Updated: Jan 10
This came up in a discussion with a client recently. A cigar box altar specifically are fairly well rooted in traditions of Dia de los Muertos. Here is some information on the more traditional approach to this. That said, the need for portable altars, or things that can be modular or hidden is fairly universal. In many cases, while you might be completely comfortable with your spiritual practice, that doesn’t mean everyone around you will be. This is often a way to mantain a level of secrecy around your work. For me, this allows me to honor specific spirits at different times. Folk rotate on the physical table, and can take turns so to speak. If you take care in creating the box or whatever, then I’ve never had a spirit have a problem with the idea.
What is a proper altar anyway?
So let’s talk altars in general then. An altar is just a space dedicated to magical work in one way or another. You can have altars to different spirits, ancestor altars, and working altars, designed for various magickal intentions. Sure, some folks call some of these things different things. IN function though they’re often the exact same ideas and concepts. Most altars that don’t move around or need to be modular. That make this as simple as setting things up on your table that fit for your intent or spirit. I’ll write a general altar guide at some point.
For something portable, the idea doesn’t change much. Really, for practical spellwork, I don’t freak out over this. Mostly it’s just a box to put the spellwork stuff into between workings. Practical spellwork stuff is generally transient anyway, so I don’t freak out about it much. For me, this is an easy way to keep spirit work sorted. For me, I’ll make a different box or container for many of my spirits. The trick here is to consider it something like a house or residence for the spirit. You see similar ideas in everything from Thai spirit houses to things like spirit pots or fairy houses. The kind of difference in the way I do things here is that for me this is closer to a room inside a house. Portability
You always have the option to put your ritual or spiritual things away. Sure, if you CAN leave things out for a spirit, often this is best, but we can’t always do that. It’s also nice to work with something portable for a spirit regularly. It sets your mind to these things being about/for these spirits. This allows you to take the spirit along with you for things like ritual walks. This should be something that you make the effort to make nice. A lot of how we’ll do this is based on your goal here, and what materials you have.
I mostly use these to throw things in that are for practical spellwork. The disposable nature of a cardboard shoebox lends itself to things that don’t need to last long. You can put all sorts of sigils and such on the lids inside. That kind of thing doesn’t need much of a guide. Note though if you’re travelling with this, some cloth or the like helps to pad things so that fragile materials. If you’re using these for more permanent setups, you can look at the cigar box ideas for ideas. Cigar boxes are actually what prompted this. Cigar boxes have long history of use in particular kinds of spirit work, as we talked about above. This has entered more general spirit work practices however, and has spread to wider styles. For me, the wooden cigar boxes were this mixture of nicer than they had any right to be, and disposable. When I first started doing this stuff, this was something that I upcycled all the time. That meant I saved money when I needed to, but it still managed to be nice for everyone. This is the kind of thing that’s all about preparation, or the time, energy, and effort you put in. We want this to look nice for everyone. Here’s what I do to get this kind of thing going.
Deciding what should be in it. – I start here, mostly so I can decide things like what size box this needs to be. Because I do this as a way of connecting with spirit, and I keep special coffee mugs for everyone, often these need to be big enough to fit those coffee mugs. I often look for the coffee mug, a statue or representation of the spirit, although sometimes this is more a sigil or something like that on wood. Candles and candleholders for the boxes are nice, if you can afford to have the things tied up in just one box. I’ll find a good picture or whatever sometimes, to paste in the inside of the box.
Finding the box – The biggest thing this needs to do here is be the right size, although unless you’re buying the ones actually made for crafting, you should look a bit at the quality of the hinges and the like. Remember that the ones actually made for cigars can often be cheap, and made to be disposable.
Prepping the box – If the box has a grain that will tolerate this, sanding it lightly to take some paint can be a big help. Clean it well, and of course, if the smell of tobacco doesn’t work for the spirit you’re working with, you might try to descent it a little bit. The insides of these are often nice to line with felt. I usually leave the lid for a picture of the spirit, which if properly scaled, can be glued into the lid.
You can get boxes that are both finished and unfinished. If you’re trying to hide, I suggest a finished box, as you won’t want much on the outside, so it’ll stay more easily hidden. If you’re out, and just looking for easy ways to hold things, it’s nice to have unfinished boxes so you have something to do with it.
Paint or finish if needed – if you have an unfinished box, I suggest painting, woodburning or the like. Designs that are special to the spirit in question are lovely. Demonic folks, seals are great for the top of the boxes.
Pocket tin altars.
This is an interesting thing for me. These have long history in some forms of folk magic, especially from Catholic contexts, because those Saint cards fit neatly inside an altoids tin. If you do get actual altoids tins, these are super easy to keep hidden. This has to be in some ways my favorite type of portable altar, but the size limits greatly what can be put in something like this. If needed, they do make small, cheaper candle holders that are designed to hold chime candles, which can fit inside these. I think I remember having to cut the bottom off of a few candles to make them fit when I was doing this all the time. I usually keep this very simple, a picture of the spirit, or sigil, a candle to work with, and a couple of trinkets for them. This becomes a way to have a baseline around for working with someone. You don’t really NEED anything, but this is a baseline that’s nice to have.
Portable spell kits
Of course, there’s also the idea of portable kits for spellwork, containing a few magically important herbs, candles, and a couple other things that allow you to come up with the basics of the materials we like to have for spellwork at all times. These are nice, but something that’s probably best to deal with in a future article. This isn’t ever needed. A lot of the reasons someone would want to make something like this come down to being able to keep the Work a secret. I’ll tell you that for most spirits, this isn’t exactly needed. I know that my spirits don’t throw a fit when I don’t have everything set up in ways that they like. They’re reasonable beings, and if you’re at any kind of risk, and not just physical, if your practice is exposed, they’re unlikely to ask you to extend yourself. In short, do the best you can. If you’re in a place where this is an option that you can use, I’m hoping this helps. Honestly, I’ve always liked the way this works. I tend to take a lot of care in making these, and it can be more special than a space on a table.