Very few pagans have access to temples or holy sites. If you’re lucky enough to live in the country where your gods were originally worshiped, you may be able to visit ancient temples or sacred sites, but most of us do not have this opportunity. For most pagans, sacred space is something we have to create for ourselves.
On one level, this is very literal — pagans create physical spaces for their gods to inhabit, usually in the form of home altars. An altar is a table, shelf, or other flat surface that is set aside for religious or spiritual use. The altar is likely home to religious items or tools like candles, incense burners, or statues of the gods. It is the place where prayers are made and offerings are given. It is a place within the home that is set aside for the gods.
Like everything within paganism, the exact setup and uses of your altar depend on your tradition. Some groups, like some forms of traditional Wicca, require the altar to look a very certain way, with a collection of ritual tools arranged in the appropriate places on the altar. Other traditions are much more freeform.
Even if you have not chosen a pagan path yet, you may find it helpful to create a special place to connect with the divine. This could be an altar — even a simple one, like an unused shelf holding a white candle and a stick of incense — or another special place like a yoga mat where you do meditations, a special chair where you read spiritual literature, or a special place outdoors. Having a space set aside for spirituality and religion will help you to literally and metaphorically make room for these pursuits in your life.
To dedicate this space to religious pursuits, simply verbally state your intent to use it for that purpose. You might perform a simple ritual by lighting a white candle and saying something like, “I dedicate this space to the gods and to my growing relationship with them.” (It doesn’t matter if you don’t know yet which gods you want to worship.) Now you have a special place to return to when you want to connect with the divine.
You can also build altars to connect to other types of spirits, such as land spirits or ancestors. We’ll talk more about these kinds of altars in a future post.
Though guidelines for altar setup and maintenance vary from one pagan religion to the next, there are a few basic guidelines that are pretty much universal.
For one thing, your altar should be kept clean and tidy. Don’t pile non-religious items on your altar, make sure to clean up any candle wax or incense ashes left after a ritual, and try to keep dust from building up on your icons and statues. I am a generally messy person, but my altar stays clean as a sign of respect for my gods, even when the rest of my house is a mess. If you struggle to keep your altar tidy, schedule 10-20 minutes once a week to go through and clean it up. Think of this cleaning not as a chore, but as a loving service to your gods.
If you use your altar for food offerings, you should dispose of them after 24 hours or less. As we’ve previously discussed, some pagans eat their food offerings after the gods have had a chance to consume their spiritual essence, while other pagans feel that this is rude or taboo. In the latter case, many people choose a special place outside where they dispose of food offerings (if you do this, make sure the offering won’t harm local plant and animal life if left outside). Another option is to add food offerings to a compost pile — you can use the compost in your garden, perhaps for plants that are sacred to your gods (again, make sure your offerings are compost-friendly).
Keeping your altar clean also includes energetic and spiritual cleansing. Before rituals, you should cleanse your altar to ensure that you aren’t bringing any unwanted energy into your worship. Cleansing protocols vary from one tradition to the next and may include sprinkling the altar with blessed water, wafting incense smoke through the space, or using a special tool like a ritual broom or a bell. If you haven’t chosen a pagan religion yet, simply use the cleansing method that works best for you.
When caring for your altar, keep in mind that this is your gods’ space within your home. You want it to be comfortable for them. Like decorating a guest bedroom for a friend, you’ll probably want to choose items that are significant to the god or spirit being honored on the altar. For example, my altar contains a crow skull and feathers because crows are sacred to several of the deities I work with. Take your time to create an environment that will be welcoming to your god(s) of choice. (Again, if you aren’t working with any specific gods yet, you can still create a basic altar — follow the previously stated guidelines for keeping it clean and welcoming.)
While setting up and maintaining an altar or other special space is an important part of creating sacred space, it isn’t the only part. When pagans talk about “creating sacred space,” we are also talking about cultivating a certain mindset.
Just like you need to make space for the gods in your home, you need to make space for them in your life. It’s all well and good to call yourself a pagan, but if you never pray, make offerings, or think about the gods, are you really embodying pagan religious practice? If you’re going to talk the talk, you have to also walk the walk.
Creating sacred space in your life can take many forms. One of the most common (and convenient) is small daily devotional activities. These activities only take a few minutes and can easily be incorporated into your daily routine. This may include meditation, divination, or reading a few verses from a holy book. Even the act of lighting a fresh stick of incense on your altar in the morning can help strengthen your connection to your spirituality.
It can even be as simple as remembering to thank the gods when you see them at work in your life. I have a friend who is a Roman pagan, and he has a habit of verbally thanking Mercury (the Roman god of travel, among many other things) whenever he finds a good parking space or doesn’t have to wait at a red light. This kind of small acknowledgement may not seem like a big deal, but it works to integrate our worship of the gods into our daily lives.
Take a few moments, right now, to ask yourself how you can create sacred space in your life. What can you do to make the gods feel welcome in your presence? Try to think of a single change you can make in the next 24 hours to create this space. Write it down.
Commit to maintaining this new practice for at least three weeks. At the end of each day, write down what you did to create sacred space and how it made you feel. Do you feel a sense of peace? Do you feel the gods’ presence more strongly? Do you feel a sense of connection to something bigger than yourself? Write down these and any other thoughts on your new practice.
At the end of three weeks, look back over your notes. How did this practice change the way you feel about your spirituality? How did it change your relationship with the gods? If there was a positive change, try to continue integrating this practice into your daily routine.
If there was no change, that’s okay — this specific practice may not be for you, and there’s no shame in that. Choose a different practice and repeat the experiment. Keep at it until you find a way to create sacred space that works for you on your unique spiritual path.
In my humble opinion, it’s important to learn how to hold sacred space before you start investigating different pagan religions. Not only will it give you the basic tools you’ll need for religious ritual, but it will help you to discover your personal worship style and comfort zone. With this, you’ll be better able to determine which pagan path(s) are a good fit for you.
Leave a Reply