Sacred space: shrines, and altars
Let me begin by saying this,: you do not absolutely need an altar or shrine to work with magic. What you do need is a space to do your work. An altar or a shrine is often considered a place for worship, devotions, or religious observances. In a very practical sense, all you need to perform magical tasks is yourself, and if you add some gear or supplies, you need a flat surface to put them on, and that’s all. Having said this, especially when starting out, it can be really nice to have a place that is special and “set apart” or sacred, where you can touch base regularly with your practice. To this effort, sacred space is helpful and is often very enjoyable to keep and occupy. Many spiritual traditions employ altars or other sacred spaces and the different types are very fascinating to learn about.
In our previous discussion, we discussed the sacred space of YOU, the person, your magical machine. You should continue to cultivate the health and wholeness of your physical, mental and emotional self.
Now we will begin to explore physical places or items that you can use as a touch point for your ritual time. Depending on your tradition, these can be extraordinarily regimented and formal layouts, or they can be intuitive, wild and free form. They could be elegant and minimalist. Many of the formal altars are used by traditional Wiccans or other formalized traditions. Those are specific traditions with rules and regulations, and reasons for those rules. Wicca is a religion and the magic in general is not. However, you will find that there are commonalities between many of the systems you can pull from. My personal style most closely resembles ‘winging it’ because I am a witch, and not often a ceremonialist. When I need something more formal though, I create what I need. My altar is always in transition. There are a few pieces always present. There is usually some type of seasonal piece, and then a surface for working. When I don’t have a magical task planned, the altar just reflects the season and my current mood or goals I’m working on in life. Some people have a whole bunch of altars. They have a household altar, an ancestor altar, an altar for the season, an altar for their personal spellwork, and the list goes on. You may do this if you wish, but first I recommend just committing to one place that is your primary working space. You can also have temporary altars that you create for a purpose, because the location is more appropriate, or your usual space isn’t going to do the trick. For example, if I want to do a fireside ritual for one of the seasonal festivals, I’m certainly not going to haul my personal altar outside. It’s too big, and full of stuff, because it’s a cabinet. Altars can be erected as needed, indoors or outdoors. The stones around a bonfire make a very natural altar, as does a stump in the woods or a blanket on a beach.
Shrines are another beautiful way to express your spirituality and are usually a place to venerate spiritual force in whatever form, whether ancestor, deity, nature spirit, or whatever you can think of. These also can be created outdoors or indoors. They are often a place for devotions and prayers, or commemoration, but are less likely to be a working space for spell work. They can be very beautiful, and are a joy to keep and tend. Last summer, I had a small sacred area where I left offerings for nature spirits. I did not make this space reflective of myself or my style because it was not for me. It was created to be pleasing to the nature spirits, with things I thought were honoring to them. I left offerings for them there and it was common ground where I could go to reach out to them. I would consider that area to be more of a shrine than an altar.
Mixed all through this page are photos that serve as examples of the giant diversity possible for altars and shrines. These are meant to get your creative mind working.
*Please know that there is a lot of worrying and hand-wringing regarding the “right” way to have an altar. If you have a specific cultural tradition you are working with, then there probably is a specific way that most people create that tradition’s altar. If your altar is based on historical sources, you will obviously adhere to that style as much as you can. Therefore, my “there are no rules” lecture has some limits, but know that when it comes to the Wild Magic, there are truly no rules, except that your space be useable, reflect your true self, and honors the natural world in some manner. There is a lot of freedom there. If you are working with me in group or individual learning, our lessons will contain some work that will require that you have different items on your altar at certain times, to perform the work we will be doing. So, yes, from time to time, there will be a “right” way to set up your space, according to our task. However, how you create and manage your space on a daily basis is up to you. The more you take ownership in it, the more at home you will feel working there. The general cultural framework I’m modeling throughout these lessons is Celtic in nature, and therefore, those cultural expressions are what I usually work with. However, since there is no substantial record of specific “altars” in the Celtic world, we have a lot of freedom to be creative.
Here are some altars and shrines that I found throughout the internet that I thought were good examples of the great diversity possible when it comes to finding a special place for our magic.
This is a tabletop altar with a Celtic theme. You can see a god and goddess, a chalice, a pentacle with a tree theme, candles and assorted other naturally themed decor. This one is nice, and simple. It would be good for a celebration, or devotion.
I like this space a lot! It looks more like a place of working than worship. Check out all of the great tools, and its wild natural feel! It’s great. If I wanted to do a ritual or dedication there or some sort of specific spellwork, I would probably add something to it that would reflect my goal. Otherwise, I would leave it exactly like this. It reflects the energy of the person who uses it and I love the feeling of it.
To the right is an example of a Roman pagan shrine. This is likely a shrine to the household guardians. At an altar or shrine like this, one is probably not performing magic. It is a place to honor the household guardians and perhaps to leave offerings for them. It is a common ground where people can go to talk to their household spirits and offer them thanks and honor. This is based on historical accounts, so a person following that cultural tradition would make a point to make their space as similar to this one as they can.
Check out the image below! Yes, this dish of sand, the candle and the stones are an altar. I would consider this to be a very pure and elegant intention altar. The individual who created it set the intention or focus of the altar with the choice of inscribed stones and lit a candle to give energy to that intention. Perfect, simple and without distraction. It seems peaceful and invites contemplation. Very nice!
The altar to the right appears to have been created specifically by a person who practices a Nordic pagan tradition such as Asatru or Heathenry. There are cultural symbols,
including runes, a drinking horn, and statues, on the altar. I also see what I suspect are photos of departed loved ones, so this is probably honoring the ancestors of this individual, or at least their cultural heritage. There appears to be an offering on a plate. (Is that a pop tart? Interesting.) This is probably a place for veneration, and celebration, or devotions. However, there appears to be ample room for the practitioner to move things around and perform tasks if needed.
I adore this outdoor shrine! It’s so pretty, it’s outdoors, and on a tree. This would look stunning in a garden in any yard, and would be a beautiful place to leave offerings or even to house protective objects that help to guard the property.
This little diagram is very Wiccan. Note that there are specific positions for specific tools, all called for in their specific ritual styles. The person working with this altar layout has a very particular routine they follow every time they come to perform ritual at this altar, and the altar layout reflects what they will be using in that routine. You may find that you end up with a fairly consistent altar layout for your own use, or you may go with the flow, depending on your ritual goals. Though I do not use this layout personally, I do have times when my ritual calls for a series of tools, and I have them out and on the surface in a pleasing and semi-orderly manner before I get to work. Lunar rituals, group rituals or seasonal rituals sometimes benefit from an organized set of ritual practices, so it is wise to have the altar organized just right. It also adds solemnity when the occasion calls for it. You may find that you prefer something ritualistic like this, or you may not. We will be investigating many different approaches together.
I really like this outdoor altar. This is an altar that would be set up for a specific purpose but would not stand outside all of the time like a shrine may. It appears to be designed for Samhain or harvest time in general. Its dark tones and vintage feeling are perfect for the atmosphere of that season. This is very pretty. I could definitely imagine magical work around this altar! Note that it is different than the diagram above. While it does not appear to follow any special rules for its layout, it is set with great care by the person who prepared it, and each thing is in the place desired by the person who assembled it. The purpose may be just for visual pleasure and atmosphere, or it may be for particular magical reasons. Either way, it’s splendid.
Here is a very clever way to represent the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) visually in one’s space without assembling a whole surface altar. While I usually prefer something a bit more showy, this is simple and elegant. It is also discreet.
Finally, this is a beautiful shelf altar. An altar or shrine can be perfect when placed on a nice wall shelf. It keeps things up off the floor, out of the reach of children or pets, and is subtle. It is also great for small spaces. This looks like a nice little nature display but the person who created it did so to honor Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and home. If a visitor saw this, I am sure it would never occur to them that this was a magical space. It’s pretty and honors nature, but holds a special meaning for the person who designed it. Some acts of magic could be performed here, and of course, it is also a good place to honor a spiritual being, like one would do at a shrine. If your style or your living situation calls for something discreet, a shelf on the wall is exactly what you might be looking for! You can put any number of things on a shelf that represent what you’re working on. You can perform a spell on that shelf, or you can honor loved ones. You can honor earth spirits, or angels, or gods and goddesses at a little shelf like this one. There are no limits to what you can do here, and would not be overt if you want to keep your practice very private.
Find a space of your own to make your sacred place. It is okay if you change it later. Mine has changed many times! Start with something simple: a small end table or night stand, or the top of a book shelf, a wall shelf, a corner of your garden, or whatever you think is best. You will almost certainly make changes to it over time regarding its location and definitely what is on it.
Start with simple things such as:
-a scarf or other surface covering if you want to add some color
-A small candle (be careful that your surface is safe for heat, and never leave a lit candle unattended)
-Symbols of your practice if you have any, or a few tokens from the natural world. Remember, you are already beginning to build your relationship with nature and here is a good place to do it. Stones, shells, plants, a dish of water, or bowl of sand from the beach…these are all good options. If you thought of a landmark that is sacred to you and you have a memento from it, you may place it on your new altar or shrine.
-photos or art if you have something special you would like to use
Visit your new space daily, even just to sit near it quietly. You don’t have to “do” anything, except keep it in good order and enjoy it. This helps build up your energy near it and makes it a special place. Keep some notes about this, about what you like or don’t like, and what you would like to try next! Enjoy this opportunity to explore!