Sacred space in neopaganism

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This website is an archive. It ran from 2006-2010. Virtually everything on here is outdated or inaccurate.

I rescued this article from a spam site where it was mouldering. Please note that this in no way resembles my opinion or attitudes towards religion; it's the way a neopagan does their own sort of reconstructionism, and something you and I can read with a critical eye. Version ?, ©1999 by Epona Perry. Last modified ?.

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Creating Sacred Space In Your Home

Many modern Celtic pagans today are faced with a difficult question: how can I bring my religion into my home? Whether we live in a dormitory, an apartment, a duplex or a mansion, most of us like to have our homes reflect our personalities and the things we are interested in, and that includes our spiritual practices, but many of us don't have back yards in which to practice and set up more permanent shrines, or 24/7 access to our favorite places in nature. For some, just setting up an altar somewhere in the home is either undesirable, unachievable or just not enough.

So what can we do? This article focuses on how we can make our homes not just places we sleep in, but places where our Celtic spirituality can blossom and flourish as well. The best part is you don't have to spend a fortune doing it!

There are many ways your home can become a part of your spiritual being and reflection. The first step is changing the way you think about your home. What do I mean by this? Well, there are certain fundamental things that most if not all homes share, whether they're high-rise penthouses, country estates, suburban dwellings, or apartments and condominiums. And there are certain things which all branches of the Celtic religions share that can be incorporated into our view of our homes and how we present them.

The Sacred Apartment?

In the old days, most rituals were probably conducted outside, most often in a grove or natural clearing or some other sacred place that was recognized for its special magical properties and other spiritual phenomena. Sacred places were found, not created. In this vein, do we not choose the homes we live in because of some properties usually only recognizable by us?

For example, one of the last times I went looking at apartments to move to, I looked at many that would have suited my needs and were in good condition. Which one did I end up choosing? The one that an older woman had lived in for 20 years and had obviously poured a lot of love into, the one that just *felt* right. Besides, it was very close to a park, which meant I had a lot less excuses to spend more time outdoors. :)

Of course, sometimes we have no choice in where we live, and then we must do our best to "make do" with what we get. Focus on the positive attributes instead of the negative attributes of the place, and take care of it. Technically, our homes are en extension of Earth: they are built out of wood and stone and clay. Even the iron and steel and concrete of large buildings were harvested from the Earth originally. When making our homes beautiful and comfortable for those living in it and visiting it, we honor the Earth by making good use out of what we have taken from it.

The Center

Ritual is a large part of Celtic spirituality, and although it may not seem so, it is actually quite easy to bring elements of ritual into your home. One of the first things done when preparing a ritual is defining the center of the space. The center is the central axis, the "world tree" that enables us to pass from one realm to the next. Most homes and apartments are built and designed with a center too. There may be a central air-vent, a central hallway, a fireplace and/or chimney, a staircase, or a supporting wall somewhere near the middle of your home. This is your "bile," the "tree" which holds your home together and around which your household rotates.

Mark the spot by decorating it with Celtic symbols (a good idea would be a representation of a knotwork tree-of-life picture) or placing special objects around the area. Each time you or others in your house pass by the spot, it will help remind you and them of the natural movement in and between the realms, and of that invisible connection we all have with each other, nature, and the spiritual realms.

The Eternal Flame

Another important aspect of Celtic spirituality and ritual is fire. In most of the ancient Celtic nations, it was noted by historians and others that it was the tradition of the village, if not every house in the village, to have a sacred fire that was kept burning at all times except when ritually extinguished and re-lit. These fires often had appointed guardians whose duty it was to keep the fire, or at least hot coals from the fire, burning at all times and through all types of weather. The punishment for letting the fire die out was severe, sometimes even death. We don't have such strict rules today, and in modern times it is not very easy to keep a fire burning in your homes for any length of time, let alone most of the year! Or is it?

If you have a hot water heater in your home, or a gas stove, then you already have an "eternal flame." Just as the flame of spirituality and inspiration warms our hearts and minds, so does the stove and water heater warm our bodies with nourishment and heat. The next time you take a shower or prepare a meal, think about that little flame that provided the means for what you are enjoying.

If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace in your home, take the time to use it regularly. In ancient times the hearth-place was the center of the home, where food was cooked and where warmth and light were provided. It was often a place people gathered around to tell stories or sing and dance. We can't do all these things around modern fireplaces, but we can place things around our fireplaces to symbolize these traditions. Put a small cauldron or cornucopia on your mantel as a reminder of the food once prepared on the hearth, books or figurines as symbols of the stories once told around the fire, or bells and other musical symbols that remind you of the songs once sung and tunes danced to. Place a broom next to the fireplace as a reminder of the central place the hearth once was of the home.

If you don't have a fireplace or any appliances with pilot lights, there are other ways you can honor fire in your home. Keep a brazier (a small vessel made to be able to hold burning objects) in the kitchen or living area of the house and light coals and/or incense in it regularly. Or place a night light near your altar area to symbolize the eternal flame. If none of these ideas will work for your living situation, try using symbols that represent fire to you, placed strategically around your altar or the entire home. Remember to honor the fire of inspiration also by placing fire symbols in areas that you work often, such as on your desk, around your computer, or above the kitchen table. And don't forget to protect your home from fire by hanging or drawing the Brigid's cross or other fire/sun symbols on the mantel of your fireplace and on the door frames of your home.

The Waters of the Well

Another important aspect of Celtic ritual and spirituality is the well and the sacred waters of springs and other natural water phenomena. In most buildings today, we have water flowing everywhere around us: in the heating systems, in the kitchen, in our bathrooms. Granted, it's hard to think of sacred waters when you are flushing the toilet, but indoor plumbing does bring water into our home and causes it to "flow" throughout it. Water, water everywhere!

To emphasize water in your home, place special objects around the house, especially near sinks and the bathtub. Make a little arrangement of shells and driftwood in the bathroom. Another good idea would be keeping a simple glass fish bowl filled with sand, gravel, shells and other goodies; pour water into it daily or regularly as part of your schedule or just when you need to feel a little more connected with water. Some people even make or buy fountains or sculptures made to have water poured on them or cycled around them. The noise of the flowing water can be very soothing and helpful during meditation. Keeping fish tanks is another lovely way to bring water into your home and honor it; you also honor the living creatures within it. All life on our planet needs water to survive.

The ancient Celts made offerings to water by throwing valuable objects into it. Dredges made of lakes, wells, rivers and other bodies of water within lands once occupied by Celts have turned up enormous archaeological finds (including the famous Gundestrup Cauldron). These finds have consisted mainly of coins, pins, carved figures of wood and stone, and many other small metal objects made of silver, gold, bronze, copper, and other valuable metals. To this day there exists in many areas of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland the tradition of throwing a pin into a well or spring for luck (of course in most areas this was outlawed by the Church).

Where do you think our tradition of throwing coins into wells or fountains and "making a wish" comes from? Originally the "wish" would have been directed at the Gods or Spirits of the place. These objects were thrown into the water as an appropriate offering to a god/goddess/spirit in return for continued good health, good crops, and general prosperity. We can continue this today by placing coins, nuts, or other bits of valuable metal near our altar or water shrines as an offering until we can find an appropriate natural water source in which to deposit it. I would advise against flushing these offerings down the sink or toilet unless the need is very urgent! As you deposit the offering, remember our connection with water and meditate. Water teaches us to be calm, to "go with the flow" of nature, to be tranquil and deep, or lightly flowing along life's banks.

Altars and Shrines

What about having altars and shrines in the home? Though the ancient Celts most likely held all their rituals and magical workings outside within a special natural place, they did build temples and shrines nearby these places for people to leave offerings to the god/goddess/spirit of the place, their own gods and goddesses, special spirits, or their ancestors. In this we can see the melding of the three kindreds (again, that magical number three): spirits of nature, gods/goddesses of the people, and the ancestors.

Each one of us has different needs and different ideas as to how we wish to incorporate the ritual and spiritual aspects of our religion into our homes, so each home and the use of altars and/or shrines will be different accordingly. You can have an altar that includes small shrine areas, you can have an altar *and* have small shrines about the house, or you may not have any altar but have shrine areas in your home. Most people who set up permanent or semi-permanent altars in their home do so because it serves as a general-purpose work area for meditation, personal magic workings, honoring and working with their personal gods, and honoring their ancestors.

Many modern pagans can only set up semi-permanent altars, using a small cabinet or table where the tools and other altar items are put away some or most of the time. If you do this, you may wish to have small shrines set up around the house in conjunction to this, such as the water shrine in the bathroom, the fire shrine in the kitchen, the ancestor shrine in the living room, the shrine to nature spirits out in the yard, and the personal deity shrine in the bedroom. The important thing is to tailor the use of altars and shrines to your needs and the needs of others in your household.

Honoring the Ancestors

Ancestor worship is not common in most households these days, and yet what better place for honoring our ancestors but our own homes? Family values are seen as something of a lost commodity here in the United States, but I believe by once again focusing upon this important aspect of Celtic Paganism we bring a stronger sense of family, unity, and continuity into our lives and our community.

How can we honor ancestors in our homes? Many of us already have an ancestor shrine we may not have thought of: photo collections. My grandparents for instance had an entire bookcase devoted to holding their old photo books, and arranged around the books were mementos, other photos, and favorite items. You don't have to do anything so elaborate, but a simple collection of photos and other items simply and yet powerfully demonstrates your honor for your family, your ancestors.

Having a small shrine area for your ancestors is a great way to add to your holidays also. Place a pretty bowl or plate and a censer near the ancestor shrine area so that during the holiday you can take time out to honor them by lighting the incense and placing a food offering in the dish. Take the time to remember those who have passed on and share stories about them. Remind your children or other family members about special anniversaries or birthdays. In my family we honor some ancestors by preparing dishes that they had made at past holiday gatherings before they passed on. I never knew my great-grandmother Erlandson, but we eat her cookies every Christmas. In this way, each time we eat that dish, the ancestor is remembered and honored. Ancestor reverence does not have to be a complicated thing; keep it simple yet respectful and you may be surprised at the energies you receive from this practice.

Outside and In

The outside of your home can be just as easy to transform into part of your personal spiritual realm as the inside. Paint your mailbox with spirals or knotwork. Hang bells or wind chimes; people in parts of Britain did this to beep away bad spirits and to warn when the fairies were around, and in parts of Tibet bells and chimes are still considered a powerful tool for keeping away bad spirits. Of course if you want to attract fairies, create little pools in your garden, or find a nice flat stone and some pretty but durable dishes to leave food offerings in (and keep iron objects away!). Creating an offertory in your yard will allow you to include leaving offerings to nature spirits and fairies into your regular practices, and it also makes a handy depository for those ritual leftovers!

Some people get as elaborate as making actual stone circles in their yards, but you can do more simple things such as placing three piles of three stones along the perimeter of your house to help align your household with the Three Realms, the Three Kindreds, and all of those other fun triads. :) Position a gargoyle so that it is standing guard over your walkway. Make a cauldron into a planter. Hang colorful scarves or ribbons on a tree that has special significance to you. Plant herbs that you know have spiritual/healing/protective associations with them close to the house or in window boxes.

If you live in an apartment or a dormitory, there are things you can do as well. Hang three bells, three ribbons, or other symbols from the doorknob of your entranceway door. There is surely a tree or a bush nearby that you can place a stone under or leave offerings at. Hang a bird feeder on the tree or outside your window to honor the sprits of nature. On the four Fire Festivals, hang ribbons on the tree or bush, or maybe on a grapevine or willow-branch wreath that you hang on your door. Lay a doormat outside your door to welcome visitors and good spirits -- I saw a lovely example of this where the person had taken a plain white doormat and painted the border with knotwork and the center with the Gaelic word "Filte" (welcome).

Keep it Simple

The obtaining of religious tools and decoration of the home in a pagan theme has almost become a competition among some pagan groups: who has the most stuff, or spends the most money. While it is tempting to spend most of your paycheck on all the fancy stuff, remember that it is the simple things that often are the most effective. When you buy something in a store, you are bringing home the energy of the person who made it. While there is surely a place for store-bought items in your home, why not chiefly stick to things you find in nature: that feather you found on your walk the other day, that pretty rock you nearly tripped over? Or take a glass and turn it into a special candle votive by painting it with enamel or gluing other objects and symbols on it you have found or made.

This is not only less expensive, but also probably more effective in lending your home a spiritual ambience without it becoming overpowering or commercialized. And the best part: it is yours and yours alone, unique. Expressing your individuality is important because it helps you understand and develop your own special connection with the universe.

There are many other simple ways to express our spirituality in our homes. Having house plants and pets brings nature into our homes and teaches us and those living with us responsibility and respect for living things. It also strengthens our connection with the natural world. I can remember walking into many homes filled with house plants and feeling immediately more at ease because of the natural feel the plants lent to the home. Making decorations of things found in nature such as dried flower arrangements, baskets, and wall hangings are other wonderful ways of bringing nature home.

It may seem that there are just too many little things to do to make our homes more spiritual, yet all of these "little things" add up. When we walk down the stairs in the morning and see the World Tree, we remember the special dream we might have had last night and our connection with the Otherworld is reinforced. When we go to wash our face we are reminded of the soothing properties of the waters that will help us remain calm and patient throughout our hectic day. As we heat up the hot water on the stove in the morning we are reminded of the eternal flame that burns within us all, and the power we can gain by harnessing a potentially wild force. Thus our homes become nemetons, sacred groves, places of refuge that allow our spirituality to flourish and grow.

Don't try to "make over" your home all in one weekend; this is meant to be a process of building up and changing over time. Just as you change, so will your home and your personal expression within it. Start with the things you already have and rearrange them to better fit your needs. Finish making that wall hanging you started ages ago. Put those shells that have been lying in your drawer for eons in your bathroom or on your altar. Clear out that central hallway and paint some knotwork on the walls. Hang those deer horns from Great Uncle Henry in the house in a place of honor. If you make it your goal to make at least one change or addition to your home in this manner every week or even once a month, you will be surprised at how much actually changes over the space of just one year.

I'm reminded of a phrase I heard a while ago: "Home isn't just a place, it's a state of mind." That is essentially the goal of this article, to help you redefine your home in a spiritual manner. The physical addition and placement of objects such as has been described here are really only tools to help you do this. With your things set up around you to help you focus on the spiritual aspects of your life, reverence and magic will become a part of your daily life.

Thus we don't have to seek out ritual, holiday festivals and other pagan activities as our only sources for our spiritual "fix" and then go away feeling bereft and empty because it's over; instead we will come from an already spiritually rich environment to join with and become further enriched by our community in celebration of life.

May your Home be always happy, may your hearth be always warm, and may hungry visitors seldom find you!

An Irish Saying

Walk in Wisdom,

Epona na Donnaigh


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