Setting up an altar
I had a friend ask me for advice on how to set up an altar. She’s rather new to the exploration of this path I believe and hasn’t even settled on a specific pantheon and is still working out what her beliefs are. I had a multitude of things run through my head…I was delighted to help…I was terrified of saying something wrong…I was confused of what to say… I ended up blithering a whole lot of the evolution of my path, my view of the gods, the changing structure of my own altars but we got interrupted before I got to the important part. So now that I’ve had a few more days to think about it (and kick my self…repeatedly), here is some thoughts. I hope my fellow Pagans/Polytheists include their own thoughts in the comments.
An altar is a spiritual workplace. A shrine is a “home” for a divinity/ancestors. I tend to use the terms interchangeably but in the broader community, this is the typical break down I believe.
What do you put on an altar? Whatever symbols/decorations represent the work you are wanting to accomplish and any tools you need to do this. My altar has a hearth candle and a picture of Hestia, offering bowls, incense bowl, purification bowl, libation bowl, prayer book, lighter, snuffer, himation, offering plate, Ma’at statue, altar cloth, candles for light for night time rituals, Ancestor well and Gaia statue. I have supplies such as incense and such in a drawer underneath. Typically you include here representations of the elements/worlds and any beings that assist you in your work such as gatekeepers, hearth goddess, etc.
What do you put on a shrine? Whatever reminds you of the being(s) that to whom that shrine is dedicated. There are traditional associations and non-traditional or UPG associations. Keep in mind that whatever goes in that space belongs to that divinity unless they tell you otherwise in however the manner. Periodically, usually at “high” holidays (which for me are the 8 markers of the year) I will burn whatever is burnable that has accumulated on the altars…flowers, notes, pictures etc. Perishable items that are not physically consumed (very controversial in some cultures) go into my offering pit (that a raccoon discovered last year…first one I’ve ever seen in the area…not sure how I feel about that) along with any libations. Some people will break and bury statues (or other shrine items) and such that are no longer acceptable for whatever reason. I tend to give them away (usually at the gift tree at Dragonfest).
Personally: I have my altar in the dining room which is pretty much the center of activity in my household. I have a shrine for Zeus in the window above my desk. Isis’ shrine is in the stair room while Hermes has a shrine at the front door and a herm on the back corner of my property. Our bedroom has a shrine to Ares and Aphrodite while my son has a shrine for 6 or so deities in his room. There is a small shrine for Persephone in my flower bed out front and a rose bush for Aphrodite out back. Dionysos has a place in my kitchen and eventually above the wine rack. If we ever get our gas fireplace going, it will be for Hestia. I have a small shrine for the ancestors that has various items on it, including pictures of dead relatives.