I don’t keep an altar. I don’t need one in my practice. But I like the beauty of altars and shrines and most people do have them. But not everyone can leave things out, whether because they’re not public with their craft or they have children, pets, or share space with other people.
I do, however, have a work-space. Over the years, it’s varied. It’s been a desk, other times a floor. Right now it’s usually (but not always) my kitchen counter since I keep most of my herbal ingredients there and it’s a large surface.
A work-space is different from an altar in that a work-space is secular. It serves the same function as the altar you probably have, but it’s pretty much a table you do your spellcasting and research on.
How’s that different from an altar? Ideally an altar is a religious space. You use it to make sacrifices and/or offerings. It can also be used to cast spells or rituals in the name or honor of those worshiped there or used to invoke those entities. It doesn’t have to be to a deity either – an elemental altar is quite nice.
As a side note, a shrine is also different from an altar. An altar is the surface where rituals and offerings are performed. It’s a space in a temple or holy space. A shrine doesn’t necessarily have an altar. It’s a space where religious idols are placed and honored. Offerings can and are made there, but there may not be an actual altar space.
Not that the terminology is super important. Most people use ‘altar’ rather than another word because that’s exactly what they have. Others use it because it’s a word that people understand without going into specifics. Or they use it because that’s what they’ve been taught to use via mentor or texts. In the ’90s it was unheard of to not have an altar, even if the work was secular in nature and that was the word everyone used. The bad terminology continues simply because that’s what’s written about or used. . what they’ve been using and/or what the text they’ve read write about. It doesn’t really matter what you call your space. Owning it is enough.
Of course, owning that space, whether altar or work-space, is difficult on the best of days. How to you decorate for seasons? How useable is the actual space? Will you start a fire by a misplaced trailing sleeve or knocking something over? Is it comfortable to sit at? Is it pretty? Is it secret or safe? For those who don’t share their practice, it can be difficult to have a shrine, altar, or even a work-space without giving something away.
Finding creative solutions for those problems can be difficult, especially when you’re concerned about decor or safety. And most solutions found can be very expensive. I’m a fan of DIY so I’ll offer a DIY post whenever I find it but remember to do some number crunching before you break out the tools. Sometimes it’s simply cheaper to buy something over making it!
So here’s some ideas for beautiful altars that are low key and still be practical.
Glass or acrylic tables and cases
These are tables that are, by and large boxes or rectangles with glass tops or sides. This is probably one of my favorite ways to display something and still have it safe from grabby hands. As a bonus, you can do rituals or offerings on top of the table, allowing for some really inventive set ups. Just make sure that if you work with hot materials, like candles or incense, to have some sort of heat-proof plate under it in case of melting. (This includes incense ashes. Trust me on this.)
- IKEA’s LIATORP coffee table fits the bill here nicely. Four compartments in a slide out drawer means you can devote each compartment to an element and still have that table top to work on plus the shelf underneath to store a basket of stuff in. Stuff as ordinary as remote controls or a blanket for the couch or a pile of candles.
- Shadow box tables are also a great option. There’s lots of of versions of this from large to small. Some have lots of tiny cubby holes to fill and others have a wife space instead. Here’s a variety of different versions, some with DIY options with things like old windows and printer’s trays. DIY versions are DIY Display Shadow Box Coffee Table from This Old House, Storage Coffee Table with Acrylic Top from A Beautiful Mess, and Glass Top Shadow Box Coffee Table from Instructables
- Make up boxes such as this one is a great idea. Throw some crystals, pretty shells, feathers, and whatever else inside and make it like a curio cabinet, all while keeping everything safe. On top, you can light a candle on a heat-proof candle plate.
- This acrylic trunk or this one are perfect options for displaying those giant crystals the size of a baby. Keep them clear of grabby paws and gravity. As a bonus, you can use make crystal grids right on top or even use it as a coffee table. A handmade version is here for those willing to drop the coin.
- Terrarium Side Table DIY from A Beautiful Mess is another clever idea. I’m not sure how totally feasible it is for the plants inside of it, but I could see for something like cactus or even a rock garden. An aquarium version could be used for moss balls like kokedama.
Hidden Storage Furniture
These might not be showcasing your beautiful stash of stuff, but they are probably the most useful and low-key of anything else on this list. They’re also something of a super obvious option in some cases, but they are probably some of the most accessible. WIth all of these, various quality exists and you’ll want to consider the weight of what you’re storing inside and whether it needs to support weight on top as well (ie, will it be used for extra seating).
Beds with storage are pretty easy to find. So is shelving designed for baskets or boxes as storage. These furniture pieces are easy to source (or even DIY with a little googling) but they also are well-known. These drawers and baskets can be filled with anything and people won’t tend to question what’s in them. Hidden in plain sight, plus the stuff’s out of the way and can be mixed with mundane stuff. However, they can be easily accessed by people and might be prone to peeking.
Storage ottomans allow you to have an ottoman that also has storage. Usually, people use these ottomans to store remotes, extra blankets, or so on. I’ve used mine to store tarot cards, books, exercise equipment, and a number of other things. Buy here or here. DIY here or here.
Benches and chairs have also been turned into storage. Buyer and DIYer beware however. Thinly seats may break, which is not only embarrassing for the person sitting there, but may also damage the stuff inside. Buy here or here for benches. Buy storage chairs here or here (with a desk). DIY bench here and DIY chair here (although this design also has been sold online as a “sewing chair”). I’ve also seen DIY versions of storage chairs where the seat was a drawer but I can’t find a link to share. Another bench version is to have drawers that pull out on the side rather than flipping the seat up. A super version of a bench would be to place a shelf where baskets can be placed and put storage behind that, essentially stacking two storage shelves one behind the other, re-reinforcing the sides with wood and using the sides as the seat of the bench. This style is seen in daybed or twin bed version as well, like here.
Trunks are actually great because they can be portable, especially if it’s a trunk with wheels. But people know trunks = treasure so it might not be as stealthy as you would like, especially if you’re surrounded by nosy people.
There’s also an assortment of tables ranging from coffee table to dining room that have tops that lift up or move in some way, revealing storage underneath. In living room or bedroom set ups, they’re used to store things like remotes or sexy stuff away away from prying eyes without revealing that there’s storage there at all. In dining room tables, they’re usually used for game storage for table top gamers or for silverware storage. DIY versions here or here. Lots of different versions out there to buy from, so use your google-fu.
For some people this is an obvious and useful solution but for some people, well, it might be a joke. I’ve lived with thin, fragile walls for over dozen years so putting anything on the wall has always been something of a laughable situation. If you’re a renter, it’s even more hilarious because who wants to patch dozens of holes?
But it’s totally useful. It’s one of the greatest ways to get something off the floor and out of the range of pets and children and still showcase off things. You can also just put your altar or offerings on the shelf so it’s something of an exception to the rest of the items on the list in that way.
What shelves you put up will vary on your style and space but you can go as thin as photo ledges and as large as built in bookcase style. They’re a lot of options available so get creative.
There’s also the option of bookshelves with drawers in them. Or even secret compartments like this one.
I really love hanging shelves and small tables from the ceilings. This has the added bonus of being easily removed when nosy folks are around, but you’ll have to have a strong support on the ceiling.
Herb Tables or Trough Tables
Originally designed as a drink well for picnic tables, these tables have expanded in usage. It could be a really clever way of having the elements available IN your altar surface but it can also be used as a herb garden.
Honestly, this is probably the least useful item on the list. Unless the tray is removable, cleaning the tray will be as much fun as cleaning window sills or gutters. It only only has minimum usages. As much fun as it would be to image a tray with four sections filled with whatever representatives you want to have for the elements, by and large, it’s probably not going to be a good solution for most people.
These are just some of the ideas out there. Pretty much anything that’s got a secret compartment could be used. Try storage solutions for tiny homes or RVs as well – those tend to be great sources of never-seen-before storage and that means less people can guess where you’ve stashed your stuff.
For some people, taking some of these measures might seem extreme, but if you’re not open about your practice (for whatever reason), knowing your options can be very important.