Beginner Heathens tend to have a lot of questions about altars and how to set one up. Of course, the answers will vary from person to person, since everyone’s circumstances are different. However, new Heathens can get caught up in the romantic aesthetic of some altar photos online, without giving consideration to what is practical or what might work best for them. Moreover, few people take altar maintenance into account when starting out, especially if they have backgrounds in religions that don’t encourage a home practice. This post is meant to be a guideline to address the most common practical concerns of both altar setup and upkeep.
Setting up a permanent altar
In ancient times, sacred spaces were delineated from profane spaces with some kind of demarcation: furrows ploughed into the earth, rope tied to stakes, or the circumambulation of fire. Therefore, in an ideal scenario, your altar would stand apart from all other furniture in your residence. The mantelpiece above a fireplace is considered a prime location, since the fireplace is a modern version of the hearth. However, if this is not possible, then a table set into a corner or against the wall of a frequently used room are also good options. If separate furniture is not possible, consider a windowsill or a shelf of a bookcase.
When choosing a surface for your altar, whether you are using a mantelpiece, table, windowsill, or bookshelf, consider its height. If you prefer to stand during ritual, then a space that is relatively high off the ground should pose no issues. However, if you like to sit, kneel, or prostrate yourself during ritual, you may want to consider a surface of a lower height. Of course, you can still sit, kneel, or prostrate at certain points during your ritual even if the altar is higher off the ground, as long as you can stand and reach it when needed.
Also consider what space is available around your altar for storage. Some Heathens like to have nearby cabinet or drawer space where they keep their offerings and altar tools, while other Heathens might keep those items in another room entirely, such as the kitchen. If you aren’t using furniture with drawers or shelves for your altar, you might want to keep a box nearby where you can store your offerings and tools.
Setting up a temporary altar
In the event that a permanent altar is not an option, consider setting up a temporary altar that you can unpack for ritual and then pack away when finished. These temporary altars can be kept in a box as large or as small as you need or want. Some options for altar boxes are baskets, craft boxes, toolboxes, plastic Rubbermaid tubs, cookie tins, and shoeboxes. Some Heathens even use Altoids tins, which are small enough to double as travel altars.
Because temporary altars are not permanently separated from profane space, they must be re-hallowed before every use. Once the altar has been set up, oftentimes using the box itself as a “table,” most Heathens will move a lit candle three times over the altar to sanctify the space.
As mentioned in our hearth cult guide, the minimum requirements for an altar are an offering dish and a candle. For Heathens who want to burn incense, an incense burner is also necessary. None of these items have to be large, especially if you are keeping a temporary altar, nor do they have to be expensive.
For offering dishes or cups, consider any of the following: shot glasses, sake cups, small appetizer plates, soy sauce dishes, glass or ceramic mise en place bowls, footed dessert bowls, parfait bowls, and glass yogurt cups. Wooden bowls, cups, and plates are also options if you want a more rustic look for your altar. However, when choosing an offering dish, consider what kinds of offerings you will be giving. Glass and ceramic are best for liquid offerings, and ceramic is the safest option for hot liquid offerings in particular. (Glass may crack and shatter.) You should also take into consideration how easy it would be to clean the dishes once you’ve disposed of offerings, especially if a material must be washed by hand instead of in the dishwasher.
Candles come in many shapes, sizes, and materials. Tealights and votive candles are the most popular among Heathens because of their smaller sizes, but Heathens with larger altar spaces might use tapers and pillar candles instead. Paraffin candles are the cheapest, and paraffin tealights can be purchased in bulk in quantities of 50 or 100. Unscented candles are usually less expensive than scented ones, too. When choosing candles, take into consideration your budget, how often you may need to replace them, and any environmental concerns. Beeswax candles are often considered the healthiest option for both humans and the environment, and many Heathens like the idea of supporting their local apiaries, too. If necessary, an electric candle is a good substitute for a real candle. Many are made so that they simulate the flicker of real candles.
Though perhaps not as easy available as candles, incense comes in a variety of options as well. The cheapest and most ubiquitous type is cored stick incense, which is made with wood at its center. These are most commonly produced in India and China. Solid stick incense, produced in Japan and Tibet, is less common, but has the advantage of not having a wooden center, so it burns more cleanly and produces less smoke. Other common types of incense are the cone, which has the shortest burn time, and loose incense, which has to burn on a charcoal disk. You will usually find cored stick incense, cones, and loose incense in brick-and-mortar metaphysical stores, while you can usually find solid stick incense, as well as less common types, online.
Many kinds of incense burners can be purchased in physical shops and online, but it is easy enough to make your own. A ceramic or cast iron bowl with a wide mouth is an ideal vessel, and it should be filled about halfway with sand, ash, or salt. Sand and salt are better materials for holding up incense sticks, while all three are suitable for holding a charcoal disk if you are burning loose incense. If burning charcoal disks, it is a good idea to put the entire burner on a drink coaster or small trivet.
Storing and giving offerings
Offerings should be stored according to the instructions that come with their packaging. For food and drink that will spoil easily, like cream and milk, that means storage in the refrigerator. However, items that can be kept in cool, dry locations do not have to stay in the kitchen. You can keep dry offerings in labeled Tupperware containers or glass jars and liquid offerings like oil in their own containers near your altar. Clear or semi-opaque containers are useful so you can easily know when you’re running low on an offering.
When giving dry offerings, consider using a spoon or coffee scoop to transfer them from their containers to the offering bowls or dishes. This minimizes the chance of spills while also helping you make equal portions for multiple entities. For liquid offerings, keep a towel or pile of napkins handy to clean any accidental spills. If the liquid offerings are hot — for example, brewed coffee — consider using a coaster or small trivet to protect your surfaces from the offering’s vessel.
Maintaining the altar
If you are using real candles on your altar, familiarize yourself with basic candle safety and care. According to the National Candle Association, best practices include:
- Trimming the candle’s wick to 1/4 inch (or 6.5 mm) before burning.
- Burning candles in a well ventilated room.
- Placing the candle on a heat-resistant surface.
- Extinguishing candles using a candle snuffer.
- Replacing candles when 1/2 inch (or 12 mm) of wax remains.
- Extinguishing candles whenever you leave a room where they are burning.
- Keeping candles out of the reach of children or pets.
While there is no national association for incense, some of the guidelines for candles can apply: burn incense in a well ventilated room, extinguish burning incense before leaving the room, regularly remove leftover incense cores or stubs from your burner, etc.
Consider keeping a small tool kit for altar maintenance, especially if you use incense and real candles. Tweezers are useful for lifting drooping wicks and picking the stubs of incense out of a burner, especially one made with sand or salt. A cheap set of nail clippers serves as an excellent wick trimmer, especially for votive candles and tealights, which have small diameters. Otherwise, scissors will work just fine.
Keep your altars dust-free by wiping them down on a regular basis. Microfiber cloths, surface cleaners, cleaning wipes, and paper towels will all do the job well. When finished cleaning, consider hallowing the space right away with fire; otherwise, do it before the start of your next ritual.