So, I am really fucking tired. Like, I can barely lift my arms, tired. I have bruises on parts of my body I forgot existed, a few poorly broken bones (I’ll try harder next time) and more than one or two torn-and-or-frayed tendon type things, from moving into this new home. My shoulders gave out two week ago (but I couldn’t afford to acknowledge that…) and my knees started locking up again yesterday (after obediently shutting the fuck up for a week and a half or so), and my hips are pretty much done being points of articulation for a while. (Thankfully, the other day I found a nice broad 19th century blackthorn walking cane, with curved rather than cudgel-knobbed hand-rest, which means I can hobble about AND fight some motherfuckers with the best kind of strikes.)
But I digress.
Today I want to write about a topic that has received lots of press all over the place (such as here and here, to show completely random things pulled from Google search results) over the years, and yet still continues to be a point of confusion for some people. The subject of “shrines and altars“, and what one is or isn’t, and the when/whats and so forth seem to still be a source of confusion for many Polytheists, Pagans, and those engaged with various magical traditions. Much of this confusion stems from the use in the post-reformation Christian Church (wherein “altar” is still used, but no long had its original meaning, at least to observers, and so… confusion.)
There is plenty of academic stuff that can be said on this shit, but I have very purposefully crafted my tone here at the Exodus to not have to deal too heavily with academia. Fuck that shit. (Plus, PSVL can probably come up with three thousand words on this subject in a few days to fill you all in from those angles which I just can’t be bothered to.)
The bottom line is that an altar and a shrine are different things. In the Latin language context, there are all kinds of shrines that are also — kind of — altars, for doing things like leaving offerings and burning incense. In the household Polytheist context, absent things like developed intentional architecture and specialized furnishings, fixtures, and wall-niches, I advocate for — and teach — the following differentiations.
A shrine is where you enshrine a being, a deity, a spirit, a person, a hero, or even an event. Example: a shrine to Poseidon might be erected at the docks of a small harbor, to appease the god of the sea. (As a non-Hellenic Polytheist, I have no idea if this is a true or advisable thing. Somebody can probably let me know after the fact around this.) A shrine can be on the floor, on a raised surface, or even recessed into a wall or affixed to a column or post, etc. There are limitless cross-cultural and cross-pantheonic forms that shrines can take, but the key thing here is that they are a place for honoring and dedicating praise and recognition of some kind or another, generally devotional in the case of theistic shrines, to the one being enshrined. You don’t really “do things” at a shrine, other than visit and pray or venerate or think happy thoughts at the “target” of the shrine. In my practice and estimation, pouring basic libations or burning incense, etc, is just fine for “shrine behavior”, but it is not a place for deep engaged “workings” or sacrifices. Shrines can also be made for people — ancestor shrines, or even shrines for those who are still alive and are the subject of living adoration, etc — and for events, such as battles or really great orgasms, and so forth. They can be simple or elaborate; a cast bronze relief set with brass screws into a wall in an intentional enshrinement and dedication, with a bit of a ceremonial process to designate it as such, and bam, you’ve got yourself a shrine. It can be on a tabletop or a shelf, too. Or the floor, in many cases. (Not all homes have tabletops and shelves, but all homes have floors!)
An altar is a surface, generally (but not always) erected or otherwise “put together” for specific active uses and otherwise not left out full-time, except in spaces where full-time workings of that sort are generally taking place. (There’s no reason to not leave an altar out full time, aside from the fact that it serves no purpose when not in use: it is like leaving a lawn-mower in the driveway after your’e done mowing the lawn, or leaving your dinner table all set up for company even after the meal has passed and the company left.) It isn’t a “surface you put spiritual looking shit on”, or a place where you “store your juju schwagg when not wearing it to pick up hotties at the mall”; it is a place where you do specific devotional, sacrificial, or magical workings. It could be a stone that you sacrifice a goat on, or a mat that you place the images, icons or statues of your gods or spirits on when you celebrate them with significant offerings and praises (as with a specialized ritual or festival happening), etc. Sometimes an altar has a shrine on it — e.g. an altar set-up with a large statue of Hekate would be a surface or space of some kind established for magical, sacrificial or devotional active working, and the statue itself would be the “enshrined image”. A place where you put are regularly leaving votive offerings — e.g. shit you are not going to take back or wear or use elsewhere/elsewhen, but are surrendering as offering or gift or sacrifice to the spirit/god — is generally considered an altar, and so some permanent or semi-permanent shrines may have spaces set-up as similarly “permanent altars” for such offerings, but these should be differentiated from main altar places which are used for bigger, less general workings.
Why does all of this matter?
Because in the pre-modern traditions that our Polytheisms, Paganisms and magical traditions are largely derived from (or a continuation of!) really cared a great deal about things like place, space, and the boundaries (e.g. meaning itself, and the intentionality navigationally implied therein!) associated with them.
In my estimation, any authentically lived, fully realized tradition or practice or religion in the 21st century should really concern itself with at least SOME of the things that truly defined the way that these traditions were built in the first place, and acknowledge that maybe those guidelines and principles existed for reasons beyond some silly or naive sense of anything-goes one-size-fits-all eclectic free-for-all.
If you’re short on space and live in a single room or dorm or studio, etc, than you may not have time for shit tons of spaces dedicated. That’s fine. Delineate some fucking shrines. Those can be small, or large, or on the wall or on a shelf… but treat them as sacred dwellings for the ones you enshrine there, which means probably keeping them clean (if such is desired by that being, or indicated by associated tradition, etc) and so forth. I consider household shrines that are a part of the living space (e.g. on top of an entertainment center, inside a bookcase nook, etc) to be integrated shrines; later I will discuss other kinds.
No room for a giant permanent altar? No worries! That’s not actually super historically sound for a household anyway. Need to put up an altar for a magical or devotional working? Great! Get a fold-out table, or a fucking storage bin with a cloth over it, or a mat thrown on the floor. Get creative. Bend your lover over and strap a child-sized billiards (absent legs) to them with bolted on backpack-straps, and throw a cloth over the whole thing. (Make sure they’re not going to move too much — unless you want them to.) Do your work, don’t fuck up, and then close it all down when you’re done.
When space is an issue, sometimes an altar and a shrine will be permanently combined for the purposes of efficiency; that’s generally fine. But a shrine is a shrine, and an altar is an altar, even when they’re connected. If you bend your lover over and strap a pool-table to their back, that becomes your altar, intended for the doing of shit. If you also put an image of a deity or spirit there, that image or deity — and the space it occupies on the billiards-altar — becomes the “shrine”. See? That’s a shrine on an altar on a pool table on a bent over human. When space is an issue, improvise, get creative, but fucking acknowledge the difference as you do between things like shrines, altars, and bent over lovers.
In the pursuit of having consistent use of language — and the above seems to be generally agreed upon by most folks, just rarely ever followed in “out loud” discourse… — and honoring established meaning as a thing we actually all benefit from in pretty profound ways, try’n see what it might look like to correct yourself if you say “altar” when you mean “shrine”, or the reverse.
There are exceptions to the above, which I don’t have issue with. In Haitian Vodou, a “shrine” is actually called an “altar”, and that is completely okay with me (given both the syncretic Catholic nature of the tradition, and the nature of the ritual technologies in play!) and similarly with other traditions. Let me be clear: it is not my intent to attack any tradition which (as above) believes or defines things differently, but rather to offer clear language (which is again fairly universally agreed upon anyway) to individual folks NOT attached to a tradition which already gives them very well defined terms to which it is greatly attached.
If a tradition or lineage is just using words it garnered from mainstream neopaganism or whatever — which is to say, is misusing altar/shrine for no reason other than not knowing that those are different words with different meanings with different functions — than I encourage those in leadership positions in those (newer, probably) traditions to take a look at their lexicon and pencil in some adjustments and tweaks. Seriously; traditions change over time and that’s just fine. If a magical lodge or a local witchy circle or a Polytheist grove or whateverthefuck finds out that they’ve been saying “altar” as a catch-all for when “shrine” would be more appropriate? Change that shit. It’s a mark of maturity in many cases to adapt, grow, and nearly all of our traditions espouse messages of the importance of inner-work and self-development and cohesive growth through facing and embracing the shadow: well, fuck, poor grammar or lazied use of language or decayed regard for meaning is pretty murky, shadowy shit, you fucks. Walk your talk and face and embrace and get back to doing the work with the right words attached. I promise it’ll make you feel a bit more like a big kid.
As with the term “sacrifice“, these words get confusing when they are applied to traditions or practices from outside the linguistic origins that they derived from. But, even so, that confusion can be navigated with just the briefest of nods to things like “meaning” and “intent”. In absence of clear instructions from tradition or lineage, treat a place where you’re enshrining something as a shrine, and a place where you’re doing something as an altar. Proceed and navigate accordingly, out loud and otherwise. Treat them both with fucking respect, even if they’re integrated into your household: don’t enshrine gods of modesty in places where you’re likely to fuck or masturbate or watch Dr. Phil and drink Bud Light, because — especially with that last one — this will make your gods very, very sad. Similarly, don’t throw an altar up in a place that is going to have a lot of foot-traffic during the time that it is up; if it is a temporary working space, and you don’t live alone? Take over the garage or the fucking bathroom for that matter. Bathrooms are fucking great because you can kill and spill and spatter and mash to your hearts content and the spaces are generally designed to clean up pretty well. (Just clean the space beforehand, too, and throw a cloth or curtain up over the shit-can; respect, and such.)
Be mindful and intentional and always fucking reverent to your marrows in the placement and use of your shrines and altars, whether they’re completely separate from one another or stacked on atop the other. Treat them as different spaces, even if they’re only centimeters apart from one another or literally emerging out of one another: space and boundary fucking matter. So does meaning. Acknowledging and navigating this shit, the importance of meaning and delineating different kinds of spaces and so forth, is all tied into the basic foundations of discipline and respect, which are cornerstones of all of our traditions and lineages and religions, whether they’re devotional or magical or whateverthefuck. So, do that shit. I promise, it’s fucking awesome.