Last fall I had a small space in the corner of my room. It was dedicated to the dark, in a way. It was a black shawl laid across the top of a small round table, with two black day-candles in the back, a small but deep black geode and a framed tarot card. Before it all was a small journal with a pen tucked into the spine and a deck of tarot cards.
You could call it a shadow altar – this was where I went to meditate, record dreams (on the rare occasion I was successful at remembering them), work with tarot to make sense of some of my feelings, and journal about it all.
So color me shocked the day someone walked about by and said “Nice shrine.” My knee jerk was to tell them I considered it more of an altar, but I stopped short. Could it be a shrine? A shrine to what – my subconscious, or Jungian “shadow” perhaps?
Altars vs Shrines
Generally, altars are workspaces – no less than your desk at the office in your house or workplace, or the makeup table in your bathroom, or the stoves and counters in your kitchen. Shrines, by slight contrast, tend to be places where we are in a more receptive place. We come here to place offerings of remembrance, devotion, and sometimes meditation. Often the examples of shrines you see and read about are “to” something, where the purpose of an altar is more general and open-ended.
Altars are places to put tools and images for work, but what sort of work do we do at our altars? And what sort things are appropriate for an altar or shrine? What altars and shrines have in common is a sense of sacredness in the work we do there. Odds are that your altar or shrine won’t be where you do homework, pay bills, watch TV, or yammer on the phone – unless that is specifically what you have the space devoted to. With this in mind, keep this space sacred, and avoid placing objects here that don’t belong, like your watch, your coffee cup, or your cell phone.
Setting up an Altar and/or Shrine
Altars are often where we do ritual, and ritualized functions. If it’s your first time setting up an altar, consider looking at the above mentioned places for daily ritual and formally dedicate them by placing objects there that will enhance what you do. The makeup and jewelry table (sometimes we call it our “vanity”, after all) is where some go to become beautiful for the day, so try dressing up the space with objects of beauty, like candles, flowers, or pictures, and take a moment with them before you begin your daily glamour.
If you find your altar to be your office desk and the object of your working is focus and performance, you may wish to keep it sparse and clean, or research feng shui to keep what objects are in your work space arranged in such a way as to optimize the positive energy coming into and out of your work.
When you look around, you may find that you have miniature shrines already set up as well. Consider the mantle where many people place pictures and mementos, honoring ancestors or commemorating a wedding day. Geology fans may have already unwittingly started on an elemental Earth shrine, by compiling their favorite stones on a shelf. If you discover you’ve set up a personal space of devotion to something or someone, take it to the next level by laying an attractive cloth beneath or behind it to designate it as a sacred place. Burn incense of an appropriate herb or scent, or add some flowers or plants to bring beauty and living energy to a collection of photos.
Size and other considerations
Starting from scratch, there are a lot of things to consider – obviously, you’ll want to decide what you want to do, and how much space you’ll need in which to do it. Shrines and altars alike can be miniaturized to fit in a leftover tin of mints, or they can take up whole cathedrals. Most people find a bookshelf or small table will do. Altars tend to be the largest because they need to be big enough to serve as both work and storage space, while shrines can be as simple as a picture and a candle.
Consider whether you will want privacy for this area, or if it will be okay to display to visiting friends or family. Always consider the safety of children or pets in the room, especially if there will be dangerous plants or burning candles and incense.
Getting creative with your altar/shrine
With those basic considerations in mind, you can let your imagination wander. Set up shrines to an Element or chakra you feel weak in, favorite hobbies, dream travel destinations, vision boards, or beloved deities. Design altars to fit tarot spreads, candle magic operations, herb or incense blendings, or as a center for a full magickal ceremony. When horizontal space is at a premium, you can also create “waltars”, utilizing wall shelves, tapestries, and sconces.
If you are inspired to bring the sacred into your life but get stuck for inspiration, look to the great altars and shrines of the world. When your eyes and heart are open, you will find magic and devotion everywhere you look.
Soror Mem is a long time pagan and Thelemic/Hermetic magickian who lives in Phoenix, AZ with her beloved cat Molly Weasley. She has taught classes, led pagan and Thelemic rituals, and is a proud member of Ordo Templi Orientis.