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The role of the altar in magic and spiritual development

BY Ylva Mara Radziszewski


hat is the role of altars in magic?

I love working with altars. The act of building them is so meditative; it is remarkably healing to clarify your intention and charge the objects you’ve selected to represent those intentions. I like to teach that the altar is alive and serves as an ally in spiritual work.

On the witch’s wheel, the altar is a tool of the element of Earth—empowering the resources of your magic and assisting you to embody those sacred qualities of witch. The element of Earth assists us in acting as resource to our relationships with life; it also aids our receptivity to the resources offered through our relationships with life.

There is an old Roma belief that “we borrow the earth.” To me this has always served as a reminder that our time here is limited and that we take nothing with us in the end—leaving only the power of our impact. We are here as stewards of this planet and we work in service with the spirits who tend the elements and nature. We borrow this place and are charged to leave it better then we have found it. The reality here is that we haven’t done the best job so far, but there is much being done (and much still to do) to remedy this.

We are of the Earth and so this ancestral belief of borrowing the Earth also implies that our body is the Earth we are charged with stewarding. More specifically, we are charged with serving as steward to one another as well. What happens to the world around us deeply impacts the world within us. To effect change in the world around us, we also must effect change within us. The use of an altar in making magic allows us to work our intentions in this way as well.

Altar working is one way to channel and charge our intentions to serve the healing of our planet and to empower our embodiment of positive change. I believe that working with the altar is a way of remembering our sacred connection to the elements; it also serves to hold space for us to grow within our intentions. We can practice the outcome of our prayers while working our altar, we can also rest challenges and blessings on our altar in order to give them, and ourselves, the necessary space to grow and transform. A way of looking at this is to see the altar as a physical embodiment of our sacred intentions.

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There are many ways to build an altar, each being a unique reflection of your intention. Here, I will define a few general types of altars:

  • Working Altars – A place at which we focus our commitments to deepen in our spiritual work and relationships with the Divine, Self, the Elements, and our ally Spirits. A sacred space where we go to say our daily prayers, set our daily intentions, communicate with our spirits and guides, and place objects to charge. Working altars serve as a place for us to find center.
  • Manifesting Altars – These are altars dedicated to focusing energy toward manifesting a blessing in a specific area of our life—relationship, true abundance, good work, health, character traits and personal values, etc.
  • Honoring Altars – These are altars that are dedicated to holding and sending our prayers of gratitude and honoring towards specific compassionate beings and aspects of life. They are also called Devotional Altars. They are altars of gratitude and can be for:
    • Ancestors or divine beings that we are dedicated to or wanting to learn more about; those whose character traits we hope to integrate in our daily lives.
    • The elements, Love or other archetypes, our creativity/art/healing practice, aspects of our true self, blessings that we have received and want to give thanks for, etc.

There are also altars that we might be called to create that may be different in function than the above, or might be a combination of the above. You might love going for walks or hikes to co-create altars from nature, for nature, and in nature.

No matter the type, the altar focuses our intention and marks the focus of that altar as sacred. You can make offerings to the Divine at your altar—this devotional ritual returns our focus to gratitude and reminds us of our own divinity.

Your body is also an altar. It is the temple of your soul. As you begin to deepen in your spiritual work and your understanding of magic, you might choose to adorn your personal embodiment of spirit with certain stones, jewelry, colors, art, or clothes that feed your spirit. When we treat our bodies as altars we honor the divinity within us and mark the focus of this altar (our soul and its destiny) as sacred. Creating and tending to altars around us will teach us to tend to the altar that has been created for us.

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The working altar can be seen as a microcosm of the Wild Green, the Mystery, Magic. It is a schema that will help you to navigate your inner landscape and help you develop a graceful interface with the outer landscapes that will present themselves in your life. You want to have representations of all of your primary spirits, self, and the elements.

Below are suggestions for a basic layout and ideas for altar items. Where we place our altar is up to us, and the available space, though some believe the witches altar should sit in the north. I suggest moving your altar to sit in each of the four cardinal directions to determine what feels right for you.

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Ideas for altar Items:

I like to build an altar in rounds. My preference is to place the symbols of divinity and source in the center, along with whatever symbol I have chosen to represent my intention. I then like to place a fetish for each cardinal element in the appropriate direction on my altar. If I need more support, I will add images of empowerment and ancestry in the cross quarter spaces. These items may also be additional elemental symbols. Here are some ideas for altar items.

  • The Divine: images of moon or sun, silver, stones, seeds, deity statues/pictures, flower/plant, goblet, gold, feathers, horns, ritual tools, ancestral symbols, animal images
  • The Elements:
    • Earth: stones, wood, herbs, soil, images, pentacle, green
    • Air: feathers, leaves, incense, clear stones, empty dish, wand, yellow
    • Fire: candle, red stones, spicy things, lizard images, an athame
    • Water: a dish of water, symbols of water, shells, small cup, bells

Source: candle, anything that invokes a sense of divinity

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Altar etiquette:

It’s important that you tend to your altar cyclically. This will ensure that the energy going into your spiritual and intuitive development is fresh and it will give you an opportunity to cultivate learnings from your work each cycle. This will allow you to see the openings in your work and accept the invitation of your spirit to deepen and grow. It will also give you an opportunity to cultivate gratitude and acknowledgement for blessings, support, and learnings you have received over the last cycle. You may choose to use the lunar cycle to guide your work—manifesting, releasing, and setting new intentions through the waxing and waning.

Every new moon you may choose to strip your altar and put it to rest for the evening while you pray and reflect on the learning and work from the cycle that has just ended. You may also pray about what your work is for this cycle. When you have finished your prayers, follow the guidance and wisdom that was offered and build your altar again to support your work going forward. Sometimes the altar cloth changes, other times it stays the same. Sometimes the elemental items or placement changes, other times it won’t. Allow it to be as it is and if nothing is to change then rebuild it in the same configuration.

The act of clearing your altar and letting it rest serves as a spiritual and psychic ‘reset.’ It’s an important aspect of spiritual hygiene that will ensure your continued vitality and spiritual evolution!

A note on devotional altars: I typically won’t change these altars very much. Although I clean them and replace flowers or clear food offerings away regularly, I’ll leave them pretty much intact and in the same configuration for a longer period of time. To me this feels right because these altars are intended to gather and gift energy to the divine; empowering a larger arch and deeper relationship that could be better served over a longer cycle.

Remember to have fun with your altar and your spirits! They love to build altars and really enjoy helping you ‘find’ items that represent them. Altars can neither be too big or too small—they are always perfect. When an altar no longer feels ‘right’ or if it feels stagnant or stale, it’s time to start again. To me, this means that the work has been completed and something in me has shifted and may be moving in a new direction. It’s up to us to follow and support our own unfolding. The altar is a great ally along the way!

Ylva Mara Radziszewski

Ylva Mara Radziszewski

Ylva Mara Radziszewski is a witch, folk medicine practitioner, herbalist, teacher, activist, and writer based out of Seattle, WA. She is a teacher of the witches Healing Craft and founder of Crow Song School of Traditional Magic. Ylva is also the co-founder and sole proprietress of The Cunning Crow Apothecary, an herbal boutique and healing center in Seattle, Wa. For more information about her work and to book a session visit or

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