Altars and tarot are well-suited to one another, as has been shown again and again by folks here at Little Red Tarot.
They are places of devotion, magick, quiet and noise, and sweet little spots for “coding of objects for our own magick” as Beth would say. For me, altars are intertwined with the web of earthy hospitality common in many modern Pagan communities. We offer food, shelter, and good company as best we can to those we meet for everyone is an embodiment of the Gods or, for my more humanist Pagan kin, unquestionably sacred in their own right.
But hospitality can only really be practiced once we have a sense of home – and that’s where my altar making journey begins.
I made my first altar at a time where I felt that there was little space for me in the world.
I had just moved from a largely working and lower middle class neighborhood to the middle and upper class suburbs next door. The transition was difficult and I was immediately labeled by teachers and peers as the “kid from the ghetto” leading to mistreatment in the classroom and social ostracizing. I realized that some kids appeared friendly to me in attempts that my “street cred” would rub off and we’re disappointed when they found that I was just a strange kid who new way too much about extra-sensory perception and star wars. Mostly I felt very, very lonely and confused about my place in the world.
And then I got invited over to a new friend’s house. Raven*, I would soon discover, was from a family of Jewitches (that is, folks who practice witchcraft and/or earth-based spirituality intermingled with their Jewish roots). Though we barely knew each other, she embodied a kindness and creative curiosity that was unique and exciting in my world and my young mind immediately equated these qualities with her spiritual upbringing. And I wanted to learn more. So Raven pulled out various books including Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and I started to read them hungrily. An hour later, I found myself building my very first altar on Raven’s bedroom floor with items found in her room, including a tarot card or two.
My own inner fire was sparked. The satisfaction of pulling together a sacred space seemingly out of thin air was immense. And then… Raven’s mother walked in. You see, Esther was an Artist. Not a un-relatable oil painter from the 14th century or a regular at the paint-your-own ceramics shop (my two ideas of what it meant to be an artist at that time), but a living, breathing, smiling Artist. When I visited that afternoon she was working on one of her Goddess dolls – this one was blue-skinned and grinning, curvy and wild-haired – by stitching on golden pubic hair. I had never met an Artist before and this was way different than the enforced arts and crafts I had to endure in school. This was art that felt alive and meaningful.
Esther the Artist looked at the altar I had built and said, “That’s beautiful! You have a real talent for making altars, Alexis.”
And with those magick words a spell was cast that served as a profound and lasting enchantment in my life.
I began making altars everywhere and with anything. I saw their natural formations in the trails and small canyons around my house. And I formed my first coven (though we called it a circle to reflect the non-hierarchical nature of our group, thank you very much) with Raven and a few other friends. We made altars and ritual clothes together and Raven even gave me the magickal name that I carry to this day. The altar in my room became a space of quiet and refuge during the tumultuous years of puberty and teenagehood. And I knew that whatever I did in my life, altar-building for myself and my community would remain a foundational practice (which it has).
All this because an adult I barely knew saw the beauty in something I made and took a moment to tell me so. Beneath and between and within her words was just enough of an invitation for me to take up some space in the world and begin to break the hex of disempowerment weighing down my spirit. And so it is that the making of altars has become for me an act of self-love, power, and purpose.
Altar making is like creating an open invitation for us to take up more space in our lives starting with the essential ritual of calling ourselves to return home.
At this point you may have realized that this whole series of tarot as a tool of healing has been one long exploration on homecoming – because that’s a lot of what healing is.
We are unwell, out-of-sorts, traumatized, injured, and after any initial period of addressing our physical wounds (which can be long and arduous in and of itself) we find ourselves finally able to return home again to our bodies. And when we arrive things are different. So we continue the process of adjusting the vessel of who we are in order to better to hold and engage with the expansiveness of our being.
For those new to altar making, tarot cards can be a welcome aid.
In many ways, the tarot is a portable altar especially suitable to western esoteric traditions from which is was born, but easily adaptable to many spiritual paths. The four elements are represented by the four suits of the minor arcana; Gods and guides and ancestors appear throughout but especially in the major arcana and court cards; and the minor arcana is full of scenarios we may want to attract or protect ourselves from. Altars and the tarot serve similar functions as visually-centered tools of magick: they establish physical spaces to align our energy (i.e. the physical setup of a tarot spread and it’s ability to evoke self-reflection from within us hopefully leading to energetic realignment), call forth power (tarot is, at the end of the day, a tool of empowerment), practice our devotions (i.e. committing to daily draws as part of our spiritual practice), and more.
By simply pulling out the four aces and aligning them on a table or floor to the cardinal directions and choosing a card from either major or minor arcana to anchor the energy of a spell or desire (such as The Wheel of Fortune to open up new opportunities in your life), you have built an altar.
Altars, of course, can be more elaborate and since there are limitless ways to create an altar, I’ll focus on how we build altars with tarot for the purpose of healing work.
Through a short story, I’ll highlight what I think are the key components of altar making. But these are based on my own spiritual traditions and personal experiences. Ride with what inspires you and leave the rest for others to enjoy.
Let’s create a scenario of healing desire and build an altar for it: Rowan has recently lost a beloved friend leaving him feeling alone and bewildered, uncertain about what the world is going to feel like without his friend by his side. They decide to cast three cards to gain clarity and guidance for how they might tend the needs of his heart during this period of grieving. The first card Billie casts is the somber Eight of Cups which indicates that the journey away from this friendship, though heartbreaking, is necessary. Next, the Four of Swords emphasizes the need for rest and retreat. Rowan has been trying to distract himself from their pain by overworking and not getting enough sleep which has only left them more exhausted and grief-stricken. Finally, the Hermit has shown up as a guide. So often folks interpret the Hermit as a period of being alone and/or lonely. While this is on occasion true, the Hermit more often indicates that the time is ripe to spend time in communion with ourselves which doesn’t preclude social interactions with others, it just shifts our focus.
Looking at the cards, Rowan is drawn to the watery images of the Eight of Cups. Though the card is somber, it’s also soothing, so he decides to include a bowl of water on his altar surrounded by rough quartz stones they found on a recent hike to help him feel grounded and connected to their path. They pull out a soft feathery blanket, that makes him think of a cloud, to represent the energy of the Four of Swords and place that before their altar to curl up in whenever he meditates before it. For the Hermit, Rowan chooses a single candle in a simple glass jar to act as a symbol of the Hermit’s guiding light. Setting his intention before his altar, Rowan calls on the power to sit with his grief as necessary, honor his needs for rest, and to travel along the path of the Hermit to learn more about himself and who he is as a friend. Rowan lights the candle and so begins his journey with his living altar. As time passes, items are added, some removed, and a new candle is lit to replace the last. The act of wrapping the soft blanket around his shoulders becomes an effective way to switch his consciousness from the busyness of his day to the centeredness of breathwork. And Rowan remembers and realizes things about himself during these times of quiet at his altar, but mostly, and most powerfully, he just shows up and makes space for the part of him who is grieving.
Rowan cast cards and built an altar – you can do the same with any tarot spread. Or you can add cards to an already existing altar to help you connect with specific energies or serve as reminders of who and what you are and hope to become in the world. Tarot altars can also include items which correspond to each card, such as herbs, stones or astrological talismans. Themed decks can help you build seasonal or culturally specific altars. Just remember that your altar is meant, in part, to call home and celebrate you – fill it up with your desires.
The making of an altar is a declaration to yourself that you can create meaning and beauty in your life through opening up space for all of you to exist without hesitation but with great celebration. I hope you’re feeling inspired to make an altar of your own or sit with one already made. Next month will be the last post of the series will be about how we create healing spaces for others as tarot readers, our gifts and limitations, and rooting the lessons of tarot into the magick of the everyday.
* All the names have been changed to respect privacy. Decks featured: The World Spirit Tarot, Cosmos Tarot, Pagan Otherworlds
Alexis J. Cunningfolk (she/they) is an intersectional herbalist, witch, and weaver of remedies at Worts + Cunning Apothecary.