Altars can take all shapes and sizes. Many have a simple representation of the patron deities, some candles, a cup, and herbs and crystals. It can be as big as an entire table, and as small as a small statuette. There can be sage bundles and lighter present, or frilly scarves and flowers. Whatever the setup, altars have a sacred meaning for Pagans, and many religions.
There is no hard or fast rule for what goes on an altar. I am sure you have seen a few set ups, in which a chalice (cup), athame (knife), cauldron (holds burning cinder blocks for burning herbs), representations of the 5 elements, a Goddess statue, a God statue, a plate for food, incense holder (usually holding a stick ready to be lit, or smoking), and candles. Some altars are set in the cardinal directions-North, South, East, and West. There may be a large geode in the northern quadrant, a feather or incense in the east quadrant, a candle or something burning in the south, and water or seashells in the west. The fifth section, called spirit by many Pagans, may be represented by the deities, or with something special.
Many Pagans believe that each cardinal direction has an association.
In the north is the element of earth. Earth is honored and represented as an homage to the fact we live on a big chunk of rock floating out into the cosmos that happens to sustain life. Geodes, semi-precious stones, or a good ole river rock is a representation of the earth, and in it we place the rock in the north. Other associations with north is the idea that the earth provides stability. Standing in a boat on water gives you a feeling of not being connected to earth through gravity. The idea of being grounded comes from the lack of movement sensation. Another attribute is the idea that the way a person acts or presents their energy is being rock solid, or earth-like. I am the earth element in my coven, as I am constantly reminding people that there is no need to get spun up over something, and we should investigate before we have a reason to get upset, or read too much into a statement. Other attributions to the north, and to earth is the zodiac signs. Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn signs are all considered earthy and grounded. Now, there are a LOT of other factors that form the personality of any person, and it is no different than that of astrological sign. The colors normally associated with earth is brown, green, or any other forest color.
East, the next direction, is associated with air, communication, and learning. Oxygen sustains us, and when we talk, we use the air to transmit sound waves, and our thoughts are like the wind, untouchable, yet tangible. Those items that can represent air, communication and learning can include feathers, smoke, or a scroll. Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius’ are all considered air elements, and really good at communication. My zodiac sign is Libra, and I am very good at communicating. It is not my end all and be all, but at times Pagans can find themselves more communicative, and at times less communicative. It just means we are channeling an element stronger at times than others. The colors associated with
South is fire, and yes, the first few thoughts you have regarding what fire represents can be passion, desire, ego, and heat. It can also represent release, as burning something releases and destroys the ties that bind. The fire is as life sustaining as the earth and air. Flames can be saving and damaging, depending on how you treat it. Too much passion, and you burn out, too little, and you are cold. Those with a fire sign in the zodiac is Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius’.
In the west is the water element that is closely associated to emotions, and while water is the most flexible of nature, it can also be the most destructive. It can wear away at you over time, or it’s absence can cause you a lot of pain. Emotions are the same. They can overwhelm you like a tsunami, or withdrawn, it can make you feel desolate. Those who are emotionally deep usually channel this element more. Why each direction is associated as it is has had me postulate that in Europe, in the south, toward the equator, the sun makes the lands get warmer and warmer. The west has the Atlantic ocean with it’s massive amount of water. However, my hypothesis goes flat when you think of the east in Europe, as in the east there is a significant amount of land mass, which does not explain the air element being in the east, and the earth element in the north.
Many questions arise in how Pagans made the determination as to what or why there is an association to the directions, or any of the other baffling determinations are made. I cannot answer that, as you have me at a similar loss! Just wait until you get into astrology, there is more illogical determinations, and less in the way of explanations than you would believe.
Spirit does not get a direction, and some Pagans do not acknowledge it as a fifth element. But some Pagans do, and it is exactly what it means, the spirit within us all, and with the universal spirits or deities.