Ritual altars contain objects placed for specific intent which have deliberate
symbolism. An altar created thoughtfully enhances the ritual's meaning for the individual
(or group). It heightens the sacredness and power of the ritual, while increasing
transformative effects. Often times we have treasures all over our home; such as favorite
rocks and stones, sea shells, feathers and candles. It can be much more powerful and
focusing to bring these energies together in one setting. Many times when they are
scattered around the house, we also sense our own energy as scattered in our lives.
The most basic symbolism for an altar is the four elements combined with Spirit. The elements are; fire, water, air and earth. Spirit, the fifth element, is the life force that animates all that is living.
The symbol for the element fire, is usually represented by a candle. Candles come in many colors, each having a specific attribute. But in the beginning it might be best to use white or natural colored bees wax tapers. Fire represents creative energy, inspiration, strong will and sexuality. It is traditionally associated with Yang energy.
Water is most often symbolized by a chalice or cup, (which also is a metaphor for nourishing breasts). Sea shells can also be used to represent water. This element signifies emotions, intuition, healing and reflecting, and it is associated with Yin energy.
For the element of air, one might use natural incense, white sage, feathers, a bird image, or even a writing implement; for air represents knowledge and powers of the mind. It is also a symbol of courage and is related to masculine energy.
Earth symbols that can be placed on an altar might be flowers, crystals or stones, or a land animal image. It is associated with nature, feeling 'grounded', security and material well-being and carries feminine energy.
Everyone seems to have their own, understanding of 'Spirit'. Simply stated, it is about the life force 'be'-ing, and the renewal ~ rebirth cycle. In traditional craft, it's symbol is often the caldron, which signifies the emergence from the womb and transformation. Other symbols of spirit can be a mirror, crystal ball, God/dess image, a picture of an ancestor, or even a butterfly; for these are all metaphors for the soul or spirit.
It's a good idea to place the objects so the elements correspond with their directions, or in a circle with spirit in the center. The four directions would be: fire - South; lower right corner, water - West; upper left corner, air - East; upper right corner, and earth - North; in the lower left corner with spirit - above center of these four directions thereby completing a star shape pattern (or if you prefer, placed in the center of these four corners.)
These five symbols placed on an altar cloth (which protects the boundaries) become an altar, although one could keep it as simple or make it as elaborate or creative as so inspired. You can use the occasion of dedicating a new altar to a specific God/dess, spirit guide, intent, or to rededicate yourself, if this feels right to you. Blessed Be!