Samhain season is upon us. Creating an altar for our ancestors, beloved dead and the Mighty Dead of the Craft becomes especially important. We love making Samhain altars. We’ve made pocket sized altars to travel with and table top altars for coven events. We’ve created massive, interactive altars for events with 300 to 1500 people. It’s a lot of fun and always a special act of devotion to our community, the godds* and all of the witches and pagans that have come before us.
If you’ve never made an altar or want to up your game, here are a few suggestions:
Gwion: Figuring out just where you want your altar set up is a good place to start. Knowing where the altar is going informs you of what materials you might need for it. A base can be a table top or bookshelf. I have an altar on top of an armoire, with coloured glass bottles and cauldrons representing the Elements and Mystery. Once I’ve determined where the altar is going to live, I think about an altar cloth or covering. I view the coverings as another foundation. It’s the “field” in which the objects interact with each other. Altar cloths can be made of just about any material. Given that it’s Samhain, I tend to go all out:
Common Altar – You can’t beat a good black altar cloth. Black might represent the night or the grave or the great mystery that lies beyond this life. Adding lace or another sheer fabric on top over the base layer could signify the thinning veil commonly associated with Samhain-tide.
Stepping it up a bit – Do you have a quilt that your great grandma passed down to you? What about a magical robe that a priestess in your line wore? Maybe you have a braided rug or a hand woven table cloth from the lands where your ancestors came from. Using fabric that connects you directly to the ancestors is a powerful reminder of who is being honoured and why.
Phoenix: One of the easiest ways to work with ancestral energies is through the use of photos. There is nothing like a visual reminder of your beloved dead. Most folks have images of family going back two generations, sometimes three. This is a great way to honor those that have crossed over. Photos can be of family of blood, pets, chosen family, friends, or anyone that has made a mark on who you are.
This practice doesn’t have to be limited to people you’ve actually met either. If there is an actor, writer, star, or celebrity that you have a love for and they have passed over, add them to your Samhain altar too! Working with a specific deity this Samhain? Add an image of Hecate, Hella, or whatever godds you might associate with this season.
Common Altar – Often you will find pagan folks with year round ancestors altars. These can be simple or elaborate. My favorite “simple” ancestor altar is a framed picture of grandma with a white candle and a cup of water. A simple framed pictured makes a beautiful Samhain altar.
Stepping it up a Bit – Why settle with a framed photo or image of a loved one? Why not include the image of a favorite family location, vacation spot, ancestral home, or ancient village. Do a little digging and figure out where you ancient ancestors originated from and print out a map or image of that place for your Samhain altar.
Gwion: The way I think about relics and mementos is that they are items our loved ones cherished. Maybe there are tools that your father used or a cookbook that’s been handed down through the generations. Phoenix and I have a few relics that have special magical meaning to us. They’ve been gifted to us from significant teachers/mentors of ours.
My dad owned a plaid shirt that he wore so often it could practically walk by itself. It was one of those thick, quilted shirts. The flap on the top, left pocket still has a crease from him tucking packs of Camel Lite cigarettes in there. It’s been more than a quarter of a century since he died but I swear I can still smell him when I pull that shirt out. It’s one of the few remaining tangible items I have of his.
Common Altar – Arrange your precious items on and around the altar. Try grouping similar pieces together. Perhaps you have a favourite book and an ancestor’s reading glasses, for instance.
Stepping it up a bit – Placing items on an altar is fine, but using them is even better. Create an altar with your ancestors tools and then make something with them. Grab grandma’s cookbook from the altar, take it to the kitchen and make her beloved meatloaf recipe whilst listening to the music she loved. Then sit in front of the altar, eating “her” food and speaking out loud what you remember about her.
Phoenix: At Samhain the veil is the thinnest, it is the time of the year when it is easiest to connect with the Otherworld. Because of this thinning there is a lot of superstition and folk tales about feeding the souls of the dead. It is common to give ancestors food and drink to keep them happy. If the spirits are happy they are more likely to do work for you on the other side and make life hear a bit easier.
Common Altar – When it comes to your beloved dead, mighty dead, or recently past ancestors it is traditional to make their favorite food and set them a place either at your table or on an altar space. Pour them their favorite libation and give this as an offering to keep them happy.
Stepping it up a bit – Make a whole ritual out of feeding your beloved dead on your Samhain altar. Host a dumb supper where you feed the spirits. Better yet, make it a potluck and invite folks to bring foods of their ancestors. Give offerings to your dead and eat with them. Tell their stories and toast to their lives. What is remembered lives.
Phoenix & Gwion – Let’s be super clear here. A big part of Samhain is reflecting on Death. We all die. We will all make this journey sooner or later. Remembering that death comes to us all eventually, sharpens our focus on this amazing journey called life. Bones and ashes are dramatic representations of life and death. There is no better way to work with a spirit than to have some of their bones or ashes. A Samhain altar is the perfect place to put any bones that you may have collected or ashes of those that have crossed over. Plus, bones can add a spooky factor that is just a fun addition to a Samhain space.
Common Altar – A this time of year the shops are filled with Halloween items with bones on them. Many pagans and witches we know have animal skulls and decorative skulls (real or replicas) and/or the ashes of their beloveds. Assemble your altar with these bones or ashes as the foal point.
Stepping it up a bit – Be as creative as you can. Gwion has a huge back piece tattoo representing the Lord of Life and Death. That’s a pretty permanent reminder of Samhain! Visit a cemetery or mausoleum and make rubbings of your ancestors gravestones. Plan a “family” reunion (family could mean relatives, or your coven, or like minded folk you meet with) and create one large affair with everyone’s ancestors present. If you are fortunate enough to have a family tree printed out, blow it up to poster size and recite the names of every person in your line (or lineage).
Our house will be filled with Samhain Altars. We’ll sing songs dear to us and our acnestors, we’ll read the names of our newly dead, Beloved Dead and Mighty Dead of the Craft. We will eat the foods of our ancestors and enjoy the precious moments we get to share with each other. For as the saying goes, “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think!”
*Godds is used intentionally as an inclusive, all-gendered word holding all expressions of the divine.