Setting up an ancestor altar is often the cornerstone, the very foundation, of working with your extended network of kin and clan for spiritual empowerment and personal growth. Much like a garden, with some regular tending—and a bit of occasional weeding—it can become a place where your spiritual work blooms and flourishes. By putting an ancestor altar in place in your home, and giving your people a space of their own, you're carrying on a tradition found around the world, going back thousands of years.
The presence of an altar in your home—ideally, a permanent one—has plenty of benefits. First, it provides a degree of protection upon your house and everyone who lives in it, because now your home is also your ancestors' home. They'll look after it, and keep an eye on the goings-on around them. Second, having an altar —particularly one in a spot that you pass by daily—gives you regular access to the wisdom and knowledge of your people. Placing it in the living room or some common area puts it right in the center of your routine where you can't overlook it. Get into the habit of speaking to your ancestors each time you walk by, even if you're not doing a full-on ritual or meditation.
When you're setting up your ancestor altar, especially for the first time, be sure to clean the space, both physically and metaphysically. Once you've done that, there are a few things you'll want to consider having on hand. Obviously, if your spiritual tradition includes the keeping of other, more specific, items on your altar, do it—but these are some of the basics. If you begin with these nine things on your altar, you'll be well on your way to a rich and thriving ancestral spiritual practice.
- Altar cloth: It's customary in many ancestrally focused traditions to include an altar cloth. Why? Well, it's pretty simple—it makes the space special. After all, if you were inviting your grandmother over for dinner, you'd want the place to look nice, wouldn't you? Of course you would! A cloth covering can make your ancestor altar feel magical. In some traditions, including many African Traditional Religions, the cloth is always plain and white.
However, if you're not bound by the constraints of a particular tradition's guidelines, consider using culturally appropriate fabrics. If your people are from Scotland, add some tartan plaid, or use a bright sari cloth to honor your ancestors from India. Do you have pioneer ancestors who traveled in a wagon train? Try using a simple calico or wool. If you're not a fan of patterns, or don't have access to relevant fabrics from around the world, plain black or white is just fine.
- Photos: If you're fortunate enough to have photos of your people, or the places in which they lived, add them to your altar. They can be framed or simply lie loose. If you don't have a photo, that's okay—was one of your ancestors well-off enough to have a portrait painted? If you've got famous (or infamous) kinfolk, you may be able to find images online to print out. Be sure to only use photos of deceased family members though—your ancestor altar is for the dead, not the living.
- Family heirlooms: Tangible items that were physically handled by our ancestors can help establish a connection. Maybe you have a wooden bowl carved by a pioneer ancestor on a wagon train, or a pocket watch carried by your great-something grandfather, or a sewing kit that came through Ellis Island a century and a half ago. Physical objects bring our kinfolk closer. Keep in mind that what matters most is how relevant these items are to your ancestors, not to you&3151;you might not be Christian, but that doesn't mean Grandma's cherished rosary or a great-uncle's Bible can't have a place on your altar.
- Artwork and symbols: Not everyone has access to photos and heirlooms. Is there some sort of artwork that represents your family heritage? Perhaps you found a sketch of the old family homestead, or you have a piece of jewelry that represents the country your grandmother came from. Did your ancestors inhabit a place that has a national flower, or can you hang a flag to symbolize their homeland? What about a musical instrument?
Perhaps you've found a painting of the castle where your great-something grandmother worked as a servant, or a wood carving showing a tradition or custom that was popular in the land they occupied long ago. Think outside the box, and come up with ways to decorate the area around your altar space in a way that's welcoming to your kinfolk who have crossed over.
- Food and beverage: In many ancestral traditions, of both today and the past, it's customary to present your ancestors with a regular option for food and drink. Some spiritual systems encourage practitioners to keep a glass of fresh water on the altar at all times, changing it out on the same day each week. If your ancestors prefer something other than water, give it to them! Wine, whiskey, coffee, and tea are all perfectly acceptable alternatives—if you think they're something your kinfolk might enjoy. Keep it in a special glass or cup that you only use on your altar; don't keep your altar beverage cup in the cabinet with the rest of your kitchenware.
Have you ever thought about sharing a meal with your kinfolk? For many people, food is a love language, so why not cook a special dish just for your ancestors? If you don't have the time or resources to do that, you can fix them a plate from your own table and add a serving to the altar space. Leave it in place overnight, and then dispose of it respectfully by taking it outside—don't just dump it in the trash can.
- Offerings: When you make offerings to your people, think about what's appropriate, both culturally and individually. You can't go wrong with items you've made yourself, whether it's a home-cooked dish or something you've sewn, painted, or crafted. If you're handy with wordsmithing, consider a prayer or even a song in your ancestors' honor.
The more you get to know your people, the easier it will be to figure out what sorts of offerings they want and expect from you. Offerings can be as simple as a plant, stone, or a pretty seashell you've picked up. It should be something that they would be honored to receive as a gift, but it doesn't have to be expensive or fancy.
- Candles: Plan on including candles on your ancestor altar—and there's a lot of room for different styles and needs here. In some magical traditions, white is the only color used, and unscented at that, but it's okay to branch out. Ask yourself what your people would appreciate the most and take it from there. If your great-great-aunt loved the smell of jasmine, you can certainly use a jasmine-scented candle to welcome her into your space!
You can incorporate different sizes and styles of candles, although tealights and votives are great if you want to do a working that honors many ancestors at once. Designate each candle to represent a specific ancestor or split them into family groups. Jar candles are a fantastic option as well, because you can designate them to represent individual people&151;you can even attach pictures to them!
- Handmade items: Are there craft items you can make to honor your people? If one of your ancestors was skilled in fiber arts, why not learn to sew or knit, and present them with a gift made by your own hands? Perhaps you paint, or woodcraft, or do metalwork. Maybe you've learned how to throw clay—can you make a small statue representing your heritage, or even a simple offering dish? If you've ever thought about learning a new skill, especially one that relates to your heritage, this is a great opportunity to do it.
If you don't think you’re crafty or skilled, don't worry—you can write a letter speaking to your people, or even create something as simple as a thank-you note, expressing your gratitude for the blessings they've already provided you.
- Divination tools: Your ancestors are a valuable resource for divination workings; they have plenty of insight and guidance to share with you! Keep your favorite divination tools on your altar so that you can communicate with family members who might have some wisdom to pass your way. Whether you use tarot cards, a pendulum, runes, or some other form of divination, keeping your tools on your altar will help charge them with your ancestors' power and energy.
You may also want to create a set of oracle cards with your ancestors' photos and other family-related images. Select a word or phrase for each card that represents what that particular ancestor symbolizes to you. Perhaps your immigrant grandfather represents perseverance and hard work, or that long-distant great-aunt makes you think of wisdom and knowledge. Assign each card a meaning and select one or two each day to tap into the insights your people have to offer you.
Whatever you decide to do, make your ancestor altar deeply and uniquely personal. Designate it as a place that speaks to you and also to your kinfolk. Welcome them into your home, give them a space of their own, and you'll find that they’re going to bless you with abundance, wisdom, guidance, and protection—all because you took the time to get to know them and invite them into your life. Your ancestors ready to speak with you, if you'll just take the time to listen to them. What are you waiting for?