Altars and Shrines

Over at Polytheism Without Borders (or, as I tend to think of it, Polywob), there's been some discussion of the difference between altars and shrines, as people show off the ones they keep in their homes. I couldn't quite decide what to call mine, so I did some research. Generally speaking, a shrine is an area or small free-standing structure dedicated to the worship of a single deity, hero or spirit. It can be a building, a shack or shed, or a niche or small part of a temple or church. An altar is a table, cabinet, block, or similar piece of furniture or small structure, generally raised (the word means "high place"), at which sacrifices, offerings, or religious or magical work is performed. I don't really know what the right term would be for my ritual room, a space kept in the home with shrines to multiple gods, but I know there's precedent in Hellenic and Roman cultures, an inner room of the house, as far from the public areas as possible, where shrines to various gods might be kept. The words seem to be translated as "shrine" or "inner chamber," though, so that's not much help, unless I can find original texts and then determine which words it is. The areas for the gods are certainly shrines, but since I use most tables or what-have-you to make offerings at, those are generally altars, thereby confusing the matter.

I finally did take pictures of some of my altars to share on Polywob. These are not all of the altars in the ritual room. Some of them are not mine, so I won't photograph them (a friend can't keep hers at home, because of a small child who does not understand about not touching other people's things). Some of them are not boring and utilitarian. I absolutely could not get a decent picture of Hekate's altar, which I am taking as a hint. Not that the rest of these pictures are actually good, mind you. I think I had a setting wrong. But you can figure out what you're looking at.

A lot of my altars, I build on top of boxes or trunks, to give me space to store things or to protect sacred items. Some of them are open underneath, but I still use it for storage space.

Altar to Okeanos and Tethys, which I also use for my lustral rites. (There's a reason for it, but I'm not sure how much of it I can tell. It comes out of a local recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, called the Spring Mysteries Festival, based around the progress to the sea and propitiatory sacrifices to Poseidon.)

A small round table on a dark wood chest, draped and veiled in cheesecloth (for Reasons), set with a tarnished silver bowl filled with salt water and beach rocks, surrounded by bits of driftwood. Scattered across the top of the chest are seashells. Caught in the veil are bits of seaweed and driftwood vines.


Altar to Dionysos. Built out of three wine racks on top of a light-colored wood chest. The back two wine racks are decorated with lights shaped like bunches of grapes. The front rack hold bottles of wine, and is topped with two images of the god, one being my Woolly Dionysos and the other a reproduction of a young, ithyphallic Dionysos statue, and an amphora-shaped oil lamp. Behind these, a shrouded mirror framed in driftwood rests on the back two wine racks. (Sorry, can't show you the mirror.) Hanging from the mirror are a grapevine prayer necklace and a glass disc stamped with the comedy and tragedy masks. Framing the whole is a metal grapevine sculpture. Also around are an open bottle of wine, a water pitcher for mixing with the wine, a jar of barley, and my wine cup. Wine cup and water pitcher made by the marvelous Sherry of Sidhefire Arts, who makes pottery and ceramic pieces intended for ritual use, including many items inspired by Hellenic dishes and servingware -- like that wine cup.


Central Wiccan-style altar. I've been using it a long time, and I'm not giving it up.

The pentacle is a salt slab I carved myself. The rest of the tools are pretty standard. The candles around and in the cauldron are for 40 Days for Reproductive Justice.

Oracle and divination altar. Many, but not all, of my tarot decks are out because I'm doing a tarot (re)study to limber up my symbol mental muscles as I resume my practice, which had been dormant for a while. Decks shown are Once Upon a Time, Tarot of the Cat people, Visconti-Sforza, Mythic Tarot, and Victoria Regina. The white deck in the upper corner is called Morgan's Tarot, and is not properly a tarot, but is a pretty fun thing for divination. The Witch's Mirror is by Literata. The little ratty fortune teller is by artist Lisa Snellings-Clark.

I suppose the devotional hanging for Athene might count as a shrine. Certainly the small cabinets and shelves I have planned for Ariadne, Arachne and Helen will. Probably the ones for Circe and Medea, too. I want to start worshipping Ariadne as Dionysos' wife and as a guide and advisor -- the reference to her in the name of this blog represents finding the way through the labyrinth, not any association with fiber arts -- and the others as heroes in the Hellenic sense, and Circe and Medea as ancestors and elders of Witchcraft. Build a small cultus for each of them.