Altars and Shrines
by Erika Ginnis
One of my dear friends, who I was married to at the time, made a comment about me once that has stayed with me over the years.
We were getting ready to move into a new house, and we were having some kind of conversation about decorating style. From out of the blue, he said, “Oh yeah, your decorating style is Early American Shrine.”
I stopped what I was doing. I turned around and was actually silent for a moment (anyone who knows me can attest to the rarity of this action). I thought about it for a minute and then broke out laughing. I realized he was totally right. I had just never thought of it in quite that way before.
I asked him to elaborate, and he was more than glad to do so! He said “Given the opportunity, you will make anything into a shrine or altar. Look around at all your stuff and tell me if that isn’t true. You put candles on either side of everything, you add flowers and incense whenever you possibly can. They are all altars. It’s cool. I like it. It’s just what you do to anything that will sit still long enough.”
I took a look around, and I had to admit he was right. It cracked me up. Since that time, I have come to accept with amusement this tendency to create altars wherever I go. I have even used to it to my advantage, being a witch and a healer and a creator of spaces both private and public where people congregate.
define a shrine or altar
Before I go any further, I want to look at some definitions. I sometimes use shrine and altar interchangeably. They are, however, slightly different things, according to Encarta World English Dictionary 2001:
Shrine [shrin], noun (plural shrines)
1. Holy place of worship: a sacred place of worship associated with a holy person or event
2. Container for holy relics: a case or other container for sacred relics, for example, the bones of a saint
3. Tomb of holy person: the tomb of a saint or other revered figure
4. Niche for religious icon: a ledge or alcove for a religious icon, for example, in a church
5. Something revered: an object or place revered for its associations or history
(Pre-12th century. From Latin scrinium, “a case for books or papers,” of uncertain origin. First used to denote a container.)
Al·tar [áwlt?r], noun (plural al·tars)
1. Raised ceremonial religious structure: a raised structure, typically a flat-topped rock or a table of wood or stone, or raised area where religious ceremonies are performed
2. Communion table: the table or other raised structure in a Christian church on which the bread and wine of communion are prepared
(Pre-12th century. From Latin altare, from altaria, “burnt offerings,” from, probably, adolere, “to burn up.”)
By these definitions, I have a working altar and many shrines. Since I sometimes use the shrines to do magickal work as well, the meanings get less clear; thus, I use both words. In general, for me a shrine is to something or someone, and an altar is for doing workings.
Now that I have touched on some definitions, I want to set them aside and say that what I really hope you get out of this article is permission to explore and develop what works for you, call it what you will.
why place shrines and altars?
It makes sense to me to recognize the divinity in us and our surroundings. I love arranging things to add that quality of the sacred. I believe it does many things for us. It speaks to a deep part of us that is below the conscious mind, to the deep ocean of the soul. It calms and delights the prehistoric part of us that is, at this moment, still sitting by a fire and telling the mythic stories that run in our blood — the part of us that is in awe and fear of the dark night, the bright moon and the workings of the world, no matter what we do for our living in the modern day to day.
Shrines and altars also speak, at least to me, of beauty. I feel more connected to a sense of grace and loveliness when I am setting things out in a specific way. It puts me in a place of being mindful and honoring, rather than the place of rushing. It helps to remind me that I am spirit. It gives me a place to focus.
My head has sometimes been known to harass me and say; “Hey, what the heck does it matter that you are placing these things thus and so? They are just things, physical objects; how can that affect anything?” In case you also are plagued by this type of inner dialog (or perhaps outer dialog with spouse, partner or roommate), I will say this: I think there are at least two things at work here. (I will warn you that I spend a lot of time seeing things in pairs of dichotomies. I look at a paradox and get really giddy, since I often see both opposites as simultaneously true, and that is where I often find Spirit.)
First, when I take the time to pay attention, when I have an intention and dedicate a space (regardless of the size) to something, it changes me internally. The altar exists inside of me somehow. It creates a mental and spiritual and energetic shift inside of me. This is nontrivial. Some would say that all our experience is really our perceptions of our experience and therefore all reality is actually inside of us. Changing something within us, then, can have a tremendous impact. Whether or not you subscribe to this line of thought, it is easy to see how much our inner stance colors our outer experience.
Second, I think that everything is energy and that when you place your intention and direction onto physical objects you do indeed change them on some level. One way of looking at the world says that everything is part of One Thing, and that everything is just arrangements of energy. So the very act of arranging things with sacred intention is by its very nature divine and imbues an even “greater” concentration of sacred energy into the act and by extension the objects acted upon.
a shrine or altar for a deity or spirit
Now, there is the added aspect for an altar or shrine of the energy of a particular god or goddess, or perhaps the fey; as pagans, we may have direct interaction with all of these as real and tangible. When you create an altar or shrine for a particular energy, being or archetype, you are going to be working with yet another layer of interaction and experience, and I should add, opinion. I know from my own personal experience that I created an altar for Yemayá with all the various things that she would find sacred. The “odd” thing was that I did this prior to even knowing who she was, what her name was and what she would traditionally have on an altar. She was just very clear in telling me what was supposed to be there (see “She Moves in Mysterious Ways: My Relationship with Yemayá,” under the pen name Iris WaterStar, Widdershins, volume 2, issue 2).
If you know that you want to create a shrine for a specific god or goddess, I think it is always wise and also great fun to do research before you begin. Find some reference books about the deity you are working with, and find out what kind of colors, objects and symbols are sacred to that deity. You may even find pictures of specific shrines and altars that will give you some ideas. Take the time to meditate on the god or goddess. I believe if you allow yourself to get internally still, you can connect with something within that can guide you in your creation. It can be an amazing experience.
One word of caution: If you get really good at this, please remember that you may not want to or be able to provide every single thing the god or goddess might “suggest” on the altar. Some of them might ask for actual living lions or precious gems, or something else that might not be feasible. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” can come in really handy here. Statues, photographs, artwork, all of these things can give the energy you are looking for without breaking your lease or your budget. Work with the energy gently, and allow it to be an inspiration.
Your space does not have to be dedicated to a particular god or goddess. Choose whatever you want your intention to be. It can be a place of prayer, or meditation. It can be a creative expression, or even an altar to creativity. It doesn’t always have to be specific. It can be general, such as a shrine containing items that bring a sense of calm or peace. It may be a fountain or a place in your backyard. You may use your altar for magickal workings or for contemplation.
we create shrines every day
Granted, I look at the world through altar-colored glasses. But I believe we create shrines all the time, even if we are not conscious of it. Sometimes they are for things that we would not really choose to honor. That pile of bills we are ignoring in the corner looks a lot like a shrine to a sense of lack. The television that we arrange our living rooms around is certainly a focus of energy. Is there a mantra in our heads that is saying things that don’t really serve us? These “accidental” creations are very powerful uses of energy. I am a proponent of doing as much of what we do on purpose as possible. If not that, I propose we become aware at some point of what the heck we are doing, so we can make choices about how we direct our energy. I believe that we are each spirit. We are part of the divine. We have power. We can create. What kinds of altars do you see around you? Are there ones in your life you would change?
For me, the act of making an altar is part of reclaiming my own power to create or identify sacred space. I grew up with a lot of messages that said that someone else had that power, not me. The first altars I made were difficult for me. I had an internal fear that someone was going to smite me down since I wasn’t “qualified,” that there was this perfect blueprint I had to follow (which I didn’t have) in order to do it “right.”
Over time, I have found many powerful traditions with very specific ways to create and bless a shrine or altar. Such ways come from all religions. They are spiritually valuable to people and as such deserve to be honored and respected. I use many of them. The information has been handed down for centuries because it works. However, keep in mind that these traditions are not the only ways to create sacred space. Get still and go deep inside of you; find the perfect expression of a shrine or altar that is unique just for you. You don’t need someone else’s permission. It may draw from a particular tradition or from several, or from none. The act of finding this part of you can be incredibly freeing and validating.
Some altars are transitory for a day or a season or a specific ritual (some would argue that all things in form are transitory, but that is a separate conversation!), and some altars are a more permanent fixture.
When you have a personal altar or shrine that is more or less permanent, it will collect and hold energy — not only from you, but also from the energies you work with and people who see it. This can be a great thing and a powerful element to draw from. Stonehenge comes to mind. Alternatively, a personal altar or shrine can be something you might want to clear out now and again. I often suggest people occasionally take their altar or shrine objects down and clean or dust them or rearrange them. Doing this can keep the energy clearer and more current. It can also simply make room for change on a personal level. It can feel really good to redo an altar and bring it up to date with where we are at in our lives.
This rearrangement may happen with or without prior planning. A few months ago, I got two fabulous cats. One of them appears to love feathers to the exclusion to all else in the material world. This love has prompted me to shift some things on my main altar, for reasons that became obvious each time I had to replace various items from the floor when I would return home. Also, my fountain shrines needed to be moved to a higher altitude so they would not become drinking bowl shrines. Thus, I have learned firsthand something I have often told students in my altar outline from one of my classes: “If you have children or pets, it is wise to consider what the best placement of your altar should be.”
I am going to conclude this article with that very outline. It presents a few things to consider when creating an altar or shrine. Please use it if you find it valuable. Please do not take it as a set of rules. There are more than enough of those to go around.
I do have suggestions, however. I would suggest approaching this activity from a grounded and centered place so that you will bring more of yourself, and therefore more of the divine, to it. Bring beauty to your creation; let it shine. I would suggest having fun with it. See what you can do when you add a candle or two to the top of a bookcase, or place some flowers in front of a picture. Perhaps we can start a whole new decorating style.
an altar or shrine can be many things
1. Place of prayer
2. Place of gratitude
3. Focus of meditation or magick
4. Reminder of self
5. Dedicated be to a specific deity
6. Place of peace
7. Expression of beauty
8. Creative expression
9. Sacred space
it’s nice to have a reminder space
* Helps to calm you and remind you that you are spirit
how to start if you don’t have one
1. Choose a space.
2. Define the area using cloth, table, rocks, other. It doesn’t have to be flat; it can be a wall shrine (this might be good if you have children or pets).
3. Be conscious of your attention and intention.
4. Start to gather and arrange some objects that have meaning for you, that remind you of your highest, best soul-self, that make you feel good or smile. For example:
* Incense burner and incense
if you already have one
1. Clean it.
2. Add to it.
3. Keep your journal there.
4. Make new room for changes in your self.
5. Recommit to creativity or to the deity.
6. Make a new shrine somewhere else.
Erika Ginnis offers spiritual counseling and coaching, psychic reading, healing and classes though her practice “Inspiration is the In-Breath of Spirit.”