It is customary in many traditions to have the altar facing North as this direction symbolizes stability and focus. There are however people that choose to face the other directions. There are also times when a witch will change the direction the altar faces dependent upon the working being performed.
An example of such an occasion would be during a funerary ritual in which the altar would face West which is the direction of death and rebirth. Another example would be for a "wiccaning" or the blessing of a newborn child. In this case the direction of the altar would commonly be East because this direction represents new beginnings.
Altars are commonly decorated to represent the occasion of its use. For the lunar rituals, known as Esbats, the standard altar set up is normally used. On occasions like the holy days, known as Sabbats, the altar is seasonally decorated. Decorating your altar is not mandatory but it does help to put you in the mood. Everyone loves decorations.
This cup is used strictly to hold ale, wine, juice, or water for drinking and should not become confused with the Chalice. There are no requirements for what this vessel should look like. Some people like ornate goblets while others are ok with a simple cup.
At the end of a ritual or spell it is customary to pay tribute to the gods for what they have given to us. This is done in what is known as the "Cakes and Ale" portion of a ritual. This Goblet is raised up high in tribute of the Gods. A portion of its contents are spilled out for the Gods either onto the ground or into a libation dish. Sometimes a witch may reserve a portion of the contents to pour outside after the ritual. In a group setting, this goblet is passed around clockwise within the circle. The person handing you the cup will often say "May you never thirst!". This is a traditional blessing that is given and you are obliged to pass the blessing on as you pass the cup. If you are solitary it is appropriate for you to say "May I never thirst!" The contents of this cup are always blessed before offering or consumption.
Altar Oil which is sometimes known as anointing oil is a blessed oil that is used for consecrating yourself before ritual as well as consecrating ritual tools.
The Altar Candle is sometimes called the "working candle". This candle represents the element of Fire on your altar and is used to light all the other candles you will use in your rituals or spells as well as for circle and tool consecration. It also helps in illuminating your working area so you can read from you Book of Shadows. It is normally a white candle because white symbolizes purity. This is not to be confused with a "quarter" candle. Quarter candles will be discussed in another lesson.
An altar cloth is in essence a table cloth. Some people use them while others don't. They are usually decorated with symbols or images that add to your sense of magick or spirituality. They do not have to have images on them. Some people use plain cloths and some people use different cloths depending on the season or sabbat which is approaching. There is no rule as to what they should look like.
Bowl of Salt
The bowl of salt symbolizes the element of Earth and is used in circle and tool consecration. The salt is added to water to create blessed or "holy" water. Many people keep their salt in a variety of containers. It doesn't need to be a bowl but it is a practical option.
Book of Shadows
The Book of Shadows is the workbook of the witch. In it is recorded: Rituals guidelines, Invocations, Spells, Runes, Rules of a particular Coven or Tradition, Symbols, Poems, Chants, and anything else of use to the witch during ritual.
The Cakes Plate which is sometimes known as an offering dish is the counter part to the Ale Goblet for the Cakes and Ale Ritual. There are no requirements as to what it should look like or how big it should be. Some people like ornate while others use a simple napkin. Traditionally the plate would hold "crescent cakes" which are crescent shaped cookies in honor of the goddess and the moon. Witches use all sorts of things besides for the crescent cookies. Some witches use bread, cookies, cake or even pie. It is usually a baked item and it is never meat. Just like with the "ale" the plate is raised high in salute and some is offered to the Gods. In a group setting you will either be handed a small piece of the offering or an entire cookie. In either case you will be greeted with a blessing of "May you never hunger!" You would then pass the offering on with the same blessing. In a solitary setting it is appropriate for you to say "May I never hunger!" The cakes are also blessed prior to offering or consumption.
The censer is an incense burner used to contain burning incense during ritual. Any type of censer can be used, even a simple bowl filled with sand will do. The censer represents the elements of Air and is normally placed on the eastern side of the altar. Some witches place this in front of the deity representations. The smoke from the incense carries our prayers up to the heavens and is also used in circle and tool consecration. Witches use many types of incense from sticks, cones, and especially resins and herbs that are burned on special charcoal briquettes.
The chalice or cup is used on the altar to represent Water. The chalice along with the athame, sword or wand are the modern tools which are used in the enactment of the "Great Rite"-the union of the male and female principle from which life will spring. It is also used when the circle and tool consecration. Salt is added to the water in the chalice and is then sprinkled around the circle to purify the area.
Chalices may be of any material. Many use silver or pewter but ceramic ones are now quite popular and readily obtainable. Some Witches have many different kinds for different types of rituals. Many a practitioner will avoid real "lead" crystal because of the Saturn energy influence. There are people that use the chalice in lieu of a cauldron and there are people that choose to just use a bowl. This ritual item is never to be used for drinking. It baffles me how so many people confuse the chalice with the ale cup. It is common sense that if you are using the cup to hold water; that you salt at the beginning of ritual, that it would be impossible for it to also hold wine at the same time; for use at the end of ritual.
It is customary to have representation of the God and Goddess on our altars. This is commonly done by use of what is known as the God and Goddess Candles. Traditionally, as witches we use silver for the goddess as it symbolizes the moon and femininity. For the god, we use gold because it symbolizes the sun and masculinity.
The Goddess Candle is always placed to the left on the altar and the God candle to the right. The reason for this is because the feminine in Western Occultism and Paganism is associated with the moon. The masculine is associated with the Sun.The moon and the feminine has been traditionally associated with the left side of the body and is internal and receptive. The Sun and masculine has been traditionally been associated with the right side of the body, associated with activity and what is outgoing.
Some witches enjoy having statues of their deities on their altars. This isn't something that is mandatory but some people like to use statues of the god and goddess in lieu of or in addition to god and goddess candles. Sometimes these figurines aren't statues at all but instead are natural materials to represent deity such as a sea shell for the goddess and a stone for the god.
The pentacle is a traditional tool of the craft. Originally it is thought to have been adopted from ceremonial magic. It is usually a round solid disc often made from stone, wood or cooper. On the disc is engraved or painted an up-right five pointed star enclosed inside a circle called the Pentagram. A disc decorated in this manner then becomes called a Pentacle. In some traditions other symbols are added indicative of deities, spirits or the elements as sources of power. The pentacle is normally the centerpiece of the alter on which objects are placed to be consecrated or charged, such things as amulets, charms and tools are placed on it, as is the salt and water for blessing and cakes and ale. As most witches do not have very large altars due to space issues; one could consider embedding the pentacle into the center of the altar. This would free up some very valuable space.
Now that we have an understanding of the witch's altar and the basic items found on it, we can continue on and look at the ritual tools that are sometimes used by a witch.