The Five Keys – Unlocking Meaning in Tarot Readings

Note: This wound up being more advanced than I usually address on this blog. It’s aimed at those doing readings for others. I considered not posting it at all, then figured someone out there might be able to use it. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below!

There’s more to reading Tarot than memorizing the little white book that comes with the deck. Sure, we need to learn what each card means, but we have to go beyond that to best serve our clients.

Luckily there are Five Keys to help us unlock the meanings of our readings. The more we as readers utilize these Keys the more accurate and applicable our interpretations will be.

The Five Keys are Question, Art, Placement, Relationships, and Follow Through.

1) Question

Tarot is a tool that helps us answer various questions. We need to understand those questions before we can use the tool. That’s what this Key is all about, and this part of a reading takes place before the cards are even shuffled. It sets the stage for everything that follows.

If the client comes in with a clearly thought out, simple, and concise question, then yay! They’ve already done the heavy lifting with this Key, so we can use it as-is and quickly move on.

That’s not always the case, though. Some clients, especially first-timers, go to a reader because the situation they’re dealing with is confusing or overwhelming and they’re a bit lost. The sign that I look for here is a client who, when asked what they’d like to read about today, offers up a whole explanation instead of a simple sentence.

A woman holds her temples with a confused expression in front of a chalkboard covered in squiggles and arrows. Caption reads

I think we’ve all seen this before. Hell, I think we’ve all been this before!

That gushing, stammering, stuttering explanation is a plea for help. Help them.

It might be that the situation appears overwhelming because they’re not seeing it clearly. For instance, let’s say they ask about changing jobs, but everything they say about why has to do with this one coworker they can’t stand. Readers can help by pointing that out and talking it over with the client. Maybe the question they really want to answer isn’t about changing jobs so much as how to most effectively deal with the coworker. Figuring that out before we begin gives us a totally different read.

Or maybe the situation appears overwhelming because they’re lumping several separate things into one overwhelming issue. This is often the case when multiple issues inspire a similar emotion. The client focuses on the emotion and doesn’t see what all is feeding it. As a reader, we can help them untangle that big knot into separate threads and then read each one individually. That leads to the resolution the client sought in the first place.

2) Art

The art of the card itself can help us interpret it. We’re all drawn to different styles of decks, right? There are also types of decks that we find easier to read than others. Those decks, for whatever reason, work with our minds and intuition in a cohesive way. So let’s use that!

Run your gaze across the card while considering the client and how this card might apply to their situation. Does something about the art jump out at you? If so, free associate with that symbol to see how it might influence the reading.

Strength, from the Voyager Tarot.

Strength, from the Voyager Tarot. The collage style of this deck is particularly suited to this technique.

For instance, take the above card. The book meanings of the Strength card all tend to reference inner strength or self-control. That’s fine as far as it goes, but how incredibly vague! There are lots of different kinds of inner strength and ways for it to manifest. To truly help our clients we need to get more specific and narrow this down some.

When we gaze at this card, maybe our eye is drawn to the butterfly. That could indicate a need to focus on the Strength that comes through change and evolution. Or maybe our eye goes straight to the ancient ruins in the background. That could indicate that the Strength of endurance might be more applicable in this reading. The flowers? There is Strength in expressing our vulnerabilities, too, and it’s one many overlook.

The Magician from the Rider-Waite Tarot.

The Magician, from the Rider-Waite Tarot. This technique works on traditional decks too!

Or gaze at this card. There’s a lot of symbolism here, and where your eye catches can direct the thrust of your interpretation. Does your eye catch on his hands? That symbolizes bridging the gap between the heavens and the earth. Maybe this card is referring to the client’s ability to bridge a different kind of gap. If your gaze lingers on the chalice, this card probably has a lot to do with an emotional-type question. The red of his robes? Maybe the client needs to seek out more worldly and material forms of attainment (which is what that red robe symbolizes).

Clients rarely go to a reader for abstract philosophical expositions of where they are in their current karmic cycle or whatever. They want applicable answers to their present concerns. This technique helps us give that to them.

3) Placement

Every book I’ve ever picked up on Tarot has a whole section on spreads. There’s a reason for that. Spreads offer placement-dependent questions that further clarify the card’s meaning.

Perhaps the most famous spread is the Celtic Cross.

My version of the Celtic Cross, showing the order in which I lay out the cards and what each position means.

This is the version of the Celtic Cross I use (which is why you’re all stuck with a graphic made in Paint). Cards 1-6 are the Cross and 7-10 are the Staff. Don’t worry if your version of the Celtic Cross is different from mine – there are a thousand variations on this particular spread. Experiment and find the one that works for you.

Let’s say we’re doing a reading and the previously-mentioned Strength card pops up in the Celtic Cross. It gains shades of meaning depending on which position of the spread it’s in.

Is Strength the Covering card? That’s where the client is right now. However, if that same card is in the Crossing position, then Strength – either a deficit or a surfeit – is a challenge that must be overcome. If in the Above position Strength is a goal to which the client aspires (perhaps indicating a current position of powerlessness or helplessness, or attempts to move out of such a state), while in the Advice position Strength is something they need to address the conflict.

See how much the position changes the emphasis? Combine that with a clear question and free association of the card’s art and deep, intricate meanings start jumping out!

4) Relationships

Cards are not read in isolation (unless we’re doing a quick one-card pull, anyway!). They’re read in relationship to each other, and those relationships invite conversations between the cards. It’s those conversations that lift a session from “interpreting a series of individual cards” to “doing a reading”.

Let’s look at that Celtic Cross again (and reuse that splendid graphic). There are some obvious links between cards to explore there.

A diagram shows relationships between cards of the Celtic Cross.

Relationships between cards of the Celtic Cross.

First, we have the Covering and Crossing cards. Those obviously relate to each other, and even the name of the Crossing card tells us that this is a little Cross in the middle of the big one. So look at them together. What do they have to say to each other?

Then we’ve got the arms of the Cross to look at. Vertically we’ve got Above, Covering/Crossing, and Below. This whole axis gives us amazing insight into the client, showing us where they’re at right now and what factors are most influencing them. How do all of these cards work together? If Above and Below – their goals and what drives them – are complimentary then moving forward is easier. However, if they’re working against each other then resolving that disconnect in the Now might be necessary before forward progress can be made. (Look to the Advice card for insight here.) How does their Crossing card relate to the goal or what drives them? Does it? Or is it just an irritation that distracts them from where their focus should more productively be? Lots to pick through here!

The horizontal axis of Behind, Covering/Crossing, and Before is a straight-up timeline. How did the Behind card contribute to the current situation, and how will the momentum those cards create together lead into the immediate future? This clarifies the whole thrust of the current situation.

Once we’ve done all that we’ve got the Staff to work with. Interpret the cards individually in their places, then take in the reading as a whole. Is the Outcome something the client is happy with? If so, excellent. Carry on then. If not, though, the future’s not set. We can change it if we like, and now that we have an overview of the whole thing we can look at ways to do that. For instance, maybe the Advice card could be shifted to get the client where they want to go.

Now we can start tying the cards of the Staff to each other and back to the Cross.

Compare the Above card to the Outcome card. Are they in alignment? If so, then the Outcome shows the client’s goal is reached. If not, then either the goal is misunderstood (by the reader or the client) or the Outcome is not desired. Clarify that and come up with possible approaches to reconcile those cards.

Does what’s going on Below have anything to do with our Hopes/Fears? Would dealing with what’s going on in one change the other?

How does the Others card relate to the Crossing card? If they’re related, then there may be a way to defuse the external drama and thus deal with the conflict. If they’re not, then the struggle may be more internal to the client. Perhaps Others can assist with easing it.

I could keep going, but you can see what I mean here. The cards aren’t static in their places. They talk to each other. Regardless of the spread you choose to use in your readings, use the relationships between the cards to further clarify and amplify your interpretations.

5) Follow Through 

This is the Key that happens when the reading is done and we’ve gotten all we can from the cards. We can’t just say “ok, we’re done here – have a great day!”. Clients come to us for perspectives, tips, and ideas they can apply to their lives. What can they do, on a practical level, to navigate their challenges and reach their goals after they walk out the door, hang up the phone, or close their email?

Sometimes they need to open themselves to a new way of approaching or looking at the situation, or work on some personal development that will assist with the current situation. I’ll often draw a “for further thought” card at the end of everything and recommend that they meditate on it for the next little bit. That can help. (As a nice touch, email them a picture of the card you drew for them or recommend they find an example online they prefer. This is especially useful for phone or online readings.)

Another idea in the same vein is suggesting an affirmation to help them focus on attaining their goals. One I offered recently is “I am a strong, fierce, fabulous woman who stands my ground”. Work with the client to come up with something that works for them, then make sure they have a copy.

Cleansing baths, spelled candles, and charged stones are all wonderful options here too. For in-person readings, I like to charge a glass pebble with good vibes towards their goal and gift it to them.

Be creative!

From clarifying the question to following through, these Five Keys are designed to help us as readers best support our clients on their journeys. Try using them in your next reading to unlock the meanings in your readings!

Tarot Decks for Beginners

Let’s say you’ve never touched a deck before in your life but want to learn Tarot. Or maybe you’ve been reading for years and want to know what to recommend to students. Please don’t automatically reach for the standard Rider-Waite! There are better options!

I know them are fightin’ words for some of us, so let me explain.

What makes a good beginner deck? 

New students aren’t looking to do professional readings right off the bat, so they don’t need to look for decks with that in mind. Instead, they need a deck that will get them familiar with Tarot structure, ground them in basic meanings and associations, and introduce them to intuitive card interpretation. Once those skills are firmly in place the student can move on to more challenging decks and broaden their basic skill set.

In my opinion, the best decks for beginners hit the following few points:

  1. A good deck consists of the standard 78 cards, broken into the standard Major and Minor Arcanas with Court cards. The names and associations can deviate from the traditional, and the Majors can be reordered, but they all need to be there.
  2. A good deck is approachable. There should be something about it that is familiar, comforting, or interesting enough to immediately engage the person using it. This is completely up to individual preference.
  3. A good deck ideally relies on stories instead of complex symbolism to convey meaning. If meaning is conveyed symbolically, the symbols need to be carefully chosen, easily understood, and as minimal as possible.
  4. The art of a good deck is at least moderately attractive, and all labels are clear. This is, again, a wholly personal choice.
  5. It’s readily available and affordable (preferably under $25, but definitely under $50).

So which decks hit all the notes?

Recommended Beginner Decks

These are my nine beginner picks. A few might even surprise you! They run the gamut of themes and approaches while meeting my requirements and staying true to the essence of Tarot.

They are, in alphabetical order:

The Beginner’s Guide to Tarot Kit (aka the Sharman-Caselli Tarot)

If a student must go with a straight-up RWS-style this is my absolute favorite of the bunch. The creators deliberately stripped out most of the esoteric Golden Dawn stuff and simplified the presentation. They wound up with a deck that has the feel and associations of the original Rider-Waite without all the extraneous bits that can confuse newcomers. The book works well as an intro to Tarot, too.


Three cards from the Beginner’s Guide to Tarot, a simplified and approachable version of the Rider-Waite.

Available here for about $30, book included.

The Bright Idea Deck

Marketing-wise this isn’t a Tarot deck (even though it totally is). It’s been pitched to businesses and professionals as a way to “generate ideas, expand creative expression, and stimulate thought processes”. As a result, there’s almost no esoterica in this deck, making it uniquely accessible to beginners and those turned off by overt mysticism.


The Bright Idea Tarot. Here we see this deck’s interpretation of the Magician, the Star, and Justice.

One of my favorite aspects of the deck is that the companion book offers more open-ended questions than it does rock-solid meanings. That encourages the reader to engage their intuition from Day One, as opposed to having to learn over time to trust themselves enough to step away from the book when necessary.

This Tarot is fantastic for practical application. It’s not very suited for deep spiritual reflection, though. Students may also find it challenging to move from this to another deck, especially with the way the Minor Arcana is streamlined. For those attracted to this one, I’d suggest also eventually getting a more traditional Tarot for meditation purposes. That’ll make it easier to transition to other decks when you want to spread your wings. I review it in depth here.

Available here for about $15, book included.

The Gaian Tarot

The Gaian Tarot shows people experiencing spiritual moments during daily activities and while out in nature. Those students focusing on conscious living and environmentalism in the modern world might find this to be a very comfortable deck. It is softened yet powerful. It’s also inclusive, which is very welcome in a Tarot deck!


The Gaian Tarot. The Guardian of Water is one of my favorites in the deck, the Three of Earth shows a modern kitchen, and the Strength card resonates with serene power.

The Gaian Tarot is very Rider-Waite-like in structure, but some of the card names have been changed to reflect the deck’s theme. The Court cards were carefully balanced for gender (two men and two women for each rank), which I like, and associated ranks have been changed to stages of life (Child/Explorer/Guardian/Elder). Traditional suits are dropped in favor of elements: Pentacles, Swords, Wands, and Cups become Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The book is solid, too, so bonus.

Available here for about $30, book and awesome box included.

The Mythic Tarot

This is my standard recommendation for beginners. It’s based on Greek mythology, giving those who have studied it a nice sense of familiarity with the deck. Major Arcana and Court cards are associated with a specific story or mythic figure, while the pip cards take us step-by-step through a story associated with the given suit. That makes the cards much easier to remember!


The Mythic Tarot. Here the Lovers card depicts the Judgment of Paris, The Star shows Pandora opening the box, and The High Priestess evokes the whole story of Persephone’s abduction.

I’ve already done a fairly in-depth review of this deck here. The original, which I prefer art-wise, requires a bit of hunting down and can be expensive. However, the NEW Mythic Tarot, with “updated” art, is available here for under $10.

Ideally, I’d suggest getting the New Mythic for the book, ditching the cards, and replacing them with this deck. It’s the original art with German labels, which I don’t find to be a problem at all, and costs $9 including shipping. Put the two together and you’ve got an AMAZING set for less that $20 total. That’s a bargain I think we can all get behind.

The Pagan Tarot

Ok, the Pagan Tarot is one of a kind. The structure and meanings of the Rider-Waite are maintained, but all the art is thoroughly and completely modern. There are cars and computers in here! It focuses more on scenes from day-to-day life than esoterica, which makes this deck easily relatable for those new to Tarot. It’s also very Wiccan in focus, so that may or may not appeal.


The Pagan Tarot. Here we have a fantastic modern interpretation of the Hermit, a relatable Nine of Pents, and a Death card showing the transition of between “old self” and “new self” that happens during initiation.

As a note for those interested, this deck is careful to balance genders among the Court cards. Not surprising for a Wiccan-based deck, but still worth mentioning. I don’t personally like how it’s done (Swords and Wands for men, Cups and Pentacles for women), but I do appreciate that an attempt was made in that direction.

Available here for about $30, book included.

The Tell Me Tarot

Think of this deck as a Rider-Waite with training wheels. The artwork is vastly simplified and interpretation suggestions are actually written on the face of every card! This makes getting started much less frustrating – going back and forth to a book sucks. This deck doesn’t even bother with a book. Instead, it comes with a couple of extra cards that give the barest of basics and lets the cards clarify themselves.


The Tell Me Tarot. On the face, we can see both a cartoony version of traditional Rider-Waite symbolism as well as some text. The traditional name is given, as is a keyword and card alignment (whether it’s generally a more positive or negative card). After that come interpretation suggestions.

This is definitely a transition deck. It’s excellent for beginners and sets them up well to move on to other Rider-Waite decks, but they will need to move on – and fairly quickly at that – if they want to get deeper into the cards. Students may find it worth the investment, though.

Available here for about $20.

The Science Tarot

In the Science Tarot, traditional mysticism has been exchanged for scientific theory. It works remarkably well. Also, since we did learn science in school and didn’t learn mysticism it’s wonderful for the beginner. We might have to think back to our school days or look up things that we’ve forgotten, but the meanings come across brilliantly.

While it’s set up in Rider-Waite fashion, the art and associations are quite different. Here the Major Arcana have all been associated with scientific stories or concepts, such as Schrodinger’s Cat for the Wheel of Fortune. The traditional Pentacles/Swords/Wands/Cups suits are instead Magnifying Glasses/Scalpels/Bunsen burners/Beakers. Court ranks have been exchanged theme-wise as well while keeping standard meanings, and each one is associated with a famous scientist. There’s even some gender exchange in the Court, which is always a plus for me.


The Science Tarot. Here we have a Major, Court, and Minor card.

As a bonus for the scientific and mathematically minded there are equations and formulae scattered all throughout the art. Have fun finding them!

Available here for about $25.

The Whimsical Tarot

Don’t let the cutesy art fool you – this is a fantastic beginner Tarot that can grow with you. Designed by the same woman responsible for the classic Hanson-Roberts Tarot, all of the images here are drawn from fairy tales and nursery rhymes. That gives us access to a ton of nuance we already know!

The cards that can scare Tarot novices are rendered in a friendlier fashion, too. For example, Death is Sleeping Beauty, the Devil shows Pinnochio as a puppet, and the Tower is the Wolf blowing down the house of the Little Pigs. We know that the situation was transitory for the characters in all of those stories, which reassures us that the scary stuff can pass for us as well.


The Whimsical Tarot. Notice how the label for the Major Arcana card isn’t static. The numbers are, but the labels are placed differently depending on the card.

I will say that the book is pretty lame, though. It’s super small and the descriptions are brief. It doesn’t even tell us which story the card comes from! Not to worry – this list gives us the stories in case we can’t figure them out, and we can use those to flesh out the sparse meanings. There’s also a full-length book you can get for this, but it’s so pricey I wouldn’t bother unless you love the deck. It’s certainly not necessary.

Available here for about $20.

The Wizards Tarot

Into Harry Potter? Give this deck a whirl! From the get-go, we’re pulled onto the campus of a Hogwarts-esque school called the Mandrake Academy. Each of the Major Arcana cards is reimagined as a Professor of various magickal disciplines, while the Rider-Waite-inspired Minor Arcana cards show students of the school. The Court cards depict elemental creatures associated with the suit.


Three cards from the Wizards Tarot. The Initiate is the Fool, starting their magickal education. We can see Mandrake Academy in the background of the Six of Cups. The Hanged Man is also the Professor of Runes, particularly fitting in this location when we consider Norse lore about the origin of the runes.

One of the coolest things about this deck is the companion book, which is a pretty entertaining combo of Tarot guidebook and Basic Magick 101. Each Major Arcana card teaches both a practical magickal technique and has its very own associated spread. How cool is that?

Available here, and the most expensive one I saw was $30. Make absolutely sure you get the one with the 200+ page book that came out in 2011, too. The 2014 version’s 80-page booklet just isn’t the same.

Have any others you’d like to recommend? Let me know in the comments!

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.



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.


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 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!