The Witchy Lifestyle: Shrines, Altars, and Holy Places
Last week, I posted up an article on Domestic Garden Witch about building shrines near trees in a garden in order to provide a space for magic or worship or meditation. The amount of popularity that this article had gained showed me that, at least to some extent, there is a love or desire for building shrines and altars in many places where shrines aren’t necessarily as common as one would like. Indeed, as I walk through the beautiful city of San Luis Obispo, I see a lot of religious diversity - a gorgeous mosque, the imposingly beautiful Presbyterian church in downtown, the historic Catholic mission at the heart of the city, and a pagan boutique on the very same road where we hold our Farmers’ Market.
Each church has its altar. And I’ve been in pagan stores that have community altars. When it comes to shrines, however, I hardly ever see any around here in public spaces. It’s not to say that I don’t see shrines on occasion. There is a lovely salon near where I live which has a gorgeous shrine right in the front of their store for welcoming business and honoring the gods. But I found myself wondering, “could part of this be due to a bit of confusion over what is a shrine and what isn’t?”
The only concrete answer to that question is “maybe.” But in thinking a bit harder, I realized that it would still be good to discuss shrines in a little more detail. As a community, we as witches and pagans talk a lot about altars and magical spaces (or holy spaces, depending on what vernacular you prefer). As such, it’s not uncommon to see a witch or pagan with at least one space in the home which has candles and some sort of religious iconography, either in a simple and clean setup or in as complex a setup as my coven’s Lughnasadh altar.
So much happiness and peace!
But to get back to the point… What is the difference between an altar and a shrine? And what role would each have to play in a tradition?
Magic and Worship In Communal Space
Altars, as I’ve mentioned, are something we see a lot of in the witchy and pagan communities. From aesthetic posts to tutorials, as well as instructions in some spells for how to properly set up an altar. I have yet to see a “starter’s guide” to witchcraft or paganism that does not have a chapter devoted to building and consecrating an altar.
In short, an altar serves a couple of purposes: providing a place for meditation and worship for a pantheon, and anchoring/grounding magical workings done on and near it. In this way, an altar is essentially the Swiss Army Knife of witchcraft. It is in itself a tool, but also houses multiple other tools, such as wands, athames, candles, stones… you get the picture. By itself, an altar need not be religious, and instead serves a much more practical use in magic as storage and anchoring space.
As an anchor, altars are places where we place ourselves into a magical mindset. A circle may be cast around an altar, with the altar being the focus for where spellwork is being done. Like a magnifying glass focusing sunlight, the altar can help concentrate energy to enhance our magical workings. And, in guided meditations, the altar can also serve as a beacon - helping us find our way back to ourselves if we begin to feel that we’re straying too far in the astral.
As a religious space, the altar becomes dual-purpose. In this situation, it is not only used for magical workings, but also for worship - usually to multiple deities in polytheistic traditions. As such, my home altar can be seen with statues for archetypal god and goddess, as well as dragon imagery and more specific symbols for my deities (such as a raven’s feather for the Morrigan, a rose for Cerridwen, a Brigid’s cross for Brigid, and occasionally an arrowhead for Cernunnos). My coven’s altar setup varies depending on who is with us - at times, it is strictly generic, while more often we incorporate the deities and traditions of all present (thus resulting in symbolism for Celtic, Norse, Greek, and Egyptian gods, as well as offerings and symbolism for Hecate specifically… we even sometimes have Christian imagery if we’ve got a Christian witch with us).
It’s this variety and ability to be so generic, coupled with its practicality which makes altars so appealing to so many people. It’s why we’re more likely to see communal altars in a public space than a shrine, and it’s why much of our worship tends to happen around them. But this isn’t to say that shrine’s can’t have a particular role in a tradition.
A Familiar Space, with a Special Face
When I was younger, I had the opportunity to tour some of the historic California missions. Most California schools have us do this in grade school, but as I was older, I was doing this for personal research. And in some of the buildings, I came across areas that were set aside for a specific saint - not part of the main altar in the chapel. This intrigued me, given my Lutheran background. My protestant upbringing acknowledged the saints, but that was about the extent of it. Later on, when I was learning more about Dia de los Muertos, I was further intrigued by the same practice being extended not just to saints, but to family members who have passed away.
The traditions revolving around these two practices are different - shrines to saints have a much different purpose than those built for ancestors. This is something that I understand. But break the practice down to its absolute basic level and you have the same practice being done - a space is being designated for honoring and/or worshiping a specific individual. This practice isn’t limited to saints or ancestors, either.
A shrine to Buddha in Oakland, CA.
There are many religions that are polytheistic, in which there are further denominations, cults, or sects devoted to a more specific deity (e.g. the cult of Demeter in ancient Greece, or the sect of Bast in Lower Egypt). Even monotheistic and non-theistic religions have been known to construct shrines in areas as a means of honoring or worshipping spirits, or as a way of creating a space in which meditation can be done closer to home.
What sets a shrine apart from an altar is its purpose. While a shrine may occasionally be rather large and grand - it is often described as being almost like a home in some practices (in Shinto, a shrine is quite literally the home of a kami or other spirit) - a shrine may also be very simple, like flowers on the roadside where an accident had occurred.
Indeed, some shrines are built without religion or spirituality in mind. A couple of great examples of public shrines are the 9/11 memorials and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They are non-denominational shrines dedicated to the memories who have lost their lives in combat or in acts of terror.
Where is the Line or Distinction?
If my description of shrines and altars sounded very similar to one another, this is because both are closely related. Both altars and shrines: are used for meditation or worship or honoring, are spiritual places, and can be very complex or very simple. Some shrines double as temples, and some altars double as churches.
Ultimately, we can use the terms interchangeably in many situations. But what I’ve discovered is that altars are generally practical and used for magic in addition to worship and may or may not be permanent. Meanwhile, I’ve found that shrines are usually permanent, used exclusively for meditation or worship, and usually to only one or two people or deities.
How Can I Use Them?
First, one of the most important things to consider is how you plan to use a space. Is it for ritual or is it for worship? Is it for honoring ancestors or for worshiping gods?
For me, I consider something an altar if I plan on tearing it down regularly for various reasons (my altar which I frequently picture is an altar because I sometimes tear it down for coven work) and if I plan to use it for magical workings. A shrine, on the other hand, is more permanent and may be used for worship more often than magic in my particular brand of paganism.
If you plan on constructing a shrine, who is it devoted to? I particular god or spirit? An ancestor? Then use materials on it that are appropriate for that individual and tradition. For instance, if I were to construct a shrine to Cernunnos, I may construct it of wood and place plants on and around it. Then, I may incorporate ethically sourced antlers or bones, as well as a candle or two, and possibly an offering bowl. It may also have an image or statue of Cernunnos, depending upon whether it feels right to do so or not.
If I were erecting a shrine for an ancestor, i would consider that ancestor’s beliefs. For instance, if I were to build a shrine for my grandfather, I would have Christian imagery on or around it, as my grandfather was Lutheran. This is out of respect for him and who he is.
In these two instances, I would have shrines for two different purposes - a shrine of worship to Cernunnos, and a shrine honoring the memory of my grandfather.
Regardless of the subject of devotion, shrines can add a particular bit of spirituality to any tradition. Throughout history, we have seen both altars and shrines erected just about anywhere humans have lived. We have a natural tendency to assemble images or symbols in one spot in order to more easily pray or honor someone or some spirit.
Perhaps a shrine is right for your practice? Or maybe an altar is best for your work. Work with what helps you most in your life!
Prompt: Tom schedules a VIP tour for when he visits the Happiest Place on Earth and you happen to be that Disneyland tour guide.
Word Count: 2700
A/N: I have gone to Disneyland countless times and I know the entire map and random other facts about the magical park. I, however, have never paid for a Disneyland tour guide, so I am not 100% sure how the tours work (but I’m positive the tour guides can’t romantically fraternize with the guests). I am almost done with one of my requests, but it was just very hard for me to write that request while I had this Disneyland imagine in mind, so my apologies to whoever requested that one. I am working on it-I swear!
“Good morning, Y/N.” Your co-worker greeted you in the locker room as she used the mirror to adjust her plaid vest.
“Morning, June.” You smiled back at her. Your eyes trailed down to your own, matching red plaid vest. Working at Disneyland had its perks and being a tour guide came with the specific perk of going on rides all day.
“Y/N,” Your boss walked into the room, straightening out his red tie as he did so.
“Yes?” You replied, turning to him.
“You’ve got a tour today- I know, you have one everyday- but this is a very special and very important tour.” He said and you raised your eyebrows at him. It was unusual to hear your boss inform you of your tour- normally it was just written into your schedule. “We have a celebrity coming. It is his first time here and, as a new and upcoming star, fans shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.”
“May I ask who it is?”
“Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man. It’s rather bad timing to have him come during the Summer of Heroes, but he has bought a VIP tour package, so we must comply.”
“Really? The new Spider-Man?” You asked with wonder filling your eyes. You grew up loving the famous comic book character, but never in your wildest dreams did you think you’d actually meet one of the actors.
“Yes. As a Disneyland tour guide and a cast member, your job is to give him a magical Disneyland tour for the next few days and to treat him as a regular guest, not a celebrity. You have been given permission by the superiors to use the secret tunnels- only if absolutely necessary to steer him away from crowds.”
“The next few days? How long is the tour?”
“Three days. I believe two in Disneyland and one in California Adventure. In California, be extra careful as many Marvel fans will be out there for the new ride and also for the Summer of Heroes.”
“Got it, boss.”
“Get ready. Park opens in ten minutes.” He concluded, before leaving the locker room. June turned to you in awe.
“Your first celebrity tour. Good luck!” She smiled at you.
“Thanks, June. I might need it.” You laughed.
When the time came for your tour to begin, you went out to City Hall. You stopped just short of the door and adjusted your vest one last time. You opened the door to the lobby and found it to be full of people, waiting for their tours to begin. You glanced down at the name the tour was under, Harrison, and called it out to find the group. Three hands shot in the air and you made your way over to them. The three boys dropped their hands as you approached.
“Hello, welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland. My name is Y/N and I will be your tour guide for the next few days. My job is to help you have the most magical time while you are here.”
“I’m Tom and this is my best mate, Harrison, and my brother, Harry.” Tom stuck his hand out and you shook it. You shook hands with Harrison and Harry, smiling warmly at each of the guests.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you three. Would you like to get started?” You asked, gesturing to the exit doors. They nodded and you led them outside.
“Here is the Town Square part of Main Street USA. Main Street USA is the only land that has not been significantly altered since Disneyland’s opening in 1955. It represents early 20th century America and is based upon Walt’s hometown Marceline, Missouri.” You walked out into the street and turned towards the fire station, “Walt’s private apartment is located on the second story of the fire station and he would have a lamp on whenever he was in it. We keep the light on so his presence is still in the park today.” Your spouting of information came to a halt and you watched as Harry took some photos of the fire station and city hall with his camera.
“Harry’s the photographer. He’ll do this a lot.” Tom said to you with a laugh.
“It’s totally okay. Are you all first timers?” You asked as Harry finished, ready to move on.
“Yeah, we had a few days off so we figured Disneyland was the way to go.” He replied. You nodded in response.
“Good choice.” You laughed. “Shall we continue towards the castle?”
“Do you guys like pineapple?” You asked as you arrived in Adventureland.
“Yep.” Tom nodded and you pointed to the Dole stand outside of the Tiki Room.
“The absolute best place to get pineapple soft serve, or as we call it Dole Whip, is right there. Dole Whip can only be found here in Disneyland, Disneyworld, Disney’s Polynesian Resort, or the Dole plantation in Hawaii. Just behind the stand is the Enchanted Tiki Room, which is sponsored by Dole Foods and features beautiful, singing birds from equally beautiful islands. If you want to cool off, I suggest getting Dole Whip and then watching the show.”
“When’s the next show?” Harrison asked.
“There should be another one in just a few minutes.”
“I say let’s get us some Dole Whip then. If you suggest it, it must be good.” Tom stated.
The four of you got the said Dole Whip and sat outside of the Tiki Room, waiting for its doors to reopen.
“How is your Dole Whip? As good as I told you?” You asked, before taking a spoonful of your own.
“It’s absolutely delicious.” Tom said with a nod.
Your first day spent as Tom’s tour guide went smoothly. You took them on just about everything: Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, Winnie the Pooh (yes, because you dry off from Splash in there), Astro Blasters, Matterhorn, and Star Tours. The boys decided to save rides like Indiana Jones and Haunted Mansion for the last day of their trip. Today, you would take them on a tour in California Adventure. You greeted them in the entryway of Disneyland’s sister park with a bright smile.
“Good morning, Y/N.” Tom greeted you.
“Good morning, boys. Did you all sleep all right?” You asked.
“My feet hurt, but yeah.” Tom laughed.
“You’ll be walking a lot today as well. Welcome to Disney’s California Adventure. We are standing in Buena Vista Street, resembling Los Angeles during the 1920s. To take it easy on your feet right now, we’ll ride the red electric cable car to our newest attraction in Hollywood Land.”
“Ah, Guardians of the Galaxy? I should feel right at home.” Tom laughed.
“Hopefully, you feel more at home with the Avengers, than the Guardians.” You replied, leading them aboard the car.
“Well, Star Lord shares the same name as me.” He shrugged. You thought about it for a moment, before letting out a soft laugh- Peter Quill and Peter Parker.
“Say, Y/N, is Spider-Man one of the featured heroes in the Summer of Heroes?” Harrison asked.
“Yes,” You chuckled and Harrison nudged Tom, “The Summer of Heroes includes Spider-Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Star Lord, Gamora, and Groot.”
“We should go meet Spider-Man.” Harry laughed.
“I’m right here, but I’m down for it.” Tom said.
“I can arrange for us to meet Spider-Man. Don’t worry, boys.” You said. Mentally, you were hoping they wouldn’t want to see him. After all, Tom was Spider-Man and he’d be more recognizable if nearby the thing really made him super famous.
While the four of you sat in your seats for the Guardians of the Galaxy ride, your body began to shake. Tom, from beside you, looked over in worry.
“Are you afraid of heights?” He asked you quietly.
“I’m more scared of the dropping feeling that comes with this specific ride.” You replied in a shaky voice.
“Here.” Tom moved his hand and grabbed yours, “It’s okay. I’ve got you.” You looked over at him and, as your eyes met his, your body relaxed. Tom let out a small smile, reassuring you that everything would be okay.
After the ride ended, you led them over to where Spider-Man’s queue was. All three boys were smiling as they went up to the masked hero.
“Hey, man! How’s it going?” Spider-Man asked.
“It’s going great. How about you, buddy?” Tom asked, switching into his Peter voice.
“I’ve had a great day. Busy helping out the Avengers, ya know.” He said, “Would you like a picture?”
“Of course!” You stood to the side as Tom, Harrison, and Harry took a photo with Spider-Man. You heard a gasp and your eyes darted over to the source.
“That’s Spider-Man!” Someone said from the line. Tom looked over at you worried.
“Yeah, I am Spider-Man.” The guy in the Spider-Man costume said.
“No, he’s is Spider-Man!” Another guy said. He pointed at Tom.
“No, no, I’m not. I just look like him.” Tom stated, slipping back into his British accent.
“Hey, that’s Harrison!” A girl screamed. The crowd started to go for Tom and the other two boys. Spider-Man and other nearby cast members jumped in the way to hold them back.
“We need to go.” You said, leading Tom, Harrison, and Harry into the nearby gate that read “Cast Members Only”.
“Are we allowed back here?” Harry asked.
“Only for emergencies.” You said and he started to lift his camera up. “No pictures back here.” He sheepishly dropped it back to its original position hanging around his neck.
“What do we do now? Just wait for people to leave?” Tom asked.
“No. We’re going to use secret tunnels.” You stated, making Harrison laugh. He quit once he saw your face.
“Yes. How do you think the cast members get around? Now, follow me.” You replied, leading them into a tunnel to the complete other side of the park.
The next day, you took them on the rides they missed the first and rodes that they wanted to go on again. Among those rides was Haunted Mansion and, as each doom buggy could only hold two people, Tom volunteered for going with you, like he had done on all of the previous rides that called for twos. Noticing his actions, you asked him about it.
“Tom, how come you always choose me? Why not ride with Harrison or Harry?”
“I enjoy spending this time with you. Is there something wrong with me wanting to ride with you?” He asked with a hesitant laugh.
“Well, no, but-”
“It’s okay, Y/N.” Tom said. As your doom buggy descended into the darkness of the ride, Tom let his hand slip onto the seat and find yours. You jumped in shock at the sudden touch. “It’s okay.” He repeated, securing his hand in yours. You felt the same comfort that you felt yesterday just before Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission breakout.
“That was a great ride. And that entire thing is underground?” Tom asked you as you two climbed out of the doom buggy at the end of the ride.
“Yes. A lot of Disneyland’s famous rides are underground, such as this one, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Indiana Jones.”
“That’s mad.” He replied in awe. You met up with Harrison and Harry on the escalator back to ground level. Harrison looked over at you and Tom, then turned to Harry with a smirk on his face. You glanced down at your hand and you realized you still hadn’t dropped Tom’s hand. By the way he started a conversation with Harry about the hitchhiking ghosts, you figured he had forgotten about it as well. Blushing, you let go of his hand and let yours fall back by your side. Tom stopped mid-sentence and looked over at you for a brief second. He turned back to Harry to continue talking when you looked away.
Once outside of the ride, you left to check in with your boss as they shopped over in Frontierland. When you returned to the tour, Tom had just checked out.
“Y/N, I’ve got something for you.” Tom said. He stuck his hand into his new Disneyland shopping bag and you put your hand over his wrist, stopping him.
“I insist. You’ve been a major help to us- we definitely would not have been able to have this much fun and do this many rides without you.” He said.
“As a Disneyland tour guide-”
“Right now, you’re one of us, not a tour guide.” Tom stated. You let go of him and he pulled out a set of Minnie Mouse ears.
“They’re lovely.” You laughed lightly, touched by it.
“I’ve heard that you give someone Disney ears when they mean a lot to you.”
“I’ve only known you three days, Tom.” You stated.
“Are you saying you don’t want them?” He faux pouted. You shook your head as a smile formed on your face. “Good, because I don’t know Disneyland’s return policy.”
“Actually-” You started and he placed the ears on your head.
“Shush. You’re keeping them.” He replied.
“No, thank you. You made this trip better than I could possibly imagine.” Tom smiled, his hand moving towards yours.
“Are you two ready yet? We want to grab some ice cream before viewing the fireworks again. I need as many chances to get good fireworks shots as I can get.” Harry asked, interrupting your moment with Tom. You two moved away from each other instantly.
“Right. Let’s go.” You nodded, heading out of the store with the boys following you.
“You just had to butt in.” Tom grumbled to Harry.
“Be quicker about it, mate.” Harry said with a shrug.
You took them to Main Street’s Ice Cream Parlor and the four of you got your respectful ice creams. You then led them over to one of the best spots to view the fireworks with the castle in view.
“So, how often do you get to watch the fireworks?” Tom asked as he stood beside you.
“Every night. And it’s magical each and every night.” You replied, smiling up at Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
“Have you always wanted to work here?“I’ve always wanted to entertain people, but I knew I’d never make it as an actress or a singer. Disneyland makes people happy and I love being a part of that.”
“I think you’d be an amazing actress.” Tom said and you laughed, rolling your eyes.
“I’m just a tour guide- I’m not a character or a Jungle Cruise guide.” You stated, with a shrug, “I’m happy where I am. I don’t think I could ever handle the spotlight.”
“Yeah, it’s hard sometimes. I still don’t really see myself as famous. I mean, I’ve been in Disneyland for three days and no one has recognized me- even when I met Spider-Man, no one recognized me.”
“Well, everyone’s focused on their next ride or the magic in Disneyland- they’re not looking for a celebrity.” You laughed.
“I guess.” You looked back at Tom and he paused for a moment, “You-” He was cut off with a loud bang from the fireworks. He jumped, startled at the sudden noise.
“I’m sorry, what were you saying?” You asked him.
“You look beautiful.” He said, making eye contact with you again.
“I’ve been in the same outfit for the past three days.” You laughed.
“Yes, but you still look beautiful.” Tom raised the volume in his voice so you could hear him over the fireworks’ claps, “Is it all right if I kiss you now?” He asked, stepping closer to you. You hesitantly nodded and he leaned in. Fireworks were going on behind you two but you were focused on the fireworks going on between you two. It was pure magic…
…And Harry made sure to capture the moment perfectly with a large red firework sparkling in the background.