Setting up an altar is one of the first things a beginner should do. They don’t need a lot of tools- that’s not the reason I say a beginner should set up an altar. But it’s often a starting point for building a relationship with the Goddess and the God; the images on the altar, the offerings left there, the rituals done there. This is especially true if, like many of us, you are in a place where you don’t get to spend a lot of time in nature. Going and meditating before your altar, or lighting some incense there to the Goddess and the God are ways of working your spirituality into your daily life, which is what Wicca is about. Wicca is definitely not a “Sabbats and Esbats only” religion!
You can be as simple or get as fancy with your altar as you wish, purchase as many of the altar tools you want or as few. You can shop at Etsy and Amazon to get your tools, or you can make them or purchase them from the Dollar Store. It all depends on you. Some say your tools are more powerful if you make them. I say your tools are more powerful if they draw you to use them. If you don’t like the way they look, or they feel awkward, it will affect the energy between you and the tool.
Below we’ll go over the typical altar tools for a Wiccan, and then we’ll talk about how to set up an altar.
Image of the Goddess and God: This is the most important thing on your altar. Even if you just have a candle for each, your altar is a rendezvous between you and the Divine. You certainly want to make sure you acknowledge Them! I like to print out pictures I find that personally speak to me and frame them. Statues are great, but they’re expensive. Some people want very specific pictures/statues/representations, others want general representations of the Goddess and the God on their altars.
Athame: An athame is a double edged knife or dagger. The edges are usually dull. The handle is often made of wood, and is usually black or dark brown. The athame is NOT used to cut anything (except in spellwork- although whether this is appropriate is a debated issue. Some Wiccans have a second knife, called a boline, for actually cutting things.). It is used to direct energy, like when you are casting a circle. An athame is typically associated with the element of fire. It is a masculine tool, sacred to the God.
Wand: A wand is traditionally made of wood, but some wands have been made out of crystal or selenite. Gemstones can be affixed to them. Like the athame, it is used to direct energy. You probably do not need a wand and an athame, as they do a lot of the same functions. I have read in a couple of books that a wand is used to invoke the Goddess and the God while the athame is used to cast the circle and invite the elements; that it would be considered disrespectful to use an athame to invoke the Goddess and the God. I don’t think it would be disrespectful, but if you want both a wand and an athame and were looking for an excuse to have one of each, like I was, the idea of having a tool reserved mostly for invocation of the Goddess and God can be appealing. You can make a wand out of wood that has fallen from a tree, or even a dowel purchased from a hardwood store. If you take a piece of wood from a tree, be sure to ask the tree’s permission. If you at all can, get wood from branches that have fallen on the ground. A wand is usually about 12 inches or so. It, like the athame, is a masculine tool and sacred to the God. It is associated with the element of air. Some people and some traditions reverse the correspondences of the wand and the athame (athame-air, wand-fire). For those who have experience with Tarot, this would be familiar.
Bell: Bells are used in many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Catholicism. Bells are used for many reasons. Some people simply use it as part of purifying sacred space before a ritual. The vibration of the sound removes negative or stagnant energies. It can also be used to mark the beginning and the end of a ritual, as well as the beginning and the end of a spell within the ritual -much as Catholics use a bell to mark the moment of Consecration. Not all consider this an essential ritual tool, but it can be a nice addition to your rituals. The bell is a feminine tool and sacred to the Goddess. It is associated with the element of air by some, and the element of water by others.
Chalice: Also referred to as the goblet or cup, it is used for many things; for holding blessed water during a ritual, for the cakes and ale ceremony, for offering libations to the deities. It is typically silver, in honor of the Goddess, but wood and glass chalices are fine too. Plastic, not being an earth material, would not make a good chalice. It’s feminine, sacred to the Goddess, a symbol of the waters of Her womb from which we all came.
Cauldron: This is a very practical tool. It can be used for smudging, for burning candles in, for mixing incense or oils or other brews in, as a libations bowl for offerings- there are many uses for the cauldron. However, if you are really going to cook something, it most likely should be done in a pan rather then in the cauldron! It has the same symbolism as the chalice; being that of water. It also symbolises creative transformation. The cauldron has specific mythological background, the most famous being that of Cerridwen and Her cauldron. A cauldron, along with a wand and a broom, is one of the most traditional “witchy” tools and it can be a bit of a kick to own one. Cast iron is best.
Pentacle: A pentacle is usually a circle shaped slab with various symbols inscribed on it. Sometimes it’s been carved out of wood or made out of stone. It is flat, so it can lie on the altar. The pentacle represents the element of earth and is feminine. You want to get one small enough to fit comfortably on the altar with the other altar tools; the size of a small beverage coaster is about the size you’re looking for, unless you have a lot of space. You can also get altar cloths with pentacles on them, which might save you some space as well!
Incense burner: You will need something to burn incense on, unless you cannot use incense for some reason. The different correspondences of different kinds of incense and the general atmosphere it creates are both reasons why Wiccans use incense in their rituals. Incense also makes a good offering to most deities. What kind of holder you are going to get depends on if you are using stick incense, cone, or charcoal. I personally prefer stick. It’s less expensive and very easy to use.
Other things to have on your altar:
A bowl/plate for offerings
A bowl of salt (preferably sea salt).
A candle snuffer (some say blowing out flames is an insult to the element of fire. I’m not sure I believe it, but a candle snuffer is cheap. You can also use a knife blade or your fingers if you aren’t a wimp like me.)
Your Book of Shadows. This is important enough to get its own page
A besom, or broom. Some people use it to symbolically cleanse the area before ritual.
Crystals. Many people keep crystals or precious stones on their altars, either as protection for the altar or to “charge” them for their various uses.
How to set up an altar
So you have your tools and you’re ready to set up your altar. So how do you do it? Well, there is no one right way, and sometimes space limitations make up your mind for you. But in general, people tend to do it one of two ways. One way is to set everything up according to its correspondence to the Goddess and the God. All God-oriented images and tools are on the right side of the altar, and all Goddess-oriented images and tools are on the left. An example of this is below.
Another common altar setup is by element. The tools are placed in their direction based on what element they correspond to. So for example, the cauldron would be set in the West because it corresponds to the element of water.
It’s not uncommon to have other items on your altar too, like crystals or your Book of Shadows or your divination tools. There is no hard and fast rule about how your altar has to be. The most important thing about an altar is that you use it!