Let’s Build an Altar for Springtime by Barbara Ardinger

Barbara ArdingerWith spring springing up all over and warm days coming back in the colder climates, let’s build an altar to celebrate life. Now don’t worry—I’m not advising you to worship idols and do anything to insult your god. We’re not building a churchly altar, but one based on the concept of love respect for the earth we live on, the powers of Mother Nature, and the indisputable fact that we are all kin. This altar represents no disrespect for any religion, faith, sect, or denomination. Its purpose is to focus our awareness that the galaxy, the universe, the earth, the continent we live on, the town we live in, and spaces where we live and work are all sacred. The purpose of this altar is to remind us every day that every religion is sacred and that even the most humble among us have a place on the planet.

We start by considering the four elements—fire, air, water, and earth—which go back at least as far as classical Greek philosophy. Long ago, people believed that everything partook of these four elements. They looked around and saw the elements in action every day: ovens and lightning, soup and rivers, breezes and birds, gardens and hills. The four elements became the four humours, which came to the principles of medieval medicine that ruled our temperaments. The elements are also prominent in alchemy and astrology.









Fire Yellow bile Choleric Spiritual self Gold Aries
Wands Lions, lizards
Water Phlegm Phlegmatic Emotional self Silver Cancer
Cups Fish, sea mammals
Air Blood Sanguine Intellectual self Mercury Libra
Swords Birds, flying insects
Earth Black bile Melancholic Physical self Lead Capricorn
Pentacles Bears, wolves

This table could go on almost forever. Take a look at these wonderful charts of correspondences. You’ll find everything in the world on them, including the four seasons and days of the week, the chakras, herbs, gems, even angels and Jungian personality types. Not listed, however, are the four stages of a woman’s life: maiden (air), mother (water), queen (fire), and crone (earth).

There are also the mythological elemental powers—salamanders, undines, sylphs, and gnomes—which are living personifications of the elemental energies. (They’re not gods.) I’ve never seen an elemental myself, but I know people who have. Elementals are large. They see us as puny, unimportant, little critters. Since they’re big and powerful and we’re not, our best approach is to be courteous and not annoy them.

When pagans cast a circle, that is, create sacred space in which to perform a ritual of worship or celebration or healing, we move clockwise and call in (invoke) the four “corners” of the circle, which correspond to the cardinal directions, starting in the east and ending in the north. In Gardnerian Wicca (invented by Gerald Gardner in southern England shortly after World War II), which we might call more or less “orthodox paganism,” they call in the elements in this order: air, fire, water, and earth. But this isn’t the only way. If you live, say, on the east coast, the Atlantic Ocean is your major water, so water is your east. If you live near, say, an airport, there’s your elemental air. If you live near a volcano…. I call in the elements in the order given in the table. The sun rises in the east, so that’s fire. Long Beach, CA, has south-facing beaches, so south is water to me. I’m not sure why, but earth is almost always in the north. Which leaves west for air. (I used to think I’d invented this arrangement. Then I found a book that said it was used by the ancient Egyptians. That’s unlikely, but it’s not important.)

To build an altar, which is often placed in the center of the circle, we need a symbol for each element. Here’s what’s majorly nifty about these altars: they can be of any size and they don’t have to look like altars at all. You can set a piece of red glass, a shell you found on the beach, a feather, and a pretty rock on a shelf in your cubicle at work, and no one ever has to know it’s more than just a bit of decoration from nature. You can build a little altar on a bookshelf at home. You can make a tiny dream catcher with the four elemental symbols woven in or tied on and hang it from your rearview mirror. You can just use four candles. Me, I live in an altar. I have symbols sitting on bookshelves and hanging on the walls of each room. Here are some suggestions for symbols:

Fire Water Air Earth
Anything red, orange, yellow, or gold Anything in any shade of blue Anything white or a pale color Anything green or black or dark.
A ruby earring, a gold ring, a drawing of the sun or a sun catcher. Shells, coral, something from the beach (but not the trash). Feathers, pictures of birds, bats, bees, and butterflies. Rocks, growing plants, dried plants and herbs, pine cones.
I have a thick red crayon a friend gave me. Also a large abstract painting filled with reds and oranges. I have a beanbag mermaid doll. Also lots of shells and a tiny, intact crab I mounted on coral on beach glass. I have figures of Blessed Bees and witches on brooms. Also a lacy Victorian fan pinned to the wall. The GettyMuseum in L.A. sells little (2 ½”) blocks of marble. I own half a dozen. Plus assorted rocks.


Look around where you live. What represents fire to you? What seems watery? What is airy? What says earth to you? You can also use jewelry (like spare earrings) or photos from magazines or goodies you find in catalogs. Find one symbol each for the four elements for each altar you build.

shell-on-the-beach-194749-mNow it’s time to build your altar. Get out your compass and determine where the cardinal directions are. Decide how big you want you altar to be and where you want to place it, also if you want people to notice it or not. Invoke the elemental powers by saying something like, “Powers of elemental air, please be present and bless my altar” for each direction and set your elemental symbols in their proper “corners.” Remember, this doesn’t have to look like any altar you’ve ever seen before. It’s a circle with four sides, not just front and back, and it represents all the energies of the blessed planet we live on. When I lead rituals, I always ask participants to add something of their own (usually a favorite piece of jewelry) to the ritual altar. This brings each person’s energy into the ritual and lets each person take home a bit of the ritual’s energy. You can ask friends to contribute if you want to.

Birds_feathers_00.jpg315ce1e1-923d-48ea-987b-ee11f6770433LargerNext, sit with your altar and find your intention. Intention is the most important element of any pagan ritual—why are we doing this ritual? Even though we’re not doing a ritual with this little altar, we still need to find our intention. Sit with your altar and close your eyes. Can you feel the energy rising?

Have you noticed that we haven’t put anything in the center? It’s empty space. It’s potential waiting to be used. It’s existence before essence. It’s possibility….for what? Of what? Go into your alpha state. Use your imagination. You can see your altar as a nest. Things grow in nests. See it filled with little girls waiting to grow up to be strong, brave, wise women who can take any life path they choose. The possibilities of nests are limitless.

marbleYou can see your altar as a protected space, a fountain of protection. Send that energy to Malala or the nuns on the bus. Maybe your neighborhood isn’t as safe as you’d like. In your imagination, plant the fountain of energy rising from your altar in the middle of it. Then join a Neighborhood Watch group. Maybe you’re concerned about vanishing species of animals or plants. Send energy to them.

Find time to sit with your altar, eyes closed, imagination fully engaged, for a few minutes every day. See your altar as a source of personal energy. Maybe you have project in mind—success at work or at school, moving into or out of a relationship, finding a new home, writing a blog. Imagine elemental powers coming to help you. You can also send this energy to friends and loved ones. Sit with you altar as often as you can and see what happens.

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: General, Prayer, Ritual, Spirituality, Women's Spirituality

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9 replies

  1. Excellent! I use to do the traditional calling of the elements with there direction. About twenty years ago, I said no more. The place I stand on the earth has water to the south, air from the west, fire from the east and land to the north. I loved the many suggestions to use an altar. And then take action in our lives.


    • Many thanks. Even some Wiccans get kinda strict about the directions, but I think it’s better to personalize our circles and our altars.

      Sent from my iPad



  2. Such an engaging and inviting post, Barbara! Happy season of Imbolc!


  3. Lovely post, Barbara. My house is also an altar. I have an acquaintance, who — when she comes to visit — asks me how the temple is!

    When I first began practicing my own form of paganism — before coming in contact with feminist Wicca in 1976 — I adopted my directions from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s _Seven Arrows_. But over the years, having done ritual with so many other Wiccans, I’ve adopted the Celtic directions. Now that I live on the banks of Lake Mendota — which is to my north — I’m considering changing them again. Thanks for the push to think about this.


    • Wonderful comment, Nancy, love the story about the friend and your temple. Some good soul on another list once said that her altar was constructed at the end of the chopping block in her kitchen!! It’s so interesting how we each invent our own sacred spaces.


  4. Lovely post, with lots to think about.

    Now I am confused about how to call in the elements with the directions, but since I have been doing it what turns out to be the Garderian way, I think I’ll stick with it, because I can remember it!

    I love that your whole house is an altar, Barbara. It’s making me think more about my own living space.


  5. With declining mobility, I built 3 ft high boxes in my veggie garden. Some round, some rectangle. I see them in a new way now!


  6. Great Post, Barbara, Thanks!!


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