When you hear the words “altar” or “shrine,” what comes to mind? For many of us, these words conjure up religious images and artifacts found in churches and temples, something to look at but not to touch, provided for us but not created by us. If an established altar instills you with peace or inspires a longing for deeper connectivity, consider it an invitation to create your own special altar or shrine that reflects your personal callings, challenges, and passions.
You probably already have makeshift shrines in your home. What about that wall of photographs paying homage to your loved ones? Or that corner on top of your dresser where you keep memorabilia from an inspiring vacation? Or even the candle on your dining room table you light before each meal? Each of these is a nod to what we long for: a heartfelt connection to our families, to the world, and to the numinous. With a little inspiration and forethought, you can expand on these beginnings, creating uniquely personal spaces in your home for renewal, reflection, and retreat.
From Greece to Mexico and from India to America, people have been creating altars in their homes for thousands of years. The first Western altars were made in the Neolithic era around 5000 to 6000 b.c. Most home altars have been created and maintained by women to acknowledge and appreciate their intimate relationship to the divine, human, and natural realms, says Kay Turner in her book Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (Thames & Hudson, 1999).
Home altars can serve as touchstones to our creativity, mirrors of our growth, spaces to feel comforted, and reminders of life’s mystery. And they can be found in the most unlikely of places. When I moved into my current home, I found myself unexpectedly creating an altar to the Feminine around my large oval bathtub. In the center is a clay Mexican fertility figure surrounded by abalone shells, a bird’s nest, beach glass, candles, and photographs of female artists, deities, and friends. This altar encourages me to reflect on the beauty of womanhood and the power of the creative in my life.
Altars may be a collection of ordinary objects such as rocks, feathers, a shred of fabric, or a carefully printed word on paper—all of which have meaning to the creator. They may include offerings of flowers or food, a candle or fragrance. Altars can be created as permanent works of art, such as a shadow box, or they can be designed to change with the day or season. We can create an altar in memory of a beloved pet or a friend in need. We can prepare altars to reflect our dreams for the coming year or as a reminder to show gratitude for all we already have.
The key to remember is that the altar is yours, so it can be as eclectic or focused, as colorful or serene, and as pragmatic or impractical as you need it to be. It’s an expression of your innermost heart and a reminder to stop every so often just to listen.