One of the things that I hear from a lot of people when they are new and starting out in Wicca or Witchcraft is a feeling of defeat when it comes to working with an altar. Some people find they are in living situations where they are around other people that don’t agree with their practice while others find they just don’t have the room. They look at pictures of other people’s altars with their grand deity statues, pretty wands and shiny athames and they feel that because they can’t have these things on display or that they can’t fit it all in one place that this somehow means they can’t practice Witchcraft or follow the Wiccan path.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I have had altars on bedside tables, wall shelves, the corner of a desk, the top of a cardboard box, on a large round wooden table and on a plastic storage tote. Some altars are really obvious and some blend right in with other things in a room so that nobody notices it. While there are traditional ways an altar can be set up and different traditions will designate everything from what direction to point the altar, to the candle colors, to what you can actually have on it. Does that mean it has to limit you in your home altars? No. It’s up to you to decide how you want to work with your altar.
When it comes to tradition and altars, many people who follow a specific tradition will use that traditions altar arrangement for their formal rituals and for some of their personal workings, but at home in their personal space they may not have a formal altar set up and instead just have a dish of salt water with a shell in it, a vase of flowers, a candle and some incense all set up in an attractive way on a table and this is an altar for them. The four elements are represented and the items may have personal significance or sacred, sentimental meaning. They might not have a wand or athame out because it’s not a working altar (meaning they aren’t casting circles there and working spells) so they don’t need working tools. It might also be that they can’t have them out there for fear of upsetting someone. Instead this space serves as a reminder of their path, a devotion to the elements, and a place to express their beliefs in some way.
If you need to setup and take down your altar, you certainly can. If you set up your altar in privacy, hold your ritual or work your magick, and then put away all your working tools or obvious Craft items when you’re done leaving only a few sacred objects behind that, to anyone else, would just look like a nice arrangement of decorative items, that’s perfectly fine. You know what the items represent and the energy they add to this space. As long as you treat the space as sacred and you don’t keep your empty coffee cup there in the morning next to your dedicated crystals and offering incense you’re ok (unless of course your path is more of a Discordian one, then the coffee cup might be perfect there as an offering to the Gods of Caffeine).
The ultimate idea of an altar is for it to be a sacred space for honor, worship and working magick. It doesn’t need to be a place of display to show off your witchyness unless that’s what you want and what you feel safe doing. If you live at home with your parents and they aren’t going to agree with your practice then create a small sacred altar space that isn’t going to be obvious. Get a small box to safely store your working tools in when you aren’t using them that will be out of sight from prying eyes. The same can be said if you have children or pets that could get into things or get injured on the pointy tip of an athame. If you don’t have the room on a flat surface for your tools, create a new surface by purchasing a wall shelf that is long or wide enough to hold your items. I’ve even seen tiny, almost miniature altar tool setups for travel that could work too (birthday candles come in a ton of different colors and burn for about 15 minutes making for a great mini altar candle or spell candle). One of my favorite altar setups for someone that just can’t keep anything out is to get a steamer chest that you can keep your things inside of when you’re not using them; these often have locks on them as well. Then when you’re ready to do a ritual or spell you can take out what you need, put your altar cloth on top and then use it as your altar surface.
Altars are any space where sacred objects are placed that is treated with reverence and holds a place of sacredness. Being in a situation where you have to be creative and maybe make a few compromises doesn’t mean you have to give up completely. A corner of a desk with a blessed candle and a cleansed crystal is just as much an altar as a whole table that is spread out with tools. If it means something to you and is a place where the sacred is honored, then you have created and altar.
Just keep that great witchy bumper sticker in mind; Where there’s a Witch, there’s a way!