Setting Up a Hermetic Shrine

I didn’t intend to make a post series about shrines and the like for a Hermetic context, but after the last two posts on offerings and feasts at a Hermetic shrine which themselves followed up on a bit about the importance of a shrine lamp for Hermeticists, I figured I may as well finish what I inadvertently started as a bit of musing on my part.  I mean, I’ve spoken a bit now about what can do and when one can do it at a shrine, but what of the shrine itself?  What concerns should one have for a shrine for Hermetic practice, what should go on it, how should one maintain it?  These are all good questions, to be sure.  Unlike the last two posts, however, where I relied heavily on Hermetic testimonia and accounts about Hermēs Trismegistos to inform Hermetic practices from a backwards-looking Islamic-era perspective, there are limitations to such an approach; we were able to learn about the nature and timing of offerings, but not where.  To that end, in this post, I’ll talk about my take on Hermetic shrines based on my own practice, experience, and opinions, instead of it being anything grounded in any Hermetic text or testimony (since there’s really not a lot to go on).

First, a bit of definitions.  Personally, I like drawing a distinction between the terms “shrine” and “altar”, and while they may overlap, I do not consider them equivalent.  I think I picked up such a notion from Elani Temperance over at the Baring the Aegis blog, whose work and diligence I’ve admired for quite some time now, but the main difference in a nutshell is:

  • An altar is a place where one makes sacrifice or otherwise does work to, for, or with the gods and spirits.
  • shrine is a place where gods and spirits (or their images) are housed.

In a Hellenistic context of worshipping the Greek gods, in classical times there were two locations one had to be mindful of when worshipping a god: an outdoor altar (either a bōmos “raised platform” or bothros “pit”, depending on the specific god in question) and a temple building.  The altar was (almost) always outside, and the temple was oriented to face the altar.  Sacrifices were (almost) always made outdoors at the altar, not inside the temple building itself, even if the temple housed all sorts of sacred images, statuary, gifts, and the like; in a good number of cases, the temple was just a glorified storehouse and administrative building, while the actual religious part of a temenos “sacred district” was always outside at a comparatively dinky stone block.  This really gets to the heart of the distinction between an altar and a shrine, I think, because in a stereotypical Hellenistic context there was a good separation between the two.

Of course, that hardly can be generalized to all possible religious traditions, and there are many cases where the distinction between shrine and altar is reasonably blurred.  I mean, if you make offerings to a shrine of incense or food, then technically you’re making a sacrifice right there, which would have that shrine serve as an altar, too, right?  Or you might have a large temple space where there’s a sacred image or cult statue of a god (literally) enshrined within, and priests would set up temporary tables in front of the image for rites of sacrifice and worship; in this case, one sets up a temporary altar before a permanent shrine, and then the altar itself is disassembled after the ritual.  It may not always be required to have a separate “working space” apart from the place of a god or spirit, and although some approaches may find it useful, it’s hardly a universal thing, especially when you throw in non-institutionalized household worship into the mix, with different space and logistical constraints entirely.

And that’s one of the big concerns with Hermeticism, I think, that we need to bear in mind: Hermeticism is, by and large, not a temple-oriented practice, at least in the sense of a large permanent institution with a permanent priesthood tending to a public congregation of worshippers.  To be sure, based on our best understanding of the Greco-Egyptian origins of Hermeticism, it definitely arose within a temple-based context, led by mystically-minded Egyptian priests teaching and guiding Egyptians and Greeks in a quasi-syncretic context, but it wouldn’t be right to say that this was a focus of their duties.  Rather, they had all their temple duties as they always had for centuries and millennia: maintaining temple grounds, making sacrifices, tending to shrines, writing and copying texts, and the like.  Likewise, non-priestly people coming to the temple had a primary goal, worshiping the gods, for which they went to temple and didn’t generally linger past what was appropriate.  However, there were then (as there are now) people (both priestly and lay) for whom going to temple, participating in a sacrifice or festival, singing a hymn or two, and having that be the sum of their religious life wasn’t enough; for them, they’d want something more, something more profound, something mystical.  That’s where Hermeticism has its origins: a sort of extracurricular “meet me after class” deal for the mystically-minded, between mystically-minded priests and mystically-minded seekers.  They’d get up to this mystical stuff, seeing the Divinity behind the divinities, after their usual temple stuff; they wouldn’t ignore their temple stuff, not at all, but would build upon that as a foundation for reaching higher and deeper into spiritual reality.

To emphasize this point, consider the set and setting of the Perfect Sermon, otherwise known as the Asclepius (AH).  Among the classical Hermetic texts, AH is notable because it presents a dialogue with a narrative setting: we actually get a notion of where the dialogue takes place.  In this case, AH takes place in a temple, with Hermēs and Asklēpios already inside ready for a divine discourse, and then Hermēs sends Askēpios to fetch Tat to be present, and likewise Asklēpios proposes Ammōn also join them, at which point Hermēs says “yup, that’s good, but that’s enough”.  Hermēs gives his sermon in the temple, and “the reverence of the four men and the divine presence of god filled that holy place…and then divine love began to speak”.  After Hermēs concludes the discourse, the four of them then recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving, but note the important bit: they leave the temple to go outside to pray, and also offer nothing except prayer, not even incense.  For the purpose of teaching and religious edification, Hermēs chooses the temple as the appropriate setting, but for actual mystical practice and devotion, he leaves it and its accoutrement behind.

All this is to say that a Hermetic practice does not need to be considered something priestly, hieratic, or temple-oriented, and so the usual obligations, logistics, or the like of temple concerns do not need to be our concerns insofar as we’re talking about Hermeticism.  But, if that’s the case, and if temples are places specifically for enshrining and petitioning and propitiating the gods, then what is a Hermetic shrine for at all?  I mean, while one could certainly enshrine any number of gods (Hermēs and his crew, maybe the seven planets, maybe even Poimandrēs and/or Agathos Daimōn, and the like), none of those would (strictly speaking) be necessary for an esoteric Hermetic practice so long as they were already factored into a preexisting exoteric or temple-oriented practice.  That last part is important to emphasize, I think, because that might change the concerns one would have for such a Hermetic shrine.  For instance, if one already has an existing practice to Hermēs and/or Thōth with their own shrines, then one can just go to them for works specifically pertaining to them, either within or outside of a Hermetic context, but if one does not have such an existing practice, then maybe having a little image of Hermēs/Thōth/Hermēs-Thōth/Hermēs Trismegistos as part of one’s Hermetic shrine would be a benefit to them.

Of course, this is already getting into hypotheticals and details of a Hermetic shrine without talking about the general or high-level stuff first, so let’s back up a bit.  The biggest question to be tackled is this: for what purpose would having a Hermetic shrine fulfill?  To me, the biggest thing would be giving a Hermetic practitioner a place to do their Hermetic work, their prayer, their devotional and meditative and theurgic activities.  In this light, the focus of the Hermetic shrine would be the focus of Hermeticism, which is God—and, as I mentioned before, that would render the shrine lamp as the most important element on a Hermetic shrine, being representative not only of God itself but also of our goal of divine union with God and the quest of the soul towards God.  The shrine lamp holding a sacred flame is the sine qua non of a Hermetic shrine, and…well, after all the years of me doing things along this line, is probably the only absolutely necessary thing that I would say one might need to make a Hermetic shrine.  Beyond a handful of offering dishes for observing feasts, which is more of a utilitarian concern and convenience more than anything else and which would be put away when not in use anyway, I genuinely don’t think that anything else is absolutely necessary to be present for a Hermetic shrine beyond a shrine lamp.

In that regard, can this sort of thing even really be considered a “shrine”, at least using the terms I’ve defined at the start of this post?  I suppose not, no.  I mean, what could one do to “enshrine” God?  What image could house God itself?  As book V of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH V) beautifully points out, there is nothing that could limit God either in terms of speech or image or time, so there’s neither point nor possibility in trying to “house” God when God itself is what surrounds and fills all things.  Rather, the Hermetic shrine is a place for us to do the work we need to do towards God (and, if necessary, the gods as well).  In that light, this would really be more of an altar than a shrine—except, of course, unless we do have gods enshrined there, but let’s put that aside for now (again).  The point is that I keep calling this a “Hermetic shrine”, but I’m using the term “shrine” in a very broad way that goes against my own usual definitions in a way that muddles the distinction between “shrine” (a place where spirits are housed), “altar” (a working surface for ritual or sacrifice), and “temple” (a sacred space that contains shrines and/or altars for spiritual activities).  I suppose my calling this a “Hermetic shrine” comes from my own unspoken notion of calling any place I pray at regularly a “shrine”, while I reserve “altar” for a place I do work at on an as-needed basis.  It’s just another set of definitions, I suppose.

And even then, is a dedicated space for this sort of work really necessary?  I mean, at the end of the AH, Hermēs and crew leave the temple in order to pray, and likewise the prayer instructions in CH XIII.16 (after Hermēs guides Tat into spiritual rebirth and before he sings the “secret hymn”) say that one should pray “in the open air”.  The only other context we get for something mystically happening is in CH I, when Hermēs receives his vision from Poimnadrēs, and that was entirely location-independent when Hermēs’ “thinking soared high and [his] bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from too much eating or toil of the body” (i.e. a deep trance state).  In an ideal setting, worship and veneration of God would not be done at any particular temple (which would be dedicated to any number of other gods anyway on an ontologically lower level than God) but rather in the open air directly under and in the midst of the heavens; spiritual work and elevation would be done, similarly, apart and away from the body itself.  Of course, that’s all in an ideal situation; a Hermetic shrine, a place we could go to in the safety and convenience of our own homes, gives us a means to engage in the work (preparatory or no) to reach such an ideal state at some point.  To that end, while I don’t think a Hermetic shrine is technically necessary, I do think that it’s helpful to have for those as a means to concentrate and focus their prayer, meditation, and work all the same.

Anyway, let’s keep up with the high-level stuff.  If the shrine lamp and a handful of offering dishes is all that’s strictly needed for the Hermetic shrine, then what should the shrine itself look like?  I don’t personally like having such things directly on the floor, and recommend some sort of elevated surface to keep everything on, but beyond that, I don’t think the specifics matter all too much.  So long as it’s something comfortable for you to stay at for an extended period of time (to account for time in meditation, prayer, devotional work, conjuration, communion, offering, etc.), then that’s the most important thing.  For instance, I like kneeling with a seiza bench for my Hermetic stuff, which makes low tables (side tables, coffee tables, etc.) ideal for me, being not too tall for me to strain my neck by looking up or having to reach to the end of it.  Others might feel more comfortable with something at desk height where they can sit in a simple chair; others might prefer something at their waist, or even higher than that, depending on the significance they might attach towards physical elevation towards these things.  Some people state that, as a sign of respect, holy things should be no lower than one’s waist and preferably at head height or above, and I respect that, but as a matter of convenience and logistics in terms of one’s own personal mystical stuff, I don’t think that that’s as strict a concern here for the considerations of the Hermetic shrine.  So long as it’s at a reasonable height for one’s practice and is large enough to hold what one needs to put on it, then I don’t think the specifics matter.  The Hermetic shrine, in a sense, can be thought of as tool for you to use, so it should be appropriate for your use.

Should the shrine be covered with a cloth?  Again, it’s up to you; I think it’s good practice to do so, so long as you can find something appropriate. You could change out tablecloths for the Sun being in different signs of the Zodiac, or for different planet/sphere-specific rituals, or for different seasons of the year, certainly.  You could just refresh the cloth with a new one once a year to mark the passage of the Sun from one solar year to the next, or to mark some anniversary like one’s first contact with one’s HGA/Agathodaimōn.  Or you could just use just one cloth that looks nice until it wears out, or none at all.  This is more “shrine decoration” than anything to my mind, and I’ve gone back and forth on the specifics of it.  My thoughts are that such a thing is nice to have, but it’s nothing necessary.  (Besides, if one has a particularly beautiful table with an elegant wood grain or marbled surface or the like, I see no reason to let that not be a decoration unto itself.)  As for colors, white is always pleasant for divine works in general, and gold or gold-accented fabric is resonant enough with Hermetic symbolism to be more than acceptable; if one has an Egyptian or especially PGM flair, one might avoid red for general purposes due to its Set-related connotations, but otherwise, I don’t think it matters too much.

Bearing in mind the notion about facing certain directions from AH 41 and CH XIII.16, what about the placement and direction of our Hermetic shrine?  This gets a bit tricky, because those instructions specify two directions: east for morning/sunrise, and south (not west!) for evening/sunset.  We might consider a free-standing shrine that we can position ourselves around, or we might put a shrine in a southeast corner of a room that we might sit at the west (facing east) in the morning and at the north (facing south) in the evening, or just facing southeast in general (if it’s something like a corner/triangular desk).  That said, with the exception of putting something in a southeast corner and calling it a day, I find all those options kinda…awkward, really.  I dislike things like this not being against a wall and, frankly, I like using east in general for matters of the divine and holiness; as a rule, if nothing else speaks more strongly for another direction (like actual space constraints in someone’s home), placing this towards the eastern wall of a room is probably a reasonable choice for most people.  Likewise, it should be in a respectful place, ideally a room with a door that can be closed where one can have some measure of solitude and peace, which won’t have mundane or sexual activity happening within it.  This would be ideal, of course, as with any concerns for establishing a temple space, but as I’ve said before, it’s far from essential.  Do what you can as best as you can.  If the room has access to a window that faces outside, all the better.

Getting back to the shrine itself, what about things to go on it besides just the lamp?  In my post about the shrine lamp, I also mentioned that I’ve experimented with other things placed on my shrine(s) in the past, in various orders or combinations or arrangements:

  • A natural tall-ish stone, or a brick/stone pyramid, situated and rising from a bowl of water to represent the Benben mound of Egyptian cosmogonic myth
  • An image (statue, scroll, painting, etc.) of Hermēs Trismegistos, either with or without accompanying (and perhaps smaller) images of his students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn
  • An image of the Agathodaimōn or HGA
  • An image of the Divine Cosmos or of Divine Nature (much as one might find in Jeffrey Kupperman’s excellent Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology, and Theurgy)
  • A small abstract model of Adocentyn (or, as one might consider it, Hermopolis Theia) from the Picatrix
  • A pair of images to represent the Sun and Moon, or seven such images of the seven planets
  • Images or symbols of one’s general faith and religion, especially if one syncretizes Hermeticism with another religion or practices it as a mystical approach to another religion (e.g. a crucifix for Christian Hermeticists)
  • Calligraphy of sacred words, verses, or statements of faith

These are all possibilities one might consider for their own Hermetic shrine, based on what they might contemplate, or venerate as symbols of the Creator or of Creation.  Additionally, one might also have particular images or statues, such as that of Hermēs Trismegistos or of the Sun and Moon or of one’s Agathodaimōn or whatnot, which one might venerate or actively ensoul, and thus enshrine at their Hermetic shrine (which would then render such a thing a shrine in the technical sense I established at the start of this post).  The thing about all these things, though, is that they aren’t essential to making a Hermetic shrine (that’d be the role of the shrine lamp), and are otherwise all so varied and ultimately based on personal needs and desires for such a shrine that it’s hard to generalize anything about it all.  Again, the Hermetic shrine is effectively a tool for our use, and so should be appropriate for our needs; if something doesn’t serve a purpose to us on the shrine, then it shouldn’t be there, and whatever is on there should always be oriented towards the ultimate goal of Hermetic practice.

So is that it, then?  Beyond it being some sort of raised surface off the ground with a lamp on top and a bit of space, is that all that I’d consider required, and everything else (size, height, location, direction, covering, etc.) is up to one’s own personal discretion?  Basically, yeah.  The whole purpose of a Hermetic shrine, to my mind, is to be a centerpoint of spiritual activity for one’s Hermetic mystical practice, but what does that entail?  Prayer, meditation, offerings to the gods in a Hermetic framework, works of purity and ascent, contemplation, and the like—all of this has a place within Hermeticism, to say nothing of astrological or alchemical works, even trafficking with any number of spirits ouranic or chthonic for the purposes of one’s own Work in this world.  To that end, one doesn’t need a whole lot beyond a bit of space that one can call their own, that one can turn to as a command-center of sorts, that one can trust will be there for them for works both routine or irregular.  As one’s own practice evolves, so too may the specific concerns on the shrine; at one time there may be a cross, at another an image of a solar deity, at another an image of the cosmos as some sort of astrological mandala, but always will the shrine itself be a thing to hold a bit of space apart from the rest of one’s life specifically for one’s own Hermetic endeavors.

To summarize this winding, rambling post:

  • The Hermetic shrine’s primary purpose is to act as a sacred space to engage in Hermetic mystic practices.
  • Required aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be a raised surface, elevated off the floor.
    • The shrine must contain at least one thing at all times in a central and clearly-visible place: a shrine lamp.
    • There should be some sort of storage (underneath or to the side) to keep offering dishes clean and safe when not in use.
    • There should be sufficient space on the surface to hold offering dishes when in use.
  • Suggested or encouraged aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be at a reasonable height for one to kneel or sit at for extended durations without discomfort.
    • The shrine should be kept in a quiet room with a door that closes to be used as a temple space in general, away from mundane or sexual activity.
    • The shrine should be kept facing the east, or positioned in a way that one could face it either east or south.
    • The shrine may be covered with a clean tablecloth.
    • The shrine may hold ensouled statues or devotional images for propitiation or contemplation.

What about actually setting up or maintaining the shrine?  I mean, lots of traditions have particular conditions and processes on sanctifying or purifying implements or space for sacred purposes, but…I mean, one can certainly do that, too, with the Hermetic shrine and every object that goes on it, and I wouldn’t argue against doing so, especially if one feels strongly or is already engaged in a temple/exoteric practice that makes use of such preparatory actions.  The most important thing for actually setting up or maintaining the shrine, though, as I see it?  Just keep it clean and set aside for Hermetic stuff.  If it gets dusty, wipe it down with a clean cloth; if something spills, clean it up quickly.  Don’t use the offering dishes for kitchen stuff again, and don’t use obviously filthy things with or near the shrine.  Maybe sprinkle a bit of holy water over the furniture before using it as a shrine, maybe do a monthly or seasonal cleansing of the shrine and all its tools as you use it.  Cleaning or maintaining the shrine doesn’t need to be a whole affair or anything beyond routine tidiness unless you really want it to be.  To be sure, the more thorough and dedicated you turn everything towards, the better off things will be overall, but the more expert stuff can be left for a time when you have more expertise.  If you’re just getting started, the most important thing is to just start, and everything else will proceed from there.  You can always improve on the shrine over time, just as you improve upon yourself over time.

Based on my own experiences and practices, there are a few things I could suggest that one might keep at such a Hermetic shrine.  These are just extra tools or supplies to have on hand for a variety of works and practices, all of which might also be kept in storage with the offering dishes if needed.  Again, nothing here is required, but the things in the lists below are those which I have personally found to be useful in fulfilling the vast majority of my regular (and a good number of irregular) spiritual operations that I get up to, or which make the things I do at my Hermetic shrine just more convenient in general:

  • Recommended tools, utilities, or fixtures of a shrine:
    • A bowl or vessel for preparing lustral water to make ablutions from (e.g. a khernibeion for khernips)
    • An aspergillum for sprinkling things with liquid
    • A bowl for making liquid offerings from
    • A cup or goblet for partaking in libations or for mystic works
    • A snuffer and trimmer for wicks of candles or oil lamps
    • A knife for cutting cloth, string, or other things
    • A set of tweezers and/or tongs for holding things at a distance or which require fine dexterity
    • A lighter or set of matches for lighting lamps or incense
    • A shawl (preferably of natural plant-based fibers and of a white or natural light color) for covering one’s shoulders and/or head while praying or engaging in particular works
    • A prayer rug (whether a small fabric carpet or a grass mat) to kneel or sit on while at the shrine
    • A shallow but wide non-porous, fireproof tray for performing particular works with
    • Small wooden or stone stands for elevating sacred images or to act as mini-altars for particular works
    • A quiet timer for meditation
    • A bell (whether one with a handle or a singing bowl/gong struck with a mallet)
    • A set of prayer beads for reciting chants
    • A book of prayers and ritual to recite and perform
    • A book of sacred texts or scriptures to read and contemplate
    • Clean white washcloths
    • Glass jars with airtight lights for storage of liquids, powders, or the like
    • A wastebin with liners/bags for any detritus or rubbish for immediate disposal
  • Recommend supplies for works and operations at a shrine:
    • Clean water
    • Olive oil
    • Wine
    • High-proof neutral alcohol
    • Coal for censers and loose incense
    • White chalk, whether for drawing out patterns or crumbling into powder
    • Pens, ink, and clean paper
    • Twine or string made from hemp, cotton, or linen
    • Natron
    • Pure salt (whether sea salt or rock salt, or one might have different kinds available for different purposes)
    • Pure soil or sand

Still, all these are just things I might recommend as extras that might be good to have on hand, all of which may depend more importantly on your own practice, and any of which might be called for or not depending on the direction you take things in for yourself.  The big thing to remember is that, so long as the shrine lamp burns, there’s a Light to guide you, and beyond that, the shrine gives you a place to pray, read, meditate, and work.  There doesn’t need to be a whole lot else to this, and in this regard, simplicity really can be (and is) best.  At times, I do find it helpful to have separate shrines or work-spaces for different traditions or styles of work; in that regard, while the Hermetic shrine might be good for a good number of operations, it may not be good for all possible works one might get up to.  Still, not all such work-spaces need to be permanent fixtures in one’s temple space, or sometimes one just needs to do enough for a spirit or god to take care of the rest.  Just as the Hermetic shrine gives us a focus for our Hermetic work, so too should we be focused on Hermetic stuff while we’re at it; that’s the big thing to remember, and everything else will take care of itself from there.

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