Is it an Altar or a Shrine
"What should I put on my altar?"
This is probably the question my students have asked most often over the years. And it's certainly the question I see most often posted to various online Pagan forums and e-mail lists. Whatever the medium, my answer is always the same:
"That depends. Are you getting ready to perform a ritual or setting up a space in your home for personal devotion?"
Because there is a difference. An altar holds the tools and other implements needed to perform a ritual. A shrine is a place designed to enhance personal worship. What confuses new Pagans and Witches is that the same small table, nightstand, bookcase or shelf - and its contents - is often used for both purposes.
For those of us who come to Paganism and Witchcraft after a childhood spent attending a Christian church every Sunday, the confusion is understandable. There is a surface at the front of mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches, whether it's a huge marble slab or a linen-draped table, which is always referred to as an altar. I made a quick phone call to the head of the local Episcopal Church's Altar Guild. She confirmed that this surface is mostly bare during the week - there may be flowers or unlit candles, but not always. On Sundays, however, the tools needed to perform the ritual of Holy Communion are set in specific places upon it.
I asked the nice Altar Guild lady whether or not I would be sitting in front of an altar or a shrine if I were to go into her church on a Wednesday morning for some private quiet time. I told her my definitions of the two words. She promptly agreed that, on a Wednesday morning, without the Communion accoutrements present, I would be sitting in front of a shrine - but it's still called an altar.
With this in mind, let me reword the question: "What should I put on my shrine?"
Objects on your shrine should have personal meaning to you. Odds are you already have a shrine in your bedroom and you just don't know it. What's on top of your dresser or bookcase? A nice box to hold jewelry or other cherished trinkets? Photographs of family and friends? Figurines that were given to you by someone you love?
Of course, if you want to "Paganize" your shrine, the possibilities are endless: a nice cloth under all the other items to protect the surface from dust and wax drippings, a candle or two (never left burning unattended, please!), an incense holder, something that reminds you of the God(s) or Goddess(es) you feel most comfortable with - a drawing or picture, a figurine or small statue all work well. Your shrine may look a little bare at first; once you've been practicing Paganism or Witchcraft for a while, you'll naturally acquire more "stuff" that has personal meaning to you and your worship. Trust me!
If you're living in a situation where a blatantly "witchy" altar is just not possible, you can look to nature for shrine-decorating inspiration. A feather, a pinecone, some pretty shells your aunt picked up for you at the beach, a bouquet of flowers from your backyard, a small stone you found in the woods when you were hiking with your best friend can all be added to the items you already have on your dresser. Since Paganism and Witchcraft tend to focus so strongly on nature and the cycles of the seasons, it would be completely appropriate to add these items to the more formal shrine described above.
The entire purpose of a shrine is to have a little piece of permanent sacred space in your home where you can go whenever you need to feel closer to the Gods. Of course, what you do while sitting or standing in front of your shrine is up to you. Meditate, write poetry, sing, light a candle and just watch it burn for a while. Time in front of your shrine can be as formal or informal, as long or as quick as you want it to be. One housekeeping note: be respectful and dust your shrine and everything on it once in a while.
"So what should I put on my altar?"
Well, if you're using the same piece of furniture that your shrine is on, you may need to take some items off your shrine to make room for the things you need for ritual. My first altar/shrine was a tiny twelve inch by eighteen inch marble cutting board precariously perched on top of an even smaller child's stool I found at a junk store. I had no room to spare! Today I have a nice nightstand complete with two drawers that conveniently hold extra candles, incense, seasonal decorations, and all that acquired "stuff" I mentioned.
Now it depends on what sort of ritual you're about to perform. For a solitary holiday or moon celebration, you might want a cup of cider or other "natural" fruit juice (wine or ale, if you're over twenty-one. Please drink responsibly!), cookies or a piece of fruit or bread, a small bowl to pour some of the food and drink into for the Gods, and maybe some seasonal- or moon-phase-appropriate poetry or stories to read.
For personal magical workings, or spellwork, you will obviously add the items you need to do the work. For instance, if you're doing a working to get a job (or a better job), you will want a lot of green on your altar - cloth, candles, etc. You may want a copy of your resume and the classified ad section of the newspaper to "charge" with your intent and energy. They are, after all, tools of your search - tools you will use when you apply for your new job.
Notice I have not mentioned anything yet about the traditional ritual tools - athame, wand, chalice, pentacle, etc., mostly because the acquisition and care of them would fill another article completely. I will say this: if you have them, don't leave them out on your shrine day after day. One, they will get dusty and, in my house at least, covered with pet hair. This isn't very respectful of the tools and what they represent. Two, any visitor could pick them up and touch them - or walk out the door with them. Prevent the temptation. Put your tools away.
The important thing to remember is your permanent shrine and temporary altar are a refuge - a place to sit and work through the ups and downs, hopes and fears, sorrows and joys that are all part of your life as a Pagan and Witch. May you always find what you need there.