Some witches choose not to use altars in the practice of their magick, but for those of us who do, it is a personal judgment call for each witch as to the use, decoration, medium, and placement of the altar.
For those who choose to use an altar, often it is a place to consecrate tools or personal items, make offerings to a witch’s chosen deities, perform spells, do daily devotionals, and for various other reasons according to each witch’s desires. As for Sacred Hands Coven, our altars have been used for all of the above and more. It is a central point to the working of our magick and a sacred space within the coven.
Whereas many Wiccans and some witches follow a set pattern to decorating their altars, which include certain items considered most important to their craft, it does not necessarily follow that all witches use the same pattern. Some witches choose to decorate their altars to honor a specific deity or generalized deities, as a whole. Others decorate to celebrate specific holidays and some even decorate them for general purposes, as they need to work with them. As for Sacred Hands, while we consider our altar a sacred and very personal place, it is usually decorated with the tools needed for generalized spell work only, and as other items are needed, they are added for unique specific task at the time. Typically, ours has a representation of each of the four elements as well as a representation of spirit of the worker. Anything else needed is added only as it is needed to cut down on clutter. As noted elsewhere, I have a thing about order and it tends to carry over into the altar area. Elements represented with various items, sometimes with stones, sometimes with other tools or items found in nature, it just depends on mood and choice in the moment.
Altars may be made from a variety of mediums. I have seen wooden altars made from crosscuts of tree trunks, handcrafted wooden altar boxes with storage built in, granite, slate, and marble altars. Some choose to use ceramic or metal altars. Others may find other natural items to use as altars. I even know one witch who uses a tree shaped, many armed six-foot tall cast iron candelabrum as her altar. She hangs magickal items on it as you would on a Yule tree. She places it at the center of her circle and casts her craft around it. Cast iron is a great medium as it holds in a bit of every magick that touches it, making it more powerful with each casting. Some people cannot afford to have a permanent altar placed in their home for monetary or privacy reasons. As such, I have known some witches to use a dresser drawer as storage and then consecrate a section of their dresser top for an altar. In the beginning, Az and I used a waist height TV/ VHS player stand, which had a cabinet area under it as storage for our magickal items. We kept our marble altar where the player was supposed to be and kept a decorative cloth over the top to keep the altar from sight and touch by all the young nieces and nephews who visited. We used the top of the stand for displaying candles, etc. Soon after, we migrated to the outdoor altar for coven rituals and took the time to train everyone entering not to touch or pick up items off the altar for their own sakes and ours. As for Sacred Hands currently, we no longer keep a full-time outdoor altar. The indoor altar is the same green marble altar, which Az purchased for me the year the coven was founded. We also have several mini-altars, which can be set for separate spell workings and left as is for the duration of the need. One is typically used for healing spell work. Coming from a large family and friends group, there is always someone in need.
As with so much else in life, with altars, one of the most important considerations is location, location, location! It needs to be in an easy to reach area, but it does not need to be in an area where others can tamper with it. If you are going to leave actual working items on the altar, it needs to be safe from prying eyes and children’s hands at the very least. If you have friends who know better but tend to be touchy-feely then you need to either warn them to keep hands off your altar, or keep the altar in a private area where others are not allowed to go. It defeats the purpose to have an altar set up, cleansed, charged and perhaps even have components for a spell laid out and in place then have someone wander by and pick an item up or fiddle with the altar. ( Right, Nightshade?) I do not believe in making what we used to refer to as “ouchie” magick, when our sons were young, to protect the altar. I prefer to use the “people should respect an altar and keep hands off” approach with people who visit in my home.