I recently had a question sent to me by a reader: how do I set up a shrine. I’ve written about this in at least two of my books, “Honoring the Ancestors,” and “Devotional Polytheism” but, it is significant enough as a devotional act that I will touch on it briefly here and now.
Firstly, it’s important to understand exactly what one is doing when one commits to setting up and maintaining (that’s the corollary, the oh so important corollary: it’s not enough to set one up and be done with it. A shrine must be regularly maintained.) a shrine. Understanding this will then dictate the how and what and where. Likewise, the nature of the God or Goddess being honored on the shrine will dictate its composition and the offerings made.
In setting up a shrine, we are giving our Gods a concrete place in our homes, hearts, and lives. It becomes Their space, a conduit for Them, and a place where we can go to make offerings, pray (though of course one can and should pray anywhere and everywhere), and contemplate Them. It is a visible reminder but also, more importantly, an invitation and welcome to the Holy Powers. It’s also a sign of a life ordered around devotion and piety. So there’s a lot going on when one sets up a shrine. Most importantly, it is space for the Gods we are honoring.
Proper shrine maintenance is a beautiful thing. It can transform one’s devotional life. We are, as I’ve said before in numerous places, creatures of the sensorium. We experience our world, including our devotional world, through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Platonic philosophers often wrote about beauty being a thing that had the power to elevate the soul, to bring one into a greater awareness of the Good and that is true. It also helps prepare the soil of our hearts and minds in a way that creates a fertile environment for devotion. Prepping a shrine is an act of love. We bring those things that speak to us of beauty, that speak to us of the relationship we’re building with the Deity in question to the shrine and I’ve often found that one’s shrines will reflect the state of one’s devotional and spiritual life.
Of course, if one is starting out in devotion, then one may not have a sense of the relationship yet – like any relationship, those with our Gods require careful tending. They require time to grow and strengthen, to flower. They require our time, attention, and consistency. In the Havamal,we’re counseled to travel often to our friends’ homes and exchange gifts regularly because doing so strengthens and nourishes the friendship. (verses 41, 44). This is good advice in building a relationship with the Gods too. So if you are new to this, where does one begin?
Firstly, understand that this is a commitment. While I consider it one of the essentials of devotional life, (or close to it) it’s not something to do without consideration. Better not to begin a shrine than to have one and allow it to become dusty and ill-cared for. Once you’ve decided to take this step, however, the first thing you want to do is fine a good spot in your home. This can be a special table, a window sill, a box (I have one shrine that is in a box. It’s elaborately decorated inside and has little compartments and I open it when I honor those particular spirits – it’s part of my ancestor shrine, not a Deity shrine), a shelf. What is important is that it be consciously dedicated space that will not otherwise be disturbed. I will give one warning: shrines grow. Partly this is a natural outgrowth of the relationship with the Gods deepening over time and partly I find that when one honors the Gods, as that relationship develops, one might be “introduced” or pushed to begin honoring other members of that God’s divine family. So, looking at my own experience years and years ago, I began keeping shrine to Loki and a year or so later, was suddenly moved to begin honoring Sigyn. They now share a shrine. Common sense, and where that fails, divination can sort out whether or not a second or third shrine is required or whether the Deities in question may share.
Once you’ve figured out the where, then comes the process of figuring out the what and how. I usually suggest that one begin with an image of the Deity in question, a prayer card, a statue, an icon for instance. Some people prefer aniconic work though, and if this resonates more then it’s perfectly ok. Make the shrine beautiful. This space will change and evolve as your relationship with the Powers changes and grows. This is good, natural, and necessary. I always feel sad when I see shrines that are bare and sterile. This is space set aside for the Gods. We should make it lush, welcoming, and lovely and how one does that is completely dependent on one’s creativity. I usually try to have a selection of shrine cloths, candles, things that remind me of the Gods, images (I don’t particularly care for aniconic work for myself. I like my icons and statues and such. I feel they help me grow closer in my mind and heart to the Gods). When I make offerings (be it incense, flowers, or anything else), they usually go on the shrine (I may dispose of them later by burying, throwing into the river behind my home, or burning depending on divination and/or the Deity in question). Anything that reminds me of that Deity and brings Their presence to mind is good and useful. One is limited only by the breadth of one’s creative vision.
As an aside, a Catholic friend of mine told me recently about his own home shrine and said this raises eyebrows amongst many of his friends because it’s not the norm and I thought, ‘buddy, I have upwards of forty shrines in my home. It’s perfectly common for polytheists.” Lol.
The most important thing with building a shrine is to begin. There are a thousand and one reasons not to do a thing but in the end, we simply have to take ourselves in hand and do what is correct, not just in our devotional lives, but in life in general. It’s healthy to worry about not doing this right, but it is more important that one begin. Some things are best learned by doing.
Finally, there is always the question of offerings. The most common offerings are flowers, incense, water, alcohol, food, candles, and lots and lots of prayer. As with the structure of the shrine itself, one is limited here only by one’s imagination. Offerings don’t have to be financially lavish. It is possible to give according to one’s means and everyone can at least give water. What is most important is consistent attention. Go to the shrine often, pray, sit and meditate on the Gods. Build the relationship by investing oneself in it. Everything else is a corollary to that.