7. Foundations: Tools, Altar/Shrine, and Sacred Space


From Ree na Réaltaí‘s 30 days of Paganism/Polytheism.

7. Foundations: Tools, Altar/Shrine, & Sacred Space – General beliefs on tools, the altar/shrine, and your sacred space.

It is important for me to make a distinction between an altar and a shrine, because I have one and not the other.

To me an altar is a place set aside for magical or ritual workings. I don’t have one of these, or the ceremonial magical tools (cup/knife/wand/disc) that would go with it, because I don’t practice any ceremonial or ritual magic. If I do practice magic it is low or folk magic, that can go on without any circle casting or things like that.

What I do have are shrines.

A shrine, to me, is space set apart for a Deity: to house an icon where they may indwell and where offerings may be presented, a tangible reminder of that deity’s presence. Butsudan, Kamidana, Harrow, Ve, Holy of Holies – while the particulars of any space-set-apart-for-holy-presence may be culture-bound, the principle is universal.

Now, a lot of pagans get accused of icon-hoarding, or collecting knickknacks for the Gods, and the problem with that (if there is a problem, and it is not just the observer of an unfamiliar shrine space being judgmental of someone’s eclectic worship) is not directly with the amount of sacred imagery, but with failure to treat it as such.

As a polytheist in a culture that could be equally well described as secular or monotheist depending, the burden of reinforcing the sacredness of my sacred space is on me, and I am going to get the opposite of help from everyone around me. Not out of malice but simply out of cultural disconnect.

The culture around me is a culture steeped in irony. We wear logos without endorsing or caring about the thing whose symbol we carry around, we turn the markers of class status or cultural particularity into fashion statements. Nerd culture is sometimes an exception to this rule, but I find I rarely if ever assume that I can identify someone by the symbols or statements they put on or around themselves – even the ones I might care about (think about the Anarchist symbol, and how rarely that stands for a set of political beliefs) or ones that might be symbols of “my kind of Pagan” – the Hammer pendant or runes are sometimes simply a symbol of cultural heritage or a gift with no other meaning to the wearer. I find those parts of my culture troublesome, but a person who finds them normal is going to assume the same about me – the objects I keep on my shelves, from statuary to candles, are decorative objects, with no deeper meaning than that.

When everyone around you holds an opinion so strongly, and so unconsciously, they might not think to question it, it has a powerful pull. In the midst of ritual or prayer it is easy to feel the reality of the unseen world in my gut, but that feeling needs to be maintained with the same care and attention as a plant that’s outside its native environment. Without constant upkeep, the very space I set aside and the objects I use to represent the faces of my Gods “desacralize”, in the onslaught of unbelief that washes around me. (Both in my mind, as a symbol of my attention to spiritual practice, and objectively, with the energy of that Deity and that devotion, which would be apparent to someone psychically sensitive.)

This upkeep seems to me to boil down to “maintaining shrine taboos”, of one level of strictness or another – whether or not a deity image gets treated in a non-ordinary way is the dividing line between a cult object and an art object. I meant to divide these from simplest to most onerous, but that absolutely depends on the person. Shrine taboos come in three flavors, as far as I can see.

1. “don’t touch a Deity’s stuff”. Ask permission to clean the shrine space. Thank Them or pray to Them when cleaning away offerings. Don’t re-arrange altar space without asking or consulting Them.

2.  “Don’t look at a Deity’s image in an irreverent mindset” – this one is pretty hard for me since I can’t build a bunch of closing shrines right now, but I really like doored shrines. To only see an image while in the middle of ritual/prayer is a powerful way to create the “non-ordinariness” of that image. Right now my ancestor altar is in a jewelry box that closes I try to refrain from walking away from a lit votive candle, and I try to greet my shrines (emphasis on try) when I enter my room.

3. “Don’t let Deity’s shrines get cruddy.” Not only does this include cleaning away offerings in a timely manner, but also spiritual cleansing – whatever that might mean for you/your tradition. Burning cleansing incense, washing the area with consecrated water or a certain blend of soap or anointing it with oils, I find periodic re-dedication of the space important for it to “maintain” an identity above that of “shelf of knickknacks”

These things may be important to me because I am new and bootstrapping my way to continual recognition of the divine, but I think it is one of the more important things that a Polytheist can do. To break a taboo – to enter a holy of holies, to disrespect sacred ground is to manifestly erode the sacredness of that space, but to keep a taboo is to sanctify it.

I don’t believe that it’s an impossible battle, but I do think it is a difficult and ongoing one.

2 thoughts on “7. Foundations: Tools, Altar/Shrine, and Sacred Space

  1. Interesting post.

    I agree that continual recognition of the divine is a struggle. In my path, its one of those things that a person is continuously messing up. We keep our shrines in time, as well as in space, and in a secular world, trying to explain that certain days are sacrosanct is next to impossible.

    Then there are cleaning people who will take our sacred objects off of chairs, where they are resting comfortably, and put them on the floor. Because they can’t see what difference it makes. And it looks tidier that way.

    Taboos can also create sanctity on the go. I keep kosher and observe several other religious taboos. It is a way of taking the ordinary action of eating (or sex, or whatever) and turning it into a time for minfulness as well as sanctity.

    A friend of mine from the Black Forest tradition spent nine days eating no animal products except for pork as a measure to connect her to Freya. She found it to be very effective. Largely, anything that causes you to change your actions, regardless of what actions, out of respect for the divine, rather than exclusively for the sake of pleasure or utility, will raise your consciousness. In my mind, the greater the degree of the change, the greater the mindfulness that it generates.

    • Iðasfóstri says:

      I agree about sacred days – and man, as a somewhat-reconstructionist whose source tradition(s) left fragmentary records and used a lunar and solar calendar at different times, influenced by different outsider cultures oh my god it’s a calendar labyrinth. Certain days ARE sacrosanct, but which ones?

      I think there’s some sort of cultural critical mass where people DO recognize sacred objects/places, in some contexts. I think people in general know how to behave in a temple/mosque/church – even if that means “hang awkwardly around the periphery until someone tells you where it is okay to go” And then of course, once outsiders recognize what is sacred they can disrespect it on purpose – but there’s a difference between conscious disrespect and accidental disrespect – one is trying to speak your symbolic language and one isn’t.

      (An interesting thing to me is Western bias in religious studies – the fundamentals for what constitutes “a religion” based on a Protestant template and the bias makes it just hard to see other faiths. With outcomes like the Maetreum of Cybele’s, where it seems like a state official toured their monastery and … didn’t see any of what they were looking at.)

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