Before we begin, what is an altar, and what is the most common mistake people make when talking about them online? Spelling. Although pronounced the same way, these two words mean very different things and in the interests of explanation (and, admittedly, getting a minor pet peeve off my chest), I come bearing definitions.
al·tar /ˈôltər / noun 1. a table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity.
al·ter /ˈôltər / verb 1. to change or cause to change in character or composition, typically in a comparatively small but significant way.
Now that that’s out in the open… When you first start out as a pagan or a polytheist, one of the things that everyone suggests to create is an altar. An altar - or shrine - can mean something different to every practitioner. To some, it is simply a kind of monument to their deities or spirits where they can display items they think they will like or that represent them. To others, it is that and/or a little, isolated place where you can leave offerings. Altars can be as simplistic or as decorative as you like, and though they are by far not a necessity for the witch or polytheist or pagan, to many they are an important part of their practice.
But what if the typical idea of an altar is not for you? What if you would like to build one, and your home life is not suitable? Luckily, an altar is anything you want it to be, and in this modern world there are plenty of unique ways to create one. This article touches first on digital alternatives, and then on physical ones. Have an idea for an altar that you don’t see anywhere on this list? Tell me about it in the comments!
E-Shrines or Altars
One of the most ‘popular’ forms of alternative altar - found and hosted largely on tumblr - is what has come to be colloquially known as an e-shrine. As the kind of person who can spend hours on websites like tumblr and pinterest collecting pretty images like the magpie that I am, this is my preferred method of altar, and I have shrines to my deities and the sidhe that I work with including Odin and Thor. E-shrines are, in my experience, not too dissimilar to aesthetic blogs, where the target audience is an entity that you work with. For me, it is a place where I post images that I come across which remind me of the focus, as well as pictures of things which I might give them as an offering in real life. I also share my devotional poetry to the relevant shrines as a way to formally gift them, as they are in digital form.
You can make offerings to your spirits/deities that you might not otherwise be able to afford
The aesthetic of your e-shrine can be tailored with relative ease
Altars hosted online can be ‘hidden’ from people if you are in the closet
Content on e-shrines is easily miscreditted by those who first upload it
Attributions that are UPG (unverified personal gnosis) are open to scrutiny
When it comes to gifts, nothing says ‘I put real thought and effort into this’ more than a handmade gift. You could buy a premade cross-stitch on etsy or you could sew one yourself in your friend’s favourite colours. The same can be said about offerings to your deities or - you guessed it! - altars. Of course, while all altars are technically built, why not have a lot of fun putting an altar together by building something physical as a devotional act? There’s plenty of ways that you could go about it, including digital. You could build a shrine out of Lego, create a Minecraft kingdom or breed yourself the perfect lair of dragons on Flight Rising. The world is your oyster.
Building the altar doubles as a devotional act - ditto maintaining it
You can make your altar public by uploading it to forums or websites
Digital constructed shrines take up no space
The construction methods could be somewhat limiting
If you have a busy life, building something can be too time-consuming
Moving on from the last topic, sometimes an altar just isn’t feasible where you live. You might live with family who would disown you if they knew you were polytheist/pagan etc, or you could live in a small apartment where either you don’t have the room, or you aren’t allowed to make modifications to the furnishings. Perhaps you travel a lot, and you want something that you can bring with you without having to rebuild it every time you settle down. So what can you make it out of? Many people have built portable altars in altoid tins. You could also build something in a bottle or a shoe box or a bag or a film spool container. Once you have that, anything can go in them! Crystals, a handmade mini tarot deck, little models….
You can conceal the altar if you need to
Your altar is portable if you travel a lot or can’t build a full-size one
They can be made out of recycled materials to reduce your carbon footprint
The size can be a limiting factor in what can go in your altar
A recycled altar could be thrown out by someone who doesn’t check inside
My final example of an alternative altar is very different to the rest of the list, and this sort requires a little more upkeep than the rest. Many people complete ritual devotional acts in honour of their deities and spirits, so why not parcel that into maintaining a living altar. This is especially suitable for beings who are attuned to nature - eg. the Sidhe - or particular creatures - eg. Njord and marine life. You could keep a zen garden, a bonsai, an indoor garden, a fish tank or even a Marimo. Something which grows can also be dedicated to a being as you help it to thrive, and their area can easily be your altar.
Many people in the online witchy community are really into aesthetics spaces
You can combine your altar with a devotional act in caring for them
With so many living things you can easily tailor them to a specific being
You need to care for your altar potentially 24/7 - a dead altar is not a good offering
Some living altars can be expensive to set up and get going
(Originally posted for Aquarius Moon Journal on December 27 2019, and preserved here.)