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Podcast Transcript

Altars

Hello and welcome to May! I hope everyone had a lovely Beltane. I have been creeping on everyone’s Beltane posts, and I’m loving all the pictures of everyone’s rituals that I’ve been receiving. I love seeing how other witches celebrate and observe their Sabbats. It’s such a personalized thing, how we choose to honor our Sabbats, and it’s so interesting and enlightening to see how vastly different we all acknowledge things. That’s what makes the craft so special; there’s no prescribed, rote, one-size-fits-all way to practice.

Organized religion can be really stifling for a lot of different reasons, but one of the reasons for me, at least, is that I prefer to worship and honor and observe in my own way. But in witchcraft, I get to see how other witches do things so that I can learn and grow and sometimes even fold in some of those practices into my own. So I appreciate that. 

 

And then one bit of housekeeping to address before we get into the notes for today is Mercury retrograde. Mercury has been in its shadow already for a week or so and I have already been feeling it, I don’t know about you but it has been legit already. Mercury goes retrograde proper beginning May 10th through June 3rd. So we need to be mindful of that. I feel like we rehash it every time Mercury goes retrograde, but it does bear repeating. Mercury is the planet of communication, and so when it goes retrograde, we find communication, in all its forms, very challenging.

 

This means that websites are going to go down or have issues, the internet loves to get screwy at this time, phone apps like to get buggy, technology in general is going to be very unreliable. And this will apply to Zoom meetings, social media platforms, messaging apps, it’s all vulnerable to fuckups during this time, so keep that in mind and try not to let it drive you crazy, and make sure to back up all your work. And if you need to submit anything online, such as payments or assignments or projects for work, give yourself extra time, don’t wait until the last minute and then be sure to check that it was received.

 

And of course, my favorite bit of advice is try not to enter into any contracts at this time if you can possibly avoid it. This means everything from business deals to gym memberships. There is a chance that you are going to get more, or less, than you bargained for. And if you can’t possibly avoid it, please at least read everything very carefully before you sign it, sleep on it if you can, and try to have someone else read it as well just to make sure that the terms are fair and you’re not missing anything important in the small print.

 

And last but most certainly not least, interpersonal communication is extremely challenging during this time. Mercury retrograde is rife with misunderstandings. We have to try and be very patient with people around us, because arguments and disagreements are going to be very easy to fall into. And this is going to be work relationships, family relationships, friendships, romantic partnerships, everyone. The hardest part of this, for me, is that even though I am aware of Merc retrograde, not everyone else is, so it’s easy to feel like I’m the only one trying to keep the peace. And that is hard for me, I am a Libra sun Scorpio rising, and my default instinctive reaction to disrespect or unfairness is to start boxing. But we can do it. We can get through these next few weeks without getting divorced, fired, or arrested, I just know it.

 

So that’s that. Before we get to the topic of the day, I did get a message that I wanted to read from a witch called Ithil, which said:

 

Hi Eli! I am near the crone age and a new witch. I recently found and binged your podcast on apple and then just found you on Spotify. I have really enjoyed listening and have learned so much! 

 

I have a curious question/situation for you:  On Monday night (and this would have been last Monday night)  I was getting ready for bed, thinking about the new moon, Beltane, and my birthday (the 29th) (Which was Friday and I didn’t read this until Saturday morning so I apologize for not wishing you a Happy Birthday on the day!) and I had just laid down to watch a little TV when I heard an owl outside. Mind you it was 11:30 at night, not dusk. It sat out there and hooted very close to the house for almost an hour (I didn’t go out and see it, just heard it). In the 7 years I have been living in TX, I have never once heard an owl. Heard them all the time back home (OR/WA), but never once here. There are almost no trees where we live, just new suburbs. I started looking up what it meant in regards to witchcraft and oh my god there are so many conflicting websites. It’s a harbinger of death, it’s a sign of wisdom, it’s another witch watching you, someone is trying to give you a message, etc. 

 

I personally do not have negative feelings about owls like some cultures/people do, my mom (recently passed – I believe she was a green witch but she maybe didn’t know it or she kept it secret – long story for another time if you are interested) loved owls and had figurines all over the house and there was a Great Horned Owl that lived in a tree on our property so I grew up hearing them, so the sound is comforting to me. 

 

So I am curious what your take on owls are, I respect your opinion and have learned so much from you. Thank you!

Ithil

 

Oh my gods, what a beautiful letter and what a wonderful message of comfort. So, I know I beat this drum a lot, but when it comes to signs and omens, I will always advise people to check in with their own intuition before they ever consult a book or a website for information. And situations like this are exactly why. Ithil was in her home, she was having a quiet evening contemplating these larger events in her life, and suddenly she heard an owl for the first time in 7 years of living in a new state. Her immediate response is to feel comfort and to be reminded of her mother, who has recently passed.

 

I think you received a birthday message from your mother. I believe she was wishing you well and wanted you to know that she is still with you, she sees you, she is proud of you, and she delivered this message in a way that you understood immediately and instinctively. What a beautiful gift. I am so grateful that you shared it. And yes OF COURSE I’d love to know more about your mother’s possible green witchery!!

 

As for my personal take on owls, I have always thought of them as messengers. When I see or hear an owl I know I need to shut up and start paying attention to anything strange happening, any symbolism that comes up, any dreams that I have. But again, if you, as a witch, see or hear or experience something meaningful to you, whatever YOUR initial response and reaction is, is the correct one. If something weird comes up and you don’t have any personal associations with it, I mean, what if it had been like, a swallow or a magpie or something and you don’t know what to think at all, then by all means, see what the internet has to say about it, or consult your books, but otherwise, your intuition is always your own best source of information. But I thought this story was so cool, I had to share it.

 

And please, if you have anything to say at all, questions, criticisms, or cool stories of magic in your personal practice, please drop me a line on facebook or instagram at @middleagedwitch, or email me at eli@middleagedwitch.com. I know this will age me, but I do kind of prefer email, just because it’s easier to format, it doesn’t erase my replies when I get too long-winded, and it’s easier for me to go back and find messages later on when I need to. Dani knows what’s up. I get very wordy when I’m not concerned about my messages disappearing before I can post them. But I’m not picky, just write to me.

 

And now, let’s talk about altars. This topic was suggested by a lovely newer witch called Kate who was looking for a little insight about setting up and maintaining an altar, and I said hell yes, let’s talk about that. Altars are such a wonderful tool, they’re excellent for creating a sacred space to meditate or focus on a goal, or a manifestation, or to commune with a spirit guide, a deity, a departed loved one. This can also be the place where we do our spell work, and where we keep a lot of our tools. And, as with everything else we talk about here, there is no right or wrong way to create and use an altar. There are a lot of different kinds of altars and all of them are valid.

 

Some traditions do have prescribed altar arrangements and those are easy to look up online, I know Wicca has pretty specific parameters for an altar arrangement, but I’m not a Wiccan, so while my personal altars do typically have some things in common with a Wiccan altar, there are some significant differences as well. And of course, you can have several altars in your home at a given time. I know  witch named Candace who has her working altar, and then another out in the common area of her home, she has more of a seasonal altar, and then she keeps an altar for her little witches to tend to with imagery of whatever deity they happen to be learning about and working with, which is really cool. 

 

I have a few altars myself, I have a working altar, I have a small altar on the mantle where I observe the seasons and sabbats, and I’ve got a very small shelf where I display my daily tarot card and my weekly oracle card. It’s definitely not a traditional altar, but it is an altar. It’s a point of focus for my practice, it’s a place I look to when I get a little overwhelmed and need to remember what the day has in store for me and, especially with my weekly oracle card, it reminds me not to go off the rails when something goes tits up during the week. And all those altars look different and have different elements and are used differently. So again, no right or wrong way. But let’s talk about some of the elements that we frequently find on a witch’s altar.

 

Working altars are probably what most of us envision when we speak of altars, and this is going to be where we do a lot of our work, so we’ll start there with the question of where to place the altar. In many traditions, the altar is oriented to face North, or is placed in the Northern part of the room or the home. Sometimes this isn’t possible or practical, so if North isn’t gonna work for you, don’t sweat it. I’ve had a Southern facing working altar for seven years and I have not noticed a difference in my magic. I could easily move it to the other side of my room, but the way it’s positioned now it sits under a window and during significant moon cycles, it’s exposed to direct moonlight that it would not receive otherwise. So the placement isn’t traditional, but it isn’t haphazard either. So again, consider all kinds of factors and make the correct decision for your space and your altar.

 

You may consider the correspondences of the different cardinal directions, North for example is associated with the element of earth, abundance, wealth and success, and manifestation. South is associated with the element of fire, ambition, creativity, love and sexuality, purification, rebirth and renewal. East is associated with air, with communication, divination, wisdom, illumination, and powers of the mind. And finally west is associated with water, with the afterlife, dream work, emotions, psychic ability, and compassion. So, be mindful when you’re placing your altar, certainly, but don’t despair if you can’t orient your altar to the North.

 

Another question that comes up is what should the altar actually BE? Anything that works for the space you have and the items you want to put on it, to be honest, and that may be a small designated altar table, or a shelf, or a coffee table or a cabinet. You can google altar tables and find some really cool results and a lot of witches appreciate the size of them, because they’re generally kind of small, and they are on very low legs, so the whole thing is super portable and it’s easy to pick it up and move it or put it away if you don’t have a space to keep a permanent altar out in the room. As I mentioned, I use a shelf for my tarot altar, my mantle for my seasonal altar, and my working altar is the top of a cabinet. I keep all my tools, crystals, candles, incense, herbs, and so forth inside the cabinet. It isn’t fancy, my mother-in-law gave it to me because she found it on clearance at Home Goods, and for some reason she thought of me. So it was free to me, and it came at just the time when I really needed a new place to keep my altar. The universe provides. 

 

What to keep on a working altar is a whole other consideration. I’m going to go through a lot of the items traditionally found on a witch’s altar or a pagan altar, but you don’t have to have all these things, and you may want to add things I didn’t even think of. Altars are personal, and your altar is your own. So the first thing on my list will be the altar cloth. The purpose of an altar cloth is just to set aside the space as consecrated. It’s an act of reverence, it’s a way to identify this sacred space as such. Any cloth that you designate as your altar cloth will do, the color and pattern do not matter unless you choose to specifically incorporate color correspondences, which is fully valid. I have a few different cloths that I use, although oftentimes I must admit, I don’t actually use one at all. Depends on my mood. You can use silk scarves, you could use a lace doily, you can go online and do a search for altar cloths and find some really gorgeous ones that are full of occult symbolism, some have the different moon phases, you could find one with a pentacle on it, whatever suits you. They don’t need to be expensive.

 

Another common theme in a witchcraft altar is to represent all the elements. Fire will typically be represented by candles, water will be a small glass or bowl of altar water or you may choose to represent water with seashells, air may be represented by incense or feathers, and to represent earth, you may want to use a crystal or a stone, some salt, a small plant, I’ve even seen a little handmade clay figure used to represent earth. 

 

Some other traditional elements include a chalice or a vessel of some kind. This is meant to symbolize the divine feminine, it may also be used to hold ritual wine, spirits or water or other offerings. A cauldron is another traditional item kept on a working altar, this is of course going to be used to burn intentions, herbs, resins, incense, etc. An athame or ritual knife is also common. The athame is masculine, it’s meant to be used symbolically to direct or cut through energy, it can be used to cast a circle, or in cord cuttings or what have you. It isn’t meant to be used for like, cutting herbs or anything, it really is a symbolic tool. A small ritual bell or a singing bowl is another tool you might keep on the altar. These are used to clear energy using sound, they may be used to begin a ritual and/or to bring it to a close.

 

What else, Ah. If you are working with or getting to know a deity, you may want to include something that represents them, a small drawing or artist’s depiction, or a god or goddess figurine or a statue. Other elements you may want to include with that would be offerings, such as herbs, flowers, fruits, wine or spirits, gems, or stones that correspond with this deity. Most deities have animals that are associated with them or that they themselves find sacred, so small figurines of those animals may be something you’d like to include too. 

 

And beyond that, your altar should have on it whatever is meaningful to you at a given time. If you’re currently working on a manifestation, you could certainly include something that represents or supports that manifestation, whether it’s a new job, a romantic partner, more money, whatever the case may be. Arrange everything on this altar in a way that is pleasing to you, that works with the space that’s available, and that feels right. You don’t have to keep all this stuff on the altar at a given time, you can rotate elements in and out as you see fit or as you’re working with different goals in mind.

 

Sabbat or seasonal altars are really just a designated place to acknowledge and honor the turning of the wheel of the year. It’s a way to mark the passing of time and to celebrate the differences in the seasons, the weather, the symbolism associated with the witches’ holidays. And this space is definitely more focused on aesthetics so get as ornate or as simple as you like, if and when you do decide to construct a seasonal altar. And what’s really cool about a seasonal altar is that if you’re in a position where you have to be careful about the outward expression of your witchcraft, most people aren’t going to bat an eyelash at a lovely seasonal tablescape in someone’s home or bedroom or office.

 

It’s easy and inexpensive to decorate for a sabbat or for the change of seasons, and it can be really fun. I look forward to it every time I rotate my wheel of the year, I think about what I want to add or include on the altar this time. Some of my favorite pieces have been found on clearance after a season is coming to an end. And it isn’t any more complicated than that. 

 

Now, ancestor altars are typically used during Samhain, and we did talk a lot about them back in the Samhain episode and I am sure we will talk about them again this year during Samhain, so I won’t really get too deep into them now, but you can also make and keep an ancestor altar at any time of year for a departed loved one who you were and are very close to, or if you’ve been receiving messages from an ancestor, or if you’re attempting to reach out to and work with a ancestor. And in this case, this doesn’t have to be its own stand-alone altar. You can absolutely make space on your working altar that’s dedicated to this person if you like. 

 

I will just say this: if you’re inviting spirits to your altar in this way, you might want to find some other place to keep this altar than your bedroom. These spirits do not run on a 9-5 schedule and they do not give a lukewarm shit if you have to be up early. They will keep you up all night, they will be knocking and whispering and spooking your cats, so just bear that in mind. 

 

And as for what to keep on an ancestor altar, we can include pictures of this person if we have them, or keepsakes that belonged to them, or letters they wrote. And we will work with this person just like with a deity, we will meditate or commune with them to discover what kind of offerings they would like. And don’t be alarmed or surprised or dismayed if, in addition to flowers or foods, they ask for cigarettes and liquor. This is not uncommon at all. Our departed loved ones are still the same people on the other side as they were here, and they miss those vices, those little guilty pleasures. So if you hope to cultivate a comfortable, working relationship, don’t deny them what they ask for. It is against my own ethics to support the cigarette industry, but if my great Aunt Edna wants Marlboro Reds, that’s what she gets.

 

We can always find altar inspiration posts online, and they’re really beautiful and well-lit and precisely curated, but we really can’t get hung up on recreating what someone else has created. The purpose of an altar, especially a working altar, is to be effective. Its purpose is to be used. The things on our altars are meant to be handled, and picked up and moved. So when we construct our altars, we have to be mindful first and foremost that everything serves a purpose and is meaningful, and is placed where it is most convenient and most useful, and then worry about the aesthetic second.

 

The best altar in the world is the one that you feel comfortable using. If we spend all day setting everything up artistically and then are reluctant to use it because we don’t want to ruin the look, then it isn’t doing us any good. We aren’t going to get much magic out of it. And that’s the most important thing I can say about that. 

If you are willing to share pictures of your altars, then please by all means, send them to me and I will happily post them. I know altars are super personal though, so if you are NOT comfortable with that, it’s cool too. And I hope this has been helpful or at least not made the concept of altars MORE vague and intimidating. Move with confidence in creating them, take your time curating all the pieces and the elements that you want to include. Don’t spend a bunch of money. Items from thrift stores are awesome. Items found in nature are free. Items that have been passed down to you are meaningful. And also FREE. 

Again, please contact me anytime at eli@middleagedwitch.com, or on facebook or instagram at @middleagedwitch. My name is Eli, and this has been the Middle-Aged Witch podcast

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