My favorite thing ever about building altars would have to be the amount of seemingly-average things found in seemingly-average places that can be used for paganism. Instantly a cute purple glass jar without a cork on a discount rack is the perfect feather and lotus pod vase. A tiny wooden (and vintage!) toy cabinet meant for a doll house becomes the perfect storage place for miniature spell bottles and curiosities.
|See what I mean?|
I think the altar is generally a reflection of the owner's personality. Nothing is ever average of course. This is my theory: Kind of like how you can tell people's general personality by their clothes, choice of books or favorite songs -- you can tell what kind of witch/wizard the owner of the altar could possibly be.
So for me:
For one, I have an altar. That means I may be sentimental -- I may place value or power on things out of fondness along with whatever magical significance the items may have. My altar cloth is not a generic pagan-store bought one -- nor is it colorful or "season/holiday appropriate." It is a piece of fabric that would've made a Halloween Costume -- a heavy, embroidered black fabric layered over grey with rips in it. Personally, that is an aesthetic thing. I saw the fabric and found it perfect. I could understand if it would be judged as a bit silly. But it is an homage to the long tradition of witch stories. The LED candles (as, unfortunately, opposed to normal candles) would give a clue that I am following the rules of the place that I live -- that although my religion is important to me, I respect others by not 'endangering them' in order to practice. That I compromise as opposed to feel as though I should be given special privileges. I do have the "traditional" pieces of an altar (handmade) -- the chalice, the athame, the tile, and the wand -- but on closer inspection, there are different symbols on each thing. The goddess symbol guards the wand, a pentagram is emblazoned on both the athame and the tile, while the chalice has a triquetra. None of it matches of course. That is a nod of the head towards the fact that I am an eclectic -- taking ideas and lore from many different paths in order to build my own understanding. The last thing I will mention is the overload of gemstones I keep. Some are beads. Some are tumble stones. Some are large crystals, and still another is a cluster of crystals on their matrix. Just looking, one would be able to gather that those would be the center of the majority of my work -- that I may have more knowledge of gems than previously expected.
You can find other things, such as deer antlers, bottles of herbs and oils, some Florida water emblazoned with the name of the shop from which it was bought, a couple of tarot decks, three bowls -- two filled with gemstones and one with various small feathers and anise stars. Several sigils and necklaces. A bunny shaped ring holder which effectively holds my pagan rings. A handmade wooden cup with a wood-burning of a pentagram containing a bunch of colored ribbon knotted in several places. A photo of a child (who is my grandfather) with his grandparents -- specifically his grandmother, whose spirit was called for Samhain last year before I received the photograph as a gift.
Building altars means collecting a lot of curiosities and giving them specific meaning. Nobody can do that part for you. They can suggest things that may help you get into the mindset for ritual by giving the traditional answers to "how do you build an altar?" They can tell you how to work magic with these items and what words to use and which candles to burn and which oils to anoint things with -- or how to cleanse the objects. But they can't put meaning into them for you. They're just a collection of curious clutter if you don't make them altar items. If you don't add significance (be it sentimental, magical or both) there's hardly a point. There are those who never put together an altar, but they may use objects for their craft still. Without intent and purpose -- they're just things. That's all.
Remember when you're out looking for altar or magical things that you're looking for significance, too. Everything can be pagan if you let it be.