An altar is an elevated place where religious ceremonies are conducted and where offerings are made to a deity or deities. The altar has ancient associations with the Goddess and Mother Earth, who rule the wheel of birth- death-rebirth.
In Wicca and Paganism, the altar is placed within a Magic Circle. It usually faces either east or north, depending on the tradition and practices of the Coven. There are no set rules in the Craft for the construction of the altar. If the ceremonies take place out of doors, rocks or tree stumps may be used. Indoors, the altar may be a table, a wooden box or a board placed on boxes or bricks. Whatever the form or materials, the altar should not contain conductive metals such as iron or steel, since they could interfere with the energy of the ritual tools made of iron or steel (see witches’ tools). Since many covens meet in homes or apartments where space is at a premium, the altar may not be permanent but erected only during ceremonies.
The objects of ritual and worship placed on the altar vary, depending upon the practices of the coven and the rituals to be performed. They may include an athame (a black-handled knife that is the Witch’s primary magical tool), a white-handled knife, a sword, a wand, candles, a cup or goblet of wine, anointing oils, dishes for Salt and water, a necklace without beginning or end, a censer, bells, scourges, dishes for offering food and drink to the deities and images of the deities, such as figurines, wax statues or drawings. If a broom and cauldron are needed in rituals, they are placed on either side of the altar.
The altar is never used for blood sacrifice, which is prohibited in Wicca and Paganism.
In the Great Rite, which is actual or symbolic ritual sex, the body of the high priestess is considered an altar of the sacred forces of life, which echoes back to the ancient connection of altar to the Mother Goddess.
During the witch hunts, it was believed that at witches’ Sabbats, the woman who was high sorceress or high priestess served as both living altar and sacrifice to the Devil. “On her loins, a Demon performed Mass, pronounced the Credo, deposited the offertory of the faithful,” observes historian Jules Michelet in Satanism and Witchcraft. According to Michelet, the eucharist at these sabbats consisted of a cake baked upon the altar of the woman: “It was her life, her death, they ate. The morsel was impregnated already with the savour of her burning flesh.”
These accounts of sabbats were extracted under torture and were fiction to satisfy inquisitors.
- Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1986.
- Crowley, Vivianne. Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium. Revised ed. London: Thorsons/Harper Collins, 1996.
- Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do: A Modern Coven Revealed. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing Co., 1983.