Differences Explored, Part II: Shrine Rooms and Temples

Posted: March 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

So, last time I talked about shrines and altars and how they’re different sorts of spaces for different purposes, and why it is important and super fucking cool to treat them as such. Now I will discuss two forms of dedicated space in our practices and traditions: shrine-rooms, and Temples.

First, though: I am writing as somebody who built (as in with timber, stone, dirt, tools, and so forth) a Temple which housed my gods for a number of years, which I served (as per the instructions of my gods) as a full-time dedicated Temple Priest. (What that means is that I put roughly 70-90 hours of work into maintaining Temple shrines, procuring and handling offerings at said shrines — there were a lot of them — and performing maintenance, renovation, and changes around the Temple space, facilitating rituals in an active and ongoing way at the behest of my gods, either with other priests or the lay folk who were sent to the Temple, or for the spirits themselves with no other human recognition taking place. I did this in a largely thankless fashion, and not for any recognition or esteem: it is a position steeped in rigorous labor, heightened discipline, profound humility and very little shiny rockstar accolades to motivate you. It is a monastic-esque pursuit, which deletes mundane qualities from your life: no more matinees or days at the park with friends “because you feel the pull to go be social”; what little time you have outside of Temple duties must be divided into mundane self-care (food! bathing! sleeping! sex!) and household affairs (shopping! cleaning up after humans!) and one’s own private devotional practices (which are completely separate from one’s role as a Temple priest.) As Sannion has pointed out repeatedly — he did some Temple service in the past well — for all of the Polytheists and Pagans who bemoan our lack of Temples, very few actually “get” what goes into tending and caring for them. These are not just “kickass places of statues and candles and zomgs social gatherings of hot sexy fellow religionists in flowing robes and strobe lights and fog machines!”, they are the fucking houses of our gods. They are the seat of infinitely complex powers and personalities and the navigating of every single stage of Temple process — from planning and building to maintaining and tending to closing down, if the need arises — is a fucking challenge. And it is one that I gladly took up, and will take up again as soon as I can do so in a good and clean way.

It is NOT my intent to write here a fully scholarly piece, nor is this constructed with citations and references. I do a tremendous amount of research, I own a personal library weighing in at over five-thousand pounds, and I am not a professional academic, nor is it my intent or interest at this time in contributing to the academic field. Others, such as PSVL or Galina Krasskova, who are more deeply entrenched in professional academia, may well wish to offer up the disciplined tones and writings from their respective fields. I am writing as a professional Temple Priest, as a spirit-worker with decades of experience getting swatted around by gods and spirits and learning, very often the hard and painful way, the ins and outs of this shit. I don’t speak as the voice or authority for all of Polytheism, nor am I writing for an audience that already has an established tradition or lineage which has solid, traditional definitions and structures for dealing with these issues. (Which is to say, if you’re part of Tradition-X or whateverthefuck, and you disagree with something I say here? That’s fine. I’m not talking about your tradition. I’m talking about foundational elements and navigational structures which are relevant for people who do not have such a structured tradition at this time, or who may not find themselves welcome or interested in your path.) I’m not trying to dictate what is or isn’t an existing temple in Tradition-X; these are my views, based on years and years of full-time training, study, service, labor and experience.

Before we go further, though, please — if you haven’t already — read Part I of this series on shrines and altars. I feel that it is an important place to begin. Done? Cool. So we know that a shrine is a space wherein a deity or spirit or person or event has been enshrined, versus an altar which is generally a surface for actively doing shit, like devotion or sacrifice. Awesome. Now, from there, I’d like to define what a shrine room is, prior to more deeply addressing the subject of Temples, Temple priesting, and the confusing hybrid term, Temple room. Shrine rooms are relatively easy to define.

A shrine room is a room — gasp! — or an otherwise clearly and physically delineated space (e.g. one that is fully curtained or partitioned off from a greater space, in a non-abstract and physical fashion) which is dedicated exclusively to the devotional practices associated with the shrines which are contained within it. Big leap there, definition wise, no? But let’s parse that out a little bit. A shrine is a space used for enshrining something. A shrine room is a space for containing shrines in a dedicated fashion. That means that a shrine room is not “also a TV room” or “a dining room on Sundays” or “a kitchen, er, because.. hearth..” or “where I store my children’s outgrown clothes! in boxes!”, or “the place I put houseguests so I don’t have to give up my bed when they visit”. A shrine room is a space dedicated exclusively to shrines. There are a few basic exceptions to shit that can get done in a shrine room, beyond holding shrines: obviously anything meant to tend or nourish or engage those shrines is okay, as are festivals or rituals (or altar workings) appropriate to the space and company of those enshrined. Treat each shrine as, at the very least, a window through which that given deity or spirit or collective might be peering through at any given time, and then make sure that what you’re doing in that space you’ve dedicate to Them and Their shrines will not offend. Veil or curtain shrines as needed in order to do certain types of things that those spirits don’t want to see, or will be offended by. Bam. Done. Shrine room in a nut shell. Don’t fuck about, and you should be fine.

There are other kinds of dedicated shrine spaces, like large outdoor shrine complexes (still not Temples!) and they are similar to the kit and process above.

Sometimes shrine spaces have attached shrine priests — not Temple priests, mind, though there’s a lot of overlap in duties, especially in the sense that holy shit there is duty and responsibility involved in that job, because it is a fucking job, not a hobby — and those priests will be responsible for following protocols assigned by either their traditions/lineages or the gods and spirits themselves. Protocols may include the cycles of offerings (and the treatment of “spent offerings” previously given, such as ash or dried fruit or poured libations) for each of the deities enshrined, or navigating issues of purity (if somebody comes to the shrines who is unclean, or behaves offensively). A shrine priest is responsible for everything that happens in that shrine room, period, and that shit is important. Because when you invite the gods into a dedicated space in this way, you are not inviting them into your home — as in an integrated shrine, which might live on a bookcase or atop a breakfast nook — but instead you are giving them their own space in a dedicated and presumably semi-permanent fashion.

If you invite me over to your home to hang out and play some Nintendo and eat some fucking raviolis or whatever the fuck, and you say “Hey, you can throw your coat and bag in the side-room over there and grab a seat on the couch”, that doesn’t make either the side-room or the couch mine. They’re your spaces, used for mixed/integrated purposes, which in this instance include holding my crap and giving me a comfy place to park my road-weary Thracian self. But if instead you invited me into your home to take up residence for a while, say six months or so while I was in the area doing a bunch of sacred work, the space you give me becomes mine for that time. Not in the “I own it, anything goes!” sort of way; there are still agreements and conditions around that occupancy. But you can’t just come in and use that space to hook up with a particularly fashionable bus-driver you met on the way home, because, fuck, those are my sheets. You dick. See what I mean? If you came into a room you’d given me, absent particular agreements/arrangements around that (e.g. your art supplies are still stored in the closet there, and so you have obvious need to access them within reasonable hours/circumstances) it would be a violation. I’d still be a guest in your home, but within that dedicated space, I’d be the host; a specific kind of host, who was still also a guest. Layers and layers, my friends, this whole hospitality thing.

See how that works?

Yeah, it is like that with a shrine room. The house is still yours, but when you put the gods up in a dedicated and contained way like that, you’re making pretty literal agreements and normative contracts with them for the duration of that arrangement. Violation of that shit is a violation of hospitality — which is a really fucking big deal in these traditions and ways of being and living! — and therefore an extreme violation of piety, of devotion, of duty to the gods (as a lay person, as a devotee, as host…) and so on.

So, shrine rooms? They’re important. They’re challenging. You don’t just give up a space in your house to the gods and spirits — although that is the bare minimum for consideration as such a space! — but you take on a specific set of responsibilities, obligations, duties, and disciplined — if organic and sometimes adapting — roles in serving Them, hosting Them, and in turn being a guest in Their space when you step inside. Like a housekeeper at a hotel, your “authority” over that space ended the moment that the deity’s occupation of it began: you are a humble service provider to them at that point, and will remain such, changing sheets and removing garbage and keeping it to Their liking, until such a time as that term of divine occupancy ends. When you’re bringing other people into the shrine room for worship or offerings, your role shifts: now you’re the butler, not the housekeeper, and your job is to be in charge of the guest (granting you authority over the guest, as a “speaker for the place”; but your authority comes with responsibility for their actions, behaviors, piety and so forth). There isn’t anything willy-nilly about this.

So what is a Temple, then, amongst all of these definitions and terms and duties and dedications?

That’s a good question. Let’s begin with a little look at the etymology — though hopefully by now my readers know that I don’t neurotically prescribe to ancient etymologies that have long been applied in a scholarly fashion to cultures not originally part of that definable paradigm — of the word “temple”.

It comes to us from the Latin word “templum”, which refers not to a structure itself, but to specially sanctified, ritually determined and oracularly laid out grounds and boundaries which will contain the structure (which we refer to as a “temple” in English). So, the root of a temple is not a building or physical container, but a boundaried and dedicated space, which would house the structure: this space is determined not by mundane logistics (e.g. “I have a yard! It is 30×30 ft! My temple will go THERE!”) or by financial logistics (e.g. “I HAVE A BILLION DOLLARS I WILL BUY THAT MOUNTAIN AND MAKE IT A TEMPLE COMPLEX!!11!!1!”) or by social/communal need (e.g. “Zomgs, we NEED a TEMMPLLEEE!!!! And by need we really mean want, like, really really want, with boners and stuff…”) or by a need for social/community attentions (e.g. “I saw a Kevin Costner film about corn and balls and shit, and if I build it [a temple] they [a community or some friends I don’t presently have…] will come [all over me]”), but rather by the gods and spirits themselves, as interpreted and consulted by professional and highly trained specialists.

That’s right. Specialists. With training. And professional occupations doing this sort of thing. Not folks with random Tarot decks or precious gemstone runes they bought at Border’s going-out-of-business sale, or some kiddie that really likes to poke scat with a stick and spit out esoteric sounding shit to get the cute boys down the street to pay attention to him and his stick, but actual disciplined professionals with a specialization in exactly this sort of work. (When I built my Temple, I consulted a publicly available spirit-ridden trance-possessory oracle, in addition to many many many layers of divination, performed by myself and other specialists, to determine the specifics and particulars of my Temple, and even if I was permitted to build it at all in the place/circumstances I was presently in. Note: I am a specialist, a highly trained professional, a full-time dedicated priest and spirit worker, and I still consulted other specialists, because no single person “wears all the hats” and has vision for “all the things”.)

Then the construction of the Temple happens. In my opinion — and I admit that this is just my view here — simply dedicating an existing space “as a temple” is not “enough”. Nor is simply calling in divine forces and opening the space to the Other worlds, and the divine places where the gods and spirits dwell, although all of those things must happen, too. (An exception to this would be Temples which are meant to be temporary, such as the Temple of the Morrigan at PantheaCon 2014, or a battlefield Temple erected in a tent to serve the needs of soldiering devotees in times and campaigns of war and military conflict.) A Temple must be raised in some way, and as the timbers, stones, screws, nails, tacks, mortar, or thatched roofing is assembled it is done with the sole intent and purpose of building a fucking house for the fucking gods. This involves prayers. It involves offerings — you think you’re going to build a solid Temple without making offerings to the gods who govern things like building, making, crafting, joining, hammering, cutting…? — and it involves blessings (who wants a Temple made of wood, when it can be a Temple made of blessed wood?) and all of the rites and complex workings and practices are probably going to be ultra-specific to the Powers and pantheons prescribing the process. Because that’s the thing: Temples aren’t built because humans say so, they’re built because the fucking gods say so, and they are built to Their specifications, on Their schedules.

So what makes a Temple different than a shrine room, other than being “built” and having all that (very very important preliminary ritual stuff) going on in the beginning? Well, for starters, a Temple is fucking alive, in my experience as a modern spirit-worker, Temple priest, and roguish Polytheanimist… a Temple is as alive as the gods that it will contain and house, and as literal a being as any spirit. Oh, what, you didn’t think places had spirits? They do. Tartaros, for example, “as far below Hades as Hades is below the Heavens”, as the brazen anvil falls, is both a primordial god and a motherfucking place. He/it are both “deity” and “Otherworldly place”. A Temple is like that: it is a place, but it is in its birthing/conception process also a category of spirit which is largely left unconsidered in our modern practices and religious endeavors. Sometimes the spirit of a Temple is older than the Temple itself, and is an expression of a greater place outside of this world, or even an expression of a specifically dedicated deity within that Temple, while other times it is an entirely new spirit birthed in the ritual process of constructing and fabricating and consecrating the Temple.

The bottom line is that a Temple is a specific thing. A vital thing. A breathlessly, words-are-not-sufficient-at-all sort of thing of pronounced import and severe relevance. But they are also a LOT of work. They come with instructions, sure, but sometimes you really need to search for what those specific protocols and practices are, by asking or just paying close attention as you serve as a priest: sometimes the processes and protocols will be learned over time by fucking up and pissing off the gods who patron that Temple, or by engaging in error with the Temple itself. A Temple Priest is a dedicated full-time position which carries with it very very specific roles and responsibilities, which carry all of that which a shrine-priest must do, plus a whole lot more, because Temples must be woven into festival process and must hold mysteries and for fucks sake they are alive.

And, in my opinion, a Temple is a place of sacrifice. Generally of the bloody variety. You want a place of worship or congregation? Throw up a household shrine or buy some park benches and get a keg of ale. A Temple is a commitment to bend yourself daily, hourly, minute-by-minute to the whim and will of the gods housed within, because that is what you’ve agreed to do by building and tending a Temple, and that will eventually (and in my opinion MUST eventually if not regularly) include sacrifice, of the sort and sundry preferred by and requested by the gods and spirits housed within.

A Temple is not a Protestant Congregation Hall, nor a Parish house, nor a place for meet-ups, mash-ups, hook-ups (well, actually…) or socializing as a community. In fact, lay folk have virtually no reason to ever enter a Temple, except for specific rites, most of which would actually happen outside of a Temple. Who goes in, then? The fucking gods. And the priests who serve them, in a specialized, professional, dedicated fashion.

If your vision of a modern Temple involves a lot of people gathering around inside and buzzing like clubbers at the AWE AND AWESOME of the gods and the TOTALLY RAD space you fucking spunked out into the world, sorry kids, you’re picturing a warehouse rave, not a Polytheist temple.

That isn’t to say that sacred congregations or raving or clubbing or spunking is remotely bad or wrong or not a part of religion. Those are totally all fucking great. Just not at a Temple. Because meanings and things. Those things happen elsewhere, even if they are in celebration of a god or calendric holy day.

So, shrine room: a dedicated space inside of and integrated with a more mundane environment, which is set apart from mundane household things in order to contain shrines in a dedicated fashion, as tended to by a shrine priest (informally or otherwise: if you build it, and don’t assign another shrine priest, you’re it, kids). Temple: very specifically dedicated place whose location, boundaries, protocols and construction is overseen and dictated by the words and will and whim of the gods, which is possessing of an independent spirit itself, which is not for lay folk or general worship at an interior level.

What about a temple room? This is a term I’ve heard thrown around, and have even used myself in several contexts: I would say that it could be a shrine room which is in some way assembled by the will of the gods, moreso than by household logistics, but is still a shrine room rather than a Temple. I would consider it to be a sub-category of shrine rooms. I would also say that its function is meant to mirror that of a Temple proper, meaning that those tending to it do something resembling formal Temple rites and services (such as sacrifice?) again without it meeting the necessary (and specific) requisites of being a true Temple.

There’s no value judgment between integrated household shrines, dedicated shrine rooms, temple rooms, and Temples: these are three or four different types of things, which serve different purposes and each make more or less sense in different circumstances. Period.

I will probably want to return to this topic — specifically about Temples — more at a later time. For now, though, this is just an intro piece for how a Temple and a shrine room are different. Now fuck off, I need more coffee; Irish, this time.

  1. Conor O'Bryan Warren says:

    This piece is fucking amazing.

  2. Duffi McDermott says:

    This. This is exactly what I needed to hear. Now I have a much better sense of the role a Temple priest is required to take on.

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

  4. I don’t even have a shrine room at the moment, but the shrines in my room are multiplying, and are taking things over gradually. I need to clean this place generally for the arrival of the next major enshrinement soon…I trust you’ve seen the photos on my blog already of Paneros?

  5. DeoMercurio says:

    This reply is going to be mostly a tangent off of your brief comment that Temples typically require sacrifices of the bloody variety, and in that respect a follow-up on our excellent post-panel chat on the subject at PCon (PS: I’m on WordPress now!) (PPS: Owen speaking). First off, however, I want to say these are two very well thought out pieces that definitely challenge ingenuous attitudes towards sacred spaces. I myself often struggle to differentiate between bent-over lovers and altars.

    Anyway, it occurred to me that more and different kinds of things can be asked of someone like yourself than of Random Polytheist X. As you say, you’re a highly trained expert in spirit work, someone with experience of sacrifice, and someone claimed by the gods to serve them as a Temple priest (and more). That gives deities greater latitude in what demands they can place on you. Those among our PCon panelists who were viscerally and visibly squeamish about the whole blood sacrifice thing—even if they were Temple priests—would probably not be in a psychological state in which it would be a useful thing for deities to ask such a gift of them. In other words, my feeling is that there are two sides to this. There’s what the gods can ask, and there’s also the people that they can ask it of. Therefore, a demand like that is going to be mediated by the cultural and individual meanings of people who are (as the gods know perfectly well) limited or even blinkered mortals.

    To be clear, I don’t advocate for animal sacrifice, but I don’t condemn it either. I lived in a Muslim country for long enough to have a cultural frame of reference in which animal sacrifice is widely accepted, even among people who do feel a bit sorry for the animals in question. And I really cannot condone the kind of hypocrisy that says it’s okay for animals to be killed far away and in the cruellest conditions just to make my chicken nuggets possible, whereas an animal killed in a spirit of veneration and purpose, and to the end of benefiting the community of mortals and immortals, is seen as something horrifying. After a number of years treading the path of Numa and Pythagoras, I’ve resumed eating meat myself, which means that I really feel I have no moral high ground on the subject.

    I’d even say the mere fact that I’m acquainted with you means that it would now mean something different if I got a clear signal that a deity was asking me for an animal sacrifice. I’d at least know a person to begin that conversation with. In the absence of knowing such a person (and having the cultural and conceptual framework that I do), I cannot imagine such a gift would be asked for. In that event, it wouldn’t be right and meaningful for the giver. Could you work with a deity who would demand nothing else but the sacrifice of a live dodo bird or a woolly rhinoceros? The gods are not so absurd—and, as I say, they know who they’re dealing with.

    Okay, tangent over. Differentiating between altars and shrines and Temples (with shrine rooms thrown in there somewhere) is a good and useful principle for everybody. But, especially reading your thoughts on Temple service (on which you obviously have unique and valuable insight), I found myself wondering, what can fairly be expected of a moderately pious lay person? Personally, I’d be delighted to see more of the countless millions of people disaffected from the Abrahamic religions just raising a glass to the gods when they drink, lighting incense before a sacred image at home, reading mythology to their kids, coming out to a public festival in a deity’s honour every once in a while, and listening to Heidevolk. I guess this comes back to my other basic point: it matters who you’re talking about.

    Anyway, that, and get some rest and rejuvenate, man!

  6. […] shrines we are still, by default, the owners and maintainers of that property. Setting up a fully functioning temple is an entirely different matter as I’m sure my Thracian Adversary can attest. (And I owe this […]

  7. […] We can be heroes! |… on Differences Explored, Part II:… […]

  8. […] short while back, my Thracian colleague wrote on shrine rooms vs. temples, and used the language of “integrated shrines” in the process of doing […]

  9. […] oracles and consultations and rituals and sacrifices and negotiations with the land spirits. A Temple is not a building, or a structure, or four-walls that hold shrines: a Temple is a being, which is born of a union with place. (In the Roman sense from which we […]

  10. EmberVoices says:

    Are you making a distinction between the Temple and the Sanctuary? The Sanctuary being the entire consecrated grounds, the Temple being specifically where the god is housed (usually in the form of the *representation* of the god being housed there). Those are distinctions I learned from studying Ancient Greek religion, which I know carried over into Roman Catholic tradition, but I’m not sure how they apply to Northern European tradition, which would have had other language entirely anyway.

    Anything else I could say on this topic is delving into the Descriptivist vs. Prescriptivist linguistics argument, which is A: meta, and B: not likely to change anything on either my part or yours.


    • I love this additional level of distinction. It is not a level I tend toward in the “Foundational” level discourse, because (as you’ve pointed out) I think it gets a bit tradition-specific. All of this is subject to tradition-specific adaptations and/or take-or-leave nuance; but it’s a good starting point for those who *do not have* a core structure to draw on.

      Personally I don’t tend to make the distinction that you are here (Sanctuary v. Temple), not because I argue with them, but because it gets into some fairly specific architectural nuance (e.g. physical layout and configuration requirements) rather than underlying “delineated space and requisite spiritual actions pertaining to such” stuff.

      “Temple” comes from “templum”, and neither the linguistics nor architectural traditions between the Greek and the Roman usages line up perfectly.

      In my experience of modern polytheistic practices happening in America in a “new tradition” or “revived tradition” standpoint, the primary foundational distinction needed is in designating a difference between “formal Temples” and “places where shrines are, especially household shrines”, especially as this relates to the spirits-of-place. A lot of people are quick to call a shrine a “personal temple” which I think misses the point of what various traditions of “temple-ness” are, erasing them entirely in fact; similarly, a room in a home dedicated to shrines (e.g. a “shrine room”) is still different from a structure which has been specifically delineated in conjunction with long-term prophetic process and a sense not only of permanence but of “installation with spirits of place” (e.g true perimeter of space, rather than just “temporary erection of arbitrarily consecrated spaces”, as one might use at a ritual happening at a hotel for a conference).

      When somebody’s guest-room, record-player cabinet, or a hotel conference room used for 90 minutes can all be called a “temple”, for example, then the actual proper temples out in the world (or in some cases, sacred groves, as in igbodu Ifa) have lost their meaning, value, and place in practice. This isn’t to nay-say or begrudge temporary spaces; rather, to name that they do not replace intrinsically, nor erase implicitly, those other “bigger” things which are Temples.

      (Note: I’m writing this while mobile and through fatigue, so I’m not in any way being dismissive, nor do I have my thinking cap on. This is an off-the-cuff casual response.)

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