Traditionally, when performing magic, a practitioner has an altar of some sort on which to work. The altar, of course, can be anything from an elaborately carved table to a dresser top or even just a cleared section of kitchen counter; any available space can be utilized as long as it is large enough to hold the necessary tools and spell items. An altar is much more than a mere resting place for our magical items. It can and should be the foundation of our magical working. The altar space, much like the pentacle often placed upon it, can be symbolic of the earth element—the embodiment of physical manifestation. The pattern in which the tools and spell components are placed upon the altar can have a powerful impact of the success of our magic.
In my own practice, though I am a great fan of the tools of the craft, and place all of them on my altar for full rituals, I am very particular of what items are placed on my altar for spell-craft. The altar is the template, a microcosm for the goal of the magic. Everything placed upon the altar can become incorporated into the overall vision for the outcome of the spell, and as such must be carefully selected. An overall concept to keep in mind is the idea of the magical circuit. Generally speaking, it is believed that energy has a tendency to travel from left to right, such as viewing the right hand (in right-handed people) as being the projective hand and their left hand as being the receptive hand that can draw in energy. Applying this principle to an altar, we can create a magical circuit in order to properly draw in, program, release, and manifest our magical desires in the most efficient manner possible.
Though I go into more intricate detail regarding the use of an altar as a magical microcosm in my book, Spellcasting: Beyond the Basics, the heart of the technique is elegantly simple: only place items on the altar that are directly connected to and in alignment with your spell. Keeping in mind the left/right circuit, it is a good idea to arrange what items are used to draw in energy on the left side of the altar and the items used to release energy on the right side of the altar. As an example, if I were casting a spell for money, I would place charms, photos, herbs, and darker candles (such as green for growth or blue for the power of Jupiter) to draw in the type of prosperity I am aiming for on the left side of the altar, and my athame (and/or wand), herbs, and lighter candles (such as golden or yellow for the Sun's energy) on the right side. It is important to attract the type of energy and intent that corresponds to your goal and to also project outwardly the energy that you wish to accomplish the goal. In other words, the left side is for establishing the quality and style of your magical vision and drawing energy to vitalize the intent, whereas the right side is where that intent is released and can be further empowered by a naturally projective beneficial force, in this example, the power of the Sun.
Though the left/right polarity altar is an excellent choice for magical (or any other) work, there are many options when it comes to altar design. If elemental energy is a prominent focus, arranging the altar into four quadrants—placing the working tools at the points of north, east, south, and west so that each tool represents its element in its direction (according to your intuition or tradition)—can be a fantastic means of channeling their power. The energies of earth, air, fire, and water are such fundamentally vital forces that we can tap into their power to create all types of change. Again using money as an example: I could set a white candle for the air element along with a written description of my goal in the east signifying the power of the mind; a sentimental keepsake or photograph of a time when I felt similarly prosperous along with a blue candle for the element of water and emotion; a model of my primary goal, some actual money or whatever charm I may create to symbolize my intent and a green candle in the north for earth and physical manifestation; and finally, a photo or personal item from myself along with a red candle for fire and the power of my will. All the elements are being channeled toward the same goal through their preferred methods of operation: air/thought, water/emotion, earth/physical form, and fire/will power.
If the magical goal is more spiritual in nature, a pentacle altar could be used instead with similar effect. The pentagram altar is divided into five sections rather than four, with the fifth division being spirit in the north. Most practitioners give the following elemental designations to the points of the pentagram (moving clockwise): Spirit at the top; water at the upper right point, fire at the lower right point; earth at the lower left point; and air at the upper left point. An altar pentacle can be placed at the center of the altar with appropriately colored candles set at each of the points in a similar fashion to the elemental altar but with a white or violet colored candle at the top point and perhaps a deity image or religious symbol as well.
In some cases, during outdoor ritual, there is no typical altar but rather the bonfire can serve a similar function. In this case, of course, there would be no items to arrange upon it but instead, we would only be concerned about what goes into it. As long as the woods used for the fire as well as any herbs or offerings that are going to be given to the fire correspond to the goal of the spell, then everything should work smoothly. Another atypical altar choice is to work around a tree. In this case, a tree whose energy would align to the spell and also items can be laid at the base of the tree to lend their influence to the magic. Trees are considered to be connected to all realms, and so make wonderful conductors of magical intent as long as you have a good relationship to that tree. To check, simply meditate while leaning your back against the chosen tree and try to commune with it. Ask its permission for it to be used as a magical channel, and if you feel a sense of acceptance, then proceed with the working. If you feel uneasy or rejected, then try to find a different tree for the spell.
No matter what type of altar or design is chosen, all arrangements become a physical representation of your magical intent and so should be dedicated after the circle casting (or whatever form of pre-ritual preparations are preferred) to the intent of the working. If you have created the altar, prepared the ritual area, and then used some type of energy visualization (such as imagining roots going from your feet down into the earth and branches growing from your hands or shoulders upward to the sky) in order to draw in extra magical power, you can then dedicate the altar by either placing your hands upon it or by pointing an athame or wand at it and saying something similar to, "I give form to this altar that it may fulfill its purpose of (state intention). So mote it be." If the "altar" is instead a bonfire, the dedication could be stated while adding a piece of wood to the fire prior to the ritual. If the "altar" is a tree, simply thank the tree and ask that it fulfill you magical purpose. This or any similar dedication is almost a "pre-spell spell," in that it aligns the altar to the magical intent thus preventing it for having errant, possibly conflicting energies bound to it. Though seemingly irrelevant, an altar dedication can allow for a smoother transmission of magical power.
The altar, if properly formed and dedicated, becomes a place of power—a nexus point through which forces are channeled and released creating a powerful magical conduit. Throughout the spell process (any spell), the methods should involve having all of the corresponding ingredients and elements align harmoniously with the goal of the spell, and this includes the layout of the altar. In designing an altar layout for magic, I always try to have a clear focus of what should be on the altar, where it should be placed and why; in this case, I feel that spontaneity only tends to lend chaos. Granted, there may not be anything wrong with a little chaos, but like taking an unplanned route on a car trip, there is no guarantee that you will reach you goal in an efficient manner, if at all. In my practice, I tend toward a disciplined approach to magic and a more spontaneous style on the spiritual side which helps to keep me in balance.
Whether a grand, intricately laid antique altar-table, a cleared and specially arranged area of the kitchen countertop, or anything in between, the altar is such a universal facet of magical practice that it should be treated with care, honored and fully understood as much as any of our other magical accoutrements. In this way, it literally becomes the blueprint for our magical manifestation.