Shrines, Altars, and More!
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Building and maintaining sacred space is a core part of modern Heathen practice. The core principles of doing this are fairly straightforward, as I have discussed in a previous blog post, though as any experienced practitioner can tell you there’s always more room to delve deeper into the craft of cultivating sacred space. This post will get into some of the particulars of this by exploring the specifics of shrines, altars, and hörgr, the three main types of more personal sacred spaces in modern Heathen practice. I will discuss both some of the more spiritual considerations in this process as well as practical ones that you may encounter as part of your practice.
The first question you will face is very straightforward: what is the purpose of the sacred space you wish to make? How you answer this will have a significant influence on how the space takes shape. If, for example, you are assembling a shrine to Odin which would sit in your study space & emphasizes contemplation then you would probably make very different design choices from a Thor shrine meant for a May Day ritual in the park or a portable shrine that can be packed in a carry-on bag or even your pockets. Each of these examples are defined heavily by how their purpose will have to adapt to meet very different needs, operate in different contexts, and with different limitations and considerations.
The example of an Odin shrine can have more delicate or heavy, difficult to move objects than the others thanks to its stationary nature. It will also probably lean towards décor, items, and offerings that you associate with a contemplative headspace. The Thor shrine, by contrast, will likely consist of more portable objects like simple statues, hammers, and other items which are better adapted for an outdoor space. It will also likely be aesthetically & thematically different since a May Day ritual would usually have a more celebratory, outwardly energetic atmosphere than a solitary, private space set aside for meditation.
These specific cases of how purpose influences form and function run deeper the more you consider them. Sacred spaces can be further defined by what kind of spiritual function they will serve. A space meant as a purely devotional shrine for providing offerings to specific Powers is going to have a very different character in terms of layout, objects, and how you interact with it from one which is for facilitating seiðr workings, divination, and other more mystically focused aspects of practice. A devotional space, for example, may not feel like the right place for keeping tools you use during seiðr. If, by contrast, your sacred space is a more multipurpose one it would make sense to keep your mystical tools in the same place as where you perform devotional work.
One form of shrine that is unique to Heathenry is what is called a hörgr or a harrow. These are a kind of shrine that consists of a pile of stones arranged in an outdoor space as a place for receiving offerings to the Powers. They can be as simple as the stones which make up the hörgr or enjoy further decoration and embellishment in the form of statues, godposts, and whatever else feels appropriate for the hörgr. What all hörgr have in common is they are always located outdoors, with the stones piled on the bare earth so that offerings poured on the hörgr can easily reach the ground below. Hörgr do require having regular access to outdoor space and any décor you include should be more weather-resistant.
You’re probably wondering, by now, where altars fit into the picture. If a shrine is a devotional space set aside for honoring a specific Power or Powers then an altar is a specific space set aside for doing spiritual workings which may or may not be related to a specific Power. This distinction may seem academic but it is an important difference between these kinds of spiritual spaces. A shrine may not and often does not need much more in terms of working space than a bowl, glass, or other vessel for holding offerings. Outdoor and portable shrines don’t even necessarily need these as it is perfectly acceptable to present offerings by pouring them into the ground in front of them.
What makes an altar different is it is a space where you do much more complex workings than giving gifts to the Powers. Altars are a space where dedicated ritual implements can be consecrated, sacred tools like rune pouches or seer staffs be stored, and acts of dedicated workings like seiðr spellwork can be performed. Having this distinction is important because the more you use a particular space for dedicated workings, the more reinforced it becomes both in your mind and with the Powers that the altar space is a place for making change happen in the world. Now it is certainly possible and quite common for shrines to have their own altars, especially for practitioners who have limited options for sacred space, but it is not necessary for all shrines to have altars or even for all altars to be part of a shrine.
In closing, even though there are some key distinctions between these forms of sacred space they still share some core concerns & practical considerations. Knowing how these spaces are different from each other will also help you deepen the ways you express your spirituality by providing specific avenues and means for manifesting this. Though there are differences between what shrines, hörgr, and altars are and do there is no right or wrong way to put them together. They will always, ultimately, be a reflection of how you express and understand your spirituality and what matters most is they are true to you, meet your needs, and provide you with a space for understanding your personal and community practices.