Seeing the Wheels

A close-up of the armillary sphere on my altar. It is on top of a black wooden box, and flanking it on either side at the bottom are two burning jar candles.

I recently felt a deep, overwhelming need to change up my altar. Specifically, I needed a statue to represent my Lady, Arianrhod.

Thing is, I couldn’t find anything that fit Her. The most common statue of Her simply doesn’t work for me. Nothing wrong with it – it’s beautiful work – but I can’t get over my quibbles with it enough to put it on my altar.

Maxine Miller's Arianrhod statue, in bronze, on a black background.

Maxine Miller’s Arianrhod statue.

Then I had a completely different kind of thought. One of the first concepts my Lady shared with me is that of the Center. It’s been fundamental to my worldview since I figured out what it is, and I always associate it with Her. She is the Lady of the Silver Wheel, after all!

Which is why an armillary sphere to represent Her on my altar is perfect.

A close-up of the armillary sphere on my altar. It is on top of a black wooden box, and flanking it on either side at the bottom are two burning jar candles.

The armillary sphere on my altar. Isn’t it awesome?

Once I got everything on my altar sorted and rearranged I lit some candles and settled in to spend some time with Her.

And then I had a vision. I Saw the Wheels, my Lady’s Wheels, and touched a Mystery.

After recovering a bit, I realized that this vision can be shared. You can have it too!

So here it is. I invite you to See the Wheels with me. If you don’t have an armillary sphere of your very own Google some images (or simply use the picture above as a reference) to see a manmade model of what I’m talking about. It’s worth the time.

The Vision

I open my eyes and gasp. I’m floating in space, surrounded on all sides by velvety black skies spangled with gleaming stars. They’re silver, yes, but also icy blue and blazing red and warming gold. Celestial fires burning, beacons in the dark.

A picture of a field of stars taken by the Hubble Telescope. These are from the Sagittarius sector.

Like this, all around me.

I wonder if I can reach out and cup one of those fires in the palm of my hand. They look so close I think maybe it’s possible. As I reach out I hear a voice like bells say “Not today!”, and lower my hands back to my sides. Maybe tomorrow?

I feel gentle winds caressing my skin and fluttering my hair. I’m confused for a second – since when did space have wind? – but I’m soon distracted by a glow at my feet. First I see a dot of light, growing ever larger, until it forms an arc. It suddenly clicks that I’m seeing part of a ring spinning around me. It contains all the colors I think I’ve ever seen, and it rotates clockwise as it rises to meet me. 

This is the first circle of the armillary sphere, the Wheel of the Day. In this Wheel is contained every moment of a day in my life. I even see a section of the Wheel that looks like my current vision! Sunrise and sunset, work and home and worship and sleep and play, all the seconds that make up my day, spin around me in a dance of light and shadow. 

Beyond the borders of the Wheel of the Day I see another glowing ring of light. It too rotates clockwise, although much slower, and it’s angled differently. This Wheel encompasses both the Wheel of the Day and me, still floating in the Center. It’s the Wheel of the Year! I see, in glorious procession, the flowers of Spring melting into the verdant fields of Summer, which meld into the golden fields of Autumn and then the barren snows of Winter. Along the ring are eight shining gems of light, and in them I see the colors of the surrounding seasons magnified and clarified. And I understand sabbat celebrations in a way I didn’t before. 

In a different part of the star-strewn velvet in which I float I see another arc rising, another Wheel spinning. It’s further out, and that ring encompasses me and the other two Wheels too. It too spins clockwise, but it’s offset from the others and rises on its own plane. Peering at it more closely I see it’s the Wheel of my Life. All the years I live, all together, with my memories in gleaming color and my future in shadows that are broken with seemingly random flashes of intense light. I realize that even here I can’t see my future clearly, because it’s not set. Those flares in the shadows show me that events are coming that cannot be changed, only managed, even if I can’t figure out what they are yet. My Lady’s presence surrounds me and I relax, knowing She is preparing me for them even now and will be with me when their time comes.

In yet another part of the sky I see another Wheel rising, on yet another plane. It too spins clockwise, but more slowly still. It gleams red like blood and flows like water, with an infinite number of glittering flecks swirling through it. This is the Wheel of the Ancestors. Every person who has ever lived is represented here, and the glittering flecks that glow most brightly are the people who have directly contributed to my line. They’re family! I see some flecks growing equally brightly, but in different hues, and know that these are family members of the heart instead of blood. It’s humbling to see all the people who have died so that I might live, and I promise to lift them high by living with honor and purpose. 

Beyond that Wheel I see another, also spinning and rising. This one is green and gold, copper and bronze, the dark brown of rich soil and the glowing red of molten lava. It glimmers with hidden gems and shines with metallics as it spins with aching slowness. This is the Wheel of the Land, and since Land moves in a timescale that’s hard to comprehend it’s only here that I can see it moving at all. It makes sense that this Wheel surrounds the Ancestors too, because without the Land the Ancestors would have no place to stand. I see the colors getting paler and dustier as this Wheel spins, like they’re losing saturation as it turns, and realize with a sinking sensation that I’m seeing the effects of humanity on the Earth. I see shrinking habitats and strip mines, pollution and disease and death, and acknowledge my contributions to the fading while vowing to do my very best to ease them.

At the very edges of everything I see another arc rising, another Wheel encompassing the whole. This one is crystalline and iridescent, and so bright that the only reason I can bear to gaze upon it is because I’m being allowed to See. This is the Wheel of the Gods, where all the divinities who have ever been dwell. I see Olympus, and Valhalla, and the Otherworld. I see nations rise and fall as the Gods play chess on a board, except I know both chess and boards and this is too incomprehensible to be either. The more I try to understand the brighter the light, until I have to blink to get the spots out of my eyes. 

Far beyond the edges of the crystalline Wheel of the Gods I see the shadows of other Wheels spinning, other cycles of which I am vaguely aware but are too distant for me to grasp. I feel blessed to have seen them at all.

I turn my attention back to myself, at the Center of all the spinning Wheels. With a bit of a jolt I realize that I too am a Wheel! I spread out my legs and arms like a starfish, like DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man, like a pentacle, and feel myself spinning within the Center of all the other Wheels. I peer into myself and see an endless number of Wheels spinning inside me too, each smaller than the last, and feel myself falling. Or am I flying? It’s hard to tell, and I start to get dizzy, so I pull my attention elsewhere.

I look at all of the Wheels together, for the smallest to the largest, and suddenly know that each and every Wheel’s spin is necessary to the spin of all of them. They’re interconnected and interdependent. Epiphany strikes. They’re not distinct Wheels at all! They’re all part of one big spiral! I hear my Lady’s laugh as Her hands continue smoothing and spinning the spiral, feel Her determination that it continues to spin, and know that I have a part to play in all of this too. But what?

I feel my Lady’s regard as She patiently waits for me to work through what I’m being shown. I gently spin for what feels like hours while I search for what She wants me to know, until suddenly it becomes obvious. By Centering myself, by opening myself to change while smoothing the spirals over which I have influence, I make Her job easier. In my own small way I contribute to the spinning of ALL the Wheels, even those I can’t clearly see, because I am one. I’m part of the whole. 

I hear her voice, full of pride, whisper “well done” as the Wheels flicker and vanish.

I open my eyes and gaze once more at the armillary sphere on my altar, serene and still as it represents this great Mystery.

 

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Building Woo Spaces – Working Altars (Pt. 3)

While shrines are the backbone of a devotional practice, altars are the place magick happens. They are a physical manifestation of the energies with which we work, and as such are comprised of the tokens and tools we need to facilitate that working.

Altars can be hugely elaborate or incredibly simple, depending on the use and the user. Some are temporary setups on the coffee table, and others are permanently-arranged spaces full of Very Magickal Objects and bling. No matter how they’re set up, however, they tend to be more rigid and logical in layout than a shrine.

Why is that?

A shrine is a space to honor and enjoy. Think of it as a beautifully decorated parlor in which you entertain your guests. The entire setup’s purpose is to be visually appealing and comfortable, designed to delight the senses and exude a sense of welcome. That’s artistic, creative, and pretty free-flow.

An altar, on the other hand, is a working space. It’s more like a laboratory than a parlor. Instead of entertaining guests we’re manipulating energy with the help of allies or colleagues. Like any lab, there are specific tools that help accomplish our goals, so those need to be present. Extraneous things that are not directly useful can be present, of course, but they’re often more of a hindrance than a help.

What specific tools are common?

There are many styles of magick, and each one seems to have specific tools associated with it that not everyone uses. However, here are the tools I personally see/use most often.

Altar Cloth: It’s a cloth. That covers the altar. The color usually corresponds to the purpose or the season. Getting wax out of them sucks. They really make things look more finished, though, and provide a nice base. If the altar itself cannot be permanent, using the same cloth or set of cloths every time can create a similar effect.

Elemental Representations: The exact forms vary quite a bit, but most altar setups tend to have a representation of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water on the altar. Air is often represented with incense or feathers, Fire with candles, Earth with pentacles and/or stones, and Water with a dish of water or wine.

Spirit Representation(s): Some traditions work with Spirit as a fifth element. Candles (or other items) representing the masculine and feminine principles, as seen through deity, are common. Specific deity representations are used too. I’ve also seen things like unicorn and phoenix figurines used for Spirit.

Athame: This is a ritual blade associated with the element of Air. The stereotype for this tends to be a smaller silver-colored double-bladed knife with a black handle and dull edges, but I’ve seen a wide variety that don’t look like that too. The dull edges reference the fact that this tool is used to cut energy only, and a separate tool (the bolline) is used to cut things like herbs. Some people, however, say “screw that” and ditch the bolline. Their athames are sharp. I’m in that camp.

Wand: Used to direct energy and associated with the element of Fire. Some people use these in preference to an athame, some people use an athame instead of a wand, and some people use both.

Bell: Bells are used to clear a space of energies not conducive to the working. They can also signal transitions in the ritual. Gongs fulfill a similar function. I use a tuning fork for this.

Cakes and Ale: This is food and drink shared among ritual participants to wrap things up. I see a ton of variation here, and I tend to skip it personally – to my mind that’s what after ritual space is for. Offerings are a different thing.

Circle Casting Mixture: This is a container of flower petals or seeds or confetti or whatever else someone sprinkles as they walk to create a magick circle around the altar.

Illuminator Candles: These candles are used strictly for light. Some people rely on them as the only light source, while others use them for ambiance only.

Working Tools: If you’re doing a candle spell you’ll need candles for that. Scrying? You’ll need crystals or water or whatever you’re using. This can be pretty much anything, as long as it’s used to accomplish the goal of the ritual.

As you can see, making sure all of that is present can limit creativity in designing the space. That doesn’t mean you can’t put your own spin on it, though! There are so many versions of each of those things that altars can look wildly different even with the similarities. Here are a few examples.

My Working Altar

In the last post I showed my altar/shrine space in its standard “shrine” set up. This is how I rearrange things if I need actual altar space.

photo(1)I leave the Land/Sea/Sky in place as usual above. However, here I’ve also hung my perpetual calendar in the space normally occupied by flowers. I use specific sounds for correspondence work, where almost everyone else uses herbs and stones, so my tuning forks and whistles are up there too. I have a central “working” candle in the center, flanked by crystals and stones and a small bottle of blessed oil. My athame is placed horizonally across the front center. The incense burner is at center right, a red striker and 4096 Hz fork (my version of a bell) at center left, a chalice with skull beads at far left, and my current tarot deck (until I finish the one I’m making anyway!) is at the far right. Other items present include my amber/jet ritual necklace (worn during ritual, but laid out as prep work), a lancet, a pendulum, prayer beads, and illuminator candles. If necessary I have other tools for other purposes, but I only pull out what is specific to the working at hand.

A Northern Tradition Working Altar

In my post on personal shrines I was privileged to show Ulfdis’s shrine space. Here is a picture of the entire shrine/altar combo.

UntitledThe wall shelf, and everything above it, is shrine space. Below the shelf is altar space. I really enjoy this layout, because it keeps the shrine near the altar but the spaces are easily distinguished.

One of the best features of this particular space, in my opinion, is the chalkboard. It’s used for reminders, runes, sigils, chants, affirmations, whatever might be needed at the time. I’ve never seen that before, and now I really want to incorporate that idea into my own space!

The base for this working altar looks to be a desk. The majority of the space is kept clear. Tools are placed to the back of the working surface, for accessibility, but they don’t overrun the space. The drawers provide additional storage. To quote Ulfdis, “that altar is my day to day meditation/divination/general witchery space”, and is a permanent installation.

An Egyptian-Themed Altar

This beautiful altar space is used by an eclectic practitioner with Khemetic influences.

10937481_796033367099405_302304743_nHere we can see a bowl for water, candle for fire, incense holders, a stone pendant, illuminator candles, and jewelry in addition to a goddess statue (Hathor), sunflowers in Her honor, and a lovely representation on the wall. Tucked underneath the table is a drum used during ritual. This is a simple set-up, but works for a wide variety of purposes.

An Eclectic Home Altar

This is a permanent altar on a mantle.

10937510_796033350432740_1079594303_nIn this shot it’s between rituals – during rituals it’s dressed up a bit. The plaques on the wall depict both Earth and Sky (Sky is also inclusive of all celestial phenomenon, like day/night, stars, and the sun and moon). In the center on the altar itself is a Goddess representation. Various tools are arranged in the rest of the space, and handfasting cords hang below.

An Altar for Divination

This is something I don’t see every day – a dedicated altar space for divination!

photo 1The Ouija board on the wall is vintage and for display purposes only. It’s flanked by illuminator candles. On the altar itself we have a chalice to represent Water that is also occasionally used for scrying, feathers for Air, a chrysalis and bone for Earth wisdom, and incense for Fire. The candles flanking the table are occasionally used for scrying but more often simply for light. There’s a Celtic Cross tarot spread in the center, with the deck to the right, and what looks to be a decorative strand of silver stars and beads across the front.

And that’s it! I will do an entry on travel altars and some point and wrap this up, but for now I’m going to focus on the other awesome projects I’ve got going.

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!

Striking the Spark – Using Oil Lamps

This is the final post of a four part series. Posts one, two, and three need to be read before reading this entry for clarity.

Now that we’ve made (or are thinking about making) an oil lamp, what do we do with it?

Like most things you’re pretty much limited only by your creativity. They’re so easy to customize that there are more options than I can possibly list. Think of them as having the flexibility of candle magick with a bit more permanence. LOTS of options!

I’ll hit a few of the uses here to get you started.

One thing to keep in mind? Oil lamps have two usable parts – the flame, and the fuel. That expands the techniques quite a bit.

Meditation and Dreamwork

This is perhaps the most widespread use of the oil lamp in spiritual practice, especially those that burn olive oil. The flame is incredibly steady, making it ideal for use as a meditative focus. It’s also dimmer than petroleum flames so it’s easier on the eyes (important to me, since I’m photosensitive).

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A simple Buddhist altar, with an oil lamp for meditation.

Oil lamps give some flexibility to meditation beyond what candles can offer. For instance, it’s incredibly simple to mix a few drops of essential oil into the olive oil, offering a light scent and a way to boost the correspondences of the oil used.

One of my favorite techniques is to anoint my third eye with oil from the lamp as a boost to my meditation, especially when I’m trying to deal with a specific issue. I’ll say a short prayer prior to lighting the lamp to ask for clarity, light the lamp, and then anoint with the oil before I settle in to my meditation session. This can also be done before sleep to enhance dreamwork.

Divination

Simply use the flame to illuminate the divination surface/tool. This is especially useful during crystal or mirror work. The steady flame that’s so useful for meditation is a natural fit here. And again, just like with meditation the oil can be customized with essential oils and used to anoint both the reader and the tools.

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For this lamp the base of the crystal ball also helps support multiple wicks.

It is also good for fire scrying. The steady flame doesn’t offer the shapes some people look for when scrying in things like campfires, which can take some adjustment. However, the flame itself plus the meditative headspace it creates, when focused on a topic, can provide a wonderful divination method.

Cleansing and Blessing Work

Back in the day the Greeks didn’t have soap (soap was a Celtic thing). The Greeks cleaned themselves by covering themselves liberally in olive oil and then scraping it off. Olive oil still has that association with cleansing, and with olive oil being the primary fuel for these kinds of lamps cleansing uses seem to be a no-brainer. Especially since the flame itself of course brings in all the transformational and purifying qualities associated with fire.

Add a little rosemary or sage oil to the olive oil already being used and you’ve got something that literally “burns away” destructive energy in a given space. It’s similar to a smudge stick, without all the smoke that is difficult to breathe and the bits of sage falling away that can start unintended fires. It can even (carefully) be carried around to “shine its light everywhere” if that’s desired.

I greatly prefer this to candles. For one, adding a few drops of sage oil to the olive oil is much neater than rubbing oil all over a candle and then having to carry it around. *shrug* That matters. The lack of smoke from this kind of lamp is also a huge bonus, especially when cleansing a sickroom. A dedicated lamp used for cleansing also carries that cleansing intent between workings, which is a bit harder to get from anointed and carved candles.

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The blessing of St. Jude Oil at a shrine in NYC. St. Jude Oil is used as a protection against evil and healing for both mind and body.

Another technique – one I use every time I do any altar work at all – is to incorporate a lamp into personal cleansing work. I light the lamp, use the flame to help calm and center myself, and then “breathe in” the flame. I visualize the flame burning away any impurity inside of me before I address myself to the Powers. Visualize the flame radiating through you to your immediate environment and you can cleanse that too.

And of course the oil can be used to anoint people and objects for cleansing.

Shielding

Light the flame of the lamp. Everywhere illuminated by the lamp is shielded, either by the flame itself or by the Presence it signifies (discussed below).

Honoring, Offering, and Presence Lamps

Oil lamps are foundational tools used around the world for shrines and temples. The lit lamp symbolizes the presence of a given Power. The maintenance of the lamp – trimming the wick, filling the lamp, meditation time before it – is also often seen as an offering to that Power.

A related use is providing a definite start/stop time for a specific presence. There are some Powers that you really don’t want lurking around. If Their presence is tied to a lamp, so They are only present when it’s lit and are not present when it’s not, you’ve essentially got a switch. It’s not foolproof, of course, and it needs to be set up, but I find it works rather well.

Using the same lamp over and over again, and simply topping it off as needed, keeps that “setting” going strong. And, as always, the oil can be used for anointing. In this case it can connect you to a given Power and convey blessings.

Spellworkings

Just as a lamp can provide an on/off switch for a given Presence, so too can it provide the same type of service for a given working.

Set up any working you like, especially if you plan on repeating the same working. (I find this particularly applicable to shielding and other defensive work, but that’s how I’m wired. YMMV.) Incorporate the creation of a dedicated lamp into whatever spellcraft you’re doing. When you want to “activate” the working, light the lamp. When you’re done with it, extinguish the lamp.

Memorials

Oil lamps are often lit to honor those who have passed during tragic circumstances, especially after disasters, battles, or terrorist attacks. This is a wonderful tradition to add to Veteran’s Day and Samhain observances, as well as working well for specific memorials throughout the year.

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A girl lights oil lamps at a Buddhist temple to honor those killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Uniting Groups

If a group is working in separate physical locations, individuals lighting oil lamps similar to those lit by others in the group can help unite them, especially if the lighting and extinguishing follow a set liturgy/ritual. It doesn’t have to be long – a sentence and gesture might be all that’s needed – but it works. One person can purchase wicking, hack off pieces, and send them to the other members, so the wicking is all in common. Another way to unify the lamps is to have one person bless and add essential oils to a gallon of olive oil, and then mail smaller bottles containing that oil to everyone else. Remember, one one-liter bottle can burn for 250-300 hours, so a little goes a long way!

Signifying Initiation

Let’s say a group uses oil lamps on their personal altars. If someone new comes into that group, lighting their brand new lamp from the flame of an established member is a way to make them part of the group – they’re sharing the same flame.

Signifying Graduation

This is similar to the above. When someone has graduated their teaching and is qualified to teach others, their oil lamp is lit from their teacher’s to show that the knowledge has been passed on and the new student now has authorization to share that knowledge with others, eventually lighting other lamps themselves.

Passing the Torch

When one person takes over the roles/duties of another in a group setting, lighting the incoming person’s lamp with the outgoing person’s lamp is a highly visible way to “pass the torch”. If done with a perpetual flame, the same flame might burn through terms of office, regardless of who fills the role.

Etc, etc, etc

There are even more uses than these, of course. Feel free to experiment and come up with something that uniquely fits your practice. I’d love to hear what you come up with!

Striking the Spark – Constructing the Floating Wick Oil Lamp

This is the third in a four part series. Please read part one and part two before proceeding.

The floating wick oil lamp can be even easier than the standing wick lamp, depending on how it’s approached. And either way there are fewer steps!

Materials

The container for the floating wick lamp tends to be easier to find. Any wine glass works, for instance. Glass, ceramic, and metal are all appropriate choices, and I find glass particularly fitting because it doesn’t block the flame even when the liquid level drops. About the only real shape considerations are that a) you want it taller than it is wide unless you want more than one wick, and b) it needs to hold at least 1 cup of liquid. More is fine, but less liquid requires more frequent tending, which can be inconvenient.

Instructions

These are instructions for building two different versions! Either way the first step is the same, though.

1) Assemble your supplies.

The container for this lamp is a red wine glass picked up on clearance. Also needed are a pair of duck-billed pliers, a pair of wrapping pliers, a pair of wire cutters, a cup of water (not pictured), about two feet of 14g copper wire, a cork wick float, and maybe a ruler. (The wire and the wick float make two different versions of the floating wick lamp, so decide which one you want before assembling your supplies. The wick float was purchased at the same supply house that provided the wicking.)

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Again, any wire can be used. I stuck with regular copper for this lamp too.

For the Wick Float Version:

The wick float is a very simple little device. It consists of a piece of sealed cork with a metal shield on top. The cork is sealed to prevent it from absorbing oil and sinking, and the metal shield prevents the cork from catching on fire. For most floats all that remains is a hole in the center through which the wick is strung. However, I decided to go with the slightly fancier model that features adjustable “rabbit ears”. These are supposed to allow the user to raise or lower the wick without getting their fingers oily. In my experience they don’t work well for that, but they do provide convenient handles for lifting the entire float.

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See? Bunny ears!

All that’s necessary to use this is threading the wick through the float and plopping it in the lamp. *shrug* Assembly done! Once the wick is saturated in oil it’s ready to light.

The only “trick” here is the composition of the lamp oil. First fill the container about halfway with water. Add a pinch of salt if desired (blessing it is entirely optional), then top off with olive oil. Allow the liquids enough time to settle out, with the oil floating cleanly on top of the water, before adding and lighting the float.

It’s a really ingenious system – the wick floats in the oil until the oil’s gone, at which point it absorbs the water and extinguishes the flame. It’s like a built-in timer!

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You can make out the oil/water layers in this picture, and see the extra wicking swirling around in the back.

This version of the lamp cost me about $8, including the glass. I’m SUCH a big spender! *laugh*

For the Wire Wick Holder Version:

This is another holder made from bending wire, like the standing wick lamp, and there’s even less to bend with this style. However, the measurements have to be fairly exact to work because it has to balance on whatever vessel you’ve chosen. You can actually measure it out (with the ruler), or do it by eye with the wire in-hand. Whichever works for you.

1) Make a center twist.

Center the wire and make a corkscrew-twist with two rotations to hold the wick. Since this is designed to sit at the center of the glass, the two “arms” of the holder will each equal the radius of the vessel. Once you have that measurement kink the wire 90* as shown in the picture.

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The measurements here are completely dependent on the vessel chosen. This measurement fits inside of the glass I used.

2) Make other bends as needed to fit your vessel.

As you can tell this whole technique is highly dependent on what vessel you go with. I kinked the arms above to fit inside the glass, but that alone wasn’t enough to properly balance it on the lip of the glass and make sure it was sturdy. So I bent it some more. Because the glass has a flared lip it was a bit more challenging, but I eventually came up with something that worked. Experimentation is key.

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These angles will keep the center wick-holder centered as well as almost clamping it to the sides of the glass.

3) Finish off the wire ends.

Once you’ve got the wire holder done you’ve got to decide what to do with the remaining wire ends. I could have decided to just clip them below the lip part, but I wanted something decorative and pretty. So once more with the spirals! I spiraled the ends up, and made them large to help “seat” the holder over the glass. Once again the spirals looked bare, so I hit my bead stash and made pretty little dangles for the spirals. And here’s the final product!

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As with the floating wick lamp, simply thread the wicking through the holder part, wait until it’s saturated with oil, and light.

At about $6 this lamp came in a little cheaper than the floating wick lamp, simply because wire is cheaper than the cost of the pre-made wick float. The only reason the standing wick lamp was $10 more expensive was because of the vessel I chose – change that and there’s not much cost difference at all between the styles, so it really is a matter of personal preference.

The next post will offer some tips and techniques for actually using the lamps we’ve made in this series!

Striking the Spark – Constructing the Standing Wick Oil Lamp

This is the second in a four-part series. The first post can be found here.

Constructing this style of lamp is dead simple. All of the work needed to create it is done to one length of copper wire. I broke it out in steps, but once you get it down you can churn one of these out in less than half an hour easy. Talk about instant gratification!

Materials

By far the easiest choice for this style is a ready-made ceramic vessel. Other materials are possible, of course, but most require a bit more tending. Ceramic comes in a wide variety of colors and styles, is not itself flammable, is durable, and as long as it’s properly glazed it doesn’t leak. It’s also easy to find styles that are wider than they are tall – this style works best with shallow containers. Feel free to use other materials as long as those points are considered.

Should you choose to make your own ceramic vessel firing it is optional. However, lamps made without firing will only last for a couple of uses because they will be very fragile. Similarly, most ancient lamps were not glazed. Glazing is what prevents liquids from seeping through the clay. If using an unglazed lamp it should be emptied between uses and placed on a saucer of some sort to catch drips.  

Instructions

This lamp only has eight steps! How cool is that?

1) Assemble the supplies.

The container I chose for this lamp is a pillar candle holder that stands six inches tall. The “bowl” is five and a half inches in diameter and one and one-quarter inches deep. Also assembled are: a pair of duck-billed pliers, a pair of wrapping pliers, a pair of wire cutters (not pictured), about five feet of 14g copper wire (available in jewelry stores), and a small piece of wicking (available from this site). You’ll also need olive oil. All together the supplies cost about $16 even with the fancy holder (thank you Pier One). I already had the pliers so that cost was not factored in. However, they can be had cheaply in craft supply stores for about $2 a pair.

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Any wire can be used, of course. Copper’s just easy to work with. You can even find it in a wide variety of colors. I went with natural here because the vessel is already so colorful!

2) Curl the wire to hold the wick.

Make a cork-screw-style loop at one end of the wire that is just big enough to hold the wick, with two turns in it as shown.

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Make it tight enough to hold the wicking.

3) Continue the spiral

Smoothly begin to spiral the wire around in ever-increasing loops. This provides a solid base that enables the cork-screw part to keep the wick standing upright – hence the name of this lamp style.

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Here is where you start really appreciating copper’s workability – this can be difficult with stiffer wire. *grin* Ask me how I know. On an unrelated note, repurposed coat hangers suck for this. Just sayin’.

4)  Watch the spiral become a spring

As you spiral the wire it will begin to look like a spring. That will be worked out later, so don’t worry about it now. How many times you want to spiral the wire around to form a base is largely up to you. Since wicking is so light normally just a few spirals will keep it upright. I decided to make this one larger strictly for aesthetic reasons – with this vessel having straight sides I thought it would look better if the spiral filled the bowl. That’s not necessary, though, and the decision depends on the shape/size of the bowl and your own personal taste.

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Boing! Boing!

5) Flatten the spring

Once the spiral is to the desired size begin working it flat. Basically massage the wire, starting from the outside and working in towards the center. Gently press it with your hands to the level of the bit of wire closest to the outside. Do not flatten it all the way, however – leave just a bit of height in the center (about a quarter inch or so) to provide clearance for the wick. Remember the wick will not burn if it is submerged in oil!

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This part can take a bit, depending on how tightly you spiraled the wire. If it doesn’t seem to be flattening well, try putting something like a phone book on top for a bit.

6) Begin the handle.

At this point the spirals are flattened and we are ready to begin the handle, which lets you do things like adjust the wick without getting oil all over yourself. Put a kink in the wire after the spiral, so the remaining wire sticks straight up.

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If you look at the right side of the frame you will see that the wire has a 90° kink in it. This is the start of the handle.

7) Spiral the other end of the wire

Once the wire is kinked start another spiral at the other end. This spiral should be 90° offset from the bottom, providing a comfortable handle. The size of this is again a personal choice, depending on both aesthetics and the size of the hand using it. For a holder with a smaller number of spirals around the wick balance can also be an issue, as a large handle and small bowl spiral will tip over. Once done you simply thread the wick through the wick holder.

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So pretty! But something’s missing…

8) Decorate!

Technically you can stop at step 7. It’s perfectly functional. But… doesn’t that spiral handle look a little stark? I thought it did! So I hit my bead stash and dressed it up with three matching beads strung on a thinner copper wire. The beads catch and reflect the light, and if you like they can also be a place to add some additional correspondences. Don’t limit yourself to beads, either – charms, crystals, etc all work well. I’d just avoid anything flammable. NOW you can light it! Done!

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The vessel was filled with olive oil so that the oil level hit mid-range on the wick holder. This kept the wick about ¼” about the oil, and as you can see it is burning beautifully. Just remember that the wick has to be saturated to burn properly, so give it a bit to properly absorb the oil.

And there it is – a fully functional standing wick lamp! How gorgeous is THAT? And simple too!

In the next post I’ll provide another tutorial on the floating wick lamp, and the final post of this little series will go into how to use them.