People often reach out and inquire about altar construction and how to properly set everything for worship and practice, this post is to help give people a general understanding of what an effective altar looks like.
One of the things I notice most when I see a common altar in a metaphysical store is a layout of crystals with some sage, random metaphysical apparel, and objects that might look pretty, but in effect these altars are not that functional. In that sense they are just decorative table settings. It can be insulting to a person who put work into setting it up and those who use it for ritual work, but I don't say this as an insult and would love to give some valuable information for empowering an altar to it's highest potential.
Example of a non-functional altar
What is an altar for?
An altar is a stationary magic item that is generally used to focus the power of a particular deity, spiritual master, or ghostly bodies of ancestors or non-relation into the world at a fixed point. This can be a temple, monastery, shrine, or at the site of a miracle. It is meant to consecrate a space, or further empower natural energies contained within that space already. An altar should be interactive, both as a living battery and an outlet providing a surge of magical power for practical uses, such as cleansing, charging, sending spells, delivering blessings, or housing energies for later use. Altars are often the central focus of an entire place, whether that be a small sanctum, underground grotto, forest grove, or home space. An altar is always fixed in place; it cannot be moved without losing its magical abilities and once moved it needs to be properly aligned again and the energies need to be given time to reset and build.
An altar has an aligning aura identical to its associated deity, or worshipping spirits, or empowered amulets. If you were to create a summoning circle and bring otherworldly beings into this plane through the act of evocation you would in fact be taking the living role of an altar during that ritual process. A stationary altar is a permanent religious fixture and the worshiper of an altar’s deity (or otherwise) may stand, sit, kneel, or prostrate within 10 feet of the altar and speak a prayer to gain a temporary blessing from the altar. It is similar to the process of speaking Katha to activate the power of a Thai Amulet. Most altar blessings last for 24hrs, unless a special prayer is known by the owner of the altar which can then last for a month up to a year. Because an altar can affect many dozens of worshipers in a day, it is possible or even likely that all worshipers in a community may have the same blessing each day; this is often seen in many varying cultures and religious bodies, such as Theravada and Taoist temples to give just a couple examples.
Depending on the motivations of the deity and the altar’s creators, some altars may grant their blessings to non-worshipers who pray to the altar’s deity so long as the person’s alignment is compatible with the deity’s alignment, spirits can also receive blessings at an altar. Conversely, an altar can reject someone even if the owner brings that person forward to receive blessings.
Something that I find interesting and worth mentioning, an altar of an "evil deity" might allow anyone to gain its blessing, as drawing power from evil can corrupt good and neutral folk, so giving something beneficial in the short-term is actually a long-term gain for an entity because it is able to feed and corrupt the energies of the person coming forth and can then gain power from consuming through alignment, think in terms of a parasitic attachment consuming the host till nothing remains. Accepting the blessings from altars with other alignment auras than what you naturally align with can convert your energy bodies natural vibratory alignment over time, this can lead to enlightenment, karmic restructuring, or ruin, it all depends on the altars alignment.
An altar is otherwise like any other permanent magic item and can be crafted with additional abilities, like wellness in gambling, increasing longevity, honing psychic senses, and numerous other functions.
(Rahu Ritual Setup)
3 Types of Altars
Buddha or Deity Worshipping- This type of altar is composed of a combination or any singular use of Monks, Teachers, Holy People, Gods and Goddesses, and varying Buddhas. These altars are typically adorned with flowers, at least one cup of water, and food that is based on the preference of the being that is to be worshipped. A schedule of offering is usually developed with the highest alignment of the beings, for example, if someone were to dedicate an altar to Rahu, they would use the following. Cigarettes, and cigars, alcohols, and dice or playing cards, black or red foods depending on the version of Rahu being worshipped, all offerings and prayer requests would be made on Wednesdays as that is his day, and then appropriate katha would be implemented along with the water cup, the incense, and anything specific to Rahu. In regards to Rahu and an appropriate altar set up, it would also need regular moonlight being able to shine onto the altar. It is fine tuned for him to not only welcome his energies in, but to align with them and consecrate the space with his energetic presence. Unless a statue is already consecrated by a master, or you have appropriately called in the being or beings to be worked with through a proper rite, you just have an empty vessel. An empty vessel on a well worshipped altar is not a good thing, something will take residence in that vessel receiving and feeding upon the energy and offerings, whether it be a benevolent, or malevolent force. Sorry folks, but that cute Buddha statue you bought at your local metaphysical shop is not consecrated unless you know that it came from a Wat (temple) and the monks had directly blessed and called in the appropriate energies through ritual and ceremony.
Prai or Ghost Powered- These altars can be an Ofrenda to honor deceased ancestors, prai statues and guman thong, or varying plant and nature spirits, this is a non-god setting altar, meaning it is of lower or middle plane beings and not higher realms. Typically you will see the use of animal guardians or other nonhuman beings as protectors, including hoon payon and egregores. These can also be at the base of a deity altar, but are more commonly seen in an altar with varying levels of spirits. Similar vibratory sprits will be placed with each other, and powerful spirits go on the top level. I have a hybrid altar that features deities on the top and also prai spirits on the bottom level, it is structured in a way to create a flow of harmony in the mixture of energies. I have Rahu and Eiji at the top, a Water Goddess and a God of Misfortune and more aligned with lunar energy. The combination works because it is dualistic. It represents the moon and the tide, cyclical nature, masculine and feminine, benevolence and base desire. There's more complex notions behind it, but understanding the pairing of deities and likewise other spirits is important otherwise it breeds chaos and unbalanced flow. Just like the photo above of the non-functional altar, the reason that one doesn't work is because there's an unconsecrated buddha statue, mixed with Egyptian energies and Wiccan objects of empowerment and random crystals with clashing properties. There's no harmony in this set up, everything is unbalanced and they likely just loved the aesthetic of how they set the altar up. A negative spirit could easily siphon energy from that altar or take residence in the Buddha statue.
Amulet Station- In general no offering is needed with this type of altar, this means no incense or cups of water, or flowers, or food offering. All this type of altar requires is just katha to empower. Katha is the mantra or prayer that activates the power of an individual amulet and with an amulet station a person will typically use a master katha to invoke the power of all the amulets simultaneously. In this case the amulets don't need to be individually worn and can blend their power into the auric body of an individual for a period of 24hrs before needing to be activated again and blending into the energy body once more. The greatest benefit here is being able to access the power of 100's of amulets without having to wear any of them and having the benefit of all of them. Another form of this type of altar would be crystal grids and the like, adding any amulet or object to its field will allow it to take an energetic imprint onto itself and bring it within resonance of the generated field.
(Rahu manifesting in ritual)
*Never have an altar stronger in power than where you currently are in spiritual development, it can induce psychosis and become unruly and siphon your energy.
*Never place Mindstream amulets on a Buddhist altar at the same level or below a statue or image of Buddha or Bodhisattvas. (This means Prai Statues, Animal Amulets, and anything not directly holy.)
*Always light an incense or already have one burning when making a direct request at an altar. Your prayers are being sent to another plane and as such they need a vehicle with which to travel from our plane to the plane we place request with.
*Don't point with your feet at an altar or touch the altar with your feet. In Asian culture it is considered very taboo as the feet are the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, it is also seen as disrespect.
*Never let the water cup empty and dry out, it is a sign of neglect. (You may use closed water bottles with the cap on, or fill water cup as it starts to evaporate.)
*Don't leave dirty ashes and food crumbs on your altar cloth. I find it helpful to have food placed on plates and incense with a burner on a plate to catch the ashes.
(Sadhu Dah's Primary Altar)
Yellow or White Cloth should be used for any altar containing a Buddha or Bodhisattva, these altars can also have prai, but if the prai statues are present the cloth needs to be yellow and not white even with the Buddha statue, and the Buddha must always be placed above spirit statues. Red cloth should be used for a spirit altar, meaning ghost statues. Water, incense, and flowers are for deities; while red soda, candy, tobacco, and alcohol are for ghosts. Any spirit bound or deity consecrated statue needs offerings. This is for two reasons, it keeps the vessel and altar space charged like a battery getting energy back as energy is spent. The second reason being that we honor higher deities with devotion, and we give offerings to lower deities so they don't feed on us.
Spirit money can also be used for ancestors and human spirits, or for lower level deities, certain types of spirit money or prayer sheets can be burned for deities. Toys are for child spirits, pretty clothes and perfume are for female spirits, it is also good to play music, spirits and deities alike enjoy the music and it helps keep the vibrations in harmony. Weekly cleansings should be performed and offerings should be traded out, I usually make my big requests upon trading out offerings. It is preferential to have your altar set in the west cardinal direction, or facing west, whichever is most feasible. Prai and ghost statues need a room with dark curtains or no window and having regular sunlight on it diminishes the power of the altar. Any Buddha altar needs sunlight and should also have a picture hanging above that contains the sky and the ocean, it is a powerful symbolism in Buddhism and also cycles energy in a potent way, this can be any photo or painting that has sky and ocean.
An effective altar should have all 5 elements, the spiritual entity or your spiritual essence in devotion is what activates the other 4 elements. Feathers embody air, candles do too, but they also incorporate fire. You can use relics touched by fire, a leaf that blew in the wind, which embodies capturing air and earth. As long as the components of your altar contain all the elements then you have satisfied this aspect. I would however say though that any holy altar should have at least one white candle present even if it is not used, the same goes for a ghost or prai altar having at least one red candle present. No clutter should be stored beneath your altar, same if you set an altar on top of a dresser, make sure everything is clean, organized, pure and in line with the altar, otherwise the energy becomes chaotic.
Where you put stones or crystals is also relevant, you want them in the center or equal combination of same stones on opposing sides. The reason we do this is to enhance the properties of the stones in a balanced way while also offering their properties to the altar to enhance it. Make sure the properties of the stone align with what is on the altar, if in doubt, just use clear quartz, you can't go wrong with a big piece of quartz in the center of your altar.
Arrangement of your amulets should be as follows, animals and hoon payon either guard powerful spirits or deities, and things should be stacked lower realm beings to higher realm beings. You want your deities at the top or higher placed than ghosts, but you want worldly deities above ghosts. You could even fuse deities on the altar with aligning energies which turns them into a pantheon, this is something I teach in advanced class.
Wands and athames should left on altar to consecrate and empower, keeping them charged and ready for ritual use while maintaining their purity. I find it helpful to place them near the incense burners and will often use the wand to direct energies when doing a ritual in front of altar. The more you work with your altar the stronger it becomes and the more connected to your energy it will be. Eventually you should be able to give simple requests every morning and just keep up with offerings and incense and have a long-term spell active.