Altars and Shrines


A shrine is a sacred place dedicated to a specific entity, at which s/he is venerated or worshipped.  The area of a shrine in which votive offerings are placed is considered an altar.  This may be quite different from how many Neopagans define ’altar’- a sacred area where symbolic objects and ’working tools’ are kept during ritual.  (Not a place for offerings- making offerings isn’t a Wiccan thing to do.)  I never got much into using magical tools (athame, chalice, wand, pentacle) when I was Wiccan.  I had fun collecting them, but ended up not using them much.  For magic, I’ve always used just whatever items are needed.  So I guess I have always thought of an altar along the lines of it’s ‘official’ definition- as part of a shrine.  I’ve seen many Wiccan altars that I didn’t recognize as such- they seemed random, without the central focus that a shrine would have.  Once I went to a ritual where there was a potlatch (stuff swap) afterward, and it seemed that a couple of people almost mistook the altar for the potlatch table!  I guess my point is, I have a specific idea of what an altar/shrine should look like- and I don’t see the likes of one very often.  I don’t think an altar should be a blanket on the ground with a bunch of mismatched stuff on it (including matches/aim & flame!).  I don’t think shrines are always necessary nor practical for all rituals- Nature is often my only ‘shrine’.  And in my opinion, altars are only necessary in ritual if there is going to be some kind of offering made.  
A few years ago I went to a ritual at the Orpheum, where there was a shrine put together by all the people there.  Oh yes, you could tell that was a shrine- all the various deity images lit by only candlelight- it was inspiring.  Inspiring- that is the word.  That is what we should aim for in creating shrines.  In Hinduism, ‘darshan‘ means to see a sacred image of deity and receive the deity’s blessing.  Have you ever seen a shrine or image of a deity that moved you to the point that you felt you received blessing just by the sight of it?


2 responses »

  1. I’ve heard of “working altars” to define altars where tools and things for a working or ritual are laid out (which may look random because the things important to the individual are not necessarily the things that may seem the most inspiring to others) and “dedicated altars” as altars dedicated to a particular deity and is much more like that you describe here when making a shrine. I use both. Often my window sill is my altar, I lay things out that I am working on and it looks *really* random but they are laid there as reminders to me, keys for my work so that I can continue what I started. When it’s done I may leave it awhile or take it down. I usually burn it at Samhain if the spell or work is complete.


  2. You’ve made some good points, Starr. I wonder if the concept of the ‘working altar’ is specific to Wicca and Wicca- related traditions.
    I don’t use altar space for spellwork, but then I’m a folk-magic practitioner.

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