Making the gods part of our everyday lives is simpler than we often think.
We come home from ritual energized, connected, inspired, and determined to keep up the relationship with those who dwell in Otherworlds. Then we look around. No nemeton. No bonfire. No well. No knowledgeable ritualists to guide us through the process. No time! Oh well, there’s a ritual about once every six weeks. Wait a minute! That’s not all there is to life or even to our Pagan religion. You don’t have to have all the lovely trappings, you may not even always want them. So, what can we do at home, in those few minutes here and there that busy people can steal for themselves?
To start, let’s look at physical structures. We have a pretty elaborate ritual setup. Do you need a whole nemeton at home? It’s nice if you plan to do that sort of formal ritual, and can make a lovely meditation spot, but you don’t actually need it. What do you need? How can you approximate the various shrines and altars in your own home? First I’m going to describe something that will work best for a person who is in their own home. Later, I’ll mention some adaptations for a dorm or room in a non-Pagan household.
We need the basic ritual elements that define sacred space; a “center”, a fire and water. The center is the central axis, the roof tree. If you don’t have a central chimney, there is probably a staircase somewhere near the middle of the house. This is your bile, the roof tree which holds the whole house together and enables you to go up and down freely as our “world tree” enables us to pass between worlds freely. As such, you might want to decorate that wall with a tree of life picture or stone carving or a quilt of that name. You can put an incense (or better, sweet oil burner on a shelf or side table under it.
When you come down in the morning, go up to bed at night, or first return from a trip, use your roof tree to foster your awareness of our constant movement between the natural, human and spiritual worlds. Let the simple act of walking up and down stairs, or of touching the side of your chimney, become a meditative reconnection with all the levels at which we exist. No, you probably can’t do it every time you go up and down stairs, there are kids to yell at and missing tie-tacks to find while running madly about, but once or twice a day will help you to remember who you are.
What of the fire? We can’t very well keep a sacred fire burning in the house, can we? Or can we? What is the pilot flame on the water heater, furnace or cook stove if not an eternal flame? Now, it lacks something of atmosphere to go down to the basement for worship, although there is historic precedent for it. What is the “hearth and heart” of your home? If you have a fireplace, you’re home free! Look at the Scottish tradition of smooring the fire at bedtime; it’s a lovely, quiet, meditative moment to focus on the sanctity, security and permanence of your home.
If you don’t have a fireplace, look to the “fire” you use most for domestic tasks, the stove. Doesn’t everyone seem to gravitate to the kitchen, anyway? Since it’s probably prohibitive to light a whole bonfire in the kitchen, how about a nice little cast iron brazier, especially if it’s cauldron shaped, which can live next to the stove? Light it as you begin to cook a meal, briefly giving thanks for the use of this powerful force for our daily needs. Do you or the kids do homework at the kitchen table? It can also be a fuel of inspiration. You might hang a Brigit’s cross or corn dolly above it, or even a sun face.
Where better to think of sacred water, flowing water, than the bathroom. I think that indoor plumbing is well worth our reverence! Seriously, it’s not hard to create a little fountain or sculpture of river rocks and shells to place beside the sink or in a corner of the tub. When you are in there for your own daily ablutions, pour a cup of water over this small shrine so it cascades down into it’s own “pool”, perhaps a china or even plastic bowl. Ask for the continuing presence and goodwill of that goddess or spirit who keeps the water in your house or in the land under it.
If you feel moved to offer a gift of silver or nuts or a charm in the form of something you need, you can place it there until you are able to put it in a nearby stream, lake or pond. Try not to offer your best ring down the drain unless you’re really in need! Once again, as the connection with fire reminds us of our ability to harness that wild power, so this moment of contemplating water reminds us to be still and deep, to listen to the flowing forces within the earth.
In our rituals, after we have opened these three portals between worlds, we welcome three kindreds; the gods, the beloved dead, and the spirits of nature. How shall we attend to them at home? If you have a personal patron deity, you can determine the proper place for a shrine based upon who he or she is. A shrine to Brid belongs in the kitchen or by the fireplace or near your desk for inspiration. A shrine to Manannan might be pan of your water focus, or might be at the front door since he is a guide between worlds and is found at boundaries. A shrine to Cernunnos or Flidais might look awfully like a hunting trophy on the wall, or be a small circle of trees in the yard. Lugh might like to be remembered at your work or in the “seat of authority” to which you retire after a long day. The Dagda can be found in the bedroom or the kitchen or your comfy chair. And so on.
If you want a general work-altar for honoring all the gods as you need to, then you will want to put aside a corner as your “temple space”. Mine lives between the computer and my desk and is put away most of the time, the icons or tools being used for “decorations” atop a shelf or tucked safely into a drawer, since the space is often needed by the kids or the person at the computer. Take your time finding out what works for you. The gods are patient and they sometimes give hints. Don’t forget the shrine in your car. Where else do you have so much time for contemplation, privacy to speak aloud, and need of protection?
I believe that ancestor worship belongs in the home. Powerfully. Constantly. Simply. Make a collection of photos, mementos and favorite items. from previous generations of your families. Put it where the household gathers, in the dining room or living room for example. You might make a pretty dish or incense burner a part of the display, so that you can offer food from your feasting when you have a traditional or old favorite dish.
You could also burn a special scent of incense in this shrine. Did Grandma always wear rosewater? Did Great-grandpa smoke a pipe? Did Great-uncle Harry travel to China and bring back a sandalwood box? Smell carries memory more than any other sense. On special occasions be sure to include those family members who no longer have bodies. Tell stories about them. Remind the children which days were a favorite holiday or a birthday or anniversary. Keep it simple but reverent, and they will surely be there to help when you need perspective, patience, wisdom, or solutions to thorny problems.
And what of the sidhe? Ask the kids. Is there a fairy mound or fairy wood nearby? Go out walking when the moon is full and bright and bring them gifts of feathers, brightly colored things, milk and honey, or a tot of whiskey if they prefer. There are those who point out to us. that the land spirits here are those whom the Native Americans knew, and they prefer corn meal or tobacco, berries, shiny things, but never alcohol!
The nature spirits are the spirits of plants and animals, as well as the spirits of place and the sidhe-folk. Your bird feeder can become a place of offering to them, especially if you can put a deer-lick, or the like, nearby. If there is an interesting rock in your yard, make an altar of it and leave pretty things or food offerings there for the critters. Some of your food leftovers can become offerings for the nature spirits, who will accept them in their form as ravens or crows or starlings, squirrels and cats and raccoons. Why not? Do we not share meat with the gods, offering them the parts of a meal they can “eat” but consuming the flesh on their behalf?
Do not forget the Earth Mother. Without her we wouldn’t exist. Where should her altar go? Everywhere! Your worship of the Earth can be expressed through recycling, turning off lights, cleaning up the neighborhood, asking permission before planting or harvesting a garden, and so on. This is easy worship to teach our children, who will remind us again and again. But how and where can we focus our devotion? You could put a table by the recycling bins, with gifts the earth has given you and which you give back to her; first fruits, goddess-shaped rocks or holed stones, and so on. There might be a special rock or tree in the back yard through which you connect most powerfully with the earth. Water it lovingly. It could also be located by the kitchen sink, or by your bed, or wherever you feel most connected with the land and its cycles.
And, how will you reduce, contain and make manageable the chaos toward which the universe tends? Why not show the outsiders a place, as we do in ritual, with a gargoyle at your front gate or at the bottom of your drive. You could even impress the neighbors with a pair of protective stone lions or dogs. The doorway itself provides a barrier as well as a passageway. Folklore is full of protective charms; a horseshoe, a rowan tree or yarrow plant, a knot of string or a drawing decorating the entry way to confuse those who would cause harm, etc. Personally, I’ve never felt a need for such protection, trusting those to whom I give honor to protect the space I have made theirs. The advantage to saying to the many beings of our pantheon, “My house is your house”, is that they will help to protect its peace and security, and generally will remember not to fight or track mud inside.
Thus, your entire house and the land around it become your nemeton, your sacred grove. If you live in an apartment you might have to be a bit creative, but reasonable substitutes aren’t hard to find; a picture of a gargoyle on your mailbox if that is your outer boundary, or else on your apartment door, replaces the stone one on the walk. There is surely a tree or bush nearby, or a. window box garden you can create and a bird feeder you can hang to honor the spirits of nature.
And where is the center for you? Probably not the elevator shaft, even if it’s the center of the building, but perhaps the point of demarcation between public space (the living room) and private space (the bedrooms). You can place your remembrance of the vertical axis at that doorway. Again, dorms are a bit harder; often no fire is permitted, you haven’t your own source of running water, and the roommate might not share your religious beliefs. These concerns make it all the more important to surround yourself with simple reminders that you are not alone in the universe.
A bonsai tree with a dish of water at its roots and an incense burner or little electric night light nearby make a lovely altar containing the central axis or world tree, the sacred fire and the well of wisdom. Pictures that remind you of the three kindreds surround your bed, and you can still find places outside to offer a dish of milk to the animals who convey your caring to the spirits of nature. Place a rock that feels particularly solid and old on your desk or under the head of your bed, and on the door, a picture that seems protective to ward off unwelcome chaos.
You can still take the time, morning and evening, to touch and meditate on these items, to change the water and the incense (or scented oil rubbed on the light bulb). Offerings to your gods and ancestors might come in the form of things you can thumbtack below their pictures; pictures of the things you identify with them, colored ribbons, etc., rather than things which need to be burnt or dropped in a well or which get messy.
So, with a general sense of sacred space set up around you, worship and magic become ever more a part of daily life. You needn’t go away from home to find the gods and spirits, but rather live in well-worn patterns of devotion which you join with your community in celebration on the high days.
Bell, Catherine; Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice; Oxford University Press, 1992.
Glassie, Henry; Folklife in New England
Glassie, Henry; Irish Folk History; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Ross, Anne; Every Day Life of the Pagan Celts (now The Pagan Celts); GP Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1970.
Webb, Mary; Precious Bane; Penguin, Books 1985 (fiction with Strong reference to folklife in East Anglia, first published in 1924.)