A Witch's Altar and Tools
This body of work was taken from one of the lessons of The Mysteries Of The Divine Apprenticeship Program hosted by The Witches Collective and authored by Symandinome.
An altar is an elevated place or structure, as a mound or platform, at which religious rites are performed or on which offerings are made to gods, ancestors, etc.
There is much debate as to what an altar should be made out of and even its shape. Some people feel that an altar should be circular and not contain any nails in its creation. The reason for this being that the circular shape is reflective of the magick circle and the cycle of life and the omitting of nails and the like is due to their belief that the metal interferes with the energies within the circle. On the flip side though, there are people that feel that having nails in its construction doesn't affect anything. Some of these people have rectangular, oblong, square, and even diamond and star shaped altars. There are people who use tree stumps and even their coffee table in their living room.
What you choose to use, how it's made, and what it is made of is up to you. You are going to hear from many people saying things like "Do what feels right." or "Trust your instincts." or something of the like. I know this isn't always the answer you want to hear but there is good reason for all of us saying it. We say these things to you because we cannot tell you what is right for you. You have to march to the beat of your own drum and learn to trust and believe in yourself. If you are unable to dedicate a single piece of furniture for the sole purpose of an altar due to either space, prying eyes, or functionality; it is recommended that you be sure to bless the altar before each use. There is one thing that most of us can agree on in regards to altars and all tools and that is that it should be made out of natural ingredients as much as possible. After all, this is a religion of nature.
It is customary to have the altar facing North as this direction symbolizes stability and focus. There is however people that choose to face the other directions. There are also times when a witch will change the direction the altar faces dependent upon the working being performed. An example of such an occasion would be during a funerary ritual in which the altar would face West which is the direction of death and rebirth. Another example would be for a "wiccaning" or the blessing of a newborn child. In this case the direction of the altar would commonly be East because this direction represents new beginnings.
Altars are commonly decorated to represent the occasion of its use. For the lunar rituals, known as Esbats, the standard altar set up is normally used. On occasions like the holy days, known as Sabbats, the altar is seasonally decorated. Decorating your altar is not mandatory but it does help to put you in the mood. Everyone loves decorations.
Below are 4 examples of some seasonally dressed altars.
We are not going to spend time on seasonal altars but instead we are going to look at a basic altar set up. Below is an image I created in the paint program on my computer of a basic altar setup. This altar is set up as a North facing altar. Pay attention to the placement of the items and see a description of their purpose below.
In this image you see a variety of items. All of these items are standard on an altar. These items are the key components used when casting your magick circle which is the first step before any ritual or spell. As witches we seek to find balance in every aspect of our life; our altars are no different. The setup I have shown you is not the one and only way. There are many ways to set up an altar. The setup shown above is a commonly used setup and creates a balance of the energies on the altar. Now let's look at them piece by piece and see their significance and purpose.
This cup is used strictly to hold ale, wine, juice, or water for drinking and should not become confused with the Chalice. There are no requirements for what this vessel should look like. Some people like ornate goblets while others are ok with a simple cup.
At the end of a ritual or spell it is customary to pay tribute to the gods for what they have given to us. This is done in what is known as the "Cakes and Ale" portion of a ritual. This Goblet is raised up high in tribute of the Gods. A portion of its contents are spilled out for the Gods either onto the ground or into a libation dish. Sometimes a witch may reserve a portion of the contents to pour outside after the ritual. In a group setting, this goblet is passed around clockwise within the circle. The person handing you the cup will often say "May you never thirst!". This is a traditional blessing that is given and you are obliged to pass the blessing on as you pass the cup. If you are solitary it is appropriate for you to say "May I never thirst!" The contents of this cup are always blessed before offering or consumption.
Altar Oil which is sometimes known as anointing oil is a blessed oil that is used for consecrating yourself before ritual as well as consecrating ritual tools.
The Altar Candle is sometimes called the "working candle". This candle represents the element of Fire on your altar and is used to light all the other candles you will use in your rituals or spells as well as for circle and tool consecration. It also helps in illuminating your working area so you can read from you Book of Shadows. It is normally a white candle because white symbolizes purity. This is not to be confused with a "quarter" candle. Quarter candles will be discussed in another lesson.
An altar cloth is in essence a table cloth. Some people use them while others don't. They are usually decorated with symbols or images that add to your sense of magick or spirituality. They do not have to have images on them. Some people use plain cloths and some people use different cloths depending on the season or sabbat which is approaching. There is no rule as to what they should look like.
Bowl of Salt
The bowl of salt symbolizes the element of Earth and is used in circle and tool consecration. The salt is added to water to create blessed or "holy" water. Many people keep their salt in a variety of containers. It doesn't need to be a bowl but it is a practical option.
Book of Shadows
The Book of Shadows is the workbook of the witch. In it is recorded: Rituals guidelines, Invocations, Spells, Runes, Rules of a particular Coven or Tradition, Symbols, Poems, Chants, and anything else of use to the witch during ritual.
Traditionally the Book of Shadows was always hand written by the individual. A common custom for new initiates into a Coven, is to hand copy his teacher�s Book of Shadows exactly as it appeared, then later to add his own material as he progressed in the craft. To make your own Book of Shadows, you can use any form of blank book, but perhaps the best type to use are those of a loose-leave nature in a 3 ring binder, thus allowing pages to be shuffled around when preparing for rituals. Some Books of Shadows are made from recycled paper, bound up in natural tree bark covers, and are available in some art shops and bookstores. The reasoning for its position on the altar is obviously because it is right in front of you so you can read it. The Book of Shadows is not really mandatory but most people do not have rituals committed to memory.
The Cakes Plate which is sometimes known as an offering dish is the counter part to the Ale Goblet for the Cakes and Ale Ritual. There are no requirements as to what it should look like or how big it should be. Some people like ornate while others use a simple napkin. Traditionally the plate would hold "crescent cakes" which are crescent shaped cookies in honor of the goddess and the moon. Witches use all sorts of things besides for the crescent cookies. Some witches use bread, cookies, cake or even pie. It is usually a baked item and it is never meat. Just like with the "ale" the plate is raised high in salute and some is offered to the Gods. In a group setting you will either be handed a small piece of the offering or an entire cookie. In either case you will be greeted with a blessing of "May you never hunger!" You would then pass the offering on with the same blessing. In a solitary setting it is appropriate for you to say "May I never hunger!" The cakes are also blessed prior to offering or consumption.
The censer is an incense burner used to contain burning incense during ritual. Any type of censer can be used, even a simple bowl filled with sand will do. The censer represents the elements of Air and is normally placed on the eastern side of the altar. Some witches place this in front of the deity representations. The smoke from the incense carries our prayers up to the heavens and is also used in circle and tool consecration. Witches use many types of incense from sticks, cones, and especially resins and herbs that are burned on special charcoal briquettes.
The chalice or cup is used on the altar to represent Water. The chalice along with the athame, sword or wand are the modern tools which are used in the enactment of the "Great Rite"-the union of the male and female principle from which life will spring. It is also used when the circle and tool consecration. Salt is added to the water in the chalice and is then sprinkled around the circle to purify the area.
Chalices may be of any material. Many use silver or pewter but ceramic ones are now quite popular and readily obtainable. Some Witches have many different kinds for different types of rituals. Many a practitioner will avoid real "lead" crystal because of the Saturn energy influence. There are people that use the chalice in lieu of a cauldron and there are people that choose to just use a bowl. This ritual item is never to be used for drinking. It baffles me how so many people confuse the chalice with the ale cup. It is common sense that if you are using the cup to hold water; that you salt at the beginning of ritual, that it would be impossible for it to also hold wine at the same time; for use at the end of ritual.
It is customary to have representation of the God and Goddess on our altars. This is commonly done by use of what is known as the God and Goddess Candles. Traditionally, as witches we use silver for the goddess as it symbolizes the moon and femininity. For the god, we use gold because it symbolizes the sun and masculinity.
The Goddess Candle is always placed to the left on the altar and the God candle to the right. The reason for this is because the feminine in Western Occultism and Paganism is associated with the moon. The masculine is associated with the Sun.The moon and the feminine has been traditionally associated with the left side of the body and is internal and receptive. The Sun and masculine has been traditionally been associated with the right side of the body, associated with activity and what is outgoing.
Some witches enjoy having statues of their deities on their altars. This isn't something that is mandatory but some people like to use statues of the god and goddess in lieu of or in addition to god and goddess candles. Sometimes these figurines aren't statues at all but instead are natural materials to represent deity such as a sea shell for the goddess and a stone for the god.
The pentacle is a traditional tool of the craft. Originally it is thought to have been adopted from ceremonial magic. It is usually a round solid disc often made from stone, wood or cooper. On the disc is engraved or painted an up-right five pointed star enclosed inside a circle called the Pentagram. A disc decorated in this manner then becomes called a Pentacle. In some traditions other symbols are added indicative of deities, spirits or the elements as sources of power. The pentacle is normally the centerpiece of the alter on which objects are placed to be consecrated or charged, such things as amulets, charms and tools are placed on it, as is the salt and water for blessing and cakes and ale. As most witches do not have very large altars due to space issues; one could consider embedding the pentacle into the center of the altar. This would free up some very valuable space.
Now that we have an understanding of the witch's altar and the basic items found on it, we can continue on and look at the ritual tools that are sometimes used by a witch.
There are many different tools that are used by witches around the world. Some of these witches may even say that YOU MUST HAVE A ......! Truth of the matter is that you don't need a single one of them!
The most important tool(s) for any witch is their hands and their mind. Sure, all the other tools are nice to have but they aren't necessary. For some people, having these other tools; be they ornate or simplistic, makes them feel more official or capable. This is purely in their mind. Tools do not make the witch. Some traditions do specify certain tools that are to be used and even go so far as to dictate the exact way they should look or be constructed. If you decide to become a member of one of those traditions then of course you would have to "follow the rules". As far as the rest of you go; it is all completely up to you and your preferences.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to have these other tools, just be aware that you are capable and just as official without them.
Though these other tools aren't necessary, they do serve a legitimate purpose. They allow us to focus and direct our energy, focus our minds, as well as other purposes that can be beneficial to us and our workings. These tools do not need to be expensive and they do not need to be elaborate. These tools do need to be efficient and personal to you as an individual. Achieving this level of personalization can be attained in a variety of ways. You can create the tool completely from scratch. You can use household items such as your favorite kitchen knife or bowl. If you decide on store bought tools; try to personalize the tool in some way by adding something to it or altering it some way so that "you" become a part of it and its energies.
Below you will see the image of the altar you seen before. This time I have included some of the tools found below. I have placed them in a balanced manner on the altar. Not all of the tools listed below are shown. This is because some of the tools are less common, tradition specific, or are too large to go on an altar.
[ath-ah-may] or [ah-tham-E]
The athame is the witches' ritual knife. As with all ritual tools, the athame is a very personal magickal item; one which you will want to take some care in obtaining. It should fit well and comfortably in your hand. Many Witches make their own blades or "personalize" purchased ones with runes, carvings and other symbols; all of which serve to blend the energy of the tool with their own magickal intentions. Modern Witchcraft books almost always state that the athame is a "black handled double edged iron blade." You may call this model, "the classic', if you like! But many other practitioners now use athames made from stainless steel, copper, silver and various other metals, or even carved stone. Some have family heirlooms, such as letter openers which serve the purpose or even a favorite kitchen knife. Some Witches never use a blade at all! So you can see, it is more important that the tools you choose reflect you as an individual and that you aren't just conforming to the "norm".
The athame can be used to cast the magick circle, call the "quarters" or elements, and is part of many an opening ritual, handfasting (wedding) or initiation rite. It is associated with the element of Fire and the South. It is customary in some traditions to have your blade given to you as a gift. Some Witches or ceremonial workers give their tools a magickal "name". Often the blade is left "dull" or unsharpened because many people feel that the ritual knife shouldn't be used for anything but ritual work.
The bell is a ritual tool of invocation and banishment. The bell is a feminine symbol of the creative force, which is of the Goddess and in turn the left side of the altar. The bell can be rung to indicate the start of a rite by banishing negative influences before the ritual begins. Often it is used to invoke the Goddess during ritual, or sounded at the four quarters.
Bells can be used to guard the home by warding off evil spells and spirits, or evoking good energies when placed in cupboards or hung on doors. Hung from a cord the bell symbolizes the human soul suspended between heaven and earth. There is no one way to use the bell, use your imagination! Here are a few ideas; you can use it to open and close the sacred circle, Invoke the Goddess, ring to ward off negative energies (as well as invite positive energies ), or use it to signal different sections of a ritual and/or Sabbat. But most of all have fun; create your own rituals using the bell! As a side note however, when working with faeries and other such entities of that sort, the bell is not used as it is displeasing to them.
The broom is a ritual tool of the witch, sacred to both Goddess and the God. The God - through its symbolic phallic shape, The Goddess - through its three-piece make up, the stick, brush and binding cord being symbolic of the triformis aspect of the Goddess.
Traditionally the broom was made from three different woods. Ash for the handle, Birch twigs for the brush and Willow for the binding cord. Ash is protective and has command over the four elements. Birch is purifying and draws spirits to one�s service. Willow is sacred to the Goddess.
The broom is used for a variety of purposes but most generally to purify and protect. It is used to ritually cleanse an area before magick is performed by symbolically sweeping away negative energies and astral build up. Of old it was used to guard the home and persons within against psychic attack or evil curses, this by placing it across the threshold, windowsills or doorways. It was also placed under the bed or a pillow to protect the sleeper.
Traditionally and perhaps the use which most people identify it with, are the old wedding ceremonies of the Gypsies and the early American slaves, where a couple leapt over the broom to ensure fertility, domestic harmony and longevity. Today pagan hand-fasting rituals often include a broom jump.
The besom is not featured on the altar because of its size. Though they are not regulated to be of any particular size; common sense tells you they would be made the normal size of a broom. This is because when the broom was first adopted as a ritual tool; the witches of the middle ages used their house brooms. The ritual tools of that time were household items that were easily concealed or passed off as common place. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they didn't have cute little brooms just sitting around. That would have been suspicious.
The broom can logically be associated with earth and air. It can be associated with Earth because of the material it's made out of and its energy dispelling properties. It can also be associated with Air because of the wind it causes when you sweep the air or ground but also because its winds sweep away negative energy. In my opinion the broom belongs on the Eastern side of the Altar. Whichever direction you choose, the broom should always remain bristles up when not in use. This is to retain good energy. If you are having a bit of bad luck then place your broom bristles down in the northern corner of your house till the streak passes; then return it bristles up.
The Bolline or White-Handled knife as it is now known, is the practical knife of the craft. Traditionally it was used to harvest herbs and had a blade in the form of a small sickle. Today it is normally a mundane knife used for cutting and carving. It has a white handle to differentiate it from the Athame, which has a black handle and is used only for magickal purposes. The bolline is used to cut wands and herbs, to mark and carve candles with symbols and to cut cords for use in magick. Any other ritual function requiring the use of a knife, such as cutting flowers for the altar, can be performed with the bolline. Some people associate it with masculine energy but in my opinion it is a feminine tool. Its purposes as stated above are for cutting herbs and flowers and to me that says the goddess more so than the god. It is for that reason it is placed on the left of the altar.
The cauldron is probably the tool most associated with witchcraft and is steeped in magickal tradition and mystery. The cauldron is the container in which transmutation, germination, and transformations may occur. It is symbolic of the womb of the Goddess, and is the manifested essence of femininity and fertility. Everything is born from the cauldron of the Goddess and afterwards everything returns back to it. It is also symbolic of the element of water, as well as reincarnation, immortality and inspiration.
In ritual the cauldron is used as a container for making brews and potions, or to contain a small fire for use with spells. It can also be used for scrying (divination) by filling it with water and gazing into its depths.
In ancient times the cauldron was used as a cooking vessel and for brew making. Traditionally it was made from cast iron, it rests on three legs and has an opening smaller than its widest part. Cauldrons are made in many sizes but can be difficult to find, so you will need to persevere if you want one. If you manage to have a small cauldron that fits on the altar then it is best placed in the West on the left side of the altar. Large cauldrons are usually placed to the left of the altar. I however, have seen cauldrons atop a fire placed in the North.
The Crescent Crown or High Priestess Crown is worn by High Priestesses in various traditions. It comes in a variety of styles from a simple crescent to the one pictured here and even more elaborate. This crown is worn by a High Priestess when she invokes the Goddess within herself during the Drawing Down of the Moon. It is also worn at other times when a High Priestess acts on behalf of the Goddess.
Foilate or Green Man Mask
This mask is often worn by High Priests in various traditions when they take on the role of the God or more specifically the God in the Green Man or Fatherly Aspect. There are other varieties of masks that may be worn at other times as well such as a sun mask. Not all traditions use masks but some do.
The Horned Crown is worn by High Priests in various traditions when they take on the role of the God in the Horned God aspect. It is also sometimes worn by some for all religious rituals. It is common to be seen at Beltane when the High Priest and High Priestess enact the "Great Rite" either symbolically or physically. It is also commonly seen at Samhain; the time when the Horned God takes his thrown.
A Priapic Wand is a tool that is not used all of the time. It is a phallic symbol which means that it represents the penis. This tool is used in fertility sabbats/rituals. In some rituals it is lowered into the Chalice to symbolize the God joining with the Goddess for the fertility of the Earth. This is sometimes furthered by sprinkling the water from the chalice with the priapic wand across new seeds that are to be planted to help to ensure their growth. There are many other tools that are phallic in nature like the sword, athame, and the regular wand which could also be used. It is definitely a masculine tool.
The scourge is used in Gardnerian Wicca to flagellate members of the coven, primarily in initiation rites. Frederic Lamond said that whilst Gardner never told his Bricket Wood coven which element this was associated with, he believed that as an "instrument for exercising power over others" then it should be Fire. The scourge stands in contrast to "the Kiss" in Gardnerian and other forms of Wicca. These being representatives of the "gifts of the Goddess," the scourge standing for sacrifice and suffering one is willing to endure to learn, the kiss being the blessings of abundance in all life's aspects.
This is not a commonly used tool and is the reason why it was not placed on the altar image.
The Staff is a very important tool in some traditions. The staff may be used in much the same manner as the wand. It is usually matched "to your measure"- which means it reaches to your shoulder- making it easy and comfortable for you to handle without either knocking yourself upside the head or having it trip you up from behind. Any such incident will amuse your friends, but do little to enhance your image in the magickal community! They are sometimes ornately adorned with many various items such as gemstones or left bare. This tool is symbolic of the North and embodies strength and stability.
The stang is a staff with two prongs on the top of it, though in some cases these are made out of antlers. It was one of the main ritual items used by the Clan of Tubal Cain which was run by the witch Robert Cochrane, and it was he who introduced this tool into Wicca. It is similar to a staff.
The sword is not so common a ritual tool, but it can be used in place of the athame. The sword symbolizes authority and can be used to mark cut out sacred or ritual space.
Again, like the athame, the sword should never be used to cut anything in the physical plane. Obviously it must never under any circumstances be used to draw blood - even accidentally. If it is, its power will be gone and the tool should be destroyed so that it can never be used again.
Also, like the athame, it can be used to deal with unseen entities and forces. In other words it holds negative spirits at bay and prevents interference with spell casting. At the same time the sword attracts positive energies and spirits which can be extremely beneficial to the work in hand.
The sword doesn't have to be extremely fancy, or elegant. It is a working tool and a plain sword will work just as well. It's really a matter of personal preference. Some Witch's prefer ornate ritual tools, others prefer plain. Whichever you prefer, or whether you even have a preference or not, it will serve you well.
Although it can take the place of the athame, many Witches have both within their collection of ritual tools. They will use whichever seems more appropriate for their purpose. The sword is a symbol of masculinity and strength and is placed in the South of the altar.
The wand represents the element of Air and the East. You can purchase a ready-made one or collect one from your friendly neighborhood tree. (Ask first, if you want to harvest one from a living tree- and leave a small token of thanks.) Even dowels, such as those sold in hardware stores, can be painted and decorated quite beautifully. Its length should be approximate the crook of the elbow to the middle of the index finger.
The wand can be used to cast the circle or direct energy in other magickal ways, such as in spells and incantations. There are wands of glass, copper, silver and other metals, but the "classic" material is still wood. Various woods have different magickal associations and uses. It is very common for a "Wand Witch" to have many wands of various types in his/her magickal closet. Witches who do not use athames often use a wand instead.
Ultimately, it is up to which if any of these tools you decide to use. You may want all of them or you may want just a few. Do not be in such a hurry to collect tools. Tools find a way to come to you naturally when you need them. Forcing yourself to settle for a tool just for the sake of having them will render them ineffective and leave you wanting. There are other tools used by different people that were not listed here. The tools presented to you in this lesson are the most commonly heard of or recognized tools.
Before we finish off this lesson on the altar and tools let's discuss the subject of ritual garb.
Ritual Garb & Accessories
There are a wide variety of pagan accessories available to us; be they purchased online or at a store in town. The most commonly worn piece of jewelry is the pentagram necklace. It is a symbol of protection and power and is worn by many in the pagan community. Others may choose to not wear any jewelry at all. Both are acceptable. Certain traditions may require the wearing of certain items and are usually items bestowed upon you as gifts at initiations. Other options to the pentagram necklace are earrings, rings, bracelets, and anklets and come in a wide array of styles.
In the various forms of British Traditional Wicca, cords, known as cingulum, or singulum (which literally translates as "girdle" or "belt"), are worn about the waist by adherents. These are often given to a Wiccan upon their initiation, and worn at each subsequent ritual. Traditionally they are nine feet in length (nine being three times three, the magical number), and are used to measure the circumference of the magic circle so that it can be set up correctly.
In many traditions of Wicca, the colour of a person's cingulum indicates what rank of initiation they are; in several Australian covens for instance, green denotes a novice, white denotes an initiate of the first degree, blue for the second, and a plaited red, white and blue for the third, with the High Priest wearing a gold cingulum (symbolizing the sun), and the High Priestess wearing silver (symbolizing the moon).
You are free to wear cords of any color when you are working as a solitary. They are often just worn to tighten the waste around your ritual robe.
Clothing is "optional" for many Witches as some may practice "skyclad" (nude).
Many traditions or paths have a "standard" wardrobe which reflects the ethnic background of that path. Scots may wear kilts and Druids may wear hooded robes. Many embroider magickal symbols on their ritual clothing or "hide" small magickal items in the seams and hems to act as talismans for protection. What you choose to wear and how you choose to wear it is up to you!
"dit werk is auteursrechtelijk beschermd"
This work is protected by the Dutch Copyright Act of the Berne Convention and inturn protected under International Copyright Law.This body of work was authored by Ashlie Milano and no part of this work may be reproduced or altered without expressed permission. If you intend to use this body of work for your personal book of shadows in the physical world you may. This work may not be used for commercial purposes or any online purpose; commerical or non.