PSG Roundtable #8: Altars & Shrines for Non-theistic Purposes
Want to make an altar or shrine to a principle, concept, or impersonal subject that isn’t a ‘conventional’ deity, complete with names and symbols and pre-defined rituals?
First, you need to know what its purpose is. There’s no clear delineation and they often get combined in contemporary practice, but generally speaking, a shrine is a space for devotional offerings, meditation, and/or self-reflection whereas an altar tends to be more of a practical workspace. Both shrines and altars act as a space in which you interact with the immaterial in some way. They’re liminal.
Please note that everything I say here is opinion, and I invite you to accept or reject what you will according to your own beliefs, needs, and desires. I’ll be using my devotion to Death as an example, but you should be able to extrapolate for the universe, moon, sun, nature, etc. I’m going to stick to the word “altar” for simplicity’s sake.
- What is your altar dedicated to?
Be as specific as possible. This helps you know exactly what you’re wanting to deal with.
Ex: Death. What part of death? The whole cycle of life-death-rebirth? Death as the ultimate symbol of transformation and impermanence? For me, death is the greatest power, and I have an obsession with the concept of entropy. (Asimov’s “The Last Question” and Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” are two of my favorite short stories.) It is the concept by which we define our very nature and how we understand our existence, the source of our greatest fears and anxieties as a mortal species, and the one truly unifying experience for all humans. And a lot more besides, but I could go on all day about death so I’ll stop here.
- How do you want to engage with this concept/abstract?
Some common ideas:
- Reflection, meditation
- Devotionals, worship
- Spellcrafting and magic
How do you normally do your meditation or magic? How can the materials, timing, and other components be adapted?
- What associations and visuals do you have for this concept?
Consider all the senses: scents, tastes, textures, fabrics, sounds, colors, stones, herbs, numbers, symbols, words and phrases, music notes and songs, emotions, aspects of nature, etc. Make lists. Hell, make aesthetic posts. These will help you choose what kinds of objects, tools, and materials to put on your altar to best facilitate the kind of meaningful experience you’re looking for.
(Make sure you’re not appropriating anything from a closed or initiatory tradition. There are usually about a hundred thousand alternatives for everything, so don’t go taking sacred things out of their proper context and using them in ways they weren’t intended to be used.)
Ex: my personal associations for death include black, white, and silver; camphor, menthol, the smell of wet dirt; quiet chill, both damp and dry; grief, dissociation, sarcasm and morbid humor, relief, freedom, truth, rebellion, empowerment, justice, existentialism; the numbers two, three, and seven; obsidian, jet; Southern Gothic folk rock (Jen Titus’ cover of the American folk classic “O Death,” anyone?); black mirrors, slim dark-handled knives, scalpels; images of space; “evanescent” (the SAT word, not the band), “fate,” “tradition,” “stories,” “power”; bleached bones, blood both old and fresh, winter, corvids, silhouettes of bare trees, white bedsheets, gauzy curtains, empty hospital beds, abandoned houses, sexuality, dried flowers, candles burning either singly or in the hundreds. See, as silly as aesthetic posts can be, they really can be useful.
Now look at your own lists and see what underlying trends and themes there are. For me, I see impermanence and unadorned realism. (I left out the more graphic and triggering associations I have with death because I don’t want to distract from the purpose of this post.) Someone making a list for the sun, on the other hand, may find ‘strength’ or ‘optimism’ is a common theme in their associations. I find that understanding the themes in your associations helps you understand your own relationship with the concept itself and why you might feel drawn to it so strongly. It may also help you choose in which direction you want to take your engagement with it.
- Setting up the altar.
Do what you would do for a conventional altar: cleanse the space (or container, if you’re making your altar in a box, cupboard, drawer, or something similar) and everything you’ll be using on it. If you don’t have a tradition that comes with a prescription for setting up an altar, you can look up how to cleanse and consecrate altar items in any number of ways and choose the method that’s most appropriate for you. I do recommend using methods that reflect back to your concept. For example, salt, as an agent for drying, preserving, and purifying, would be appropriate for death, as would frankincense, which in a multitude of cultures is a required component of funerals. For something dedicated to the universe as a whole, I would probably incorporate sound into the cleansing, as sound is a wavelength and much of what we know about our universe (sound waves, radiation waves, gravitational fields, matter itself, etc) is based on those principles.
Ex: My altar is dedicated to death in the impersonal, entropic sense. This means that anything personal goes to a different space set aside for my beloved dead and ancestors; this altar is for the vast, inhuman concept of “the end” that can be so oppressively terrifying or incredibly freeing. The setup is based on a visual that came during a meditation: the altar cloth is black with a ring of alternating smooth and rough obsidian stones (which betrays my bias as an Irish polytheist) around a circular mirror in the center. A small sphere of obsidian sits in the center of the mirror. A black pillar candle stands tall behind it all. The setup is designed to facilitate my journeyings by creating a symbolically liminal space represented by the ring, made of stones that naturally draw in power rather than reflect it. The drawing in reflects my journeying technique as well as how I connect with the greater, impersonal energy of death and darkness and all those cheerful things, especially when I hold the obsidian sphere, so it works for me. If I were doing ancestor or spiritwork I would probably use more white, which recalls a different aspect of “death” than black does to me.
The “nature worship” tag has additional commentary on non-theistic practices.
- mountain hound
So, Hound covered more of the altar stuff. I’ll add my thoughts on shrines. for ease of reading, I’ll mimic the format starting with
- What is your Shrine dedicated to?
I find a shrine is much more free form than an altar due to its fundamentally different nature. Whereas an altar is used for practice in spellcraft or meditation a shrine, in my opinion, is about devotion connection in a way that is different than an altar is used for. As such, while I see altars as something that needs to be more specific (as Hound mentioned above), I find shrines do not need to be so specific. For example, my shrine is to Nature, in all its forms. I do not emphasize more the harsh wilds or the tame fields but all its forms under the complete object. If you wish to emphasize one or the other, you can, I just do not find it as necessary to do as with an altar.
My reasoning for such is (and feel free to disagree) an altar is used more in a practical sense for spellcraft and meditation and other uses that are generally to garner a result. As such being as specific as possible is advantageous as it leaves less room for error. A shrine, however, is used for more abstract things such as offerings, self-reflection, etc. which are generally things that are not (though can be) used to garner some sort of result. For example, I will leave offerings at my shrine more as an act of devotion with no end goal as opposed to an offering I may give a spirit when requesting its services (which is a good example of an offering to garner some sort of result).
The rest of the points are very eloquently put and can be easily applied to both altars and shrines; the primary difference is the function of active vs passive respectively and how narrow and broad the scope respectively.