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We were both in our twenties before we realized we’d been making altars all our lives. Instinctively, we cultivated tiny altars in the corners of our childhood bedrooms, on autumnal mantels, or even in our backyards. Altars are small, magical spaces filled with meaningful objects, and they can be dedicated to spirit, self, creativity, communication, and so much more. But because we’d only ever heard of altars in the context of religion, we didn’t realize what we were doing! When we finally heard a dear mentor describe how altar makers would piece together photographs and pictures, mementos and knickknacks, natural materials and sacred objects to make something truly special, even divine, a light bulb went off in our heads. As folklorist and witch-queen extraordinaire Kay Turner would say, “the very heart of altar making is a woman’s daily choice to engage with the sacred on her own terms.”

Personal altars are celebrations of whatever the maker holds most dear. They express something deeply intimate about the self and connect that expression to otherworlds, be they spiritual, emotional, creative, or otherwise. Many altars are deeply entwined with spirituality, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. For example, the author Erin Morgenstern makes an altar for each book she writes, gathering special objects she gives symbolic meaning to that are somehow related to her work in progress.

Personal altars have been around for centuries, and they appear all over the world. The best part is that anyone can make them! Should you wish to join this truly magical tradition, here are a few of our favorite tips for making a beautiful altar in your own backyard:

• Ask yourself what you want your personal altar to be about. Set your intention and keep it in mind throughout the process. Do you want to honor a particular spirit or season? Commemorate a loved one? Celebrate your creative practice?

• Embrace the spirit of the place where you are creating. If you live in Florida, work with palm trees and sand. If you’re already getting some snow, let the pine trees guide you.

• If you don’t know where to start, choose one object that has intense personal meaning to you—something that lights you up when you look at it and that anchors you in what you want to honor.

• Welcome evanescence. The natural world is in constant flux, and wind, rain, or even a whole lot of sunlight can change your altar. And that’s part of its beauty.

• Keep all the senses in mind, not just what you can see. How might you incorporate touch? Smell? Sound? Taste?

• Let your intuition guide you. There’s no wrong way to make an altar, and every personal altar is different. Let yours be a reflection of your heart without worrying about how it looks to anyone else.

• Try to draw from each of the four main elements—earth, air, water, and fire. For example, a single flower might represent the earth, a found butterfly wing could stand in for air, you can fill a bowl with water, and light a candle for fire. Let each sing to you in its own way.

• Is there something that you’re considering including in your altar … but you’re hesitating because it seems too weird?Maybe it’s a She-Ra action-figure? Or a bug toy with googly eyes that brings you joy? Include it! It’s meant to be there. Your “weird” is part of your unique magic.

• Don’t be afraid to bring a few things outside that usually live inside—a bit of fabric you don’t mind getting wet might provide just the right touch of color.

• Look for beauty in unexpected places. A rough bit of rock or a torn leaf may not seem like much at first glance, but look closer. There is a story there, and maybe it’s just the story your altar needs. When it comes right down to it, altars are magic. They are ways of making the deepest parts of your heart visible and connecting you to what you love and value most. If you’ve never made one before, give it a shot—you might be surprised at what you discover.

©Woodspell Apothecary. Follow on instagram @woodspell.apothecary.
©Woodspell Apothecary. Follow on instagram @woodspell.apothecary.
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Sara Cleto
Sara Cleto is a Ph.D. candidate in English and folklore at the Ohio State University. She also teaches courses on fairy tales, legends, and more at the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic (carterhaughschool.com). Her poetry and prose can be found in Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Uncanny Magazine, Goblin Fruit, Faerie Magazine, and many more. You can find her at saracleto.com.