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.
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.
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 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.
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!