Earth Wisdom Tarot Sacred Art

Make an Altar for the Ancestors

in Spiritual Practice, Wheel of the Year

(During the first week of each of my Gaian Soul Practices seasonal e-courses, we build an altar for the seasonal tide. Last week I posted this Instagram photo on Facebook just after I built my Hallowmas / ancestor altar. I was surprised by all the lovely comments from people who had not seen an ancestor altar before. So think of this article as “Altar-Building 101.” It’s for those of you who’ve never built an altar before, or haven’t for a long time, or just need a little inspiration.)

An altar is a place of serenity and peace within your household, where you make an arrangement of objects that embody what is sacred to you. It’s a spot where magic can happen, where the holy and the mundane intersect. It can be as simple as an arrangement of a few pine cones or leaves you pick up outside, plus a framed photo or piece of artwork, and a candle.

Of course it can be much more elaborate as well, with all kinds of paraphernalia and decorations that evoke the season.

Clear off a bookshelf, or the top of a bureau, or a wide windowsill for your altar. Lay down a pretty cloth or scarf, then arrange a number of objects in a pleasing way. I have found that the process of setting up an altar is a very satisfying experience, one that warms the soul.

There should always be at least one candle on your altar.  Votives are good and so are the large prayer candles that come inside glass containers. I personally prefer to use only beeswax candles. If you have a lot of animals or boisterous children in your household, you might want to use salt lamps instead of candles. They give off the same warm glow, without being a fire hazard.  In any case, I never leave a burning candle unattended.

So what shall you gather for your Hallowmas altar?

Pumpkins, of course, and gourds and colorful dried corn, all those wonderful things that say “Autumn” to us. These set the stage for the Hallowmas altar. You may have an altar figurine of a witch or wise woman or elder to put on the altar, and perhaps a print or painting as well. (I’m quite fond of displaying my own Elder of the Scar Clan and the Elder of Fire from the Gaian Tarot. I also like to add a black scrying mirror to my altar, and some small Day of the Dead figurines and tiles I’ve collected. I have a collection of small bird bones that I’ve found while out on nature walks, and sometimes I put those on the altar as well. I like to add hazelnuts (filberts), for wisdom, and pomegranates and apples.

Then I set out the photographs of our Beloved Dead. Most of them are framed, although a few are not. I think about each of them and whisper their names as I set out their photos. This year, we’ll have a new photo on the altar: my father-in-law Bert, who passed away last June. You might also set out small mementoes of them: a friend’s letter, a son’s guitar pick, a mother’s jade ring.

You might feel moved to remember people or groups throughout the world whose deaths have touched you deeply. You could add newspaper clippings or other symbolic objects.

My friend Nora covers her entire ancestor altar with black gauze, so that the photographs are seen, literally, through a veil. I love doing this.

Your Beloved Dead have become your ancestors. You may want to set out offerings for them, especially of their favorite foods. (When putting out food for the dead or for fairies, I usually collect the remains each night or morning, believing that the essence has been consumed. I give the rest to the birds.)

I think of lighting the candles on my altar as “turning it on.” The altar comes alive when you light a candle and whisper a prayer.

Let your altar become a place where you pause for a few moments each time you pass by. Let it remind you of the Sacred, of the ancestors, and the wisdom of the Crone.


(If you liked this post, you will probably enjoy my Gaian Soul Practices for Hallowmas ~ Samhain ~ All Souls e-course. We’ve just started our first week, and you can still join in.)

Thoughtful, sparkling comments. . .

  • Elizabeth Tue - Oct 23rd 2012 7:09 pm

    This was so lovely and inspirational. Thank you for putting this out there for us to enjoy! Many blessings to you.

    • Joanna Wed - Oct 24th 2012 7:10 am

      You are so welcome, Elizabeth!

  • Cari Ferraro Fri - Oct 31st 2014 8:17 am

    This is a lovely how-to, Joanna. I learned the idea of a lace or net veil from one of your older posts and it is quite evocative. I also have been more generous with the use of marigolds, which are a constant presence on traditional Dia de los Muertos altars. A friend told me that they are called “headlights for the dead” and another friend detaches the petals and makes an actual path to her altar. Their scent and bright color are so welcome. Blessings on the sabbat, dear friend.

    • Joanna Powell Colbert Fri - Oct 31st 2014 8:47 am

      Thank you Cari! Oh yes marigolds! They are not in bloom here, otherwise I would use them liberally too. When I was in Texas I saw lots of paper marigolds — now wishing I had bought some — but my suitcases were already filled to the brim. I also learned in Texas that monarch butterflies are considered to be souls of the dead in Mexico — so, next year, I will have marigolds and monarch butterflies on my altar. Love to you, Cari.