“A” is for Altar: The Pagan Experience

This post is inspired by the writing prompt from The Pagan Experience for week 4 of January, which reads: “Wk 4- Jan. 26 –  Any writing for the letters A or I am keeping this familiar format on week 4 for those who have joined me from the Pagan Blog Project.”

bird shrineIt’s appropriate that “altar” is a word that starts with the first letter of the alphabet, because it’s something that belongs at the beginning of a spiritual practice. While many different traditions have their models for what an altar is and how it can be set up, in the end, it’s a natural human practice that is at once personal and universal. An altar can be as simple as a space on a shelf onto which a single candle is placed and lit with spiritual intent. It could be a stack of smooth rocks on top of a tree stump in the middle of the woods. On the other end of the spectrum, it can be as elaborate as the imagination and the space available permit.

I’d like to discuss a bit the difference between “altars” and “shrines”, since both terms are sometimes used interchangeably. In my personal practice, an altar is a dedicated space for ritual workings. It may also have items that sit on it to honor deities, spirits, or ancestors. It may be left clear for whatever religious or magical work is going to take place. Or, it may serve more than one purpose. A shrine, however, is specifically set up to honor a deity, spirit, or ancestor (or group of these) on an ongoing basis, and while you may pray at it or make offerings, it is not intended for active ritual use or performing magic. Most of the dedicated spaces in my home are shrines–I pray or offer at them, and they stand to honor the beings they are dedicated to. But I have one larger altar which, while it does have some deity images and serves to hold offerings, is primarily a space for working religious rituals or magic. In other peoples’ practices or traditions, the distinctions between the two terms may be different, or non-existent. I personally don’t find the description to be all that important. If for some reason I need to perform a ritual with my ancestors, for example, who normally have what I would consider a “shrine”, I have no problem using that space as an “altar” for an active working if it feels right. I only find the precision in terminology important when trying to share concepts and discussion with other people, so that we all understand what we’re talking about!

In Urglaawe, the altar is called der Aldaar[1]. The primary difference I’ve noticed between Urglaawe altars and “mainstream” Heathen altars is that Urglaawe altars are very colorful! They have an abundance of natural objects, such as offerings of flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables. There are frequently examples of Deitsch folk art as well, which itself has plenty of color. Some things I’ve added to my altar and shrine spaces as I practice in a more Urglaawe fashion include steins, for drinking and making toasts and offerings, and hex signs, symbolizing my heritage but also bringing their own specific intents and energies. I don’t have space for a garden of my own, but when I have the opportunity, I have a special vase that belonged to my great grandmother that I fill with bouquets of flowers. Urglaawe altars are very seasonal, reflecting the way we attune our lives to the changing of the natural cycles, in order to move towards our goals, bring happiness and well-being, and to experience being connected to our roots. Urglaawe altars also typically have statues or representations of the different gods and goddesses being honored. My personal version of this is to search the internet for images of the deities that resonate with me personally. I try to find an image as close as possible to how I personally see that deity. Then I print them on glossy photo paper, frame them, and put them on my altar or hang them on the wall above it. With so many deities, and a limited altar space, I felt this was the best way to represent as many as possible. I also keep a small photo album with duplicates of these images, which serves as a “pocket altar” when I’m travelling.

I have a separate ancestor shrine, which has photographs, objects that belonged to members of my family, and otherancestor objects that are tied to my family in some way. There are mussel shells from French Creek in Meadville, which was founded by my many times great uncle and great grandfather. There are pieces of stained glass made by my grandfather, and a handkerchief with an edging tatted by my great grandmother. The teacup is for holding offerings. My ancestors are horrified at the idea of me “wasting” food, so I typically offer them drinks, flowers, or service such as going to clean and decorate their gravesites. I save food offerings for major holidays.

The beauty of altars and shrines is that they are such personal expressions of our spirituality. Every single object on them has a unique meaning, and just assembling them and tending them is a spiritual undertaking. I enjoy regularly changing the appearance of my altars to reflect where I am spiritually, a special intent, or the changing seasons. I can tell if I’ve been neglecting my spiritual work and self because my altar will reflect it by becoming dusty, or having objects left out on it in a cluttered fashion. When I was growing up, out of necessity I had to keep most of my worship spaces in my bedroom, but now that I have my own home, I can place them right in my living room and other very visible areas, which I feel helps to bring my spirituality more into my everyday life and also express what matters most to me.


[1] Nouns are all capitalized in Deitsch. See “A Dictionary of Urglaawe Terminology” by Robert L. Schreiwer and Ammerili Eckhart for this and many other useful terms.



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