I am a big fan of altars, I truly am. Just click on the “altars” tag attached to this entry to see pictures of some of the altars and shrines I’ve had over the years.
As a visual person, I find a lot of inspiration and comfort in having these physical signs of devotion in sight; they are a frequent reminder of the role of the divine in my life. Technically I have seven altars or shrines upstairs and three downstairs, which sounds more overwhelming than it is. I use them all differently and relate to each in its own way.
For this post, though, I am going to talk about some of the practical aspects of having an altar or altars.
The finding and using of space.
Most of my altars and shrines are on top of furniture–chests of drawers and bookshelves, mostly. A couple are inside furniture that isn’t being used for other things, and I have one small dedicated shrine cabinet. The main issue with this is that there are only so many surfaces in any home, and unless you live alone, some of these surfaces will be required by other people who need flat spots on which to put their keys or loose change or hairbrushes or coffee cups. There will be complaints if you try to claim too much territory, and it won’t be pretty.
If you do live alone and/or have the space, you can have more dedicated pieces–I have seen pictures of tables, desks, cabinets, many pieces of furniture all being used to wonderful effect as shrines and altars. I’ve heard that some folks have an entire room dedicated as temple space, which would be lovely but not really doable for most of us.
A shelf hung on a wall can also be a good altar if it is in a low-traffic area. (I recommend against the wall directly beside one’s bed, speaking from the personal experience of having a constant bruise on my right hip until I moved it elsewhere. :))
A plaque or wall-hanging or picture can be a shrine, depending on how you plan to use it–the hekataion at my front door is a plaque, and I say a prayer there every night. For these, you won’t be able to leave offerings (or candles or incense) at the site but offerings and prayers can be made in other ways.
The finding and using of stuff.
If you looked at any of my altar pics you will note that I do, in fact, have a lot of stuff. However, I did not get it all at once; I accumulated it gradually over the decades. Some of it, I made. My Aphrodite altar is probably my oldest continuously-maintained shrine, but it is much, much fuller now than it was fifteen years ago. My Unknown Goddess shrine is my newest, but it contains a lot of things I already had on hand. Sometimes you can have a thing for years before you know why you have it.
What goes on my altars, anyway?
This really depends primarily on how I plan to use the space. I do keep a multipurpose working space; most of what is on it at any given time is whatever I am using. I don’t tend to leave tools on an altar–usually I bring them out if I am going to need them, and keep them stored away otherwise. It’s on the top of a chest of drawers and I keep tools and so forth in the top drawer (the rest hold clothing).
I like god-images. I really like god-images. Did I mention that I like god-images? Not everyone does, YMMV.
If it’s a dedicated long-term shrine there will probably be gifts on it; Aphrodite has quite a bit of stuff, statues and jewelry, scented oil, books, stones, shells, shawls, jars, things I made for her and things I bought for her. My general Greek altar is made up of statuary but has gifts on it as well for some of the deities, likewise for my Kemetic altars. However, the “stuff” in the Kemetic altars stays there and is not used elsewhere, while the “stuff” on the Greek altar that isn’t a gift (i.e. incense burners, candle holders and so forth) can be used elsewhere; gifts, of course, belong where they are and stay put regardless. (That difference is based primarily on my own UPG and sense of what’s wanted.)
And just because this has been covered a lot online lately: food and drink offerings for the Kemetic gods, I consume after some time has passed; food and drink offerings for the Greek gods, I pour out.
I’ve always built altars visually, but my most recent one (the unknown goddess shrine) has insisted that everything that’s not stuck on a wall be something I can pick up and touch. I’m not sure why that’s important, but it is. I can use it in the dark or with my eyes closed.
An altar doesn’t have to be forever.
Not only can altars change over time, they can also end. If the reason for the altar no longer stands, it is all right to (respectfully and mindfully) take it down.