. This is where either the majority of the action is focused, or where the main symbols of the group or person are placed. Some traditions are very specific on what should be on that altar in each Rite. This may include: god and goddess statues; candles; a pantacle or pentacle; an incense burner; elemental or personal tools such as an athame, wand, or chalice; pen and paper; and other items. At other times, an Main altar may be specific to the work at hand, and include only what is needed for that Rite. For example, a ritual offered by individuals from the Assembly is a self empowerment and devotional Rite for the goddess Arianrhod. The main working altar is in the center, upon which is built a Crystal Palace (usually clear crystal and glass pieces built up into a tall structure along with an energy working). Bowls of water with candles are places at the top of the structure and at the four directions. This becomes the focus of the Rite, and where people do the work they have come to do. And this is all that is on the altar, nothing else.

So, in general, working altar are characterized by:

  • Impermanence. Usually such an altar is created for a single rite, and then taken down.
  • Specificity. Usually such altars are created for and contain items specific to the work at hand, without extras.
  • Function. Each altar usually serves a particular function in a ritual. And if there are more than one altar, each one generally has a distinct purpose.
  • Location. While working altars may vary in their location, usually the location(s) are picked for very specific reasons having to do more with the intent of the ritual than any other consideration.
  • MEANING. Everything on a working altar has meaning. Usually those meanings are well defined and items are placed on a working altar with a very clear intent and purpose. Again, meaning on a working altar is just as important as it is on a devotional altar.


Altars are useful, powerful symbols of the Wiccan religion. From the simple to the ornate, from the permanent to the temporary, altars reflect the diversity and individuality that is so important in Wicca. Personal responsibility, honor, and respect should guide the creation of any altar. If so, then the Lord and Lady will smile upon what is done at the altar, and bless the work.

© Coven of the Rowan Star 2016