For years, I cast subtle judgment on my friends’ altars. I sneered at what I considered to be capitalistic passivity: I bought a crystal, put it on a shelf, and there you have it. I had always thought of altars as static mantles of new age nonsense, collecting dust like the porcelain sh*t my Polish grandmother loved to encase in glass. Naturally, as with all assumptions I have made regarding spiritual practices that predate the pyramids, I was in for a learning curve. But in my practice as an astrologer, I found myself experimenting with altars and devotionals as part of my ritual practice — and they changed my life.
WHAT ARE ALTARS & DEVOTIONALS?
To begin: An altar is a consecrated ritual space, which, if you’ve ever lived in New York City, may be the size of a takeout container. In one’s home, an altar functions as the focal point of magic, intention, and creative power. This is where a magician keeps their tools: wands, cards, stones, chalices, and other useful ephemera.
A devotional, meanwhile, is a sort of ritual pop-up, honoring a specific god or ancestor, calling on help, marking time. These are assembled with a clear intention, designed for a window of time, made to make sh*t happen. It is these that captivated my imagination and altered my relationship with the planets and gods.
It began in late 2022, during that interminable Mars retrograde in Gemini, a turgid creative quicksand that devoured all my remaining inspiration. Artistically, I felt like I had nothing to contribute. I didn’t know what kind of writer I was anymore (I still don’t). So I went back to my sixth grade love, the one I had before I had any creative identity, when it was just me and teen magazines on my bedroom floor: collaging.
At that point, I was writing planetary explainers for my NYLON column: breakdowns of the sun, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. I was studying the practical integrations of the planets into everyday life — for example, each of the seven traditional planets has its own day and even hour. I was reading the planetary invocations from The Orphic Hymns, an arcane set of Dionysian psalms to the gods and planets.
I started to make collages to each of the planets, using old comic books and any dusty magazine I could grab: from the re-sale stands and Russian bookstores in my neighborhood. The Venus spread features ’70s-era Wonder Woman, the X-Men’s Emma Frost, and male models with no buccal fat; Mercury’s collage recruits the hot twinks of Gayletter, along with the Flash, and elders from Legends of Drag, to celebrate the sexy, fleet-footed trickster. On the back of each collage, I’d write the planet’s Orphic Hymn (I must insist on the Athenassakos translation), and on every day of the week, I’d pull out the corresponding collage, read the blessing, and turn everything over to the god of the moment. Monday, Moon’s Day, would be one of contemplation, darkness and reflection; or, as they say on Jersey Shore, GTL. Wednesday, miercoles, Mercury’s day, would be when I’d finally answer emails, pay bills, and get a hold of my schedule.
By this point, I was enduring the once-in-a-lifetime carnage of a Uranus-sun transit, going months without a home, crashing on friends’ couches, unsure where I’d be the next week, in a void. Turning every day over to a different planet gave me some sense of order, and meaning, as my life melted down.
MY DEVOTIONAL PRACTICE
By the summer, I’d found more stable lodgings and was ready to take my practice to the next level. I was reading Gordon White’s The Chaos Protocols and listening to Caroline W. Casey’s Visionary Activist Astrology. Through White, I came to understand: The planets are ambivalent to us. The gods aren’t here to hold our hands. If you’re going to pray to them, you have to make it interesting for them. Casey, meanwhile, emphasized creative dialogue with the planets. Maybe they’re not answering our calls because they can’t speak our language. Why not give them a show, with food, art, dance, music. Stop screaming into the void. Get creative.
I started with the new and full moons, two axes of ritual practice since time immemorial, which, of course, I’d written off as Williamsburg witch-lite gibberish. But with a new and full moon going down once a month, respectively, around two weeks apart, I could make a treat of it, without feeling like I was taking on more daily “homework” in my magical practice. The new moon begins in darkness and opens the way for new beginnings. The full moon acts as a culmination point, when all that’s been cultivated over the last month or year comes to harvest. It always goes down in the opposite sign we’re currently in; if it’s Sagittarius, the new moon goes down in Gemini.
So I went in: I’d configure the moon’s altar to its sign and ruler. For the Taurus new moon, I set up my collage of Venus (the sign’s ruler); bought fresh flowers, pastries, and wine; cleaned the apartment; and lit candles. I found the act of sacramental decoration, of making something beautiful for a higher power, to be pleasing. The wellness-based self-indulgence I’d resented was irrelevant here. I was making my home into a holy chamber, pouring a glass of wine (or beer, in Jupiter’s case) for the higher-ups, and welcoming them to share with me.
I’d read any relevant Orphic Hymns, praise the deity involved, and often make requests or supplications. Soon, I’d go beyond the planets, collaging and invoking goddesses like Tyche (goddess of fortune), Hekate (high titaness of the crossroads and ruler of all new moons), and Persephone (supreme femme of the underworld; she is pleased with fresh pomegranate seeds).
The practice immediately shifted my consciousness. Until the candles burned down to the wick, I was in a liminal space, beyond time. Whatever I was supposedly in need of — prosperity, health, love, even an end to war — already existed here; I’d bought the flowers and invested in it, created something that would reverberate back and forward in time. I’d entered the god space in which all that could be already is, in which all problems are solved, in which everything is complete. I’d put the money and time in, Windexed the folding table I use as my altar, and bought a tasteful (but reasonably priced!) malbec to let them know I was game to play.
Individual action began to feel irrelevant, as did minute worrying. I could focus my intention into creative dialogue, into something tangible and visible, and leave it there. It wasn’t meditation, so much as cultivated peace. When the candles had burnt out and I was ready to leave, I’d dismantle it and and know that I’d bought in, that I’d made myself a participant, that I did not wish to be a martyr praying in vain to cruel planets — but a co-creator seeking to serve the will of the gods, from my place on this plane of consciousness.
On Fridays, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, I’d light Shabbat candles and recite the Hebrew blessings, pouring wine for my ancestors, along with the gods. This blew sh*t open, creating psychedelic dinner scenes that crossed Mulan with Six Feet Under, rooting me in the present moment as a living emissary of a long and remarkably opinionated lineage. If I put out a plate and listened, I’d be in for endless takes: Why’d I skimp on the cheap wine? Could I not afford something nicer for them? Why hadn’t I invited anyone from my mother’s side? Was there more challah?
Every altar has marked time. When I’m broke, I think back to my resplendent offerings to Venus and can access the indulgent prosperity involved. It feels like showing up, like withholding a standard, like keeping yourself honest in the eyes of the planets that rule our lives. It’s a way to deal, to return to that immortal space outside of time, to connect to one’s immortality.
HOW TO CREATE ALTARS & DEVOTIONALS
I feel that I’m still at the beginning of my devotional practice, but here are the basics. Consider the intention of your altar: Are you welcoming in a presence, asking for aid, consecrating something, or all of the above? Which archetype are seeking out? Perhaps you’re looking to blast open the gates of abundance. You may be served by invoking Jupiter. You could build your altar on a Thursday (Thor’s day, which belongs to Jupiter), or when the moon transits through Sagittarius or Pisces — Jupiter’s signs. Perhaps you’d like to bring in Dionysus, Saturn, and Juno — Jupiter’s heir, father, and wife, respectively; or any of his parallel incarnations from other faiths, like Ganesha or Odin. How would you want to feed or inspire Jupiter? You can look up traditional ritual offerings, but also get into it through your own creative language. Once the placements are set, consider what you’d like to read, sing, or chant to celebrate the god’s booming presence.
As each of the seven “traditional” planets of astrology has its own day, think about how you’d like to make them weekly presences in your life. Perhaps you give cash to the homeless on Mercury’s day, as he rules currency — and often hides in the guise of someone in need. Perhaps Saturday, Saturn’s day, is your time to catch up on finances and clean your house. Think about how music, altars, and artistic practices could be configured with this setup.
For clean up, I always stick to Gordon White’s rule, from The Chaos Protocols, which has all the information you could need on elevating your ritual practice: set up, leave the offering out for a respectful amount of time, then clean up. Dispose of what is spoiling, and take the rest to the crossroads. “Much as on the African plains or in the open ocean, there is something of a food chain when it comes to spirit offerings,” White writes. “The big ones eat first. Then the others do. You do not want to be feeding or attracting the others to your house.”
The possibilities for what you do with your altar practice is endless: love spells, healing, protection, recovery, relief, prosperity, and beyond. But until you can make your relationships with the planets interesting — to you and them — you won’t get much traction. Dare yourself to throw a banquet that could stop the planets in your orbit. Are you ready to entertain?