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!
[image description: painting of Tyler - thin person with light skin, long dark hair and dark eyes is staring slightly up at the viewer. They are holding a cigarette, wearing a nosering and grey sweatshirt. The background is dark - there is a pale circle behind Tyler - and the image is bordered by two rat-topped canes, many white pills, pill bottles, and a sign that says “cripple punk”]