Building Woo Spaces – Personal Shrines (Pt. 2)

Personal shrines are the backbone of a devotional practice. They are a physical manifestation of the relationship between the Power and the person, and as such serve as a site for honoring, contemplation, meditation, petitioning, and connection.

Not that you can’t do all of these things perfectly well without a shrine, of course. A shrine just helps everything along! Personally I find that just being able to see the shrine makes me more inclined to Do the Work. They’re reminders, and that’s one reason my shrines now stay in my living room instead of being tucked into a closet somewhere.

Why do we need reminders?

Just as a relationship requires regular maintenance, so too does a shrine. But it goes beyond that. Devotion is something you practice. Honoring is a verb. In the day-to-day rush it’s sometimes easy to forget shrine tending, or tell yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow”. Too much of that leaves you without a shrine at all, just a dusty collection of stuff on a shelf.

Now how often you use your shrine depends on your relationship. *shrug* I have friends I talk to every day, and friends I talk to once every couple of months, and some that I can go a year before contacting. Some get a quick IM and others get hours on the phone and still others get week-long visits. Interactions with the Powers are no different, and the frequency and intensity of shrine usage will depend largely on the individual relationships involved.

That being said, if you’re not doing it frequently or intensely enough for Them, They will certainly let you know!

So how do I build one?

Short answer? However you like.

Better answer? There’s a lot of freedom, but within that freedom there do tend to be some commonalities. Most (but not all) start with some sort of visual representation of the Power to be honored and a candle. After that people add offering dishes, incense (another type of offering), pretty décor, items that somehow connect with Them, etc. They can range from fairly utilitarian spaces to lushly ornate ones. There is no “this is how you do it” guide, are no hard-and-fast rules. Since shrines reflect personal relationships, they’re as unique as T/those involved. No two are exactly alike!

What are some options, then?

FIguring out what to do can be pretty overwhelming,  especially if shrines aren’t something you’re overly familiar with. So I contacted some people and got some examples. Below are shrines I received permission to share, used by people from a variety of traditions and honoring a variety of Powers. Hopefully these can help jump-start you if you don’t know where to begin, and inspire you if you want to freshen up shrines you already have. Because yes, shrines are not static. So don’t be scared to jump in and get to it – you can always change it around later!

A Collective Shrine Space

This happens to be my shrine space. Apologies for the blur!

 

The pictures at the top – photographs from Winter Wind Photography – represent the Three Realms of Celtic cosmology. The picture on the left represents the Land, the one on the right represents the Sea, and the picture in the center represents the Sky. Each picture has a shelf underneath, holding offering dishes and a candle. The shelf under Sea also contains rocks from Wales, where some of my Ancestors are from.

 

The middle of the setup is the working surface. There’s a crystal ball and a crystal skull flanking the central flower vase, representing the concept of cycles. The red powder in the glass jar is loose incense (amber resin), while the carved grey soapstone is my beloved incense burner. The black box on the left contains some specialized offering supplies, while the figure on the right holds my prayer beads in her hands and my ritual necklace in her lap. If I need any additional space for anything, including a full magickal altar, I either rearrange this shelf to free up the space or do the more space-intensive stuff elsewhere.

The cubbies underneath are all shrines and storage. On the top row I have storage for candleholders, my Lady Arianrhod’s shrine, my small need-based “working altar” space (for things like prayer requests), and candle storage.

The second and third rows are shrine spaces. At minimum each one has a picture representing the honored Power, offering dishes, and a candle. This time next year they will look very different, but this is now.

The bottom row is all storage, containing “working altar” supplies, incenses, altar cloths, etc.

A Shrine for the Morrigan

The man who uses this shrine credits the Morrigan with saving him and guiding him through the darkest times of his life. For him the shrine serves as a thank-you, a reminder to BE thankful, and a place to ask for further guidance.

 

The raven sitting on top of the tree branch was purchased at a local-to-him Pagan shop, where he felt called to purchase it. The “chalice” is temporary, used every dark moon or so for liquid offerings when he provides Her a “champion’s plate” of red meat, potatoes, etc.

 

A Shrine for Eleggua

In the words of the gentleman who sent this to me:

This is my shrine for Eleggua, the Orisha of the crossroads, opening doors, and liminality.

2015-02-11 09.05.17His shrine contains His keys, coins and money that is either found out on the world or given to Him in offering or thanks, some small personal gifts and objects that I have given Him, and a lithograph of St. Anthony of Padua with the Christ child. While Eleggua is represented with a few different saints, St. Anthony with baby Jesus resonates because, to me, I see it as showing our relationship.  I particularly like this image because St. Anthony is carrying Christ while he walks down a road, which speaks to the nature of Eleggua as both the master of the road and as always moving.

On Mondays, I give Eleggua a shot of rum, some fresh water, and I light His candle and spend some time with Him. I try to give Him something else as an offering when I can, and when I took this photo, I had given Him a cup of Cuban-style coffee, which He enjoys.

Eleggua is traditionally kept on the floor and near an entrance, which is where He lives in my house.

A Shrine to Blodeuwedd

This is Anne’s shrine to Blodeuwedd – yes, the same Anne who shared her prayer beads!

AP3There is a picture to represent the goddess, a rose-scented candle in a flower-shaped holder, and a cute owl. The cup is full of chamomile flower tea, with 2 sugar cubes and a stirring spoon on the saucer. Also offered are a few spoons of honey in the cupcake liner and a chocolate.

A Northern Tradition Shrine

Úlfdís of Ironwood Witch shared her shrine space with me (her working altar will be in a later post).

First, the overall setup:

NT overallThe painting over everything is one Úlfdís did herself, and depicts the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology arranged around the World Tree. The shelf below the painting serves as a collective shrine space for all the Powers she honors.

 

On the left we have a shrine for Freya and Frey. Freya is in the picture to the far left, while Frey is in the the smaller picture to the front. Both have candles. The boar tusk bottle opener in front of Freya’s picture has a story – it belonged to Úlfdís’s ex-husband, but kept winding up on the floor in front of Freya’s shrine. So why fight it?

 

 

Odin and Frigga are in the center of the shelf. In front of Frigga’s picture are a key to Úlfdís’s house and twelve blue stones representing Her twelve handmaidens. Both Odin and Frigga have a candle as well.

 

 

The far right of the shelf is for Loki, Sigyn, Narvi and Vali. Loki’s candle is visible on the left, and you can see sparklers and a bowl of candy as offerings.

 

A Shrine to Lakshmi and Ganesha

This shrine has an interesting story behind it. The creator is an eclectic practitioner who had never really considered working with Hindu-specific Powers until she began sponsoring a child in Nepal. As she began research she “fell into the Hindu deity void for a bit”, and felt called to establish a shrine for Lakshmi and Ganesha as two Powers relevant to her life right now.

 

Lakshmi

A shrine for Lakshmi and Ganesha.

It’s still a work in progress, with some additions and changes slated for the next few weeks, but this is the current honoring/meditation space.

 

And that’s all of them!

Hopefully you enjoyed seeing these shrines as much as I did. Next up are working altars!

*Note: Have a magickal altar, special occasion shrine/altar, or travel shrine/altar you’d like to share? Feel free to send me a pic or 5 along with a brief description for inclusion in the next post!

Building Woo Spaces – Altars and Shrines (Pt. 1)

I recently moved from Seattle to upstate New York. I’ve spent the last few months redoing a tiny house and replacing my furniture, so settling in has taken a bit of time. But as always, pride-of-place in my house is my altar/shrine (together known as my “woo space”, because I’m all about technical language).

I had so much fun putting it together, and found such fulfillment in doing it, that now seemed like a great time to start a series on altars and shrines: what they are, how they’re different from each other, how to construct them, and how to customize them for any need. I’ll provide examples of larger permanent installations, temporary ritual spaces, small private shrines, and portable mini altars for those with limited space or who travel frequently. I’ve even reached out to people of different traditions for pictures of their setups, to really go in depth with the topic.

But before we can get into the examples it’s time to look at the nuts and bolts.

Aren’t altars and shrines the same thing?

Nope! It gets confusing, I know, especially when people so often use the terms interchangeably, but they ARE different. Basically, altars are primarily working spaces and shrines are primarily devotional spaces.

Altars

We use the term “altar” as both a collective term when talking about all our working tools arranged to do workings and when we’re talking about the surface itself.

“Working tools” are all the items used in magick. They can be tools we reuse regularly (like athames and chalices), or one-use items (like candles and cords). Anything used for a spell is lumped together in this category. Gathering all of these tools together in one spot with the intent to use them for a magickal working is also known as putting together an altar.

This is a wonderful diagram of a basic Pagan altar. Candles representing the Goddess and God at the top, elemental representations around a central pentacle, cakes and ale for after ritual, a bell to cleanse the space, and three tools for cutting and energy manipulation all together. The Book of Shadows – the book containing all the spellwork – would either be off to the side or underneath the altar, depending on setup.

This is a wonderful example of one way to lay out a basic Pagan/Wiccan altar. Candles representing the Goddess and God at the top, elemental representations surrounding a central pentacle, cakes and ale for after ritual, a bell to cleanse the space, and three tools for cutting and energy manipulation all together. Assuming the person using this altar also uses a Book of Shadows, it would usually be either off to the side or underneath the altar, depending on setup.

The spot we put all the tools together on is also called an altar. These surfaces can be beautifully carved tables or a cloth on the ground, of natural or man-made materials, specifically set aside as a permanent altar or a corner of the kitchen counter set up when necessary. I’ve seen all manner of flat-ish surfaces used and they all work just fine.

If a specific piece of furniture is often used as an altar, it can become something more than “flat area that holds my tools”. Over time it can also become a potent magickal tool. It is present for a wide variety of magickal workings, after all, and will absorb the energies of the area with no direct effort on our parts (although we can help this along!). The longer and more intensely we use the same altar the faster this effect will manifest and the stronger it will be. With repetitive use a given altar can become a big battery, providing a still pool of energy from which we can draw at need.

While an altar can be used for honoring the Powers, that’s the exception instead of the rule. The space reflects that.

Shrines

Shrines are designated spaces to honor a specific Power or group of Powers. They can be permanent or temporary, and can look as different as the Powers they honor.

The basic set up is usually a representation of the Power – a statue, a painting, a bunch of flowers, whatever works for Them – and a candle. That’s it. After that, though, the sky’s the limit. They’re often filled with/adorned by offerings or décor items that are either associated with Them or that They appreciate, so shrines can run the gamut between simple and lavishly ornate.

Here we have two very different shrines, both to the Virgin Mary. The one on the left is very simple, just a picture/icon and a candle. It hangs on the wall, so there’s not even a table! The one on the right is much more ornate, with flowers, vigil candles, and tributes from believers. Notice the complete absence of anything like a standard “working” tool in both of these spaces.

Here we have two very different shrines, both to the Virgin Mary. The one on the left is very simple, just a picture and a candle. It hangs on the wall, so there’s not even a table! The one on the right is much more ornate, with flowers, vigil candles, and tributes from believers. Notice the complete absence of anything like a standard “working” tool in both of these spaces.

Just as a commonly-used altar can be charged with magickal energy, so too can a commonly-used shrine become charged with the energy of the Power the shrine honors. Eventually a stone or amulet can be placed in the shrine to passively collect some of the energy with no interference on our parts (although I do suggest asking first!).

While shrines can be used for magickal purposes, that’s the exception instead of the rule. Also, magick done at a shrine is nine times out of ten done there specifically to request the associated Power’s assistance in the purpose of the working. The space reflects that.

I’m a form-follows-function kind of girl, so my altars tend to be pretty basic. If I’m going to use a particular item for a particular working, it’s present. If I’m not, it’s tucked away somewhere and not “cluttering my space”. I arrange what I use in a visually pleasing way, but usability is always priority.

Shrines are very different. Their function isn’t to do anything, necessarily, just be. Because of that my shrines are WAY more whimsical and varied. My altars are rather utilitarian. My shrines are where I get to be creative.

Both altars and shrines are useful and important spaces. One isn’t better than the other – that really is comparing apples and oranges. They just fill different functions.

That makes sense. So why are the terms interchangeable?

Simply put, making a clear distinction between working spaces and honoring spaces isn’t all that common in Paganism. Designated spaces for any “woo stuff” are just collectively called altars. *shrug* It might sound a little odd to some, but it actually makes all kinds of sense when you think about it from a standard Pagan perspective.

Pick up any of the most commonly-recommended general Pagan books and flip through them. Overall you’ll see much more focus placed on spellwork than on connecting with the Powers. The closest they get to honoring at all are usually seasonal celebrations, and those are more directed towards honoring the season itself than anything else. (Trad-specific books are much more likely to delve into working with the Powers, but those books generally aren’t as accessible to newbies.)

Discussions of woo spaces are no different. The emphasis is invariably on collecting a wide variety of Very Important Things to use in spellwork. They might suggest having a silver candle to represent The Goddess/Goddess energy and a gold candle to represent The God/God energy, but that’s usually as far as it goes. The focus is always on working tools.

That emphasis, in my opinion, reflects how many Pagans relate to the Powers in their personal practice. It’s been my experience that Pagans often think of individual Powers less as individuals and more as just another correspondence with which to bolster their intended working. They choose Powers for a given working the same way they pick herbs and stones. The only real difference is that Powers are generally thanked afterwards, during the Cakes and Ale portion of the working, and stones aren’t.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that someone more used to Pagan-style workings would simply add an honoring function to the altar they already have if they feel the need. They’re never really taught that honoring a Power can be a completely separate activity from doing magick.

If and when someone starts wanting to honor a particular Power outside of a working, that’s when they start edging over onto the Polytheism side of things. And once that happens, well, Polytheism’s relationship to altars and shrines is also reflected in the different ways in which Polytheists engage with the Powers.

What if I don’t have an individual relationship with a Power? Is this still a useful distinction to make?

Thing the first, if you don’t have a personal relationship to a given Power and are ok with that, this distinction is probably less important to you because you won’t be using shrines. It will be useful if you’re working with other people, however, who might have spaces set aside to nurture those relationships. (Conversely, if you’re strictly devotional and don’t do any magick at all, the reverse of course applies.)

Thing the second, if you don’t have a personal relationship to a given Power and are not ok with that, there’s no time like the present to work on exploring your options. If you don’t know where to start I recommend my series on Devotions. (The link leads to the last in the series, and all the previous posts are listed in the beginning.)

Thing the third, if you do have a relationship or multiple relationships with Powers already, and you do magick too, this distinction can be very helpful. If nothing else it helps when it comes to conceptualizing how to structure your space. Multiple shrines plus an altar can get a bit overwhelming without a plan! It also helps keep shrines clear of altar clutter, and altars clear from shrine overflow, which I find makes both spaces more effective. And if our spaces aren’t effective, there’s really no point to having them in the first place.

So settle in for what will be a fun and informative series on making these spaces work for you, regardless of how you practice!

*Note: Is your personal “woo space” useful or cool or pretty or interesting? Would you like to see it included in this series? Send a pic to mystiknomad AT gmail DOT com, with a brief note explaining what it’s for and what’s notable about it. Do it quickly, though – I’m already working on the rest of the series!

A Special Set of Special Purpose Prayer Beads

I did a series on prayer beads awhile back, and one of those posts discussed the use of Special Purpose Beads. I received an email from a reader recently about how she had used that information, and loved the creativity and purpose so much I got her permission – and photographs! – to share here.

This reader (who wishes to remain anonymous, so we’ll call her “Anne”) has very high anxiety levels, especially in crowds and other social situations. She thought beads sounded like something simple that would help her calm down when her anxiety peaked.

This is what she came up with:

Necklace 1

Isn’t that pretty?

Materials

The materials were carefully chosen. Most of the beads are hematite, chosen for their grounding and stabilizing properties. She used a total of 27 hematite beads, divided into 3 sets of 9. She also used 3 amethyst beads, chosen for their associations with calmness and tranquility. The 45 silver spacer beads were chosen primarily for color and size, but also to again reference the number 9, or 3×3. Anne visualizes a tree when she grounds, so the 6 bead caps she uses around the amethyst beads support that. Each cap is made up of 5 leaves in a star shape, giving a total of 30 leaves. Everything reduces to 3 or a multiple of 3.

A close up of the bead caps surrounding the amethyst.

A close up of the bead caps surrounding the amethyst.

Because she wants to have it available at all times she made her special purpose beads into a set she can wear as a necklace. She chose an owl-shaped magnetic clasp to finish everything off. The owl is both part of her visualization and sacred to Blodeuwedd, the goddess Anne works with.

Process

Before ever using the beads Anne dedicated them to Blodeuwedd, asking for Her help with managing anxiety and returning to a state of calm focus. Then she started wearing them.

When she feels her anxiety beginning to mount she finds a private place, ranging from a quiet corner to a bathroom stall, and removes the beads from her neck. After she refastens the clasp she holds them in her hands.

Anne has a hard time remembering words when she’s anxious, so the first set doesn’t require any. Instead, she simply takes a deep breath for each bead in the first set. That’s nine deep, calming, slow, rhythmic breaths to help her settle. If nine isn’t enough she’ll go through all three sets with deep breaths, then start the cycle over again until she feels calm enough to continue.

When reaching the first amethyst bead she strongly visualizes her grounding tree.

On the second set of hematite beads she does her tree-based grounding visualization while saying “My tree is deeply rooted” for every bead as she grounds.

The tree that she visualizes for grounding has a hollow in the trunk. When she reaches the second amethyst bead she focuses her visualization on that hollow, because she visualizes the next step – centering – as the owl that lives in the hollow opening its eyes.

On the third set of hematite beads she says “My owl is awake and aware” for every bead as she centers.

Another view.

Another view.

On the final amethyst bead, she visualizes the owl’s eyes glowing, to show she is completely centered and protected by her tree.

The clasp is also part of the process. She holds it while taking three deep cleansing breaths to gently end the session.

Then she does an assessment. If she feels ok she stops there. If she’s still overly anxious or shaky, however, she repeats the cycle until she feels more balanced.

Commentary

Personally, I love the way Anne uses her beads as a grounding and centering aid when stressed. It gives her something solid to hold on to, simple sentences to focus on, and a guide to visualizations that bring her back to her center. Everything was well thought out and works beautifully together to support the specific use she has for the set. Just gorgeous!

Here is Anne, wearing her beautiful and functional creation.

Here is Anne, wearing her beautiful and functional creation.

Thanks so much for sharing your vision with us, Anne!