Friday, December 13, 2019

Creating Natural Altars: Sacred Platforms in the Living World

Altars can be a fantastic tool in your craft.  A sacred space erected to channel certain energy, an altar is an anchor for a wide array of purposes, from meditation and divination to ritual and spell work.  Creating one taps into your intuition and helps you develop your practice through the purposeful arrangement of corresponding elements.

A natural altar is the same concept applied to the outdoors.  With a natural altar, you collect your items from the living world and create a display that not only works for your practice but honors nature in the process.  Let's explore how to create one of these altars step by step!

Become familiar with the laws of your area.

Your first step in creating a natural altar is to be acutely aware of your local laws.  You want to avoid trespassing on private land or taking things that aren't yours to take.  These concepts cannot be overstated though they may seem obvious at first.  What may be less obvious, however, are laws in reference to what you can and cannot collect.  Endangered species are highly protected.  Picking up feathers, eggs, skins, bones, and other such items may not just be a local crime, but a federal one.  In addition, you may find plucking endangered plants to be against the law as well.  Even if it's not against the law, you'll want to refrain from removing anything that might disturb the local ecosystem in the process or anything that puts you or others in danger.

Research what might be harmful to your local wildlife - or you.

Speaking of your local ecosystem, you might note that, just because something is natural doesn't mean that it won't hurt animals or plants.  Salt, for example, will kill plants and grass, so sprinkling it on the ground or keeping a bowl of it on the altar that might get knocked over would be problematic.  Likewise, certain foods can be toxic to animals who may munch on your natural altar later.  It's important to consider all of these when aiming to erect something in a space that involves other life.  And, as I mentioned before, you want to avoid anything that might put you or others in danger.  Many plants are poisonous to touch and wild berries can be harmful to ingest.  If you're not sure if what you're picking up is safe, it's best to leave it alone altogether.

Develop a sense of representation and correspondence.

While it's not necessary to be an expert in correspondence and representation, it certainly helps to have a general base knowledge of what certain things represent to you when creating an altar.  This could be largely personal or you could do some research on basic color and plant correspondences before heading out.  Being able to look up what you're looking at on the fly is also helpful.  Having your mobile phone on you with a plant identifying app can go a long way in helping you understand what you're grabbing and what it means.  Being able to record your thoughts as you collect items can help develop your internal correspondence list.  You could either bring a journal with you, record the correspondences afterward, or use your phone for that as well.

Decide on the purpose of your altar.

Altars are typically erected for a purpose.  Coming to this article, you may already know exactly why you want to create this altar.  Great!  You're on your way.  That being said, you might also approach this article wanting the experience of creating a natural altar without a particular goal in mind.  If that's the case, you could research a variety of witchcraft practices that utilize altar work.  Some examples include devotional altars to gods, spirits, elements and other entities, ritual work, meditation, divination, holidays, moon phases, and daily practices, just to name a few.

Collect your items.

Now that you're aware of your local laws and dangerous plants, and you have a base correspondence knowledge and a specific purpose for your altar, it's time to go collecting!   For this part, you could collect anywhere you like, from your backyard to your local nature trail, from your neighborhood sidewalk to the wooded area nearby.  Any public space will work, as long as you're mindful of the laws associated with it.  Be sure to take with you a basket, pouch, purse, satchel or another such vessel to collect your items in, as well as your phone and/or journal.  As you walk around your selected space, consider what calls to you.  You could collect anything from rocks, sticks, and leaves to plants, flowers, berries, and animal remains (as long as you safely handle them).  If you plan on cutting off parts of trees, you may want to take a set of sheers with you.  You might also consider taking offerings of gratitude in exchange for these items.  Old coffee grounds and eggshells are great offerings because they act as nutrients for the local plant life!

After you return from gathering, you may find that you still want something more for your altar.  In this case, you could gather herbs, vegetables, fruit, and flowers from your garden or purchase them from an ethical store.  You could also cook or bake an offering.  In my altars, I often included one or two non-natural items, from vessels like bowls and cups to candles or figurines.  If you do decide to use candles, be cautious of starting a fire.  Bring a small kitchen extinguisher with you and ensure the candle is placed safely on the altar with a stable base.  If there's a red flag warning in your area, you absolutely should not include candles at all.  The candle should always return with you once you are done - never leave a lit candle unattended.

Also, keep in mind that this process doesn't have to be done all in one day or a single trip.  Make as many trips as you need.  If you find your flowers are wilting, consider drying them for the altar.  If the berries you collected begin to rot, use them as compost.

Find the perfect space.

Now that you have everything you'd like to put on your altar, it's time to decide where you want to create it!  Natural altars can be placed indoors or outdoors.  If you're wanting to work indoors, any altar space will do, from bookshelves to tables, window sills to a wall shelf.  When working with a natural altar, however, you may find it's best to present it in nature itself.  If that's the case, you're looking for a flat surface.  This may be a stone or a stump, or it may even be just the ground.  You may decide you want to put down a piece of wood to help stabilize the area.  You might even want to consider the direction you're facing by bringing a compass with you.

Whatever you choose, you'll want to make sure that the area is fairly clear so you can place your items without disruption.  This means removing any brush that might be covering your surface.  This could be considered an act of cleansing, but you may find yourself wanting to do something more.  Personally, I feel natural spaces are already cleansed by the rain of the area and the sun and/or moon, and so intentional cleansing isn't necessary.  That being said, if you want to spiritually cleanse the space, please note that salt is harmful to your environment.  Instead, opt for water or smoke cleansing, again keeping in mind the laws of the area and what you may harm in the process.  

Arrange your altar.

 How you arrange your altar is entirely up to you!  You may have a personal tradition that dictates what goes where or you may not.  If you're creating the altar for a specific working, like divination, spell work, or a ritual, you may want to set it up with that in mind.  Maybe you want certain items to correspond to the elemental directions or the rising and setting of the sun. Maybe you want to create a design with the items or work in a certain shape.  It's entirely up to you!  The best part about setting up an altar is that there's no wrong way to do it.   Use your knowledge, your personal path, your personal aesthetics, and your intuition to create what feels right to you.

Honor it.

Once your altar is put together, you're ready to honor your space.  This may mean making your offerings to the entity or entities of the altar, doing your ritual, reading your cards, or completing your spell.  Whatever you came here to do, now's the time to do it!  Once you're done with your work, you'll want to decide what to do with the altar.  With natural altars, as long as everything on the altar is safe for your local ecosystem, you could simply leave it.  If you have items like candles or figurines, you'll want to take those with you.  Anything that might be harmful should be removed from the altar entirely, and any flame should be snuffed.  If you decide you don't want to leave the items on your altar, you could scatter them in the area as an offering or take them back with you. 

Tip: When in doubt, ask for help!  Above is a photo of my husband collecting wild lilies for my August Eve altar because it was far too hot for me to meander around outside.  Never put yourself under any duress to create an altar, whether it's physical danger or mental stress.  If you're not enjoying the experience, then stop!  Creating a natural altar is not a requirement to any practice.

of Natural Altars

The following are the eight natural sabbat altars I created in 2018.  I wanted to keep them consistent because it was a series, so I always used a tree stump as my base.  I would allow myself one to two types of non-natural items per altar - typically a candle or vessel.  Scroll further down for larger images and links to each individual altar!  Enjoy!

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