Altars, Crossroads, and cemeteries are places of power precisely because they allow energy extra space and opportunity to radiate.
Sometimes you want the opposite effect, a concentration of energy. The need is to concentrate power and energy in one spot, a focal spot, the very center of the crossroads, if you will. An altar allows you to do this. Many spells direct that you build an altar. Although the term is used by many religions to indicate an area dedicated to a deity, this may or may not be the case magically speaking. An altar at its most basic magical definition is a tableau or arrangement of specific articles. Small children are inveterate builders of tableaux, with no conscious conception of religious devotion. They simply pick up power objects and arrange them.
For practice, pick any theme, magical or not, and devote a shoebox diorama or a table top to it. The simplest ancestral altar consists of a white candle and a glass of water. The most complex Vodoun altar is an entire room, with each object carefully chosen and arranged meticulously. Nothing on an altar, whether simple or lavish, is random or arbitrary. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason.
Altars are generally erected for one or both of the following reasons: As a communication device to summon a spirit. By adjusting objects, colors, and fragrances, you send out a specific signal requesting attention. Thus the Yoruba deity or Orisha, Oshun, recognizes herself in the spectrum of colors from yellow to orange, in certain types of flowers, in honey and cinnamon. Her objects include peacock feathers and mirrors. Her number is five. The concentration of special themed objects catches her attention and invites her presence. Ideally she’ll drop by to see what’s going on. Furthermore, certain objects may be shared between deities (Aphrodite, Juno, Kybele, and Maria Padilha all love roses, although not necessarily the same color or number, and Maria Padilha prefers hers with long stems but no thorns), the more specific and detailed the tableau, the more likely you are to summon the right spirit.
Altars may also be erected in tribute, as an offering of thanks for previous favors or as part of a petition process. As a means of concentrating energy. An altar can be devoted to a spell, not necessarily to any kind of spiritual entity. Spells that are conducted over an extended period of time, for instance nine-day spells, may benefit from a concentrated area: the spell doesn’t blend in to the background but remains distinct, its boundaries and thresholds clear. Thus all objects involved in the spell (and some spells may involve several candles plus assorted dishes and objects) are arranged together in formation.
Altars are most frequently placed atop flat furniture surfaces—dressers, bookshelves and coffee tables. Old-fashioned televisions built into wooden cabinets were once popular altar areas. There are a wide variety of altars beyond the tabletop tableau. Candle spells require that an altar be kept in plain sight, and many prefer this method because the constant visual presence of the altar empowers many spells. However, it is not necessary. An altar may also be maintained discreetly, within a cabinet or closed box: a shadow box altar. Miniature altars can be created within old-fashioned cigar- and match-boxes.
One might also consider an altar a method of demarcating sacred space.
A spell may be cast by creating an altar; similar to feng shui, articles and objects are arranged to create a desired energy transformation.
Although some spells specify creating one, even when it isn’t suggested, an altar may always be incorporated. Likewise, if you are seriously challenged for space, remember, magic is always about improving your life. The goal of magic is to eliminate difficulties and stress, not produce new ones. If you have no room for a formal altar, delineate space as possible. Plenty of people burn candles in the bathtub; you won’t be the first.
Altars may also be created outside. A garden, window box or flowerpot can contain a living altar, an Earth altar. The possibilities are endless. Altars may be intensely private or public: visualize the roadside shrines frequently erected at the site of fatal accidents. French Caribbean altars are created in sheltered places within tree trunks. If a statue is placed within the tree, passers-by can come with offerings of flowers and candles. Spells of petition dedicated to the Brazilian spirit Maria Padilha invariably begin with directions to lay black and red cloths on the ground: you are demarcating the spell’s space, effectively setting up an altar. Spells dedicated to deities of the sea often instruct you to dig a shallow pit in the sand, within which to burn candles. That hole in the sand becomes the altar.
Altars can be created from anything and erected anywhere. Water spirits, for instance, frequently prefer the bathroom to other rooms of the house, as the most watery place. A shrine (essentially a more lavish altar) dedicated to mermaids belongs in the bathroom rather than in another room that might be considered more “spiritually appropriate.” Spirits dedicated to love prefer altars in the bedroom where they can supervise and stimulate activity. Intellectual spirits like Yoruba’s Oya or India’s Sarasvati prefer their altars to be placed near books.
Access the childlike, creative playful part of yourself and it’s not difficult to build an altar. Objects may decorate an altar or serve as the altar. Watermelons are sacred to the Yoruba spirit, Yemaya. Place a slice on her altar to call her. Hollow out a watermelon, insert some candles and the watermelon has become the altar. Wood may be used as altar decoration but also as the altar. This is particularly true of special sacred woods, such as sandalwood or aloes wood. Sometimes the deity is the wood. Hera was represented by the oak in Greece, while Diana was represented by that wood throughout Europe. A log segment is given center-stage, dressed with oil and adorned with ornaments, small candles or charms. Unsurprisingly, the bed serves as the altar for many love spells: sheets are sprinkled with powder; power objects are tucked beneath the mattress and the pillows. Botanicals may hang over the bed or candles burn alongside it.
The body serves as an altar in many spells, particularly those for healing, love and protection. Oil and powder may be applied to the body in the same manner as to a candle. Henna and other body decoration transforms the body into a living altar. Next time you get dressed, as you apply cosmetics, jewelry and other ornaments, consider that you are dressing your altar—an altar that serves to communicate with other beings and concentrates your power and energy. Not every crossroads is a location: a formal magic spell is a crossroads where the inherent magic energies of the spell’s components converge. The result of the spell is the symbiotic reaction to that convergence.
From the Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells by Judika Illes