Dictionary.com says an altar is “an elevated place or structure, as a mound or platform, at which religious rites are performed or on which sacrifices are offered to gods, ancestors, etc.”
My personal definition of altar would be, “an assembly of objects, arranged with the intention of invoking the presence of Spirit and elevating one’s consciousness to the realm of the Divine.” (This assembly of objects can be any size: it can cover an entire stage or be comprised of nothing but one tiny candle and one tiny sea shell.)
Naturally, for those of us concerned with uniting our awareness of form and spirit (and also seen and unseen, known and unknown), a tangible focal point such as an altar is an invaluable thing. It can help us stay centered in our spiritual work while keeping our thoughts and positive and our minds clearly focused on our intentions.
I prefer to have one main altar in my home as an anchor for my magical and spiritual work, and then a number of little altars for more specific purposes scattered throughout. You could also have a little altar on your desk or in your workspace. (If necessary, this can easily be created in such a way that it’s not obviously an altar but possesses all the benefits of one.)
Even though there are really no rules, here are some steps to give you an idea of what creating an altar entails.
Choose one main focal for your altar. Ideally, this will be a representation of the Divine that feels powerful for you. This could be anything from a framed picture or statue of a god or goddess that you particularly connect with, a pair of deities (such as Krishna and Radha or Demeter and Persephone), or simply a framed picture of a forest or the Milky Way galaxy. Even a crystal or a spiral sea shell can be your focal if it feels right.
Choose additional objects that feel sacred to you. Common choices include fresh flowers, crystals, candles, incense holders and incense, chalices, inspirational quotes or images, prayer flags, or natural offerings such as pinecones or acorns. If you’re a minimalist, just one or two items are fine. And if you draw particular inspiration from the five elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit), you might consider choosing one item to represent each: for example, a earthenware dish to represent earth, incense for air, a candle for fire, and a chalice for water (the main focal will represent Spirit).
Stay awake to your altar, and keep it feeling fresh. Altars are not meant to be stagnant. Rather, it’s ideal when we interact with them daily or almost daily: lighting incense to the Divine, dusting, refreshing flowers, cleansing crystals in sunlight or sage smoke, etc. Seasonal changes are also a good idea: like daffodils in the spring, apples in summer, pumpkins in fall, and pinecones in winter. Staying awake to our altars is a devotional act, and helps hold in place our awareness of the Divinity that animates and unites all things. This in turn keeps us awake to our power and allows that power to flow through us, regularly and powerfully.