Newcomers to Kemeticism (any “Paganism,” really) are very eager to begin exploring budding relationships with newly-discovered deities. Spurred by robust enthusiasm, many delve straight into shrine-building before much of anything else. The shrines of more seasoned devotees are part of what draws many of the curious and the awed to Kemetic religion in the first place. It is often difficult for the beginner to know where and how to . . . well, begin. So, how exactly does one go about building a shrine that is pleasing, functional, and appropriate?
The answers to this seemingly simple question vary wildly depending upon one’s personal circumstances, religious denomination, and praxical approach. There are many considerations that go into building a shrine. I probably will not cover every conceivable question beginners have, but I will cover the questions and concerns I’ve seen crop up the most frequently on “Pagan” fora around the internet, Kemetic and otherwise.
These questions and concerns will be addressed in no particular order from a multi-traditional perspective with a Kemetic (Egyptian) focus. I will not be addressing ancestor shrines here, only deity shrines. Much of what will be spoken of here can be applied to other traditions as well, if one chooses to do so.
1.) Why is a shrine necessary — or is it?
The act of building a shrine isn’t simply an act of arbitrarily declaring a space sacred. It is an act of showing hospitality toward a deity or deities. It says, “I welcome You into my household; I share with You my life and what I own; I give to You as I ask You give to me.”
Shrines also serve as a physical reminder to the devotee of the maintenance his or her relationship with the Gods requires. Honestly, without having shrines to the Gods in my home, I don’t think I’d remember to pray and offer as often as I do. No one is perfect; some of us really need that reminder. Likewise, establishing a shrine is not simply a “one-time thing.” It’s not something any of us does once and then never touches again. It’s the beginning of a long-term commitment. Perhaps it is a poor comparison, but the meaning of a shrine is similar to the symbolism behind a wedding ring. The average devotee isn’t literally marrying the Gods per se, but the devotee is giving Them a gift which, very much like a wedding ring, says “I am committed to You, and You are a priority to me.”
Traditional Egyptian belief maintains that the Gods need the devotion of human beings in order to survive and thrive, just as much as human beings need the Gods and Their works to survive and thrive. Building a shrine can be an expression of the devotion the Gods need, and an act of good will, in return for the Gods’ interest, involvement, and favor. But this is not the only valid expression.
While the shrine is a place where deity and human interact, it is not the only place where this interaction can and does occur. Some of a “less-traditional” persuasion find it more rewarding, not to mention easier, to commune with and honor the Gods out in nature and within the “temple of the mind,” rather than through the construction of “distracting” material shrines and temples. It all ultimately depends upon one’s outlook, personal circumstances, and what the Gods ask of the individual or community.
2.) Are icons necessary? If so, what materials should they be made from?
Traditional Egyptian belief asserts the necessity of religious icons. Icons are spiritual conduits. They are physical representations that help us connect to otherwise numinous and intangible Gods, Whose “true” nature and form is in many ways (though not all) incomprehensible to us mortals. It is the replica of a part of a God’s “layered” soul, which a God can temporarily inhabit in order to receive the benefit of individual offerings and hear the prayers of the people. Incidentally, this is why statues and stelae from Antiquity designed to forward offerings and prayers to the Gods often had the likeness of human ears incorporated into their features.
On another level, icons serve as meditation foci for the devotee. For many, it is much easier to commune with the Gods when there are identifiable symbols and images to latch onto, both in the immediate world and within the mind’s eye. Some do not require any such aides. Likewise, some don’t care for anything even remotely resembling materialist and/or “idolatrous” expression, and therefore keep fairly “empty” shrines. Indeed, the Kemetic Orthodox Temple encourages applicants to begin with an “empty” shrine before having been initiated into the Temple as a Remetj or Shemsu. This way, beginners develop an uncluttered, unbiased ritual approach to the Gods, and to the concept of NTR itself. However, Kemetic Orthodox priests are required to maintain icons in the traditional fashion — praying to, “feeding,” “washing,” and “clothing” the images of the Gods on a daily basis as specific classes of Ancient Egyptian priests once had. Many other Reconstructionist Kemetic religions adhere to this tradition as well.
Icons can be made from any number of materials. Those who are more traditionally-oriented prefer handmade icons crafted from “natural” materials — polychrome wood (particularly Old World woods such as cedar), cast metals, stone, and earthen clays. Others find it more expedient to use readymade statues, cast in resin, bonded marble (resin mixed with marble dust), cold cast bronze (resin mixed with bronze powder), or molded from polymer clay. In fact, Jeff Cullen makes some pretty remarkable, soulful statuary out of polymer clay.
I personally don’t believe the material matters overmuch, so long as the material is durable, and so long as the sculpt is of quality. I do prefer traditional materials like iron, bronze, and stone, but that can get expensive quite easily. One gets what one pays for, though.
3.) Where should I set up my shrine?
Shrines should not be placed in high-traffic areas, since this increases the potential for mishap resulting in broken sacred objects and disrupted space. Establishing a shrine in a high-traffic area makes prayer and meditation difficult to accomplish. Shrines should also not be established out in the open where others will interfere with the Gods’ space, if it can be avoided — spatial limitations are indeed a hard problem to contend with.
It ought to go without saying that shrines should never be established in bathrooms, where befouling elements accumulate and unclean bodily functions such as urination and defecation occur. The shrine is the seat of the Divine in the home, after all. Since no revived Ancient Polytheistic or Henotheistic religion in the West enjoys the benefit of an established religious institution outfitted with a series of well-funded, well-staffed temples that can care for objects of cult as they should be cared for, we provide hospitality to the Gods in our own homes. To place the Gods’ “guest quarters” in the same room as a toilet is more than just a little disrespectful! It is best to think of the Gods as honored guests, because They are: if it wouldn’t be respectful to make a human guest stay there, don’t put the Gods’ shrine there!
Ideally, a shrine should have its own room, if not its own temple, but such an arrangement is lamentably not possible for most solitary Kemetics. I keep my Kemetic shrine in my bedroom on top of a wide dresser, due to spatial limitations, and to discourage others from tampering with it. My interactions with the Gods are a very private affair, thus I keep Their shrine in the most private of domestic spaces.
Outdoor shrines are certainly a possibility, but they run the risk of damage from the elements. If one decides to make a garden shrine, or build a small temple, the appropriate precautions must be taken, and careful consideration must go into choosing building materials that are able to withstand the worst weather of one’s particular climate.
4.) Does a shrine require special furniture?
The Kemetic Orthodox religion encourages its practitioners to keep the shrine within a cabinet, as per Ancient tradition. Many other Reconstructionist Kemetic religions also maintain this practice. However, this is not an inflexible requisite for the solitary Kemetic.
I personally prefer to keep my shrine open. The reason for this is that, while privacy and the protection of the icons are compromised, there is no barrier between the Gods and me. Openness encourages interaction. It also brings me a great deal of peace and happiness to have the images of the Gods be the last thing I see each night and the first thing I see each morning.
To have or forgo a shrine cabinet is ultimately a personal decision. The important thing is that one tends to that space regularly, and cleans it at least once a week. Whether that space is on a (stable) bookshelf, atop a desk, or in a wall niche, it matters little. It only matters that it is there, and that it is well-kept.
5.) What basic items are needed in order to have a functional shrine? What objects should never be placed on a shrine?
If one chooses to have icons in/on the shrine, obviously, icons stay within the shrine space. When it comes time to clean the shrine, icons may be temporarily moved. During ritual processions on festival days, if one chooses to celebrate festivals this way, the icon or icons are ritually paraded out of the shrine.
If this shrine space is dedicated to deities of different traditions, it is preferred that Kemetic deities be kept separate from others, but that is an entirely personal choice/arrangement, especially if space is scarce.
Kemetic Orthodox standards require that a person have at least:
- A white cloth made from natural fibers (but not wool) for the floor of the shrine.
- A food-safe, waterproof, non-metal vessel for libations, and a food-safe, non-metal vessel for dry offerings.
- A candle or several made from beeswax, palm wax, coconut wax, or another natural wax, not paraffin wax (white or red are traditional colors); an oil lamp; or a similar light source.
- A heat-safe/fire-safe vessel for charcoal and granular incense — namely, for frankincense, myrrh, and/or kapet (kyphi).
Personally, I am loath to use altar cloths — they are a magnet for dust and stains, and slide every which way. I feel they are more hassle than they’re worth, but it’s entirely up to the individual whether or not to use one.
I prefer to use Japanese ceramics for offering bowls and plates. Japanese ceramic sets tend to be expensive, but they are very sturdy, beautifully minimalist, and above all, food-safe.
As for candles, I use palm wax jar candles. Palm wax has a longer life than most waxes, and the brand I buy does not use lead-containing wicks as many other brands do.
I have a Himalayan salt rock lamp, too, which is powered by electricity. I use the salt rock lamp for my Akkadian shrine to Ištar of Kiš, Her husband Zababa of Kiš, Nergal, and Pazuzu. As far as I know (damn it, Jim, I’m in the field of History, not Chemistry!), the salt rock lamp emits no unsafe gases. There’s absolutely no reason why salt rock lamps wouldn’t be equally suitable for a Kemetic shrine. Salt was/is considered a purifying substance among many cultures, including Ancient Egyptian culture. The presence of salt fixtures like a salt rock candle holder or lamp could therefore serve as a basic, permanent purifying element for one’s shrine.
LED candles are also a relatively eco-friendly, fire-safe light source option. They are an ideal choice for shrines established in bookcases or cabinets.
Both the use of oil diffusers and the burning of incense have their risks and disadvantages, specifically in regard to the way they spew toxic gases into the air (they won’t cause death in any immediate sense, but their fumes are not exactly healthy to breathe, either). They can easily become major fire hazards. This is particularly the case when the oils used are not pure essential oils. Alternatively, for those with respiratory sensitivities, a reed oil diffuser could be used, requiring no burning or heating while still filling the area with pleasant scents. Ultrasonic oil diffusers used by Aromatherapists are a safer option as well, but tend to be quite expensive. If that is still too irritating for one’s respiratory tissues and skin, oil and incense may be left out of the equation entirely. Historically, incense was a huge part of formal ritual in Ancient Egyptian religion, particularly when it came to “feeding” and “bathing” the cult icon. But if one cannot use oils and incense for health reasons, that’s perfectly understandable.
As for ritual items, I suggest that items such as bells and other noisemakers, writing materials, knives, amulets, and other tools not currently in-use be kept under or beside the shrine. If space and storage are scarce, it is entirely acceptable to keep them on/in the shrine.
Regardless of one’s denomination, unless one is purifying or “charging” objects for personal use, whatever one places on/in the shrine, stays on/in the shrine. These objects can serve no other purpose beyond ritual use.
What doesn’t belong on/in the shrine includes but is not limited to:
- Car keys
- Junk mail
- Waste material
- Dust and grime
The shrine is the Gods’ home within one’s own home; it is not a place to dump anything and everything when convenient.
6.) How do I consecrate/dedicate a shrine?
Some time ago, I wrote a piece on purification. The techniques discussed there are relevant and adaptable to the initial consecration of a Kemetic shrine. I don’t want to clutter up this “how-to” guide further by inserting a “how-to” guide within a “how-to” guide. If this is not sufficient, I will happily write up a follow-up article on this topic in the future for those interested.
There is an outline for the Kemetic Orthodox method of shrine dedication in Tamara L. Siuda’s The Ancient Egyptian Prayerbook. However, Egyptologist/Reverend Siuda does not wish to have any part of the book reproduced, so out of respect for her wishes I won’t take any block quotes out of it. Another Kemetic organization, Per Djeba, very likely has some information available to give to those looking to consecrate a shrine in a more traditional fashion. It is piloted by some very knowledgeable people. Richard Reidy, author of Eternal Egypt, is another Kemetic figure of note who can give tips on how to perform a more historically-oriented rite of consecration/dedication.
7.) How might pets be kept off the shrine?
This is a question I have seen crop up quite often. I personally use this brand of natural orange oil-based furniture polish on the surface of my shrine. Vinegar-based cleaning products, if safe for the surface of one’s shrine, might also serve the same purpose. Cats are the biggest culprits, and tend to dislike the scent and taste of citrus and vinegar. If it is a tenable option for the individual, keeping one’s shrine in a bolted cabinet prevents such problems from arising.
8.) Should a shrine be simple or elaborate?
A shrine can be as simple or as elaborate as the caretaker desires, and as the Gods demand of the individual.
That said, I personally prefer simpler shrines. I am certainly no iconoclast, and I sometimes fall into moods where I just want to stare at Persian, Late Gothic, Baroque, and Victorian art and architecture for hours. However, at my core, I am against the idea of having material for the sake of having material. My Gods don’t require 10 different icons apiece, per shrine. One of each is all They want or need from me. Having more icons and spending more money on more objects does not equal greater religiosity and devotion. It just means one has a lot of religious art. One can, for instance, buy up all the resin statues of Ra in existence. But what meaning would possessing all those resin statues actually have? How does this serve Ra, and how does this serve the practitioner? Or the community? Consider this carefully.
Whatever one chooses to put on/in one’s shrine, whatever one’s personal aesthetic, it must have meaning to oneself and one’s practice. It must stir the soul.
If any of my readers are in need of a custom icon made by someone with skilled and reverent hands and quality materials, I know a guy. And I’ve heard a lot of happy testimonies, such as this one, from fellow Kemetics about this guy. The reader can peruse my Support the Pagan Community — Shop Pagan! page for more artisans and shops that sell religious icons and other shrine basics.
9.) How many Gods should be dedicated to a shrine: one, many, or none?
The subject of deities was dealt with in a previous round of KRT about deities, and whether all Kemetics have, or eventually find, “Patron” Gods. For the sake of ease, I suggest reading this first before any decisions are made.
That having been said, there’s no established, required number of deities that a shrine needs to accommodate. One could have no Gods represented, and simply use the space to meditate on the abstractness of the NTR(W). Some find that easier and less spiritually distracting. One could build a shrine to only one deity, and have only one deity represented by a physical icon. Or three. Or fifteen.
My own shrine began as a shrine to Set alone, then expanded to Set and His son Sobek. The shrine then grew to accommodate Set, Sobek, Yinepu (Anubis), and Heru-Wer (“Horus the Elder,” brother of Set). Now Djehuty (Thoth), Khonsu as son of Sobek, Herishef, Montu, and a few others are also accommodated, because apparently Set is a “Gateway God” to other Gods and never bothered to shut the proverbial “God door” when He came waltzing into my life. In any event, my shrine is a Set-centric shrine, because Set I consider my chief deity. Set takes “center stage,” as it were.
10.) What options are available in the event that cohabitants do not approve of standing shrines?
I know that many who are reading this now are currently in less-than-hospitable living situations. Some cannot maintain standing shrines at all, and for a lot of “Pagans,” particularly younger ones, this can be a very painful and difficult ordeal to suffer through.
But where there is a will, there is a way.
As my longtime readers know, my husband is a United States Marine. He cannot keep a standing shrine out in the open, and keeps his beliefs and practices mostly to himself due to the anti-“anything that isn’t Christian” attitude rife throughout all branches of the United States military. Some of his peers and superiors are understanding, but not all of them are. To help him with the separation from his usual religious practice he must endure, in October 2012 (before his second promotion, before we were married, and before he went on deployment), I pyrographed and stained a 3.5″ x 3.5″ wooden shrine box dedicated to one of the Gods we have in common, his chief God Freyr:
In this travel shrine, my husband keeps a small antler faining hammer, a tiny bronze icon-pendant of Freyr, and other portable ritual items. In this way, he is able to carry out simple rituals in the middle of nowhere without attracting too much attention from his fellow Marines.
The sky is the limit with travel shrines. There are shrines made from matchboxes, as well as mint tins and tea tins. Some are a bit larger than the one I made for my husband, made out of anything from brass to wood inlaid with mother of pearl. They can be decorated as expressively or as discreetly as the devotee desires. Most importantly, they can go just about anywhere, and be kept hidden when the need arises. Deviant Art is always a good place to look for inspiration, as is Pinterest.
Prayer cards are also an option. The Vodou Store makes very lovely “Pagan” prayer cards, and their selection is quite varied. I ordered a few Set and Amun prayer cards from them before. The full array of Egyptian Gods for Whom prayer cards can be made is viewable in their candle label section. Custom prayer cards can be ordered here. If these are not ideal, a number of homemade prayer card tutorials exist throughout the internet.
Don’t worry about level of artistic skill, or lack thereof. I’m certainly no John Singer Sargent, but I still make shrines and religious art. The important thing is that we use what talent we have; crafting something for the Gods is a devotional, sacred act. It doesn’t need to be perfect, or ostentatious. It only needs to be meaningful.
And if none of this speaks to the soul, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simply going outside to greet the sun with hymns to Ra.