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Altars, Shrines, and Sacred Space

Updated on June 30, 2009

Creating Sacred Refuge and Nurturing the Spirit

This lens focuses on altars, shrines, grottos, creating sacred, space and clearing clutter. As a creator of One of a Kind (OOAK) altar dolls, I have several altars at home and I am constantly taking photographs of the sacred places I visit in my travels. Many people ask me, how do I create an altar? Hopefully this lens provides enough information, pictures, and ideas to get you started creating your own sacred space.

View the slide show below for more images of grottos and shrines.

Pilgrims Flock to the Healing Waters of Haiti's Voodoo Virgin

SAUT D'EAU, Haiti - By the thousands, observant Haitians travel by foot, car, and donkey to the healing waters of Saut d'Eau to seek spiritual comfort, healing and answers from the Voodoo Virgin Erzulie.

Click here for the full story.


A Grotto is any type of natural or artificial cave that is associated with modern, historic or prehistoric use by humans. When it is not an artificial garden feature, a grotto is often a small cave near water and often flooded or liable to flood at high tide.

The word grotto has an interesting origin. It comes from the Italian word grotta, Vulgar Latin grupta, Latin crypta, which means crypt. By historical accident, it is related to the word grotesque. Apparently in the late 15th century, Romans unearthed by accident Nero's Domus Aurea on the Palatine Hill. This was a series of underground rooms that were decorated with garlands and animals. The Romans were basically creeped out by what they had found in the "underworld" and referred to this form of decoration as "grotesque".

Really, where was their sense of humor?

Pictured is the main altar at the grotto in Dickeyville, Wisconsin.

In 1481 the monks of San Donato a Scopeto near Florence commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint an altar-piece celebrating the Adoration of the Magi. Leonardo sketched a series of preparatory studies which allow us to understand the process of conceiving the wooden panel, that he left unfinished when he moved to Milan in 1482. In one of these drawings, Leonardo drew with meticulous accuracy a refined perspective grid in order to place the architectural structures, the human figures, and the animals, which he intended to use to animate the scene, in a realistically proportioned way.

The drawing is a preparatory study for the Adoration of the Magi, the wooden panel painting that was commissioned to be painted by Leonardo for the main altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto near Florence.

Click here to see a large image of this drawing.

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Leonardo da Vinci on Amazon

Recent Scientific evidence, provided by analyses using the most advanced, non-invasive technology, and carried out on both the preparatory drawing and the wooden panel, is surprising. We now have the proof that Leonardo left the panel unfinished when he moved to Milan in 1482. At that point he had made a detailed drawing with lamp black and covered it with a thin white lead priming, to guide the spreading of the paint. The latter appears limited to a sample of sky and faint shadows of parts of the figures and architecture. In a later period another artist added various layers of black and brown paint, thus hiding significant parts of Leonardo's original work. Thanks to recent scientific investigations we can now appreciate Leonardo's masterpiece in its original intent.

Click here to see a large image of this painting.

Online Exhibition

How to Clear Clutter To Make Room for Sacred Space

Out of Clutter, Find Simplicity.

From Discord, Find Harmony.

In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity.

--Albert Einstein (Three Rules of Work)

The first step is to take an honest inventory of yourself and admit there is clutter to be dealt with. Clutter has a way of sucking our creative and productive energy by making the environment stagnant and the energy flow nonexistent. When you have done this, the next step is to be willing to let go of much of it.

I know all about clutter. I am the clutter queen. I know what it is like to stand in the middle of my office and go "Oh my holy buddha, where do I start?"

Then I do one of three things:

1. Nothing because I am too overwhelmed,

2. Call my friend, my fairy godmother who is a declutter and organization expert and who has a way of helping me get started,


3. Dig deep into my inner goddess wisdom that reminds me to keep it simple and start with what is right in front of me.

Then, I find 4 boxes and label them with the 4 categories.


Give Away/Sell


Put away

Trash- This includes items that have no business taking up my sacred space...junk mail, broken items that I have told myself I will get to fixing at some point in the future but never do, and magazines and catalogs (you know what I am talking about!)

Give Away/Sell- Think about how little, if ever, you use that certain something and how much someone else might use it. Consider the financial benefits of selling your stuff at a garage sale. But only if you are going to follow through with the garage sale! I got into the habit of going through my things, getting a load of stuff to sell at this fantastic garage sale I told myself I was going to have next weekend, and a year or two later (I said you have to get honest!) there the pile still sits somewhere else in my home or garage. Folks, this is not decluttering, it is simply relocating. Out of sight does not mean out of the house!

Storage- Put items in this box that you cannot part with but do not need on a regular basis. Make an inventory of the items as you box them. Group similar items together. Remember one good way to clean out closets is to store out of season clothing. Wash them and then...

Put Away- These are items that need to be out on a regular basis and should be your smallest category. Do you have a place for everything so that everything can be in its place? If not, then create a space for these items, and then get into the habit of putting them away!

Clearing Away Clutter on Amazon

Dealing with the Emotional Baggage Associated with Clutter

Often times, clearing out the clutter is more than just getting rid of things and getting organized. People tend to have emotional attachments to things that stand in the way of letting go. And I am not just talking about things with sentimental value. I am talking about holding on to clothes that no longer fit, letters from old lovers, canned goods that you don't ever eat, etc.

  • Getting rid of clothes we'll never fit into again means accepting our current shape and level (or lack) of fitness.
  • Getting rid of possessions remaining after a loved one has died means coming to terms with our loss and grief.
  • Getting rid of books and magazines we don't have time to read means accepting that we will never have enough time or attention to explore every topic that's of interest to us.
  • Getting rid of an expensive item we never use means admitting that we made a poor decision when we bought it.
  • Clearing out the pantry means you accepting you are not living in poverty and are better off giving it to someone else who is hungry and replacing it with food items you will actually eat.
  • Removing clutter means making room for new opportunities.
  • Clearing clutter means removing all of the excuses that keep you from fulfilling your dreams.
  • Clearing clutter and creating fresh, sacred space means you deserve to live in a clean and peaceful environment full of beautiful things.

Feng Shui

Creating Sacred Space Through the Art of Placement

Feng Shui (pronounced fung shway) literally means wind and water. Water represents the physical, manifest world while wind represents the inner world of energy that interacts with the outer. External Feng Shui is about arranging our environment, our homes and businesses to open to the energy (Chi) of Prosperity and Success. Internal Feng Shui is about exploring our inner worlds of mind/body/spirit and opening these worlds to the energy (Chi) of Health and Happiness.

Feng Shui has been called the Chinese "Art of Placement," that balances the life energies, or chi, in a living space. Feng shui is a discipline with guidelines that are compatible with many techniques of architectural planning. Space, weather, astronomy, and geomagnetism are basic components of feng shui. However, many believe there are unexplainable scientific factors involved and so consider it a metaphysical art. Proponents claim that feng shui has an effect on health, wealth, and personal relationships.


In arranging a room or building, 9 areas are noted to be of special significance. A Baqua Map (pictured), is used to illustrate the relationship of areas in a room (or home). Imagine dividing your room (home, office) into the following 9 areas:

1. Wealth

2. Fame

3. Relationships

4. Health and Family

5. Center

6. Children and Creativity

7. Knowledge

8. Career

9. Helpful People

First clear your clutter. This is one of the most important aspects of creating sacred space. Then place objects which reinforce the attributes of each area. In Feng Shui, nine special "cures" are noted to enhance energy flow. These cures include:

Bright Objects: Mirrors, Faceted Crystal balls, gems, lights, candles

Sounds: Wind chimes, bells, music

Living Chi: Flowers, Plants, Birds, Fish

Moving: Mobiles, Chimes, Fountains

Heavy: Stone, Furniture

Mechanical: Computers, Stereos, TV

Bamboo: flutes

Color: Relates to each area on Baqua Map.


An altar is any structure upon which sacrifices or other offerings are offered for religious purposes, or some other sacred place where ceremonies take place. Altars are usually found in shrines, temples, and other sacred places. They occur in many cultures worldwide, particularly in the religions of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism (also known as Daoism), and Neopaganism. They were also found in other ancient religions.

In the Hebrew Bible, altars were typically constructed of earth or unwrought iron and erected in conspicuous places. After God appeared on Mount Sinai and gave laws to the Israelites, only two altars were used: the Altar of Burnt Offering, and the Altar of Incense.

A Wiccan altar is typically a piece of furniture, such as a table or chest, upon which a Wiccan practitioner places several symbolic and functional items for the purpose of worshiping the God and Goddess, casting spells, and/or saying chants and prayers. Upon the altar typically rests a cloth, used to protect the surface from damage by candle wax, spilled liquid, or dust from burnt incense. This cloth is often adorned by a pentacle.

Common items on a Wiccan altar include:

* an athame

* a chalice

* a pentacle

* incense

* candles

* a cauldron

* a broom

* a wand

Some of the items represent the earth's four elements, but elements may be represented more literally, with gems, salt, water, plant material, insect casings, etc.

Photograph is of the Opferstein or Sacrifice Rock at Maria Taferl, Austria. It was used by the ancient Celts to make sacrifices upon and is now located in the plaza of the basilica there. This image has been released into the public domain by its creator, Maik 123. This applies worldwide. Source:

Creating Sacred Space

Creating sacred space involves any activity that enhances the environment in which you live in and that produces a sense of connection to the Divine, harmony, or the natural environment in a peaceful and joyful way.

Some rules of thumb include clearing out clutter and placing objects of significance in a meaningful arrangement where they can be seen, appreciated, and meditated upon. Special pictures, stones, flowers, dolls, statues, and anything else that moves you are good to use in creating your sacred space.


A shrine, from the Latin scrinium ('box') is originally a container, usually in precious materials, especially for a relic and often a cult image, and/or a holy or sacred place , often containing the same, dedicated towards a certain deity, saint, or similar religious figure. These may include shrines in temples, home altars, and sacred burial places. A shrine where offerings are made is called an altar.

Pictured is a simple shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a common site in front of the homes of people with Mexican roots.

Two Iraqi Shrines Guarded by Troops to Prevent More Bloodshed

What is wrong with this world? When people can't even go to their places of worship without fear of being shot and killed? Just days after massive bloodshed, two major Iraqi shrines are guarded by troops while devotees attend Friday prayers.

Read the full story here.

Oshun in Yoruban Mythology

In Yoruba mythology, Oshun is an Orisha (spirit goddess) of love, intimacy, beauty, wealth and diplomacy.

According to the Yoruba elders, Osun is the "unseen mother present at every gathering", because Oshun is the Yoruba understanding of the cosmological forces of water, moisture, and attraction. Therefore she is omnipresent and omnipotent. Her power is represented in another Yoruba scripture which reminds us that "no one is an enemy to water" and therefore everyone has need of and should respect and revere Oshun, as well as her followers.

Oshun is the force of harmony. Harmony we see as beauty, feel as love, and experience as ecstasy. Osun according to the ancients was the only female Irunmole amongst the 401 sent from the spirit realm to create the world. As such, she is revered as "YeYe" - the sweet mother of us all. When the male Irunmole attempted to subjugate Oshun due to her femaleness she removed her divine energy, called ache by the Yoruba, from the project of creating the world and all subsequent efforts at creation were in vain. It was not until visiting with the Supreme Being, Olodumare, and begging Oshun pardon under the advice of Olodumare that the world could continue to be created. BUT not before Oshun had given birth to a son. This son became Elegba, the great conduit of ache in the Universe and also the eternal and infernal trickster.

Oshun is known as Yalode- the mother of things outside the home, due to her business acumen. She is also known as Laketi, she who has ears, because of how quickly and effectively she answers prayers. When she possesses her followers she dances, flirts and then weeps- because no one can love her enough and the world is not as beautiful as she knows it could be.

Oshun is beneficent and generous, and very kind. She does, however, have a horrific temper, though it is difficult to anger her. She is married to Shng, god of fire, thunder, and power, and is his favorite wife because of her excellent cooking skills. One of his other wives, Oba, was her rival. They are the goddesses of the Oshun and Oba rivers, which meet in a turbulent place with difficult rapids.

Also known as cachita, a statue of Our Lady exists with a miraculous origin. It stands about 16 inches high. The head is made of baked clay covered with a polished coat of fine white powder, possibly rice paste, and until recently was covered with several layers of paint. She stands on a moon that has silver clouds at either end and three golden-winged cherubs beneath it. She cradles the Christ Child in her left arm, and holds a gold crucifix in her right. The Child raises one hand in blessing, and in the other hand he holds a golden globe. The image's original robes were white, but as usual, the figure is covered by a heavy ornate cloak with gold and silver embroidery, including the Cuban national shield. It hides the body and gives the statue a triangular shape.

Some time around the year 1600, two native Indians, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, together with a ten year old slave boy, Juan Moreno, went out looking for the salt needed to preserve the meat of the Barajagua slaughterhouse, which supplied the workers and inhabitants of "Santiago del Prado", now known as "El Cobre." That day they were just able to reach Cayo Francs, halfway across the Bay of Nipe, where they encamped to escape the fury of a storm which would have torn their frail canoe to pieces.

Calm was restored with daybreak, and they took to the transparent sea. In the distance, they saw a white bundle floating on the waves and approaching them slowly. At first they took it for a sea bird. As it came closer, it seemed to be a girl and at last they were able to determine that it was a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the child on her right arm and with a gold cross in her left hand. The statue was fastened to a board with the inscription, "I am the Virgin of Charity."

According to the sworn testimony of witnesses, despite the recent storm and the motion of the waves, neither the figure of the Virgin, nor her clothing, were wet.


Day of the Dead Altars

El Corazon De La Muerte

Da de los Muertos is a holiday rooted in the ancient past of Mesoamerica. My ancestors were in awe of the eternal cycle of life and death and believed in the need for sacrifice to assure the continuation of life. The Aztecs of past honored those who have passed on with great feasts, sacrifice, ritual, dance, and sacred art that depicted their beliefs and customs. After the trauma of the Spanish conquest, their beliefs persisted by adapting them to the holidays of the Christian calendar. Although much of the ancient indigenous religions were lost, the core aspect of the days of the dead was kept. This core consists of the altar with offerings to the dead.

The altar includes four main elements of nature - earth, wind, water, and fire.

Earth is represented by crop: The Mexicans believe the souls are fed by the aroma of food.

Wind is represented by a moving object: Tissue paper is commonly used to represent wind.

Water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long journey to the altar.

Fire is represented by a wax candle: Each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul.

To make a Day of the Dead altar, you will need the following items:

1. Photo of our Loved One. At the center of the altar is a photograph of the loved one to whom the altar is dedicated. It is decorated with momentos that reflect the individual.

2. It is customary to prepare a feast of foods that the spirits will enjoy. Tamales, mole, pan de muerto, and seasonal fruits are traditionally used, as well as foods that were favorites of the deceased.

3. Marigold Flowers (Cempaschitl). In addition, yellow and orange marigolds are lavished upon the altar. Marigolds are used because of their abundance and their robust aroma.

4. Sugar skulls and calacas (skeletons). The presence of whimsical calacas offer those in the physical world something tangible that captures the spirit of the loved one.

5. Votive Candles. Purple represents pain, pink celebration, and white hope. Use whatever colors feel right as there is much room for personalization.

6. Grooming items. A bar of soap, a towel, perfume, and the like are placed on the altar in the belief that the dead ones have been on a long journey and would like to refresh themselves for the celebration.

Other items are also placed at the altar.

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    • ibelieveinfaeries profile image

      ibelieveinfaeries 7 years ago

      another great blog very informative ! quite fun to read

    • Missmerfaery444 profile image

      Missmerfaery444 8 years ago

      This is a beautiful lens! Very interesting and enjoyable. I am reading Carol Owen's book Crafting Personal Shrines at the moment to learn how to make some myself.

    • profile image

      mykey 9 years ago

      Hey! Love the bits on Feng Shui and on clearing clutter...SO IMPORTANT!!! Clearing clutter is a key element, people often wouldn't believe it and overlook it, but it makes so much sense and makes all the difference!!!

      Thankyou voodoomama

    • Sensitive Fern profile image

      Sensitive Fern 10 years ago

      I love how you made the connection between clearing clutter and sacred space, illustrating that your entire living space can be an altar, with areas of concentrated focus within that. :) *5 stars*!!!