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.
This lovely portable shrine to Odin is by Ellen.
(Remember, folks, the Agon for Odin runs through December 31, 9pm EST. There is also, concurrently, an Agon to Hathor right now through the same time and date. She only has one submission to Her agon so if anyone has poetry, prayers, or art that you’d like to submit, please consider doing so. There are prizes for both agones).
My friend Carlton was visiting recently (we go to school together) and, not being a polytheist, he was fascinated by my various shrines. Since he’s teaching a theology class this semester, he asked if he could take photos to use in his class (and i’m ok with that). This is the photo he took of my Hermes shrine. I love the angle of the close up, and the drama of the black and white, so I got his ok to share it here.
(Photo by C. Chase. Used with permission).
After running about making various offerings to Hermes, I spent the rest of the morning redoing my Hermes shrine, and my Loki and Sigyn shrine.
Hermes’ place. ^
Loki and Sigyn’s place.^
The icon above is by Grace Palmer, and belonged to my mom Fuensanta.
My friend Brandon has created an online shrine to Mary that I want to share here. It’s lovely and a fitting offering, I think. There are a few prayers (I’m sure in time there will be more) and a place where visitors can leave prayers and light digital ‘candles.’ I talk a little bit about why some polytheists may honor this particular Holy Power in this article here. If Mary is part of your devotional life, you may want to check this out.
(The photo is mine from the ceiling of the Loreto in Prague).
update: the shrine has been claimed. Thank you, folks.
For a couple of years I maintained a shrine to Psyche and Eros in my home, largely because I had a student and member of House Sankofa who was powerfully dedicated to these two Deities. She moved on two years ago and we’ve lost touch. Over that time, slowly but surely I’ve allowed that shrine to go fallow. I myself, while I respect (immensely) both Deities, have no personal relationship with Them. I finally did divination and received the ok to deconstruct the shrine, which I did last month and since then it’s been sitting, carefully packaged in my closet.
I’m willing to send the shrine (several statues, an offering bowl, and a few other things) for the cost of shipping to anyone who has a relationship with these Deities. It is important to me that the shrine pass into the hands of someone who will tend it well. I’ll be doing divination when contacted to make sure that it’s going to the right person too, just to be sure. A shrine can be a living conduit to the Gods and this one was very well tended for many years.
So…if you honor Psyche and Eros and would like to expand your shrine, please contact me at Krasskova at gmail.com. I want to give Their shrine a proper home.
So I live in a very artistic town. It’s a step away from being an artists’ colony and if you randomly kicked someone on main street, chances are you’d be kicking an artist (why you’d want to randomly kick some poor dude on main street, I don’t know lol. Better to buy his art).
Because of this, there’s some really interesting graffiti throughout the town. One is a huge mural of a Native American spirit, the guardian spirit, perhaps one of the Goddesses of the Wappingers who once had sovereignty in this part of the land, and it shows the river, and markers in the town, and modern residents all flowing out of her benevolence.
One is a faceless man with an awesome hat, funky fish and snakes twined into patterns marking a local distillery.
Those are licit, done with permission of the owners and/or town, but there are others; a little dog in white paint behind the pharmacy, a dancing ghost-girl on the bricks of an alley way, an entire mural of children playing and ghosts and trees and fire on the side of our health food store that just appeared almost overnight when the lot next door was rendered empty. We like these things in my town and personally I think they’re very cool.
There are also more contested expressions of art: yarn bombing, which I think is a hoot in hell and love to see but which likewise gets some old-timers up in arms both online and off (the level of pissed off I’ve seen over yarn bombing is truly amazing); and occasionally odd art installations cropping up in the nooks and crannies of the town’s architecture. I love it all. My favorite is probably a bit of graffiti on a rock by one of the hiking trails on the way to the next town. It says “I love you to the Moon and back” with a picture of the full moon. That just screams Mani to me.
So where am I going with all of this and what the fuck is ‘God-bombing?’ Well, nothing nefarious. Y’all have heard of “glamour bombing?” It’s the same thing but with images for our Gods. It’s land art and public art installations (you can apply for permits locally and make this all above board) and temporary graffiti I absolutely am not encouraging anyone to break the law. There are a lot of ways we can bring our Gods out of hiding without doing that.
- chalk graffiti – it washes off.
- Pinning up posters and images (instead of graffiti)
- Public shrines – I’m already running the public shrine project—start making this a real thing in the woods, in parks, on empty lots, everywhere you can. Understand that they will probably eventually be taken down or yield to the elements. A certain non-attachment is necessary here, but the synergy of doing this type of temporary shrine as an act of devotion is powerful.
- Ask permission of storeowners to paint outside. If you’re an artist, some will permit you to do a piece on the side of their buildings (at least in my town).
- For the Gods of harvest, flowers, bounty, and land: seed bomb.
- Public re-enactments and skald-on-the-street style telling of stories
- Hit the local poetry slams with prayer-poems for the Gods
- Do you have any statues of Gods in your town? (We have one of Hebe randomly set up in a local cul-de-sac. It was part of a watering trough for horses and after the world transformed over to cars instead, the trough part went away and locals set up just the statue). Start tending it and leaving offerings. Reclaim it as sacred.
- Join your local cemetery committee (usually split equally between Protestants and Catholics) and do good work, all the while being completely open about being a polytheist. Talk openly about honoring the dead.
- Write an article for your most local paper on one of our holidays.
- Run for local school board or other local office
- Get a permit and hold a local procession and celebration on a festival day
Make it as establishment and anti-establishment as the Gods, ancestors, and land spirits call.
Sarenth Odinsson offered some interesting ideas when I talked to him about this recently:
“Something I did when I lived on campus and attended Eastern Michigan University: was there were statues all over the place. There was a tradition of leaving pennies for the statue of a ballet dancer, and I made regular visits with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statue, occasionally leaving him offerings. Leaving flowers in local graveyards, tending local statues, cleaning up parks and leaving offerings are other ways of doing things too.
Maybe make creches, or start something akin to what we have here: local fairy doors. Literally made for the faeries sold out of local shops and placed near the entrance but not in walkways. Folks leave offerings, often money, that even the local homeless know better than to pick up. We could do something similar, like Hermes, Odin, and similar charms which would fit in alongside other art installations and not be out of place alongside charms against the evil eye.”
I’m sure there are a ton of things that we could do that I haven’t thought of here. I’d love to hear your suggestions. Everywhere I look in almost every American town Christian churches dominate the visual landscape of the town. That’s fine – they’re entitled to their sacred spaces but so are we so let’s get out there and make some. Let’s put the radical in radical polytheist. 🙂
(Photo credit: Susan Dilger / TaosEdge It was taken in a very old cemetery in Taos. Used with permission.)
When it got dark, I took another photo of my Mani shrine with just the candles for illumination.
I’ve been offline for most of the past four days thanks to a vicious flu that really laid me on my butt and badly (my husband almost took me to the ER against my wishes and only a call to my doctor at home prevented him from doing so. It was *bad* folks. Take care of yourselves — there’s some nasty shit going around this season). Today is the first day where I’ve felt well enough to do anything really and then not much. It’s also the first day I’ve been able to eat. Weeee applesauce! joy. >_<.
Anyway, Sannion pointed out that this sickness occurred during Anthesteria when, for purgative and cleansing purposes, some devotees would chew purgative herbs that caused …gods help them…many of the symptoms that i had (you know that scene in the Exorcist with the pea soup…..). I decided as miserable as I was, to try to use it as a time of spiritual cleansing. I don’t know how successful I was, but today I felt well enough to putter around my shrines a little bit. I fixed my Odin shrine up, because doing so helps me to feel ordered and after the terrible miasma of the past few days, I needed to be so, and taking photos of a couple of the others which I had recently attended before I became ill. I’ve been moving things around, consolidating shrines, separating some others, making others still more elaborate. I was only about half done when i got sick, so I’m eager to get back to it.
Anyway, this morning I finally got my Odin shrine, which had been quite disheveled, into some semblance of order. I’d moved it up in boxes from downstairs to the master bedroom where I have better altar space.
here it is, also with sections for Loki and Thor and some of my working tools.
I’d also recently redone my small Dionysos shrine:
It’s small and compact, but in a powerful space and while you can’t see it here (i was too tired to take many photos), it’s surrounded by further images of Dionysos and a veiled icon of Ariadne. [The red altar cloth is a scarf, showing a stylized starry bull available here.] In the upper right, you can also see a snipped of a huge, hanging tapestry that belonged to my adopted mom. It shows Ran, Aegir, Njord, and the Nine Daughters of Ran and Aegir. The tapestry was made for her by R. Kaldera and I inherited it when she died. It takes up an entire wall and hangs over my collective working shrine here:
You can see just the bottom shadow of the fringe from the tapestry in the picture above. This is my collective shrine (many of the Deities here have shrines elsewhere in my home too). There is Odin, Loki, Loki’s children, Sigyn, Freya, Gerda, Nerthus, Frey, Mani, Sinthgunt, Sunna, and a tiny bit for Sekhmet, Dionysos, and Hermes. I don’t usually mix pantheons even on a shrine but…i’m running out of space and this is purposely a collective shrine and altar. Many of the pieces on this shrine were inherited from my adopted mom.
I also have, in addition to the tapestry, which serves as the primary part of Their shrine, a smaller section, an annex if you will, for Njord, Ran and Aegir, and Their nine Daughters:
There’s also the start of a shrine to Kari, God of the North Wind and His children and Siblings here, but that will most likely eventually have its own space.
Finally, I moved many of the Healing Deities into one space:
To the left, sitting atop a green turn of the century apothecary cabinet is my shrine to the Norse Healing Deities; Eir, Mengloth, Their Retinue, and Sunna. Right now, i’ve also put a statue of Freya here (it seemed appropriate when I was recently gifted a lovely statue of Her riding Hildsvinr), since She does bring vitality and passion.
The, on the table, which is, in reality, a nineteenth century French writing desk (a gift from a friend for Yule one year) there is the shrine to Apollo, Asklepius, and the Graces (I did div to see if I should put the Graces here and was told yes. The grace notes of living are part of healing and of living a healthy, rich life). Above, there are images of the Nine Muses (likewise, the gifts They bear are necessary to true health). Dionysos is also present because He handles mental health (or lack thereof), and finally on the small shelf is a shrine to Brigid, with Whom i’ve had something of a devotional relationship since my FOI days. There is also a symbol for Sunna (who has Her main image on the apothecary cabinet), a card for Sulis, and a plaque (also a gift) for Hygeia. The mortar and pestle on the table is one of a group that I was lucky enough to find at a local antique shop. they’re about 150 years old (perhaps older) and I got them for an absolute steal. I use the two smaller ones, and the huge one here is my offering bowl for the Healing Deities.
I’d struggled with what to do with all of these shrines for a long time. I don’t have a *strong* relationship with any of these Deities, but I do petition Them regularly, pray to Them if not regularly then at least with some ongoing consistency and it seemed They needed more than They were getting from me. Creating a shrine not to any specific Deity but rather to the Deities that I honor in a specific way turned out, at least for now, to be the right move.
Anyway, there it is. I’ll be posting more interesting things later this week hopefully. I’ve a couple of articles i’m working on and I want to give an update on Njord and Heimdall. We still need $350 for Heimdall and $175 for Njord. Contact me at krasskova at gmail.com if you’re interested in donating. I’ve posted perks in previous posts about this — i’ll do a separate one about it later. i’m tired now.