Should you choose to make one, your pagan ritual altar can be indoors or outdoors and it can be changed to suit your own needs and preferences. It can also be used by Wiccans, Druids or pagans in general. You can make a permanent altar, or a temporary one just for ritual. Many people prefer terms such as 'sacred space' instead of the word altar, and that's fine. None of the items mentioned below are essential and they can be changed for specific rituals or spellwork. A lot of pagans start with the basic altar, but then modify it to reflect the individual's own spiritual path.
Generally speaking, when making a pagan ritual altar, a table, stone, or hearth is used, but this need not necessarily be the case; let your imagination guide you. You can cover the area with an altar cloth, which may have magickal1 symbols. Many choose the pentagram or pentacle, but any symbol which is significant to you is fine. You can make symbols as well - for instance, from bundles of twigs. You can change the colour of your cloth to suit the seasons, or the moon phase or anything else which has meaning for you. Candles are very important; usually four are used in the cardinal compass positions which represent the elements. In the north and Earth position, a green candle is used. Yellow lives in the east, the position of Air. For south and Fire, red is preferred and finally for west and Water, blue is used. You can change the colours to suit you and if you have run out of a specific colour, don't worry, you can use white or even visualise. It is advisable to have all four candles present though; to have three and imagine the fourth, would probably result in an imbalance, unless you are very experienced.
Next, you need to represent the God and the Goddess. This is a very personal thing, but you can start with a silver candle for the Goddess and a gold candle for the God. Other possibilities are statues, seashells, a drinking horn (probably best for the God!), pebbles or anything that seems appropriate. You can even make your own representations from clay.
It is good to keep the altar alive by decorating it with flowers, fruits, berries or leaves of the season. Pots of plants and flowers are ideal and crystals are also appropriate.
Ritual tools are important too. You can keep these on your altar, or hidden from prying eyes and fingers. It is good to have tools or something to represent each of the magickal elements mentioned before.
Earth in the North
You can use a bell to represent the Earth and it can be made of any material. There are some fantastic artefacts that originate from Tibet which are appropriate for this quarter, such as Tibetan bells (the preference of this Researcher), or Tibetan bowls or even cymbals. For some people, sound is a very important of the ritual, and this is a way of providing that.
Another very well known symbol is the pentagram (five-pointed star) or the pentacle (the pentagram enclosed within a circle). These are important to many magickal traditions and yet are very emotive to those who do not fully understand their meaning, thinking them to somehow represent 'evil'. This is not the case - the five points of the pentagram represent the four elements and directions; the fifth point represents the spiritual dimension. Many practitioners trace out the shape to make a protected magickal place for their ritual.
Salt also represents the Earth, it is also used as a cleansing and consecrating substance.
Air in the East
Traditionally this is the home of the athame, the black-handled dagger, which is often double-edged. It is used for tracing magickal symbols and for directing magickal energies. A white-handled blade is often used for cutting herbs, etc. You can use any kind of dagger, knife or even a sword. You can buy a plain design and paint it yourself.
The dagger is also used to symbolise the male energies or God.
Fire in the South
This is the home for your wand, whether made of crystal or wood, whether bought or made. Like the dagger it is also used for directing energies. Some prefer to use the wand as an Air tool. If it is made of wood, then that brings in a whole new dimension of meaning, according to which tree you chose. Some people have more than one wooden wand, depending on the sort of magick they will be doing. Possible woods include ash, willow, hawthorn or rowan. Use your favourite as long as it has meaning for you; if you do this, you cannot go wrong!
Incense can also be used in this quarter, especially if for you the wand feels more appropriate as an Air symbol. You can use joss/incense sticks or you can burn incense on charcoal, but make sure it is in a fireproof container as it will get very hot. You can make your own incense from herbs, leaves and resins.
Water in the West
Your chalice or sacred cup resides here. It represents the Goddess as well and can be used in combination with the dagger. You can have any material for your cup, whether silver, glass, wood or metal. If you are attracted to an earthenware cauldron sort of thing, then you may feel that it represents the Earth instead.
Water can be kept in the chalice at all times, but change it daily, perhaps as a quick morning or after work ritual. You can pour the water into any plants you have, or into your garden.
You can also use the chalice for scrying (foretelling the future). In addition, it can be used for the sacred ale/wine/juice or whatever you have, which is for the grounding ale and cake after any ritual. The ale and cake is also a time to bathe in the magick before banishing or releasing the energies. If you are with friends or a coven, then it is a sacred time for friendship to be celebrated.
Before ritual you can purify yourself with a bath or shower, especially if you add herbs or essential oils. You can also burn essential oils while you work your ritual. It may be very important to you to have special ritual clothes or robes which make your ritual time more special. The possibilities are endless. Try what you feel is right, but always work with respect.
Magick can be as complicated as you wish. You may find that you would prefer to simplify the above ideas. Or you may want more; ritual is a highly personal thing. There are many authors who explore these ideas in much greater depth, such as Cassandra Eason in her A Complete Guide to Magic and Ritual, and especially Janet and Stewart Farrar's A Witches' Bible. Another book which comes especially recommended is Phyllis W Curott's Book of Shadows. It's a beautiful read concerning another person's beginnings in the craft; it's probably most suitable for women.