Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Setting up a Shrine: A Pocket Guide

For those with experience with Greek and Egyptian methods of worship, some of this may look familiar.

First off, what you're setting up is a shrine, not an altar. An altar is a specialized offering surface in a temple and involves more formal rites and requirements. A shrine is more approachable and indicative of folk/informal religion, so the rules are more flexible.

In setting up a shrine, make sure you have a flat space up off the floor such as a shelf, t.v. tray, dresser top, card table, et cetera. Clean it off of clutter, then dust it and make sure it is presentable even for a testy matriarch with white gloves testing your housekeeping skills. If it has some glaringly awful blemishes, try to fix them. A couple of scratches won’t make a difference, but if the surface is ghastly, try to touch it up or at the very least put a lovely cloth over it. Make sure this the shrine is in a place where they aren’t turning their sacred area into a pet dish: pets should not be climbing on the shrine and should not be eating the offerings.

Purify it by sprinkling rose water on it or anointing it with olive oil to which myrrh has been added, or olive oil to which marjoram essential oil has been added. Ask for the god Choranu to cleans the area, and be sure to make him an offering at least of incense for his efforts. 

Make sure your hands are passably clean before working with or on the shrine. If you just came in from gardening, scrub up first. This is where good common sense comes into play. In Canaanite culture, the deities are not treated as family, but as royalty. The deities are qadish: full of splendor, holy fire, passion, separateness, spirit, and even of “holy dread;” they are “set apart.”

Put up images of the deities. These are a little bit tricky to find. Actual statues or bas relief are notoriously difficult to find, so don’t feel badly if you must use an image printed off the internet. Just print it in decent quality on good cardstock or photo paper. To find the deity image, sometimes you may have to search under multiple variations of the deity’s name. If you get stuck, just ask; it’s what I do.

As for placement of the images, some deities would rather not be placed together and some would like to be together. ‘Anatu and Baʻlu Haddu like to be together, but neither of them like to be near Yammu. Athiratu prefers not to be near Baʻlu Haddu, but likes to be near her consort Ilu. Yarikhu and Nikkalu like to be together. Shapshu doesn’t mind Kothar-wa-Khasis, or sometimes Rashap. None of them like demigods, ancestors, demons or daemons honored with the same status as a deity. If you decide to honor the Canaanite ancestors, you could do what I do: I keep a shrine shelf on one side and an ancestor site on the other side, but both are on the same flat surface. And never, ever make offering to Motu, the god of Death. He is the god of death, not the god of the dead: he never received offering in ancient times and should not even today for he will eventually take all of us as offering.

In an informal offering, purity issues aren’t as strict. You can walk up to the shrine and honor the deities whenever you need to or feel that they need offering without much prior arrangement. However, if you want to boost the signal and deepen the respect, it helps to do a few things first. These are suggestions, guidelines—sometimes necessity and haste override these. The more you adhere to the suggestions, the more likely it is you will be able to sense them. Keep clean. Rinse your hands with cool water. Take your shoes off, take your socks off if your socks are holey. Cover your head. Be sincere.

This part is required: bow and/or prostrate. When you approach the deities at the shrine, bow or prostrate yourself before them. When I bow, I bob at the knees before I bow and I bow fully to the extent where my head is near my waist. Why the knee-bob? The Ugaritic word for blessing is related to the Ugaritic word for knee, and it just so happens that this linguistic association carries on even into Hebrew. When you approach their space, avoid using foul language except perhaps in the case of being around just the martial deities in which case sometimes you can get away with using some foul language in front of them. When you approach them, as you are stepping into their space, it is good to do so on the right foot.

I like to keep a bowl in front of the shrine and I fill it with Lebanese rose water from the ethnic food section of the grocery store, which I use similarly to Florida water. Alternatively, I will use water with a few drops of marjoram essential oil: some botanists believe that marjoram was the “hyssop” purifying herb of old. I will rinse my hands with the water and sprinkle the water throughout the shrine to provide a continual cleansing. Change this water out at least every other day. 

I keep an incense holder on the shrine, too, and I frequently make dugathu/dujathu throughout the day. This is a form of incense offering. I make sure that the incense I get is not the cheap stuff with dung in it. (It seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of folks don’t realize that some of that stuff has a dung base.)  I will sometimes put a beverage on the shrine, or meat. No pork; no pork ever. And they have a preference for farmed meats above game meats—beef and lamb are favorites, as is beef liver and some organ meats. Choranu doesn’t like goat, but the rest of them seem to like goat. Most of them don’t care for beans unless it’s in the form of hummus. Ilu loves shawarma, the beef and lamb combination and seems to be ok with gyros, too. Most of them love Mediterranean fruits and nuts: pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates, almonds, candy coated almonds, carob chips, grapes, and so on. They're happy with cheese made from goat or sheep's milk: they like these a bit better than that made of cow's milk. They like whole wheat flat bread and olive oil, or even an olive oil infused with spices. They like Mediterranean cooking from Greek, to Lebanese, to Turkish, to Palestinian. They love wine. Baʻlu Haddu sometimes prefers white wine in the rainy season (our late autumn through winter) and red wine for the hot summer months. Obviously no fast food (I’ve had someone ask this, so I thought I would specify—the “meat” in those “burgers” isn’t good and often isn’t completely meat.) For specific deities’ preferences, feel free to ask. 

Food offerings of this sort are often referred to as shalamu (singular) or shalamuma (plural). They literally translate as “peace offerings.” These offerings are made to strengthen, restore, heal a being and to promote wellness and wellbeing. These offerings can be food, drink, or items. One can make shalamu to the deities, to the ancestors, or to other living people. This is one of the simplest forms of offering, and there are many forms of offering from sharpu (burnt offering) to dabchu (sacrfice/communal meal). I would suggest just starting out with shalamuma.  

They like offerings of light—olive oil lamps with a pinch of salt in them to keep them from smoking too much, or beeswax candles. They’re ok with paraffin candles, but prefer beeswax or olive oil as possible. Most of them prefer no smoking and no tobacco: there’s a connection with fresh, sweet air and a sense of hygiene and sacred purity; besides, sometimes they like to appear as a scent. If strong scents overpower the area, they can’t “appear” in this manner. 

They like scented oils and perfumes: the higher quality the better and try to avoid artificial and chemical scents as much as possible. Many of them like essential oils dropped in olive oil—this is good both as offering, and as a substance to anoint their images with. This is sometimes a good offering for them. They love olive oil infused with myrrh or olive oil with drops of myrrh essential oil: this is called shamnu moru, myrrh oil. (Shamnu moru is also good for spiritual cleansing and healing purposes.) I have an unguent I’ve made that I use in temple to anoint their brows daily. When I anoint, I use the pinky and ring finger of my right hand and sweep across or dot their brows.

Many of them like honey, especially some of the goddesses.

Sweets for celebration. No sweets for serious events.

The simplest prayer to make when giving offering, if you would like to make a prayer, is “yishlam le-kumu” which means “may there be peace/wellbeing/wholeness/restoration to you all.”

After making offering, it is a good idea to take a couple of steps backwards away from the shrine before turning around. They don’t like someone turning a back on them up close. When stepping away from them, it is good to back away left foot first so your right foot is still towards them. If a priest is there, a priest can partake of the offerings on behalf of the deities, however this isn’t something that a layperson should do.

Keep the altar clean. Dispose of offerings by the next day. The Canaanites saw the next day as starting with the dusk. Clean the incense ash off at least once a week and do a little dusting with a clean cloth or paper towel. When you dispose of liquids served in cups, do not overturn the cup. An overturned cup is really bad luck. Instead, place the full cup under the faucet and let cool water run into the cup until it pushes out all of the offering liquid, this way the cup is now “empty.” I usually tap on the cup three times first and then pour out the water, but tapping is optional. 


  1. For images (if I can't find a statue) I will print them off, get a new frame lay the image in it, place a clean sheet of white paper on the back, sprinkles some herbs and or an oil that the deity likes, put the back of the frame on and hot glue around the edges to seal the frame, the bless the image.
    on incense I have been in arguments with some fellow "pagans" over the use of the cheap incense that contains dung, some sadly see it as ok to use, but I stick to the good quality incense only.
    Titus M Lupus aka Wolf Attack Paradox

    1. I really like using loose incense with charcoal. Do you have any preference or do you use quality stick incense?

  2. This is really solid, valuable information. Thank you very much!

  3. What do I do to dispose of food and liquid offerings? I don't think I should throw the offerings in the trash, right? So, how exactly do I dispose of them in a respectful manner?


    1. Hi, Mnez7306. Generally speaking I let about a day pass for the offerings to be left on the shrine, then I collect the offerings. Generally speaking, I typically bury the solid food offerings outside, and pour the libations into the ground. Prior to placing food offerings in the earth, I like to break the offerings up first (if it's bread or something which can be broken) to desacralize the offering and change its status from offering to an item-discarded-and-being-returned-to-the-earth.

      There is a caveat here for libations in regards to Canaanite deities. An overturned cup in Canaanite lore is bad luck, so I often make libations in bowls so that when I pour out the offering, I am not overturning a cup to do so.