I don’t imagine that the idea of a long-winded essay about ritual tools is terribly interesting to seasoned veterans of the Wiccan path. It’s gotten to the point where, if you’ve read one 101 book, you’ve pretty much read them all, and they all have at least one chapter devoted to the increasingly dull task of describing traditional ritual tools and their various associations and purposes. Really, how much is there to say about a wand?
Plenty, if you’re me, and you don’t use one. There are in fact a number of small but significant differences between my altar and those of many of other Wiccans.
First, however, a bit of background:
I am lucky enough to live alone and have neither inquisitive dogs nor small children, so I have altars all over the house. My main working altar is in my bedroom, where I can see it every morning when I wake up. I have used everything from the top of a foot locker to a board on a stack of books as my altar, and during my first few years on the path I stuck to the layouts and tools that books told me to. I thought, “Hey, I don’t use half of this crap, but someday I might, and besides, it looks so cool.”
Yeah, I thought that. Don’t forget I became Wiccan at age sixteen.
Gradually over the years I pared down and pared down, keeping only those tools that I actually used. I also found there were some things I used in ritual all the time that weren’t really represented in the books.
My altar was once my grandmother’s piano bench, which I somehow inherited when she died (sans piano). For years I used it as a bedside table, and even though I thought it would make a great altar, I prefer my altars at sitting height and the thought of cutting the legs off seemed like blasphemy. Last year, I got over that, and enlisted the help of my dear friend S1ren, as well as the help of her power tools. We sanded and refinished the bench, and voila, the perfect Sylvan altar.
The altar itself boasts my working tools, a whole lot of stones, and a variety of other sacred tchotchkes. Typically there are bits of trees and other things I’ve picked up on nature walks that reflect the season; there also tend to be remnants of spellwork and other magical projects-in-progress.
One of these days I’m going to set up a website or photoblog that’s devoted entirely to photographs of Pagan altars; the way we express our spiritual creativity through our sacred spaces is a fascination of mine.
At any rate, the first thing you should know about my tradition is that I work with not four, but six Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Darkness, and Light. The tools I use (and the ones I don’t use) reflect that variation on the standard Pagan worldview. Each tool directly represents one of the Elements.
Now, on regular altars you see a lot of redundancy. The water bowl and the chalice both symbolize Water, or the incense represents both Fire and Air but the athame is also Fire, and so on. There are plenty of perfectly logical explanations as to why you would have so many symbols on your altar, but I always felt that simplicity was best, so I have one for each, plus a few other things I use more rarely that aren’t on my altar every day.
These are just my associations—it would be very easy to switch some of them. What matters most is that the tools and other items you use make sense to the part of your mind that speaks in symbols. If you spend half a ritual thinking, “I know incense is supposed to be Air, but it’s burning, for Pete’s sake!” you will never be able to get into the proper mindframe to connect to the Divine. Part of growing spiritually is questioning the why of what you were taught; if something doesn’t make sense to you, don’t just swallow what this or that author said, think it through and decide for yourself.
Earth on my altar is represented with a bowl of salt. In most traditions, Earth is also given the pentacle as its tool. The disc in the middle of my altar isn’t a pentacle, however—it is a plaque painted with our coven symbol. It does fulfill the general purpose of a pentacle, in that I place things on it for consecration and occasionally use it as a focus, but to me, the plaque is a symbol of our coven bond. I often remove it if I am doing something that I don’t want to affect the other members. It sits front and center to remind me that I am no longer in this alone.
I use the salt to seal the borders of Circles; in my mind the role of Earth in the Circle is to ground and protect.
The incense, on the right, is my tool of Air. I don’t lump the incense in with Fire the way some people do, because I consider the smoke to be the tool, not the stick or the smoldering coal. I prefer stick incense for solitary ritual as it is less messy, less smoky in an apartment, and doesn’t waste a charcoal tablet, which I am notoriously inept with anyway. I use the smoke to consecrate the Circle as well as other objects and myself.
Note the complete and utter lack of a wand. I’ve never used a wand, though I appreciate how inexpensive and easy to find they are compared to the athame. I could never quite figure out the point of having both, and something about sending or receiving energy through a stick with a crystal on the end always made me feel like a Harry Potter fandom refugee. Plus, I feel more connected with the symbolism of the athame.
I understand that some people have an aversion to using edged weapons in Circle, but the athame is probably my most important tool, the symbol of Fire. Granted, the blade is a much less direct representation of Fire than, say, a candle, but when I think of Fire I also think of its non-physical associations: will, strength, determination, power. These are all traits I see in a weapon that has been dedicated to a nonviolent purpose.
The athame, being forged in fire, is a perfect symbol of the will—a knife in general can be either a tool or a weapon, can cleave through fruit or through flesh. It is a reminder that personal power can be used for both positive and negative gains, and the deciding factor is choice. Fire, in my Circle casting, creates the Circle of energy itself.
Water is pretty obvious: a bowl of water. Traditionally the chalice and cauldron are also Water-related. We’ll get to those in a minute. Where the salt is used to protect the Circle, the incense to consecrate it, and the athame to create it, the water is used to symbolically cleanse the space.
(The order everything goes in and my logic for it will be discussed in a future post about Circle casting.)
...continued in part 2