Article by Amanda Forrester, originally posted at Temple of Athena the Savior.
Like many Pagans, I just don’t feel right if I don’t have have my altars around. Paganism is a religion that requires a minimum of a few tools, and often its adherents can go a little overboard acquiring more and more stuff. As I’ve said before, just creating an altar is an act of devotion, lovingly picking each and every piece not just for its aesthetic qualities, but even more importantly, for their symbolism. When I have moved, the altars are usually the last to be packed in the old house, and the first thing to go up in the new house (after the heavy furniture for that room is moved in, so I don’t risk breaking any of the delicate pieces).
The exception was when I moved to the cabin here, but that was because it was a months-long process and because it was several states away from where I was at the time, we would drive to our land, load up the boxes of stuff we had bought out to homestead, maybe sleep a little, and then head back until we could afford another trip. So when we finally came to stay on our land permanently, I’m sure you can imagine it was a bit of a clusterfuck. We didn’t know where anything was, it was all jumbled, and it took months to get the cabin to where it had distinguishable rooms instead of everything being everywhere. This place did not start feeling like it was truly mine until I had my first altar set up. I know that many Pagans can relate.
I have lived life like a nomad for many years, and during overnight stays, road-trips, and such, I felt disconnected and set adrift. While altars are not required to connect to the Gods—They are Everywhere, after all—it certainly makes it easier for our human minds to realize that we are slipping into sacred space. It gives us a place to focus our prayers, meditations, and efforts, and it gives the Gods a home and gateway here on earth to step through. Many other Pagans must travel for business or family reasons, and I thought I’d share my solution to this problem: my portable altar kit.
Above is a picture of the altar kit in use, set on a table in a motel I stayed a few nights at last month. I am burning a bay leaf as an offering, and the cup in the middle holds barley and tobacco, more offerings. The only thing the kit does not contain is water to create khernips, or lustral water, but bottled water is easy enough to pick up in a gas station, grocery store, or snack station at an airport.
This what the kit looks like when it’s packed away. I think it’s a make-up bag, or a pencil bag, but it’s made of a tough, durable plastic, and zips shut so your tools will be safe. The bag is also white, the color of purity and cleansing. This is more of a happy accident than a plan on my part, since the bag was given to me. But I used several different types of containers for the kit before settling on this one as perfect for my needs. It is also light and inconspicuous when carried in a public place with the rest of your things.
When you unzip the bag, you’ll see that the supplies are separated, organized so it’s not a willy-nilly mess in the bag. Makes it easier to find what you want quickly. Starting from the left, back row: that is a old spice container from Aldi’s (which are taller than other brands I’ve found) with the label removed, that now carries incense, bay leaves, and a lighter. Incense is usually too long to fit into this all the way; that’s alright. I just cut the incense sticks in half with a pair of scissors to make them fit. Now they are easily portable and water-tight! They just won’t burn quite as long, but portability is the more important issue here. The short glass jar is full of pearled barley. There is half of one of those little one-shot bottles of Wild Turkey whiskey. I try to keep one of these itty bitty bottles in the kit at all times, and I usually have a couple at my house, too. Seriously, it’s like they were invented for Polytheists on the go, or Polytheists on a budget. The green tube used to hold mentos. Now it’s been re-purposed to carry loose tobacco. There’s a blue shotglass I got from goodwill to pour the libations into. And the plastic ziploc holds candles, mostly little tealights but also a few small votives in a few different colors. The green bag in the front holds all the “altar pieces”, all the various odds and ends and charms that have personal meaning and symbolism.
Above are all the altar pieces from the green bag before they are arranged in an pleasing way. Not all of them will be used every time. Some of these reside permanently in the kit, some of them are usually altar pieces at home that I grab when packing for the trip because I want to take them with me.
Several of the little symbols are pendants, and I specifically looked for them on Amazon. Charms for charm bracelets are another option that is usually very cheap and very specific. I have a small anvil that I bought to symbolize Hephaistos for $5. I usually have a few other things with me. Each time to get to where I am going, certain things will always be set up. But other symbols will be determined by Who I am honoring and why. It is never all in use at once. Thus, the altar is never the same when it is set up, but a living expression of my spirituality and devotion at that moment. The bag itself is constantly evolving. For example, I no longer have the pink, wire-wrapped stone because I was recently moved to bury it.
So this is the kit while it’s set up. In the center is the offering of the barley and tobacco, and the black “cup” it’s sitting in actually the top of the spice container that incense is now stored in. When I leave the motel, the offering must get cleaned up before I can pack the kit away.
Now, to the altar items in the pictures (skipping the keyring in foreground for now, I’ll get to that in a minute), starting to the left of the keyring and going in a circle clockwise.
The sword (a small pendant I got from Amazon): this is usually set up for War-Gods in general, and Athena and Ares in particular. If I wish to it can also stand for the element of Air and of the power of the mind and will, but it always stands for a fighting spirit and standing up for what is right. Most of the time it just sits there as an altar piece, but I have used it as a teeny tiny athame to move energy when I was in my Wiccan days (yeah, I’ve had this piece for a while!).
The ankh (another pendant): This is the Egyptian symbol of eternal life. This ankh is one of the things that is almost always used when I set up the temporary altar. In not specifically Egyptian-inspired ritual, it’s just there to make the altar look more Greco-Egyptian, to make the Egyptian Gods feel welcome if They wish to attend but were not specifically invited, and to remind myself of of my spiritual home. In Egyptian-inspired rituals, it’s used as a tool. It touches the offerings, and then the symbols of the Gods that are being offered to, to transfer the life-force of the offerings to the Gods.
A little crystalized-looking (plastic) owl with sliver eyes: This has multiple meanings for me. Besides the obvious association with my Goddess, it was given to me by a Hellenic Polytheist who has since died. So it also symbolizes connection with both my larger spiritual community and with our dead.
A sunburst ring: Symbolizes Helios, or Horus, or the solar aspects of any of my Gods, particularly Apollo and Isis. Helps to make the altar feel more Greco-Egyptian instead of just Greek. Usually it’s just propped up (pro tip: large rings like this come with their own display base already installed!) but for some important days or rituals I may wear it.
The pink candle is sitting on a flat rock that was laser-inscribed with a twelve-pointed star for the twelve Gods of Olympos. This is a one-of-a-kind commission that I got when I lived in Michigan.
The shotglass: In this picture you can see what is on the front of it. It says Las Vegas, and has a picture of cards and gambling chips. I picked it up for Hermes. I’m using it in this picture to hold the stick of incense aloft. Anything that does double duty in a small kit like this is invaluable. The shotglass was originally just for libations, but works just as well to hold incense. It won’t catch the ash, though.
A small Tiger’s Eye tower.
A sea shell: Can be used to symbolize Poseidon, Aphrodite as Sea-Goddess, or any of the water-nymphs, or the element of Water, or just as a small piece of Nature to have inside when stuck in the concrete jungle. I leave in the woods now, and spending 4 days in a city was not enjoyable for me after a year of that.
And finally, what I call my Goddess rock. This was something I found on the shores of Lake Michigan, when I was teenager, and still Wiccan-ish in practice. The rock is clearly in the shape of a woman’s body, with breasts, hips, solderers, and even a belly-button clearly visible. This is one of the only altar pieces I have that has lasted my entire Pagan “career”. When I’ve cleaned house, had to pare down altars, gotten rid of stuff voluntarily, or didn’t have space for whatever reason, there was never a question that this one would be kept. It has the weight of history to it. This is a piece that is not permanently in my portable kit, but lives on my main altar at home, and comes with me when I leave for overnight trips. The tools such as incense, barley, candles and such are always in the kit. A few (not all) of the altar pieces stay in it as well.
In the very front is a key ring, on which I’ve put symbols of the Gods that are most important in my life at the moment. The owl is obviously for Athena, and will likely be there forever. She is my Patroness, my Ideal, my North Star, Who I always hope to honor and Who I am always striving to be like, at least in a small part. Perhaps strangely, She is almost always not as Present a Deity as the Others I worship, but I still consider Her my patroness because She will always be the most important to me. I think the aloofness is part of Her nature.
The wooden turtle symbolizes Hermes, Who has been very present for me ever since I decided to make the leap to change my lifestyle and begin homesteading. I have lived like a nomad for most of life, never staying in one place long. This was something that was taught to me by my parents, because we moved an average of twice a year, all my life, sometimes across state lines. Yet, He’s never been more present for me than when I decided to put down permanent roots (and also during a brief bout of homelessness). This may seem to be contrary to His nature, since He is the protector of travelers, but He is also a rustic God Who protected shepherds and a farmstead’s boundaries. He is One of the most-faceted Deities in the Greek pantheon, perhaps anywhere, and I think this is going to be the beginning of a lifelong relationship.
The little flame is to symbolize Hestia, because I am getting very into constructing my own home cultus. I have tried to do that before, but only half-heartedly. Never knowing how long I was going to be living somewhere may have been a part of that. I know that is the main reason I was always been reluctant to develop a relationship with the land-spirits before, because I didn’t want to get attached to the spirits of a place that I knew I would be leaving. With luck and the blessing of the Gods, that will never happen again. This is my land, my home, and I don’t intend to leave it until I die. For the first time in my life I’m also heating my home almost entirely with wood heat. This would of course change the way I see Hestia!
And last but certainly not least, the deer celebrates Artemis, Who I appealed to when I was trying to find land. I named my homestead Artemis Acres in Her honor. Living in the woods, I have had more contact with Artemis than I have had since I was a teenager. I’m also hoping to take up hunting in the next few years.
This ring has several layers of meaning for me. Before making the kit these symbols were attached to the ring so I would not lose them, as I sometimes have a habit of doing. But it came to mean something more. The ring itself can be interpreted to symbolize myself, my family, and my life, with the Gods coming into and out of my life to work Their will. A few years ago, Dionysos would have had a symbol on this ring, and at some point, I fully expect He will. Ever since I met the God of Wine He has gone in and out of my life. There are intense periods of spiritual initiation and tearing down walls followed by years of dormancy. That’s part of what makes this keyring idea so great—it can be added to as a God becomes more important, or symbols can be taken away as a God steps back for a while. It’s adjustable.
The deer is actually a pin, but that’s easy enough to attach to the keyring. I’m only mentioning this to encourage people to think outside the box it what they use to make their own kits. It’s not hard. Basically it comes down to two rules:
- Think about the tools that you always use, than scale the size down (such as when I cut the incense sticks).
- Be creative! Not just in a “making pretty things” way, but in a “making stuff work that you wouldn’t think would work” way.
Most importantly, instead of large statues that you might normally have, look for small symbols. As I mentioned, jewelry is often where some of the best specimens can be found. Key chains, pendants, and rings that all have relevant themes can be used. Check out Goodwill and other used stores—you’d be surprised what you might find! I recently found a PEPPER SHAKER that was shaped like a well-known bust of Artemis. For fifty cents! Keep your eyes open for found items—natural or otherwise—that may hold meaning to you as well. Walk through the world with your eyes open instead of glued to a phone and you may be surprised what comes to you. Making this kit wasn’t hard, but acquiring everything for it did take time, several months, in fact. Don’t rush yourself and end up with less-than-satisfactory symbols.
There are other things you might add that I did not have in mine, such as a bandanna for an altar cloth, or runes or a tarot deck for divination. There is no one in the Kosmos exactly like you. Your relationship to the Gods, both the way you relate to Them and the way They relate to you, will be completely unique. So your portable altar kit will likewise be completely unique! I hope this post inspires you, and if it does, please share your creation with us!