As I recently posted a picture of my shrine to Apollon-Shiva, I wanted to take a moment to talk about shrines and the purpose that they serve in our worship. At first I thought not to write about this because the purpose of shrines is pretty common sense, but then I figured “eh why not?” So here it is.
A shrine, as everyone probably knows, is a sacred space set up for the veneration of a deity or set of deities. With this in mind it can be subtle or it can be attention attracting. My shrines tend to be big are very visible. I had a fairly elderly church lady stop by my house to hand me a pamphlet for her church’s Easter festivities and her eyes were nearly ready to pop out of her head in face of the prominent shrines that are quite easy to see from the doorway (Apollon’s own shrine, and that of Hermes and the shrines that will be set up for Hekate and Artemis, being right at the doorway). But regardless of how big or small the display is, it should be meaningful to you and something therefore that you gravitate to naturally because it is connected to you on a personal level. A household shrine should properly have items dedicated from various worshiping members of the household so that each person has a connection to it. Therefore, it is for this reason, that regardless of the size and opulence (or lack thereof) that a shrine should be restricted to that which is meaningful to you in your relationship with the deity, or that of other members of your household. Filling a shrine with trinkets and bits that are meaningless to you but you have copied from other folks in this sense does little good in establishing a connection between yourself and the veneration center for your deity.
In building a shrine there are things that one can take into consideration though in order to inspire themselves in how they want a shrine to develop (keeping in mind that over the years one’s shrine will always be changing, my own shrines tend to change monthly and yearly in big ways…I have only gotten to the point of totally contentment with my shrine to Apollon and now seek to get similarly with my other shrines). Foremost is usually the question of how do you want to represent your god/dess on the shrine? Sometimes this is done symbolically through sacred symbols such as particular stones (this is particularly common with Apollon Agyieus who was represented by a large black phallic shaped stone), plants, a lit flame (especially in case of fiery gods) or even photographs such as a picture of a sunrise etc. Often times this is done through direct arts, such as a statue (either a purchased common image or a commissioned piece from an artisan), or an image such as a painting or a photograph of a statue or painting etc. Regardless of what kind of image your choose this tends to the be the primary foci of the shrine and so choosing well for what resonates with you is important. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like what other people have on their shrines. If it doesn’t fit how you see the god in your relationship with him I wouldn’t waste the time or money on something you will dissatisfied with, because it will not attract your inclination to worship (although it won’t necessarily stop your worship you won’t likely feel the attraction towards the shrine).
Secondary to this, but again not essential, is what items are sacred to the god that is meaningful to the way you perceive him or her? Again, acquiring a list of sacred things and trying to cram every little thing onto your shrine is probably not going be very rewarding to your relationship with the god or the development of your shrine to him or her. I have gone that route before and not only was I dissatisfied with my worship space, but it was also very unwieldy and cluttered. The likelihood is that your shrine will get cluttered enough with things that do attract you, that it is unwise to also stash stuff that has nothing to do with how you perceive your god or interact with your god. the gods have big domains with many sacred symbols so it is best to choose among it what is best to your relationship with the god rather than trying, and typically rather unsuccessfully, to do everything at once. Therefore if the growth of crops is important (for example), then perhaps dried grasses and grains and dried fruit/or faux fruit and vegetation would be good symbolism. This also goes for sacred animals. Most gods have a plethora of sacred beasts, so it is sometimes best to choose a couple that are most meaningful to you rather than try to get them all on there…or find ways of representing them in very subtle fashion rather than trying to fit a dozen or more statues of beasts on a shrine. For instance my bowl I use to pour libations to Apollon has deer on it which makes for the only representation of the beasts on his shrine. Incorporating important symbols in general into your ritual implements is the easiest and often best way of including them, and one that should be considered when thinking of particular vessels that might be necessary. It is the easiest way to add that element without unnecessary clutter and crowding.
The third point then is what are your needs for your shrine? This may include size (where does it need to fit? what do you need to use it for? How often are you going to use it?). It will also include what kind of tools and vessels you may need for your shrine. What is going to be part of regular worship that you need in easy access? Do you have any allergies that will require substitutes in your items of worship (for instance some people are, or have household members, who are allergic to smoke, and therefore would need to think of other possibilities in substitution for incense if they want to still give the perfumed offerings….which may include the purchase of an oil warmer. For various kinds of offerings you may find it easier to keep things that you use regularly in vessels on the shrine itself, whereas that which you break out only for major occasions you may be just as content to keep stored elsewhere in a simple container. What is required for a shrine space can differ from religion to religion and also from god to god. for Hellenic gods it tends to be rather simple in the form of some kind of fire, a container for libations, and a vessel for receiving the libations if not poured directly into a fire in which case a vessel that contain fire would be necessary instead).
A fourth point is location. Where do I need to be able to put the shrine in order to keep with my religious views? This determines not only placement of the shrine in the household, but also whether the shrine will be tampered with by fingers of small children that make break items and disturbed by pets if that is a concern of yours. Some religions are more flexible with this, but others demand a more strict treatment of these sacred spaces….not only for terms of cleanliness (particularly in the case of pets), but also to prevent damage to the shrine that can occur if small children or pets can have easy access to it. For myself, as I don’t have small children that is not a concern…and the pets I have in my oikos are small animals which are taught to stay off the shrines.
All of this culminates in a sacred space in which veneration best takes place, and through consideration of what is needed and desired also makes it an individual and very unique space from household to household even among worshipers in the same religion. A shrine by its nature should be personal to who you are and who your family is in the case of a household shrine. It is not something to be taken lightly nor to serve just for the culmination of *stuff*. As it is sacred, the shrine and everything on it should be taken as of the highest importance and consideration. Because ultimately a shrine is about a sacred connection between you, your household and your gods.