Temple, Altar Construction


Being an Earth religion, altars should be functional, pleasant and low. They should feel comfortable and please to the senses. In this discourse, we will be examining two type of altars, one for private use and ones for public use.

Private Altars

Private or home altars should reflect the personality of the person that set up the altar. I would like to strongly suggest that all members of the Priesthood, or Priesthood in training, set up a private altar if they have not already done so. I would also encourage directly or through the Priesthood, the general membership to the their own private home altars.

The following are a few suggestions for home altars.

The easiest altar to set up is a sturdy cardboard box. Drape a towel over it, or to make it more sturdy, place a drawing board or another large board on the box before you cover it. Of course, a small table or wooden box would be better. The main idea is that the altar should be below eye level, and so seemingly more approachable. Patriarchal altars are usually above eye level. Check out the traditional church altars. They usually tower over you and force you to look up, toward the home of the sky father. Altars in Matriarchal religions are low and focus on the Earth, our Mother. Also in this respect, some people do not want iron (nails) on or near their altar since iron represents the metal of Patriarchy.

An interesting altar is made from an apple box that is attached to the wall with brackets below and suspended by chords from above. The top of the box is the altar itself, with either storage or a shrine below it, in the box. Another shrive of this type is made by removing a shelf from a book case and in this hollow, make your altar or shrine. Exercise caution when using candles if there is a top or shelf above. Candles to have quite hot flames and since they do not move, the heat is concentrated on one place.

Another novel altar I have seen was made from an entire tree trunk, brought in the house, roots and all. The roots were trimmed of course. A couple of words of caution here. If the trunk was outside for any length of time after it was cut, you may bring in more then just the tree. Termites, natures tree composters, may be hiding inside, as well as ants, pill bugs and other insects that live off the fungi and decaying plant matter. In this case I would suggest setting the trunk on rocks or bricks in the sunlight to dry out somewhat before bringing it in. After it is brought in. place it on plastic and maybe even still on rocks. If there are termites, they will not stay, they need daily contact with the earth. The same holds true for pill bugs, they need moisture.

When you bring such a tree trunk in for an altar, be sure you paint the top surface with melted paraffin, or with polyurethane. If you use paraffin, use some heat source to let the wax soak in. The reason for this is to keep the wood from drying out too fast from the end, causing splits in the wood. Be advised also that as the wood shrinks, that the bark won't fit and will loosen and fall off. So if you plan on using a tree trunk, plan on a lot of care, and great results.

Many of you may use a table, either one you found or inherited or maybe a special one that caught your eye in a quaint shop. Whatever you decide, follow your heart in your choice. Your altar reflects you and your rapport with the Gods.

Public Altars

Public altars are the focus for public gatherings. These altars should be sturdy, able to survive bumpings that could cause disaster. Public altars should be large enough to contain all the tools necessary and then some. Different rites use different tools and in some groups, individuals other then the Priest and Priestess use the altar by placing some of their tools on it. Some groups place the public altars in the center of the circle or in the East. We place the altar in the center of the circle or just North of the center. When a cauldron or fire pit is placed in the center, the altar moves to the North. We don't use the East, generally, because the East is Solar Sunrise oriented. The North is Earth oriented.

Although the Whole Earth is sacred, and thus altars seem redundant, it is necessary to have them as a focus of attention, as an object to help set an atmosphere and more important, it is expected. The Priesthood is a two way street and of leadership as well as one of service. Our job is to help and guide others through life and to show people the changes, to help them prepare for these changes, and to live them, as with all of life, to the fullest. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the Priesthood to live up to certain expectations, such as, celebrations at the seasonal changes, and observances of the Rites of Passage, also the Priesthood should have a certain decorum and altars. Set up and decorate with the group in mind, and if possible, encourage others to help or to do the decorating themselves. Be reminded that these are suggested ways to set up altars, but there is no absolute right way.

Altar Decorations

Altar clothes

Altar clothes are not necessary if the altar tip itself is a thing of beauty, e.g. polished piece of marble, a wooden top with beautiful grain showing or maybe inlaid or carved. But usually altars are at least partially covered with cloths. The cloths used may be of any material although I prefer the simple muslins or broadcloths. These may be dyed various colors, embroidered or painted, or just left plain. When it comes to colors, I have suggestions for altar cloth color schemes.

Note: An occupational hazard with altar cloths is candle drippings. It is very difficult to control burns from igniting charcoal blocks. I would suggest starting the charcoal elsewhere, or just living with the scars as badges of honor.

Candle wax is a different story. Firstly, don't wipe warm candle wax, it will smear and get further into the cloth fibers. Let the wax cool. This may be sped up by placing it under cold water or by placing it in the refrigerator.

When the wax becomes brittle, scrape it off, taking care of the material. Next, there are three methods of removing wax from the material fibers:

  1. Boil the cloth in soapy water
  2. Place newspaper under the cloth, put absorbent paper or cloth above (several layers) and iron, using a fairly hot iron. The melting wax will wick up to the heat and absorbent cloth.
  3. Use a wax solvent, such as perchlorethane (available in drug stores and hardware stores). Teat a corner of the material for color fastness.

These last two methods also work well on carpets and rugs, if care is taken. As a forth alternative, you could just leave the wax on, recording for posterity, the memories associated with the wax.

The Elements

The elements should be represented on the altar. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. I guess the ultimate in simplicity is a single candle.

The burning candle represents the elements in the four states of matter:

  1. The candle itself is solid and Earth
  2. The pool of melted wax below the wick is liquid and Water
  3. The flame is energy (plasma) and Fire
  4. Above the candle flame is gas and Air

Other symbols can be sued such as are listed in later on, or variations on these. Sometimes white votive candles in colored glass holders are used, or colored candles in clear glass holders are used. Sometimes it is interesting to get matching bowls, either plain or painted, and put the appropriate materials in each: Dirt with moss and a mineral for the North, sand or fresh cat litter, charcoal and incense in the East, a fire bowl in the South and water in the West.

In reference to fire bowls, I have found this to be quite good. Find a bowl with a 3½ to 4 inch mouth. Fill it part way with sand or litter. Place inside a small can, such as one that chili or water chestnuts, etc. come in.

Adjust the can so the rim is just below the bowl's rim. Fill in beside the can with more sand or litter to anchor it. Melt some candle wax or paraffin. Add a teaspoon or two of stearic acid. You may add some coloring if you wish, I usually use brown. (Steraric acid is available from candle and hobby shops. It makes the flame burn hotter and cleaner.)

Tear up some strips of cotton cloth or paper towels and loosely pack them in the can. You can also use strings and leaves. If you use leaves, use only a few and put them on top. Pour the melted wax slowly into the can, allowing the cloth to soak up the wax. Fill only ¾ of the way full. Do not over fill because wax expands as it heats up. While the wax is setting up, make sure some of the cloth sticks up above the wax so you have a place to light it. If need be, put an extra piece of cloth on top.

Note: Make sure that the bowl used is heat resistant. Moist ceramic bowls can be used. Small iron cauldrons make excellent fire pots.

This fire pot is quite impressive. After the ritual either let the pot burn out or place an airtight cover on it and leave it to cool. Don't remove the cover for at least 20-30 minutes or you will have a room of paraffin fumes. And don't try to blow it out.

Other Decorations

There are many other tings that you may want to use on your altar. On altars that are placed against a wall, you may want to put a picture on that wall, maybe a nature scene, maybe a picture or poster of a God and/or Goddess. Mandalas are good, they seem to draw you into them. You may want to keep it simple, like the Japanese, and hang a poem or a provocative saying. Another novel things is to place a mirror on the wall. As you go to your altar to consult your Gods, you will be looking at one, face to face.

Decorations also include God and/or Goddess figures or representations. These can be statues of actual Gods/Goddesses, or figures of the Horned God and Mother Nature. Other things would be horns or seashells, starfish, etc. Of course this would depend on your feelings in the killing of animals.

Phallic symbols or Yonic* symbols can be used. Phallic symbols would be longish stones, sticks shaped like a penis or a forked stick with a third branch. Pine cones and acorns are appropriate. Tonic symbols would be holy stones (stones with holes in them), pieces of wood that have knot holes that look like yonis, etc.

Flowers and fruit in season are always welcome on the altar. Encourage people to help decorate the public altar with their gifts of flowers and fruit. The fruit may be eaten for the "sacrament" of after the ritual. The flowers should be composted after they are used, if they are cut flowers. Don't forget to thank them.

Altar Tools

Thus far we have only six altar tools. They are candles, incense, water bowl, salt, plate and chalice.

1. Candles. I prefer candlestick holders made from wood. Secondly would be ceramics and metals last. Use your own feelings. Paint or engrave signs or symbols or names as you feel appropriate. I would suggest though, staying away from the symbols that are shown in most Witchcraft books and Ceremonial Magick books unless you know the exact meanings of these symbols. In many cases the meanings are not known, and therefore have unknown potentials, and those that are known are usually incantations to Patriarchal Gods. I prefer the simple pentagram and Ankh motif. You may inscribe your wishes around the base in Anglo-Saxon Runes or some other alphabet like Ogham. Again I would suggest staying away from the Thebian ("Witches") Runes, or other magickal alphabets, since they are closely tied up with Cabbalism**.

*The word Yonic is from the Sanskrit word yoni, meaning the female genitalia.
**I don't want to sound like I am coming on as anti-ceremonial magick, or anti-Cabbalism, etc. I am trying to stress our Celtic, Matriarchal background rather then Semetic background. There is a great deal of difference. This is not to say that I have nothing to do with Cabbalism, there is useful knowledge within, but until it is purged of anti-female and pro-Patriarchal elements, I don't want to use it.

Back to the candles. You may want only one on your altar, representing fire or a pair of candles to indicate the duality of nature, along with the fire element. Or you may want a third candle, different from the other two, for a reading candle or maiden candle. These are all variations for you to decide.

2. Incense. Incense comes in three main forms, cones, stick or loose to be burned on charcoal blocks. The main thing here is to pick an incense that harmonizes with the ritual planned. Must, Patchouli and Sandalwood are usually appropriate. Loose incense can be purchased from occult supply stores or for best results, make your own. In the chapter on herbs, I give instructions on making your own incense and give recipes for various purposes.

3. Salt. Salt is essential to the altar as it represents the Earth element and purity. Find a nice, pretty container to keep it in. In this case, metal is not appropriate at all. Salt corrodes most metals and attracts moisture. I would suggest, again, wood or ceramic with a cover. The salt can be any kind, although sea salt if preferred. Or ultimately, salt from sacred places such as natural salt licks, places where Amer-indians mined theirs. The salt that I use is from a sacred mine on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai.

4. Bowl. This container is used to hole water and is where the salt and water are mixed to use for anointing and aspurging. In this case I used metal. I hammered out a 9 inch piece of copper with a ball peen hammer, into a bowl shape. You don't have to do such. You can buy one. Metal, ceramic or glass are appropriate. Wood is not unless it is specially treated with wax, oil or polyurethane to make it water proof. Using water in my copper bowl does discolor it, but the corrosion is not great and the pattern of discoloration is pleasing. The water used in the bowl may be tap water, although it is more aesthetically pleasing to use rain water, melted snow or spring water. This water is not to be drunk.

5. Chalice. The chalice is the vessel for the "sacramental" liquid. I prefer a glass brandy snifter. Looking through the glass and liquid into a candle is indeed a pleasant sight. The contents may be cold water, fruit juice, such as Apple juice, or may be wine. Spring water may be good for anointing, but I would not use it for drinking unless I knew the spring was safe. The upper water table is becoming fast polluted. The same hold true for creek or stream water. Several years ago at a handfasting in the woods, someone thought it might be nice to use water from a nearby stream. Two to three weeks later, over half of us came down with hepatitis.

The RDNA, use a shot of whiskey in their water. I think that it just ruins good water. Most people do not object to wine. But to be on the safe side, check ahead of time. Drugs in solutions are never appropriate for public gatherings. Aside from being illegal and casting aspersions of the ECA, it is contrary to our moral code, in that, the participants are not given a choice in the matter. The rule it; "An ye harm none —"

6. Plate. The plate holds the "sacramental" bread. The plate can be of wood, ceramic or metal. The plate is something called a pentacle. The plate I use is a flat piece of brass, although raised edges would make handling easier. On the plate I have engraved an interlocking pentagram.

The bread used should be a joy for the eyes, nose and mouth. The recipes I use are given in the section on herbs. Traditionally the bred should contain meal, salt, honey and wine. This is the extent of "official" tools used by us.


Our tradition is not wealthy enough to afford a temple built nor would we think such a building strictly for worship would be worthwhile. Our temples must serve the entire being and the Earth, herself. If such a building becomes a reality, only part will be used for actual worship, the major portion will be used for training and study.

There are two types of places of worship that we will consider, a room and a grove.

A. A room. The room for rituals need not be used for that exclusively. Any room may be transformed by the altar, decorations, people, music, etc. There are, however, several things to take into consideration.

  1. Light. Unless the room is located in a quiet neighborhood, plan on curtains on the windows. This will keep out extraneous light and prying eyes. Keep electric lights to the minimum, and then not bright. Absolutely no bare bulbs, they are distracting. Rely on candles, keeping the altar the brightest.
  2. Music. Music is much desires — "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast." Electricity in this room allows recorded music to help set the mood of the ritual. "Live" music is also good and is usually preferred. Here again, curtains help keep out some of the unwanted outside sounds.
  3. Cleanliness. Be sure the room is clean so people will feel comfortable to sit on chairs or on the floor, to take off shoes, etc.
  4. Items not conductive. Some things are not in the best interest of mood setting. Strong, bold posters tend to compete with the altar focus and cause feelings of chaos. The same holds true for things like skulls, snakes, devils, scenes of torture, persecution, etc. The idea of rituals are tied up in harmony. Things that detract from harmony should be moved or covered. This is not meant as a put down of skulls, snakes, etc. They have their place, but not in a ritual causing disunity.

B. Groves. If you are fortunate to have access to outside land for ritual purposes, you are quite fortunate. I would urge everyone to obtain land as soon as possible and dedicate it to the Earth Mother.

Outside places of worship take many forms. The most common is a circle. I have found a 21 foot diameter circle to serve very well. It will hold large groups while not dwarfing smaller groups. I chose the number 21 since it is a multiple of three (7x3=21, also 2+1=3). Our circle has been leveled on a slight slope. The dirt excavated from the circle is piled around the outside of the circle. Openings are made in the North West and in the South. The quarters, as well as the exact center of the circle is marked so we can correctly place the elemental tools and the altar. When we place a fire cauldron in the center, the altar is moved to the North. Our plans include placing a stone box (a hole lined and covered with stone) in the ground in the center for relics. Our plans also include planting and weaving oak trees outside of the mound ring to envelop our circle. Bushes will complete the screen.

Let your imagination flow when planning and carrying out the construction of your circle. You may want to inlay a pentagram of flat rocks. Or you may want to plant elemental herbs around your circle the way that "Circle" has. (Parsley-North, Thyme-East, Sage-South, Rosemary-West.)

We have a tradition that people may add to the mound by placing special rocks, etc, that are found in the woods and stream. Also some people bring some of their native Earth to add to our circle.

You may want to make and hang wind chimes and ornamental objects.

You will find that the more you use your circle, the more magickal things take place there. It will be a home for birds and animals that feel safe there. The ground will be greener and healthier.

Altar cloth colors for the Seasons (suggested)

Festival or Celebration Single Double Color
Ostara Green Green/Yellow
Beltane Red Red/Yellow
Litha Light Blue Light Blue/White
Lammas Gold Gold/Brown
Mabon Orange Orange/Brown
Samhain Black Black/Red
Yule White Black/White
Oimelc Grey White/White
Rite Main Color Cover
Birth-Naming Red White
Coming of Age, Adoption into Grove Green White
Handfasting Blue White
Initiation, Ordination, Installation Purple White
Death Black White

Symbols of the elements for altars (incomplete)

Element Direction Colors Common Symbols Tarot Suit Fairy Association Old Celtic Colors
Earth North Green, Brown Salt, Earth Stone Pentacles Gnomes Black
Air East Yellow Incense Wands* Sylphs Red
Fire South Red Candle, Fire Pot Swords* Salamanders White
Water West Blue Water Cups Undines Green

*sometimes these are interchanged

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