Differences Explored, Part I: Shrines and Altars

Posted: March 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

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.



  1. […] Differences Explored, Part I: Shrines and Altars March 16, 2014 […]

  2. Conor O'Bryan Warren says:

    Thanks for writing this post, now I have some better ideas about how to articulate the differences to folks. Really, just fantastic.

    • Very glad that it is useful for you. I find that a lot of people struggle with this, even if they *do* know the difference, because of the popular blurring of the two of them together.

      Having never been part of mainstream Pagan, or influenced (religiously) by either witchcraft or Western esotericism/ceremonial magick, these terms didn’t come to me with a terrible amount of baggage. “Altar” has *always* been the “place of sacrifice” for me, even as I observed mainstream Abrahamic religion; I learned about those religions by reading their Holy Books as a child, and realized how full of things like sacrifice and altars they were 😉

      Shrines if anything are the more important and commonly used things (since most people’s “altars” are really just “tables where we put spiritual shit”), and yet seem to be the least understood in both purpose, spiritual mechanic, and consequence.

  3. […] my Thracian Adversary was showing me around his shrine room earlier tonight these fascinating women came up in […]

  4. Not surprisingly, our thoughts on this are pretty much the same. I have never written a post about this, but a few years ago, we did discuss it on the Ekklesía list, and my conclusions and usages were the same as yours, then as now. Lots of people don’t seem to agree…

    I have also found that the lay public (pagan or not) don’t seem to understand the difference between these things, or between shrines and temples. Until people go there (and even sometimes afterwards), they often refer to the Shinto Shrine as a “Shinto Temple,” and there isn’t such a thing in that particular vernacular…Buddhists have temples, but Shinto always has shrines because they enshrine particular kami. In any case…

  5. EmberVoices says:

    By this reasoning I have a whole lot of shrines and occasionally turn my counter into an altar. Fair enough. -E-

    • That sounds completely correct and appropriate. “Altar” only seems to have gained prominence in our language (instead of shrine…) because of the altars in Protestant Christian churches (which are now only used in symbolic sacrifice, and which in most cases are left up permanently, as most such churches are permanently dedicated spaces) and magical traditions (such as Wicca and the Golden Dawn, which are at their core drawing from magical lineages, teachings, and approaches — e.g. Western Esoteric Tradition and Occultism — rather than theistic devotions or religions) and therefore have little/no use for great discussion of (or use of the word) shrines.

      Catholic churches still have shit tons of shrines, all over the place, and generally still refer to them as such. (They also have a whole complex assortment of shrines-that-are-also-kind-of-altars, being a Roman derived tradition, the language lines up with Pagan use; however that gets too nuanced for useful household employment, in my opinion.)

      Protestant Christianity in many cases divorced itself from being very much of a real religion a long time ago, and became an intellectual, philosophical and community-oriented pursuit: this process is mirrored in its stepping away from discussion of, and regular informed use of, shrines. This had a much greater impact on how folks at the American cultural level utilize these words and terms than most want to comfortably acknowledge.

      • EmberVoices says:

        I was raised Episcopalian, and educated by Catholics in Religious Studies, so my perspective on this differs somewhat, perhaps.

        I don’t agree with the definition of “real religion” you’re using here, since it’s unnecessarily dismissive and subjective – A community practice grounded in shared spiritual philosophy IS Religion – that it’s insufficiently ritualistic for your tastes doesn’t make it not “real enough”

        I get the rest of what you’re saying, though, and it makes me want to dig further into the linguistics of all those Roman-derived traditions, just out of curiosity.

        Personally, I’m not deeply attached to which words I’m using, as long as what I’m doing works, but I do like to KNOW what the words are and what they mean, for clarity of communication and reference. 🙂


  6. You said:
    “I was raised Episcopalian, and educated by Catholics in Religious Studies, so my perspective on this differs somewhat, perhaps.”

    Well, I was raised by multi-generational Protestant clergy (prominently Swedish Baptist background with modern place in the Anglican-Episcopal church) with a mother who was raised and then educated for 18 years in pre-Vatican II Catholic environments (k-12, bachelors, masters) with an emphasis on Roman Catholicism. So, maybe less than you’d think.

    You said:
    “I don’t agree with the definition of “real religion” you’re using here, since it’s unnecessarily dismissive and subjective – A community practice grounded in shared spiritual philosophy IS Religion – that it’s insufficiently ritualistic for your tastes doesn’t make it not “real enough””

    Disagreement is fine, but given that the earliest Christian word for “religion” is the (Greek language) “Threskeia”, the guy with “Thracian” in his name is going to win by default. Dismissive, yes, subjective no; Protestant trends of “theology” and “theistic engagement” at the doctrinal level have long been accepted (and in many instances proudly so!) as veering toward the secular in lay, clergical, and academic contexts. This is not to say that every expression is this, but in discourse around the “demysticification and secularization of religion” in the recent centuries, this takes up whole chapters and seminar courses with full seating. My language is flippant and casual, but my point as posited is difficult to argue. The statement in question that you seem to take issue with is that “Protestant Christianity in many cases divorced itself from being very much of a real religion a long time ago, and became an intellectual, philosophical and community-oriented pursuit”, which is an immensely balanced and fair treatment of the socio-historical facts of Protestant Christianity’s influence on the “evolution of monotheism” in the Western world. Certainly my use of the word “real” is a bit subjectively flavored, but that is so besides the point — the secular influence of language that centuries of the Protestant impact has had on Western religious dialogue — that it seems to intentionally take my absent hyperbolic gestural phrasing and leverage it to derail the whole thing. We’re not discussing Protestant religion, we’re footnoting the secular themes and influences that run through Protestant culture like a plague (see, hyperbolic!) and how those influences can be traced and mapped and measured in Polytheisms today.

    “Personally, I’m not deeply attached to which words I’m using, as long as what I’m doing works” is a fine sentiment, unless you’re ever in a position of leadership teaching folks things. Because then the wrong words get passed on and down and around and this assaults the very systems of meanings — erasing and degrading them altogether — that hold structures like shared religious tradition together in the first place.

    • EmberVoices says:

      My apologies, I didn’t see this because WordPress apparently didn’t consider it a direct reply to my previous comment.

      I still disagree with your use of “real religion” this way. As much as I enjoy going back to the roots of a word and seeing how things have changed through historical usage, the fact that the original language for the particular word that has survived was Greek and your practice is Thracian doesn’t make you more of an authority as to how the word “Religion” is defined today in modern English than, say, the bulk of Religious Studies scholarship. But my primary objection was that it’s dismissive, and you’ve acknowledged that, so I don’t see a lot of use in arguing the details any further. I really *hadn’t* intended it to be a significant digression.

      > Because then the wrong words get passed on and down and around and this assaults the very systems of meanings — erasing and degrading them altogether — that hold structures like shared religious tradition together in the first place.

      Maybe. As helpful as it is to have precision in language, if the *practice* is being passed on, and we all have a common language, it’s not necessarily vital that the language in question match the definitions used by folks in other traditions.

      Possibly because the Heathen practice I share with my congregants doesn’t use altars quite like a Hellenic practice might, we haven’t had a strong need to distinguish between Shrines and Altars beyond what context provides – “the altar” vs. “Freyja’s altar”.

      I do appreciate *knowing* the distinction, and may well pick it up henceforth since I have my very own pedantic streak too, and find these kinds of etymologies fascinating. But we’ve frankly gotten along just fine until now without having a technical term for the distinction thanks to the flexibility of language used in context.

      Unless I’m mistaken who you are (pretty sure I’m not), you’ve actually been to some of our meetings, and gotten a long fairly well, so though we may not agree entirely in theory we get on just fine in practice. 😉


  7. […] is how to organize and put your stuff together, and this is where I find a good distinction that the Anomalous Thracian made a bit ago between an altar and a shrine.  Simply put, a shrine is where a deity or spirit lives, and an altar is a place where one does […]

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