The Kemetic Round Table (KRT) is a blogging project aimed at providing practical, useful information for modern Kemetic religious practitioners. For all the entries relating to this particular topic, take a peek here.
In a way, one of the easiest beginner question to answer is altars. The reason being is that it comes down to have a blank space for deity-related items, in a nutshell. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that, but you could easily start off with an empty table, cabinet, or shelf and you have a functional altar. However, no one really asks about shrines. No one seems to understand that an altar =/= a shrine. Here follows a quick 101 to discuss the differences and how you can set up a shrine if you are so inclined.
What’s the difference between a shrine and an altar?
There’s a world of difference between altars and shrines, which is not made apparent to a lot of newbies running around. There are some people who will use the words interchangeably. However, I don’t recommend this. And the reason is all in the definitions of both of these words. They really are two separate items and they are for two entire separate types of worship.
They can both be categorized as a place in which something sacred goes, however, the difference stems in what happens at the location. For an altar, it is a place in “which religious rites are performed or on which sacrifices are offered to gods, ancestors, etc.” (Source.) However, a shrine is not a work station where things are to be done, but a “structure or place consecrated or devoted to some saint, holy person, or deity, as an altar, chapel, church, or temple.” (Source.) It is a realm of piety, of devotion, and of prayers.
Why would I create a shrine instead of an altar?
In some cases, someone would choose to create an altar for the netjer because the deity in question has requested it. I know of at least two Kemetics that I can think of off the top of my head who had their deities request that they create a type of shrine for them. In both cases, the god resides within that closed off sacred space 100% of the time. This, to me, shows that the relationships they have with their gods is more dedicated and more serious than some of the other relationships people can and do have with the netjeru.
In other cases, a person decides to begin building a shrine to their deities because they have a priest-like relationship with their gods. The thing about having a shrine instead of an altar means that there will be more hard work, a lot more devotion, and an exceptional amount of hard work in the actions of maintaining one. In the morphing an altar space into a type of shrine, you are accepting more responsibility with your religious practice. The only people in ancient Egypt who were granted access to shrines were the priests themselves, which is why I tend to equate the practice of having one and the work put into making it and maintaining it as a kind of entrance into a modern-day priesthood. The rules change, in my opinion, when a shrine is put together for your netjer of choice.
Personally, I only have altars around my home. I do not have a shrine to any of my gods, although I have put serious consideration into having a shrine for Sekhmet and altars for the rest. And while some of my altars are too small to actually be a devotional work place, they are still altars. I don’t do the shrine thing because I am not a priest, nor do I wish to be. And I’m not ready (and probably will never be) to do that.
How would I create a shrine?
In this, one must first look to past resources for ideas on shrines. The ancient Egyptians had an entire temple for their religious observances, but there was a particular section that the status of the gods was kept within (the shrine area) and only consecrated priests could enter its domain. As you can see from this Ptolemaic era travel shrine, they utilized a cabinet with doors. If you do a Google image search, you will find similar representations, both modern and ancient. So, your first step is to find a type of cabinet that reflects what you think your gods would both prefer and that any icons (pictures, statues, representative items) would be able to fit within. An excellent modern example is Devo’s shrine entry at Shrine Beautiful.
As shown from the above linked article of Devo’s shrine, you can see that the items she has for that shrine are exceptionally plain. The doors are opened and she gives them sustenance in the form of her votive offerings for the day. The doors are then closed and the offerings are left within the shrine until the next time she goes to visit her shrine. There is no decoration. There are no flowers. There is nothing but a very immaterial and streamlined shrine. Personally, when I look at shrine porn, the more minimalistic a shrine the better.
However, not everyone is going to enjoy minimalism when it comes to their personal sacred space to their netjer. The thing is that one must reflect on the fact that a shrine is a sacred place. A shrine is a place for offerings and for worship and, in my opinion, little else. Cluttering the area with things like rocks, pictures, and the like may prove harmful in the long run. Giving those items as offerings and removing them when you are either done or the next day when you go back to renew your offerings is one thing, but keeping extraneous items laying about all day, every day may end up taking away from the connection you are attempting to solidify with your netjer and also detract from the overall goal of sacred space.
Where should I set up a shrine?
The thing about putting a shrine together is that, if you are going to take into account the ancient Egyptian standard that we have to work from, then the shrine is going to be placed in an inner sanctum of sorts. The temple precincts for each deity were wide and varied tracts of land – a kind of city-state unto itself in later dynasties. We don’t have this option, for obvious reason, but you can easily choose a quiet, inner room to place your shrine in. In some cases, people have entire rooms dedicated to the wants and needs of their gods and their spirits (I’m thinking, specifically, in regards to the lwa here but this works for relationships with the netjer and other gods as well). You can think of opening the door to that room as the outside precincts of the temple in question and then the shrine area as the private place for your shrine.
However, if you are like me, then this may not work out so well for you because you may end up forgetting the whole “daily offering” thing.
Part of the reason why I have altars instead of shrines is, also, because I need to have them placed in a public space. This has helped me to facilitate the daily offerings that I believe I should be giving on a regular basis. As I discovered when my altars were in my inner sanctum, I’m less likely to go about and get the daily offerings because of not having the altar spaces in my face. In effect, laziness grabs hold and I end up saying, “I’ll do a double offering tomorrow,” and then that tomorrow never actually manifests and I’m six months behind on daily offerings and in a fallow time. So, for me, if I were to go the shrine route, the shrine in question would be in a public place. Point of fact, if I were to ever convert any of my altars into shrine areas, I would probably place the shrine on top of the working altars I have currently so that I can work for the gods at their sacred work stations and then also open up their shrine doors for daily offerings.
I believe that the few people whom I can think of who have shrine areas also have their shrines in public spaces. They may do this for the same reason as me or for lack of space in quieter, out-of-the-way parts of their home. No matter the personal reasoning behind where you place your shrine, it is an inherently personal decision. If it’s in a public place, then that’s where you need it to be. If you’re not a lazy as me and you have the room/ability to place them in an inner area, then that’s where you need it to be.
When will I know that I can handle a shrine?
This is, again, another personal decision for each practitioner. As I mentioned above, I know that I am not ready and probably will never be really ready to handle a shrine area. It is a very large decision to go ahead and start manifesting something like a sacred space, such as a shrine, and maintaining that sacred space. If you think you are ready to take on the duties that lie within a priesthood infrastructure, then you could quite easily be ready to create and maintain a shrine space. However, the responsibilities of a priesthood caste are incredibly large and occasionally back breaking. In my opinion, there is less time for fun and adventure (such as Roamin’ Gnome shenanigans during festivals) and more time for devotion, prayer, and introspection.
If you think you are ready to carry the mantle of the priesthood, then you are ready to attempt the building of a shrine. Just ask the netjer that you want to create the shrine to first and go from there.