by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
The practice of magick—or of any spirituality really—is often described as a path. We walk the path. There are many paths up a mountain. Witches walk the crooked path. There is a well-worn path and a hidden path. There is a road less traveled.
These are all ways of describing movement, often but not always progress, and change. How things look at one point on a path can be radically different when you hike further along. The path can have peaks and valleys, the equivalent of high and low points for us. Sometimes it’s easy to walk. Other times the terrain is quite rough on our spiritual feet, causing pain or stress to us and requiring more effort.
We each have an individual path, but that path may coincide with that of a tradition. The techniques of a tradition are the tools and skills to better help navigate that path. Someone has gone up ahead and left information for you to help you traverse it better. As more people go in the same general direction, the path becomes more obvious, though Witches often seek the adventure of stepping off the path and into the wilds, it’s nice to be able to find your way back to common cause. And sometimes your adventures weave onto other paths, and you take those skills, symbols, and ideas back to your crooked path of the Witch.
In the process of creating an individual practice, something I’ve noticed among the practitioners whom I admire and respect the most is the transition. Their path changes, grows, and evolves. It keeps its roots. It’s not flitting from one thing to another, disconnected, but there is a continual synthesis.
As a path, I often describe it following a trail of breadcrumbs. In 2019 I wrote about it specifically here. It’s a key to understanding how to really craft your own practice. There is a belief that once you make communion, or union, with your Holy Guardian Angel—your Higher Self, Bornless One, or Watcher—you do not need any other teacher, that the HGA will teach you. Yes and no. When your connection is clear and direct, your HGA will certainly be a primary source, but often its role is to guide you to the next piece. You might not easily hear linear information from it, though you might. But what I have consistently found is that the HGA will guide you to the next step in the spiritual path, be it direct instructions, connections to other spirits and gods, the right book or course or other physical teacher who will help you in the process. While your HGA becomes the primary tour director of your personal path of evolution, you don’t have to do it all alone or create it out of nothing. Everything you experience nudges you to the next experience, the next bit of information, insight, relationship, healing, or challenge. All are part of the path, not just what you read about or do at the altar. Yet the altar is a visible manifestation of the process.
For me, the personal altar is key to my own unique path. Today many keep shrines to a multitude of deities, which is wonderful. Home spirit shrines, ancestral shrines, patron deity shrines, faery shrines, guardian shrines, elemental altars, prosperity altars, romance altars, healing altars…. our homes become fully functional temples, and I highly encourage it. There is a lot to learn and do at all those altars. Yet the most important is the personal altar, the working altar of the Witch, often, in days past, the only altar, where all these other altars would partake in a piece of the main altar, if at all. The working altar is the microcosm of the Witch’s world, their life, and the most subtle and powerful form of magick is the placing of something on the altar to bring it into your world, and the taking of something off the altar, to remove it from your world.
While we might keep a specific altar to a tradition we are dedicated in and working in, at some point, we have to bring together our own vision of our own world, on our own altar. We might dedicate a second altar to that specific tradition, but the primary altar is where the deep work on the path is made manifest.
Those magickal practitioners I most admire have their altars change, not often, but often enough. Of course there are the seasonal changes of the Witch’s altar. You might move things around and decorate for the eight sabbats or highlight a particular seasonal full or new Moon. But there are the broader changes that reflect your current work. As you practice a new pattern or work with a new tool, or a new spirit or deity relationship manifests, this should be reflected in your altar.
For a time, I was deeply invested in planetary magick, and my altar had a seven-candle brass holder, with tapers for each of the seven planets used in my work. I went through a long process of deepening my relationship with the seven wandering star gods, and then when that was complete, my altar changed. In a period of deep plant spirit healing and education, my mortar and pestle became centered on my altar, with many bottles of oils and tinctures of the plants I was working with at the time. My HGA brought me through a guide series of working on the “Crown of Witches” using imagery of both the north star and the zodiac, and the center pentacle of my altar was ringed with twelve stones for the zodiac. I would turn the ring for each visionary ritual, placing the stone of that sign, that point of the crown, in the center before me for the rite. In doing deeper elemental work, I would have various cards of the tarot out from the appropriate elemental suit, and have the court cards prominently displayed, asking the court to be inner world teachers. For a time I was building a better relationship with a familiar god of my youth, Ganesha, and had my Ganesha statue centered on my altar. Currently I’m completing work with seven goddesses who are in some way aligned with Venus’ powers, and have seven goddess statues upon my green cloth at the “top shelf” of my altar, along with copper, emerald, rose quartz, and various Venusian oils, incenses, and talismans.
The basics of my altar always remain, as they are fundamental to my worldview. The four elemental hallows are there; the black and white pillar candles for Goddess and God are there, as well as my cauldron, my pentacle, my scrying bowl, my stones, tarot cards, my incense burner and ash pot and offering bowl. But the change indicates an addition to my practice, a particular focus at this time, a request to the universe about what I want to experience or learn or the direction in which I have chosen to grow. And the universe—and those powers embodied by the altar—respond. When the work is mutually agreed to be complete, the altar is reset—sometimes to a ‘neutral’ position of just the basics, sometimes to a new direction—with many of the same fundamental elements.
Gifts from other practitioners can often be a sign from your HGA as to what is next. Several gifts of the same theme are a cosmic 2 x 4 to get your attention. A gift of a set of mala beads from one and a mantra book from another within a week of each other began for me a now lifelong fascination with mantra practice, and eventually a friendship and travels with someone who was deeply trained to be a mantra teacher, having great insight beyond the books to share with me. I have had significant gifts come to me from elders in the community, including a key and my first amber and jet necklace, unknowingly confirming a period of significant magickal work I had been doing.
Readings from other practitioners when questioning your life can open a new door. I had an astrology reading that mentioned alchemy, and it opened the door to a whole exploration of something I was fascinated with in my younger years, now with the context to understand it better and put it to use.
I was always a Witch, even when working with foreign gods or the grimoire techniques. I considered broadly what I was doing as my Witchcraft, and as I gained experience, much of what I learned was folded into my daily understanding, worldview, and way of doing things. While I encourage people to fully engage in the trainings that are before them when studying in a school, tradition, or with a teacher, there is that point of adepthood where you have to synthesize all those pieces yourself, with your HGA, but it’s up to you, no one else outside of you.
Get your foundation. Learn a way deeply so you don’t flounder and fail to recognize what actually works and what does not, but then it is up to you. This is the key to the mature practitioner. In Part 1, we asked ourselves questions about setting up our practice. In Part 2, we looked at all the pieces we had and how they do or do not work together. And at this third step, we progress forward in our own unique way.