Several months ago I did a huge live stream video about altar building before I had really narrowed down how to deliver a (slightly) more succinct live stream topic. (I’m sorry, I like to talk and I have a lot to say and I REALLY struggle to do anything less than 20 minutes!) It’s long and a little rambley. Someday I’ll re-do the whole thing, but this week one of the concepts I really wanted to work with in my blog and live stream is the power of storytelling through decorating and altar-building. I came across this wonderful quote that said, “The stories we live and tell provide coherence and meaning and orient our sense of purpose.” And what witch can say that we don’t strive for those things in our altars and spiritual pursuits? So, let’s talk about how we can use altar building and decorating to do just that:
Firstly of course it’s important to recognize that there are numerous types and varieties of altars and shrines that someone might want to build. A working altar (which is what most people think of when you say the word “altar”), ancestor altars, faerie altars, elemental altars, altars for kids, shrines to specific deities or energetic/spiritual beings or creatures, altars built for a specific intentions, and I’m sure still others that I am forgetting. The way you choose to decorate and even arrange and altar can tell a story not just about what the altar is for, but a story of your spiritual journey, and even your life experiences as a whole!
Most of the “altars” that we build are more accurately “shrines” beyond those that are used for rituals or actual spell work. Where altars are often “required” to be set up a certain way based on the tradition a witch follows, there is always room for play with intuitive and practical space concerns. (If you have a small space, sometimes you have to improvise a bit!) So, moving forward I want to clarify that most of this blog post is referring more accurately to “shrines”, but all can apply!
What Comes First?
When you’re ready to design your shrine (whether it’s to your ancestors, faeries, or maybe a specific god or goddess), what comes first? Do you start with a central inspiring item? Or shop based on what you are trying to honor and work with? Of course, just like the chicken and egg question, no one really knows and more importantly, does it really matter?
Either way, it all starts with inspiration. All good stories are about a journey and your altar should be no different. Of course, when it comes to altar building one of the first, most important steps is having an attention-grabbing introduction.
I don’t know about you, but when I first start any book if it doesn’t grab my attention and hook me in within the first chapter I am very unlikely to read the rest and an altar is no different. It should have, as a focal point, something that pulls you in; something of beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so that could be something personally meaningful that you love, but may not be the most attractive item to anyone else, or it could be a beautiful vintage or antique piece that you love. It could be the color scheme or the overall aesthetic that you love that just pulls you in. However, by starting with the overall goal of personal, aesthetic appeal not only will it be lovely to look at, but it will invite you in to use and maintain it as a place of beauty and personal significance over and over again.
Heritage and History
You have an ancestral past and personal history that has led you to where you are today. The items you choose for your altars and shrines can be a reminder of where you’ve come from and what you’ve been through to get to where you are today. Even if you didn’t have family that came from a magickal or witchy background, those dearly departed family members still had a big impact on us. Having items that remind us of those ancestors can be a joyful reminder of the lessons they taught.
My paternal grandmother loved to collect old Avon perfume bottles. She was collecting them before they were even “vintage” just because they were pretty.
My favorite perfume bottle was always one that looked like a Siamese cat with gemstones for eyes. When she passed it away it was the very first item I claimed for myself. I kept a few others, but for the rest of my life I will think of her when I see cats (which she owned about 20 of) and when I find vintage Avon perfume bottles when I am on the hunt for vintage and antique treasures. They are a hugely prominent item in my ancestors altars and shrines for their beauty, but they also tell the story of my grandmother and how she helped shape my early life.
Do you have any vintage or antique items that you keep on your altar that help to tell YOUR story? Tell me about it in the comments below!