Short History of Pagan Altar Tables
In many of the world's religions, practitioners reserve a place in their homes where deities are honored with prayers and offerings. Petitions are made to the gods of the home altar for things desired or needed: health, wealth, success, love, protection, and other blessings. This practice originated in ancient magickal ritual. Places of spiritual significance can be found in the dwellings of the earliest civilizations
Exactly what goes on the altar varies by Witchcraft tradition. Some common elements include: candles, a bowl of water, salt, incense (and incense holder or censor), a statue or picture of gods or goddesses (either gods or goddesses related to the specific ritual being performed, or gods or goddesses that are special to you), flowers, berries, crystals and rocks, leaves, twigs, just about anything natural, wine glass (and ceremonial wine), representations of the elements (earth, air, water, and fire, for most Western traditions, or the five Chinese elements of metal, water, wood, fire, and earth), a ceremonial knife (called an athame), a wand any ingredients for the rituals or spells to be performed, any special tools of your Witchcraft tradition, and anything that you feel helps connect you to the divine or to Witchcraft.
Whether permanent or temporary or some combination of both, the altar becomes a personal expression of your spirit, your spirituality, and your magick. Your altar should be both decorative and functional. Your altar should "feel right" to you.
Churches were frequently built over ancient sacred Pagan sites. The Christian altar was placed on the East side of the church, however, a Pagan altar was sometimes included and was placed by the North door.
Churches in as late as the 11th century had a Pagan altar. These north doors of most churches were walled over from the 1300's onward as Witches were less tolerated.
Common Ritual Tools of the Witch
The ALTAR and/or the PATON OR ALTAR PENTACLE:
The Altar is our source of focus and ritual. It is the Holy place of the Witch. The Altar pentacle is usually a disk or plate of metal or wood inscribed with the five pointed star in a circle. In addition to the altar the Paton can be set upon the altar and used to consecrate various other tools and as a focal point of concentration for magickal workings. It is associated with the Female North and the element of Earth. Some Witches use a paton when calling in the elements as well.
Patons (sometimes "peytons" or "patens") today are sometimes made of glass or ceramic materials. In some references, it is stated that patons in the 'during the witch hunts" were only made from disposable materials so that evidence of your beliefs could be quickly burned should the authorities come knocking at your door!
ATHAME: (pronounced "a-thAM-ay" or "ATH-a-may")
Witches often utilize the ritual knife known as an athame. These are commonly known as "athames" in Wiccan circles. In the Scottish traditions, the knife is called a "yag-dirk" and in Sax Wicca it is known as a "seax" (see-ax). As with all ritual tools, the athame is a very personal magickal tool, one which you will want to take some care in obtaining. It should fit well and comfortably in your hand, for one thing.
Many Witches make their own blades or "personalize" purchased ones with runes, carvings and other symbols; all of which serve to blend the energy of the tool with their own magickal intentions. Today the Athame is often referred to as a "black handled double edged iron blade." Depending on your tradition, care and guidance should be taking in selection the proper blade metal of the athame. Steel if a fine metal of the Asatru and copper blade can be the energy focus preference of the Wiccan. But many other practitioners now use athames made from stainless steel, copper, silver and various other metals, or even carved stone. A separate athame called the "boleen" is often used by the Wiccan with a white handle for collecting herbs and other magickal plant items. The white blade helps in purity for collecting items from a living thing, only after permission is asked of the plant and a gift should be left behing.
The athame can be used to cast the magick circle, call the "quarters" or elements, and is part of many an opening ritual, handfasting (wedding) or initiation rite. It is associated with the element of Fire and the South. It is customary in some traditions to have your blade given to you as a gift.
Almost all materials written state-and most Witches/Wiccans, with the possible exception of the Sax Wiccans, agree- that magickal tools should not be used for any other purpose than ritual work. Often the blade is left "dull" or unsharpened because of this. Some Witches will not let their tools be touched by anyone other than themselves. Some covens or working groups share common tools. It is, other than for those who are dedicated into a specific Tradition, what you are comfortable with.
The broom or "besom" is used for cleansing ritual areas. In handfasting rituals, couples often jump over the broom if they want children. (The combination of the "brush" and the handle are a very powerful fertility symbol.) Many Witches have a broom-brushy side up-by their door to protect the home from unwanted outside energies.
Bells have been around for many years, they come in different shapes and sizes, as well as different tones and sounds. The bell also has magical associations. It has been believed for centuries to possess a magical and/or spiritual power. They are associated with the divine: their sound is symbolic of creative power, their shape a symbol of the female force and celestial vault. Often the bell is used to summon the Goddess, or to call the quarters. The bell is used as a mental focus to "ring in" the magick that is being worked.
One of the most common symbols of Witchcraft, the cauldron was once found sitting by the fireplace in almost all homes. The cauldron-traditionally with three legs- represents bounty and blessings. In some Celtic Traditions, it is associated with otherworldly figures such as Bran the Blessed and the Goddess Cerridwen. Based on these myths, the cauldron has also come to represent the concept of reincarnation and the cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Many Witches believe in some form of reincarnation or the transmigration of souls.
Cauldrons can be used to represent water and used for scrying. It is sometimes used in association with elemental fire as well and small "bonfires" can be lit in them to burn spells or incense. Jumping over the cauldron has replaced the "bonfire" leap in modern times and urban spaces. It can, depending on intent and use, be placed in the Female West or Male South. Cauldrons range in size from the small altar models to the antique "floor" type. Many Witches have cauldrons in various sizes for different workings and purposes. Cats like to store their toys in them, too!
The chalice or cup is used on the altar to represent the Female principle of Water. Another chalice or cauldron is sometimes placed in the West as well.
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.
Chalices may be of any material. Many use silver or pewter (be careful with untreated metals when serving wine), 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.
The chalice is sometimes passed around the circle so each participant may take a sip from the cup. This is a bonding experience and often the words "May you never thirst!" are passed throughout the circle with the chalice.
Libations of wine or water are often then poured outside to honor the Old Ones and "sabbat" cakes are also offered back to the Source in a similar manner.
The staff has a long tradition as being a tool of protection and guidance. It is the mainstay of wizardry and druidism. It is a very important tool in some traditions. Today the staff is used to mark quarters and/or to hold banners or flags of the clan.
Sometimes the staff is used in place of the wand. It is a highly personal tool and one should consider the wood that is used to make the staff. It is usually matched "to your measure"- which means it reaches to your shoulder- making it easy and comfortable for you to handle.
Often the sword is used in place of the athame for drawing the circle and/or the drawing of the quarters. Practitioners of the Northern religions, Aasatru, Celtism, and others prefer the sword as is the way of the warrior.
THE THURIBLE OR INCENSE BURNER:
A container used to contain a hot coal for burning incense. For safety reasons consider using a burner that is fire and heat resistant. The most common are the "mini-cauldrons' of iron and the various brass types which come in wonderful shapes and sizes. Some even hang on a chain. Burning incense represents a combination of the element of Air(incense smoke) and Fire (burning ember). The purpose of the incense burner is to purify ritual tools and the circle.
Representative of the element of air and associated with the direction of East, the wand is a highly personable tool of the witch. Most traditions favor making a wand yourself, or purchasing a wand that is made for such a task. Always ask yourself if the wand was created for such a purpose, calling a housecat "tiger" does not make it a tiger. (Ask first, if you want to harvest one from a living tree- and leave a small token of thanks.)
Primary purpose of the wand is a focus tool to direct magickal energy during spell work and incantations. Some use the wand to cast a ritual circle. The "classic" material for a traditional witches wand is still wood. Various woods have different magickal associations and uses. It is very common for a Witch to have many wands of various types in his/her magickal closet. Some Witches prefer to use wands in place of the athame.