The value of a minimalist approach to shrines

 

Tell Yasmah-Addu: thus (speaks) Samsî-Addu, your father. The works concerning the gods that you have undertaken […]. You have had six gods made. The six gods you have had made, goodness, that amounts to ten! Your servants out of fear don’t talk to you, in heaven’s name, about your works. I want you to think about your protection, but what’s the sense in these gods that you have had made? Where does your silver come from, where does your gold come from, from which you count on having these gods made? … Are you a baby? Why make so many gods … Heavens, where will the cattle and sheep come from that you’ll have to offer to these gods every time on occasion of the monthly festival? Already you send me letter after letter, about sheep and lambs, telling me ‘I don’t have any!’ And now you’ve filled the town with gods, when all the sheep that there are aren’t sufficient for their sacrifices. The town of Mari is (already) full of gods and there’s none as full as it.

Footnote translation of a Mesopotamian letter. Parker, Robert (2017). Greek Gods Abroad, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, p. 82.

Last time I wrote about making shrines, I focused on the basics that someone would need to get started worshipping the gods: Vessels for libations — which one can acquire at any price point, from glass jars that once held your pasta sauce to Goodwill finds to stuff purchased from polytheist artisans on Etsy — and the written name of a god.

Now I want to talk about something that I haven’t really seen discussed in modern Hellenism, but I just watched the Marie Kondo reality show, and it’s on my mind.

Kondo sparks love, fear, bafflement, and joy in many American hearts. One of the areas of bafflement — and microaggressive comments — is her religious background, which includes time spent working in a Shintō shrine. She brings formal house welcoming ceremonies (moment of silence style) into each episode. There is currently a Twitter fight happening because she recommends weeding books, and many of the people with visceral reactions to weeding (a feeling common among non-librarians) are weaving in microaggressions and a lack of understanding of Kondo’s perspective and what she actually recommends.

Her book contains a section on letting go of shrine tokens/charms. Many readers, especially those who are Christian or atheist, do not know what to make of it, and some even mock why such things are kept in the translated versions of her books. From the ones who sit in their discomfort or dismiss her, it’s a cute and exotic quirk. From a serious perspective, though, it is extremely important to keep shrines inviting spaces for gods.

I’ve already touched on how keeping one’s storeroom tidy is important for Zeus Ktesios worship. One of the reasons I want to talk about shrines, too, is that many of us come into polytheism (or become old enough to decide to make our own for those of us second-gens) and over-clutter them.

Once you have dedicated objects to a god, streamlining and cleaning up a shrine involves things that do not technically belong to you, but to lim. The best time to think about your plan for sacred space is when you’re just starting out.

The reasons one might have a lot on ler shrine vary. Some, but not all, are that:

  • we feel we have to because of what happened in Late Antiquity
  • we want to show gratitude
  • we are insecure in our faith and don’t yet realize we’re caught up in the comparison game with what other polytheists post or say online
  • we are overcompensating, AKA trying to make our shrines everything because we don’t have access to temples and roadside shrines
  • something we saw is beautiful, appropriate for a shrine, and we have the disposable income (yay!) or credit (😨) to buy it
  • a god specifically told us that le wanted something
  • we promised a god that we would give lim something

For shrines, less is better for most people unless satisfying one of the last two bullets — a commitment to a god or a fulfillment of a god’s request.

You only need a written name of a deity, a libation bowl, and a receptacle — the rest is something that can and should be added deliberately — despite the social pressure of what the rest of us are sharing using hashtags on Twitter, Instagram, blogs, et cetera.

There are economic, cleanliness, and consumerist issues with having a shrine containing too many things. In a world that is hostile to polytheism, it feels good to buy statues and things to offer gods because these things were forbidden for so long. Reestablishing kharis relationships with gods is important, but it should not come at the expense of making something that is not a seamless and organic part of your home.

When I was a teenager, I worked summers in a closed-stacks talking book center for people with disabilities. I pulled pastel green cassette tape boxes covered in dust from the shelves, inserted shipping labels, and put them on a book truck. I sorted them into USPS bags that were picked up once a day.

With that $5.15/hour, I suddenly had money. Every few weeks, we’d go to visit the owner of the Opened Book in Hannibal, MO, and I would often purchase small things for my shrines.

Today, I still have a few of those things, but I couldn’t tell you what happened to most of it. The candles burned down, the incense was used, some of the candleholders broke or ended up with my siblings or mom after I went off to college with the tools I actually used — you name it.

What I will say is that those tiny candleholders for the mini-tapers get wax everywhere, that solid glass or metal tea light containers or cup-like pillars are less messy. It’s easier to buy ash and use a ceramic bowl for coreless incense than to deal with the detritus of sticks.

It is easier to limit the number of statuettes or art pieces you purchase for a deity and to put thought into what you buy because these are sacred things. It is easiest to invest in flat images in smaller sizes (4×6, 5×7) because these can be stored on a shelf (like books!) beneath your shrine when it is not a god’s sacred day.

It is easier to clean uncluttered shrines.

As one example, I loved an old, two-dimensional agalma of Apollon until the artist’s anatomy mistakes were pointed out to me, but what do you do with something that is already imbued with sacredness? I kept it in the frame, but put a new image over it.

As another, as much as I would like to purchase every agalma of Hermes on Etsy, I only have two: The statuette I purchased to fulfill the promise I made to him (and Athene) when I started my new job and a more recent, smaller icon.

As a third, I live in a small city with little access to places where I can dispose of food offerings. I’ve already mentioned this, but I prefer to make incense or liquid offerings as a result. Being at my mom’s house for the New Year was a relaxing and different experience in part because she owns property with a large amount of backyard greenspace, including a fire pit. Were I in a situation like that, disposing of food would be easy. You have to do what you can do in the place you are.

If one goes too fast, le risks not having the opportunity to think about important things.

The best litmus test for whether one should get something — again, in cases when it’s your decision and not a deity’s request — is whether something truly is something that you can see yourself using eight, nine, ten years into the future as a way to connect to the god(s).

If you’re in a situation where you have acquired too much, the agalmata and other things you have do belong to the gods. You can still declutter, though. Just ask the god(s) via divination whether you can get rid of things first. Here are some other tips:

  • When a god verifies it’s OK to get rid of an agalma, it should go to someone in the community who needs it unless there’s a clear message that it shouldn’t. If you’re a member of an organization like YSEE or Hellenion, this will be easier, but you can also ask on listservs, in online groups, and using hashtags.
  • If you have flat agalma — which are not ahistorical, as they started to come into fashion in Late Antiquity, as shown by items like the Hestia Tapestry — and the issue is more of wanting to refresh, you can often keep the image in the frame and just put a new flat piece over it as long as the sizing works out.

One of my impasses to this day is what to do with crafted items. Back when I was attempting to learn crocheting, I made a small peplos for my Athene agalma, and it’s still on her. Ideally, I think that something like this would be burned to complete the offering, but as I have not yet asked the goddess through divination what she wants to do with it and don’t have access to a fire pit anyway, it remains on her statuette.

I hope that this was illuminating and informative. To return to the quotation, which is from Mesopotamia and not Greece, everything that you put in your shrine needs to be cared for. Overextending yourself through the purchase of too many agalmata can take away from the kharis relationship, so the important thing is to be mindful and reflective of what you need.


Note: I recommend purchasing modern agalmata from within the community to support polytheist artists and artisans. In addition, there are many online shops on Etsy where you can get reproductions of statues, reliefs, &c.

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