Sustainable activism requires that we nourish our spirits along with our bodies, minds, and hearts.
Building and maintaining an altar at home is a powerful way to cultivate a little sacred space in your everyday. Over time, your altar may become a reminder and a tool to practice regular self-care through a spiritual recharge.
Many intersectional feminists understand the value of nourishing their spiritual health by keeping an altar. In early 2020, I joined an incredible online workshop where Bea Anderson led us through building a global community altar. A hundred intersectional feminist activists around the world brought to the webinar two ‘offerings’ for this virtual altar and cast a spell for our collective liberation.
When I run workshops with my collective, Building the Anti-Racist Classroom, we also build an altar for the whole event and invite our attendees to bring along spiritually and personally significant items to share on the altar. It creates a powerful and intimate site on which we focus our collective intentions and energies.
“Life demands honesty, the ability to face, admit, and express oneself”.Starhawk
What is an Altar?
The Latin root of altar, altārium, means “high”. It refers to altars traditionally being a raised area of worship where people can honor their deities with offerings.
For example, a Buddhist altar or shrine may be an elevated shelf in the house where you may find a statue of Buddha or one of the bodhisattvas, along with candles and offerings such as flowers, purified water, food, and incense.
A Neo-Pagan altar would include statues representing the Goddess and God and objects that signify the elements of earth, air, fire, and water (typically a pentacle, incense, candles, and a chalice).
Altars for an everyday spiritual practice doesn’t need to be too elaborate or ceremonial. It can be metaphysically and emotionally ‘raised’ by being a focal point of your energy and a source of connection with the Divine, whatever that word may mean to you.
Altars can also be kept outdoors. For example, there may be a tree stump or a flat rock in a safe space in your garden where you can place a few candles and trinkets.
Why You Should Have an Altar
At-home altars can accommodate a range of faiths and you don’t even need to be particularly woo woo spiritual to benefit from having one.
An altar can be a formal space for religious worship, ritual, and prayer, but it can also simply be an intentional place in your room or your home for meditation, gratitude, and reflection.
No matter your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, an altar can be a source of comfort and calm — vital resources for those of us committed to struggles of social justice.
At the same time, if you feel spirituality is a gap in your self-care practice, then setting up a space at home for an altar is a simple yet potent way to start nourishing that neglected part of our wellbeing.
You may already have an altar that you built intuitively without even realizing it. Maybe there’s a mantlepiece in your home, a corner of your work desk, a windowsill, or a shelf where some favored trinkets have found a home. Perhaps over time, it has become a focal point of positive energy, making you smile every time you walk by.
Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Altar
1. Decide Your Altar’s Purpose
Will your altar be for secular or spiritual practice?
Secular altars have little considerations beyond comfort and convenience. If it’s an area for meditation, then you’ll only need it to be an inviting place to sit or lay down. If your altar is for reading and journaling, it’ll need to be somewhere to keep your books and pens and be well-lit.
The many personal and spiritual reasons for an altar may include:
- Honoring holidays and special events
- Witnessing the seasons
- Tracking your growth and development as a learner
- Ritual and spellwork
- Honoring your ancestors, either familial or spiritual/political
- Honoring your loved ones
- Honoring a specific deity or deities
2. Choose a Space for Your Altar
Decide on a set place in your home where you’ll place your altar.
It can be as elaborate as a spare room or as modest as a single bookshelf or windowsill.
You may also want to consider the cardinal direction your altar faces. For instance, altars are placed in the eastern side of the church in some Christian denominations, which symbolizes the rising sun and resurrection. At home, you may also want your altar to face a direction meaningful to you. Some people choose to have their altars face the direction of their motherland and their ancestors.
If it feels impossible right now to build a fixed altar in your home, you’ll want to scroll down to the end of the post where I share a fun and clever idea for building a pocket altar that is both portable and discreet.
Think about a quiet spot with a little privacy. If you share your home with others, try to find somewhere that wouldn’t be in others’ way and get easily knocked over.
Ask yourself if the space is appropriate for your needs and feels ‘right’. Is it quiet, peaceful, and private, or can you make it so? Is the energy around the space clear, bright, and welcoming?
If you’d like to weave in a little magic, you can energetically ‘cleanse’ the space you choose by burning some incense or essential oils.
If you like the idea of a smoke cleanse (i.e., burning white sage smudge sticks), please make sure you’re buying your herbs from Native American and Indigenous sellers. Smudging is considered sacred medicine to many Native American nations and had been outlawed in the United States up until 1978.
3. Gather Tools and Objects for Your Altar
Use your intuition to collect any tools and objects that you would like to keep on your altar. Unless you’re following a specific spiritual path with guidelines on what to include, gather anything that speaks to your heart and ‘sparks joy’ as Marie Kondo would say.
These are some things you might like to consider including on your altar:
- Statues and symbols that represent your deities or spiritual guides
- Photographs of your ancestors (when showing images of the deceased is appropriate in your culture)
- Souvenirs and mementos from important milestones in your spiritual or political journeys (e.g., an object from your first rally, a gift from a mentor, etc.)
- Your favorite books
- Plants and flowers (especially if the altar intends to reflect and celebrate the changing seasons)
- Food offerings, like a shot glass of alcohol, fruits, or a small dish of rice and grains
- Crystals, gems, and stones
- Jewelry or other precious items with personal meaning
- Divination tools such as a deck of tarot cards, runes, oracle cards, or a crystal ball
- Other natural and found objects like shells, bones, and feathers
There are really no requirements or limits of what you keep on your altar. You should also never feel pressured to go out and buy accouterments for your altar and feel that your altar isn’t ‘complete’ unless it has a cauldron, censer, chalice, wand, crystals, eighteen pillar candles in different colors, and the like.
If you’ve never kept an altar before, I recommend starting small with something as simple as a single candle and a picture of someone who reminds you of what you’d like to cultivate more of in your life.
You can then slowly add to your altar over the weeks, months, and years, if and when it feels right to you.
4. Arrange Your Altar
After your altar space has been cleaned (physically and/or spiritually), take the sacred objects you have gathered and consider how you’d like to arrange them on your altar.
This is where simple is best, as having fewer items will make it easier to find their home on your new altar.
If you want to protect the surface of your altar, lay down an altar cloth or a plate first to prevent potential damage from incense ash or candle wax.
Symmetry is usually a common rule for many spiritual practices for altar building. Consider placing the largest or tallest item in the center and building out from there. You can also choose your favorite item for the center and symbolically complement it, such as placing plants/flowers, candles, and images on either side of it.
5. Work With Your Altar
Make it a habit to spend some time working with your altar regularly.
It’s absolutely fine if you’re overwhelmed to start with just one small ritual every season. Perhaps at the start of the season, you clean and redecorate your altar, placing out items that represent the new season. For example, you could put out a vase of fresh flowers for spring, sand and seashells for summer, pumpkins for fall, holly and white candles for winter.
If your intent with your altar is to cultivate a more frequent practice of spiritual self-care, consider at least five minutes a day or fifteen minutes a week at your altar to meditate, journal, or set intentions.
You may find my new moon and full moon rituals helpful as two practices you can start doing at your altar every lunar cycle that give you opportunities to check in with yourself.
The more you work with your altar, the more it will become a sacred focal point in your daily life and amplify warm, positive vibes around your home.
Since we all live in the universe it is well worth remembering that underneath the outer dressing of ethnicity, color, and gender, we are all the same. Showered with the gift of stars.Vivian Stephens
Maintaining Your Spiritual Altar Practice
Once you have built your altar, make sure you’re keeping it clean. Regardless if you work with it every day or a few times a year, try to approach your altar every time with care, love, and reverence.
If seeing your altar feels you with dread and you think, “Oh right, I need to meditate, what a pain” every time you see it, gradually your altar will feel like a dark, heavy, suffocating place.
If that’s happening to you, there’s no harm in resetting and refurbishing your altar. Take down every object of your altar. Give them, and the altar itself, a deep clean. Reevaluate what purpose you want your altar to serve and the location it’s placed and the objects you want to include, then rebuild your altar.
If perhaps the altar has served its purpose — you no longer feel the need for a space to meditate, journal, perform rituals and spell work, or engage in spiritual self-care, then don’t hesitate to take your altar down.
If you enter another season of your life where the need for an altar reemerges, you’ll always have the knowledge and tools to recreate a sacred space.
The Pocket Altar: A Portable and Discreet Alternative
Many people start a spiritual practice when they may be living at home with family who don’t understand or support the need for a personal altar. Or you may be always on the road, traveling for life or work, and wishing you could pack your altar with you around the world.
One of my favorite innovations for a portable and discreet altar is the mini pocket altar. All you need is a small box or tin (the ones for Altoids mints are perfect) to be filled with meaningful items small enough to fit into this compact carrier.
In the video below, Olivia from The Witch Of Wonderlust shows you her mini travel altar, what she keeps inside, and how she has assembled it. The video also includes an even smaller matchbox-sized altar and a larger shoebox version.
It really goes to show that to build a personal altar for your spiritual practice, the possibilities are endless.
Remember that the fundamental purpose of the altar is to enrich your spiritual and self-care practice. That means it must work for your unique needs. Take the time to reflect and experiment with different types of altars and different practices for altar work until you find the approach that is most comfortable for you.
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Featured image by Alina Vilchenko