Pagans and polytheists, at least in my experiences, differ in this way (amongst others): The former mostly maintains altars, the latter mostly maintains shrines.
BUT RUADHÁN, AREN’T THOSE JUST TWO DIFFERENT WORDS FOR THE SAME THING?
An altar is a place where you practise your religion; a shrine is where a Deity, or several deities, have Their own space in your home or the community. A shrine is like a permanent or semi-permanent guestroom for a deity, or several deities, where one has created a space in one’s home specifically for Them. For purposes of space, a shrine may have a “threshold” area where one practises rituals, or at least lights a candle and incense daily or weekly (depending on how one’s religion honours the deity in question), but the rest of the area is usually left untouched, save for periodic days during the month or year when you perform maid service (still running with the guest room analogy), or when you get little gifts for the Deity and arrange them artfully in Deity’s space. On the other hand, an altar is assumed to be for you, the whole space is yours, and there is (usually) nothing on there that you don’t use at some point when practising your religion. The two things are very different in intent and purpose, so conflating the two as one in the same is to betray one’s ignorance.
Shrines are often more-or-less “permanent”; if it’s a fixture of the home, its location is often chosen very carefully (usually dependent on deity) and after the location is designated for a shrine, it’s not moved unless special circumstances (like ritual cleaning, or a move) require one to. An altar might require a special location or direction to face, depending n the religion, but it is, at most, assumed to be a “part time” placement, the lease can be cancelled at any time; it can be moved or taken down when not in use (even if one doesn’t, out of convenience or just plain laziness) and I’ve never heard of a religion that requires special reverence for taking down a mere altar that could be easily compared to the treatment of a shrine that needs cleaning or has fallen into disrepair.
Common fixtures of small indoor shrines include a representation of the deity, a dish for offerings like wine, a candle or two, a receptacle for incense, and (depending on how long one has worshipped the deity) lots and lots of items that are gifts for the Deity, such as coins, food items, or just trinkets and baubles made of or bearing images of stones, flora, or fauna sacred to the deity. Common fixtures of altars often include a candle or two, a receptacle for incense, a representation of a deity or two, and various ritual tools —which may be (but may not be limited to) blades/athames, wands, a goblet or chalise, etc…. Large “outdoor” shrines that are basically the size of a tiny house that can have standing or sitting room for a few people tend to have an altar inside them for the placement of offerings and candles and holding small rituals of reverence, but the aura of such an altar is less like leaving gifts at the threshold of a household shrine, and more like bringing a gift into another’s house as a guest; it’s the Deity’s altar at one of their many Earthly homes, not that liminal space at the borderline between your space and Theirs. Because there is some overlap in the characteristics of a small household shrine and a household altar (candles, incense, representations of Deity), people who don’t know or understand the differences between altars and shrines may confuse the two.
SO, RUADHÁN, SINCE YOU THINK YOU’RE SO SMART, HOW DO I TELL THE DIFFERENCE?
Well, aside from my description, I also thought to provide a visual aide. First, a couple photos from a search for “Wiccan Altar” on Bing.com:
There is nothing on either of these altars that is not, or at least cannot be intended to be used in a ritual. Even the statue in the second photo might be ritually turned to face one direction or another, during the course of a ritual, be it before, after, or while all other tools are being used.
So here are now a few images of shrines:
Dver’s “Dionysos shrine” (image links to Flickr gallery)
Dionysos shrine from Flaming Thrysos
Very little in these pictures (though one is erroneously referred to as an “altar” by its maintainer) is intended for use by human hands. These are places for their respective Deities to be most-present and welcomed into the household; these are not areas where the primary purpose is for humans doing rituals (though occasionally rituals may take place at the shrine’s threshold).
Similarly, the springs to the city nymphai of Boiotia, and other springs sacred to locally important nymphai, and other parts of the city or villiage considered important to local mythos, would often serve as shrines to the nymph in question. If a traveller wanted the good graces of the local deities, gifts would be left at the city shrine(s) —similar to the continued tradition of dropping a coin in a fountain “for luck”. Then there’s the Greek tradition of roadside shrines:
While some of these shrines are, like the various roadside shrines seem in the American Midwest, created by surviving families at a location near a fatal traffic accident, a lot of times, the Greek roadside shrines are just erected by some-one giving thanks and praise to an Orthodiox Saint (and, on occasion, alongside an ancient deity) for some joyous event in one’s life; some of these shrines are said locally to have been standing and maintained since ancient times, perhaps with the pre-Christian commemoration only thinly veiled. Their purpose is for a short prayer and/or reflection, and (as with the roadside shrines around here, which commemorate tragedy) small trinkets and candles may be left by local people. Some Greek roadside shrines are big enough to be miniature chapels, big enough for two or three people to stand in prayer or conduct small ceremonies, but the fact that those shrines can have that function is secondary to the purpose of creating a space sacred to a Deity or Saint, where one is encouraged to pause in reflection of said Divine figure, perhaps have a small prayer or light a candle, and then go about one’s business.
While some shrines maintained by modern polytheists (as those pictured) may take form on and around a table-top out of necessity (like lacking a means of enclosure of the shrine area) or personal preference (as these are indoor shrines, and protection from elements is already taken care of, or so the reasoning may go), the purpose is still clear, often just by looking at it as a person who understands the difference. Some altars may also be set up in a niche in a wall, of on a bookshelf, or prehaps it’s a portable thing barely bigger than a CD jewelcase, but again, the intent is clear of its function simply by its form.
In paths one is unfamiliar with, or deities one has not previously seen a shrine to, the purpose may not be clear. A shrine to Ares may contain a short military dagger, and depending on the age or originating military, it might be indistinguishable from a Pop Wiccan’s athame. One may be practising a self-invented path of lesbian witchcraft that simulates the “great rite” of Wicca by rubbing two cowrie shells together, so the altar might appear more shrine-like, lacking blades and wands. If you know noting about the person’s religion, it never hurts to ask, but at the same time, it’s also perfectly fine to kindly explain that shrines and altars are not one-in-the-same, and that one “preferring” one term over the other doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Apologies to the previous publication of this without the rest. I was touching up the post on the tablet, and well, I’ll add this to my ever-growing list of why touch-screens are the work of Typhoeus.
Also: I do intend on making a series out of these sorts of posts.