Broke but not Cheap: Altars and Shrines

The last post I wrote on doing magic “broke but not cheap”, which is to say doing magic for as little a cost as possible, focused on magical goods and supplies, like oils and tools and the like.  This is what many people consider to be the most expensive part of doing magic, and in general it can be, but there are other topics on doing magic on a budget that I want to touch on as well.  For instance, say you have all your supplies and you’re an active magician.  Where do you put your things together?  If you take a devotional practice, how do you house your gods or spirits you work with?  Is it possible to build a temple on the cheap?

This next bit on doing magic for cheap is how to organize and put your stuff together, and this is where I find a good distinction that the Anomalous Thracian made a bit ago between an altar and a shrine.  Simply put, a shrine is where a deity or spirit lives, and an altar is a place where one does workings.  Consider how we say that some god is “enshrined” here, but never “enaltared”.  Some of us blur the lines between altars and shrines, and some of us keep them completely separate.  As an example, I have shrines to a few of the Greek gods, and I make offerings and the like of wine, incense, candles, and prayer at their shrines.  Then again, I’ll also occasionally do a working there and leave someone’s picture or a statue or something with one of the gods at their shrine.  However, I also have my ceremonial magic altar, or my Table of Manifestation as Fr. Rufus Opus calls it, which has no gods enshrined on it but has my magical tools and a space to do stuff like conjure spirits or focus a particular force into an object.  That said, this distinction is largely meant for the priests and vocational magicians among us; for most people, myself included, this distinction can be a little artificial and not always helpful.

And yes, it’s spelled “altar” (with an a).  Never “alter” (with an e).  Please, for the love of Hermes Logios, get your spelling right.

Now, this next part may get me into some hot water, but I claim that it is never necessary to build a permanent shrine or altar.  The gods and spirits we work with, being incorporeal, do not require a material home, since they usually already have one of their own in the heavens, hells, or in their own neck of the woods.  The powers we work with do not require a single fixed location in order to be summoned and manipulated.  Material places may be fixed, but spirits do not have to be.  Thus, if you cannot afford the time or space to build and maintain a shrine to a deity, or do enough magic to require the need for a permanently-built (and therefore continuously-active) altar, then you are under no obligation to do either.  That being said, it is extraordinarily helpful to do just those things.  No, they’re not necessary; yes, they are awesome to have.

Building a shrine or altar is not just a matter of money, but it’s also a matter of space, which is in many ways tied up with money.  Consider the magicians who employ the Lemegeton Goetia or the Clavicula Solomonis and do everything by the book.  The Circle of Art is required to be 9′ in radius, or 18′ in diameter, along with a bit more space on one side to house a 3′ equilateral Triangle of Art with a bit of space between the Circle and the Triangle.  This means that we’d need to have a minimum working space of 18′ × 22′, or a room that’s about 400 square feet.  This is a nontrivial size, and some of us are lucky to live in studios with that much space including the kitchen and bathroom.  When you add in the notion of having a smaller Tables of Manifestation and other shrines to deities and spirits, the total space required to maintain all this can be overwhelming.  Some of us are lucky to live in a large enough house on our own with a spacious basement or living room that we can use for magic without disturbances, but most of us aren’t.  We have to deal with smaller spaces or other people living with us, and that latter bit causes a whole slew of other problems.

As a whole, especially in the United States where I live, people have never before lived in bigger houses than what we live in nowadays.  What we consider to be studio apartments and small houses were, by and large, the standard for most people for decades and centuries leading up to our own, leading me to believe yet again that the style of magic described in many Renaissance and medieval grimoires really was intended for the wealthy and magistral among us.  Being able to afford such a mansion (and yes, McMansions qualify) is simply not in the financial reach of most people, whether in the US or abroad, and so we have to make do with substantially smaller places.  Happily, it’s not hard to do powerful work with powerful spirits in a small space, and one needs a large space much less than one needs a full set of ebony and 24k gold tools for their altar.

Let’s first consider someone who has neither space nor money to make a permanent shrine to a spirit or deity or saint, but still wants to work with them.  There are several ways they might go about doing this, as I reckon it:

  • Find a clear and quiet space to sit or stand.  Pray.  Reach out to them, let them come, and simply talk with them.  You don’t need a shrine at all to just make contact.
  • Build a temporary shrine on a table or shelf or against the wall on the floor.  Clean the area first, then place an image of the spirit (a statue if you can build one or afford to buy one, or a drawn-out or printed-out picture of them) along with votive gifts (if available).  Things like a cloth to cover a shrine with, tiny baubles or statuettes of animals associated with the spirit, and the like can all be placed to help give the spirit a “throne” to sit on, if you will, and these can all be stored safely and respectfully when not in use.  A small glass can be used to pour offerings into, and a candle and incense can be burned as a sacrifice.  Pray in the presence of the shrine and invite them to take their seat there, talk with them, and so forth.  When you’re done, invite them to stay if they will or go if they will, being the spirit that they are.  When the candle and incense have burnt out, respectfully dispose of anything perishable and pack the shrine away respectfully in a shoebox or something to hold everything in.
  • Build a portable shrine.  You can find guides to this for a dime a dozen on building miniature shrines out of Altoids tins or other small boxes or containers, which can often be better than building a temporary shrine that you repeatedly put up and take down again.

When making a shrine, you don’t need to go all out.  Household shrines have, historically, been minimalist and tiny, with often little more than a statue and a candle burning in front of it, but even these have palpable power radiating off them when worked and venerated appropriately.  Elaborately decorated and embellished shrines full of baubles and artifacts and rarities are pretty much for those who can afford them, and are sometimes more for the person who maintains them rather than the spirit who’s enshrined there.  Intricate statues and works of art to represent the spirits are nice, but you often don’t need to go that far.  A simple printout of a historical statue or mural of the spirit or deity, perhaps suspended from thread or put into a picture frame, is more than sufficient; unusual pieces of wood or stone that have a particular feel on them can also work well as focal points of veneration for the spirit.  Likewise, any of the votive offerings, gifts, and decorations you want to give them would be better made or harvested yourself rather than bought, much as with any tool or talisman you’d make from before.  The difference here is, instead of creating something for the sake of kinetic meditation or contemplative exercise, you’re giving and dedicating something to the spirit that you yourself are making or supplying, which some find to be a more personal, intimate, and powerful type of offering.  Just be aware that what you offer is no longer yours but belongs to the spirit; if you want it back, you should ask and make sure that you have their blessing to do so.  If you dedicate to a spirit something like a tool, use it only with their permission and blessing.

Add to it, you only need to build a shrine to those spirits whom you really want to live with you and with whom you really want to work with pretty much constantly.  If you’re just calling a spirit a few times a year, you don’t need to build a shrine to them.  If you’re working with a spirit on a weekly or daily basis, you should probably consider building a shrine to them.  When you build a shrine, you’re making a commitment to that spirit to maintain it and maintain them.  It’s generally better to not build a shrine than to build one if you don’t have the time to give them the upkeep and veneration they deserve.  When in doubt, don’t build a shrine.  If you want to build a shrine, or if a spirit demands it, see what space you have available.  You don’t need some elaborate shadowbox when a corner of a bookshelf can suffice; I’ve seen some of my colleagues have shrines lining the floors of their hallways or have a dozen spirits on a single desk shelf, and their shit works all the same.

Also, when you’re building and maintaining a shrine, you need to keep in mind that you need to work with the spirit to maintain it.  It’s silly if the spirit you’re building the shrine for ignores it or doesn’t even respond when you go to it, and it’s as silly if you keep giving them things they don’t want or, conversely, ignore their requests for certain things and designs that they keep making.  If the spirit demands flowers, and flowers are in your ability and budget to obtain, don’t deny them that!  If they demand something that you can’t afford or procure, tell them that they’re requesting something you can’t get and they either need to help with getting it, provide for it themselves, or retract their request.  Building a shrine is building a relationship, and a relationship is a two-way street of compromise and cooperation.  Work with the spirit you have enshrined, but make sure they work with you, as well.  If you find that things simply aren’t working, respectfully tell them that you want to break this relationship and disassemble their shrine; they can determine what becomes of the stuff that has accumulated in their shrine, but beyond that, disassemble their shrine and go back to a more basic way of working with them.  This doesn’t mean you failed, it just means it wasn’t working, and that’s okay.

Anyway, I digress; so much for shrines and houses for spirits.  What about altars, though?  Well, an altar is one type of “working area” that isn’t necessarily connected to a particular spirit, and I’ll use the more generalized concept here because it can apply to more than one tradition.  In that sense, then, use whatever available surface you can so long as it won’t be disturbed by another person.  If you’re doing a one-off working for a particular end, use the kitchen floor or a coffee table.  If you’re doing repeated workings for a particular end, or have gotten used to doing a set of related workings on a frequent basis, consider setting aside a corner of a room or a particular surface to keep the required tools and patterns and supplies present; the top of an armoire or a desk or a side table will work well for this.  If you can’t afford the space or money for the furniture, keep all the tools and required things stored together when not in use, and when you’re ready to use them, ritually clean off a particular surface available to you and set everything out in a planned, regular manner.

Likewise, just as one doesn’t need elaborate and embellished altars, it’s quite possible to downsize some of the larger works described in grimoires and spellbooks of old while still getting good results.  I have never once found a need for a full 18′ diameter circle when my 6′ diameter circle is more than sufficient, and even then I use it only rarely; my own temple room is hardly sufficient for even that, and I do well enough by confining my conjuration work to a 4′ × 4′ space, big enough for me to sit in with a Table of Practice and a few candles.

Just like before when I mentioned that you can get the vast majority of your supplies and tools from going outside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the topic of going outside for shrines and working areas.  Thus, if there’s anything you can do by going outside, do it outside.  Gods of the wild, of the forest, of the untouched and untamed places are always better encountered in their own turf rather than setting up some neat and clean shrine inside, and you’d be better of contacting spirits of forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains by going up to their homes rather than taking some of them back with you and contacting them from the convenience of your own chair.  Going out to a crossroads and talking with the spirits of the crossroads is basically going to a naturally-made shrine for them, and one that’s more powerful and much cheaper than simply building one in your own home.  Of course, there’s the bit about privacy and convenience that you’d be gaining from having them in your own home, but giving these things up as a sacrifice is a sacrifice all the same.

Likewise, if you can find a clearing or field outside that is generally desolate and unsupervised, you’d do well to do some larger workings out there (with the approval of spirits who reside there, of course) rather than trying to cram things you can’t downsize into your own home.  If any friends own a backyard, especially with a privacy fence, see if you can do something there that they won’t turn you down for.  The only issue here is privacy, which you might not always get, and which can sometimes get you in trouble for trespassing (and worse, if you live in a rather conservative place fearful of witches and non-Christian religions).  Then again, what’s a little magic without a bit of risk?  If your need is great enough, this kind of thing will seem trivial.

Again, I speak from a position of privilege here; I’ve never been so poor as to live in such a tiny place where I couldn’t do my magic, and I’ve been good to my spirits and building them shrines (oftentimes on the more elaborate end than not) because I’ve had the time, space, and resources to do so.  Some of my friends have lived in much tinier places, sometimes in a mobile home or sometimes homeless while still maintaining contact with their gods and spirits.  Like last time, I would greatly appreciate it if others who have lived through some of these things and who have built or maintained shrines on a budget or done workings in a particular space when money and space are sparse could comment below and offer their thoughts and fill in any holes I’ve left.


About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

4 Responses to Broke but not Cheap: Altars and Shrines

  1. Steve says:

    I built a shrine to God and the 7 archangels (plus some saints and Mary) like you described in your Archangel book. I live in a studio with my partner so I had to put it in a drawer that is built into an IKEA bed. It works great but the downside is I have to close the drawer and snuff out the candles when I am done. I sometimes wonder if this upsets the angels.

  2. Andrew says:

    I built a shrine to the Seven Planetary Spirits by cutting up a sheet of foamboard from Staples (around $8.00), and putting it together with straight pins ($3.00) and some glue ($2.50), and then decorating it with a combination of geometry and Zentangle.

    I’ve also built a box/kavad in similar fashion for a colleague of mine with a casual devotion to Ganesh…. and the Kavad of Western Astrologywas built in similar fashion. So you don’t have to be a fancy carpenter to build more elaborate structures to support your spirit court.

    You just have to remember that this material is flammable and potentially toxic when flammable, and work with candles, flame, incense, etc. in an appropriate way.

  3. Ian Phanes says:

    While I love my pretty ritual objects, I know they aren’t necessary. I remember talking to a young man years ago when I was working in a store that focused primarily on oil blends, incense, and body care made by the owner, but also had related things like incense burners, candles, jewelry, etc. The guy was interested in ceremonial magic but was convinced that he couldn’t practice it because it required all these tools and a temple room and… I walked over the candle shelf and grabbed four seven-day candles in the elemental colors, a pair of cheap brass candlesticks, and one black and one white rolled beeswax candles. I set them on the counter and said that that was a complete temple set-up. Put the seven-days in the four directions to define a circle and the black and white candles on a little table in the middle representing the Pillars of the Temple, and you’re good to go.

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