Altars Versus Shrines

The difference between altars and shrines is they serve different purposes.  An altar is for working.  It is the space a witch sets up for an esbat, a sabat, a magical working, or permanently for all sorts of practices (examples: divination, meditation, etc.).  Basically it is the place for transformational change.  In contrast, a shrine serves to honor a person, deity, or concept.  Offerings and prayers may be given here.  People tend to create shrines after a passing or tragedy as well.  It is more of a place to connect rather than to do magic.  For a lengthy discussion on both altars and shrines, listen to the latest episodes of Circle Craft Podcast.

Objects that can reside on altars include:

  • Ritual objects, such as athames, chalices, wands, cauldrons, etc.
  • Divination tools
  • Herbs, gemstones, or other magical tools
A Pagan altar (source:

Objects that can be found on shrines are a little different

  • Offering bowls
  • Statuary, representative candles, or other ‘stand ins’ for deities
  • Objects strongly associated with the person, concept, or deity.  For example, dove feathers and peace signs for peace altars.
A shrine to Persephone (source:

You may notice that some practitioners include shrine items on altars.  Sometimes a space can pull double duty.  On Mabon, my everyday altar becomes a large temporary shrine to Persephone because that is the center of the work I do on that holiday.  It largely depends on two factors: personal practice and space restrictions.

© Ariadne Woods



I live in one of those East Coast cities that was blanketed in snow over the last few weeks.  It has been so bad that public transportation almost shut down twice and my classes have been cancelled on numerous occasions (a much bigger deal in college than in high school).  But this weekend, it has been lovely.  There’s snow on the ground, but I’ve thrown open my windows to let fresh air and bird song into my bedroom. Despite having massive amounts of procrastinated homework and bills to be paid, I’m in a great mood.

Because Spring is coming.  I can feel the shift in seasons in my bones, and you better believe I am ready for it.

Followers of Earth-based spiritual paths–or anyone who spends a lot of time in nature–have a strong affinity for the shift in the seasons. It just comes naturally when connecting with the elements or planning a garden because these observations become invaluable to the practitioner.  For those who follow the Wheel of the Year, the changing seasons reinforce and inspire the theology of the Eight Sabats.  Part of the celebration inevitably becomes wrapped up in what we see out our windows and in our supermarkets.  It’s why pumpkins decorate our altars at Samhain and flowers at Beltane.  Even Starbucks capitalizes on changing seasons with Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Peppermint Mochas at certain points of the year.

But what is so special about the shift from Winter to Spring? It happens every year.  The birds always come back, the snow melts, and plants begin to grow again.  The simple answer is, well, it just is.  Winter can be harsh and a reminder to some that this life does end.  But when Spring comes with a strong sun and new growth, we are reminded that things always change.  Even the bleakest situations never last forever.  The balance of dark and light and middle is ever evolving.  So as the days get longer and warmer, embrace this time as a new beginning.

© Ariadne Woods

Tarot Basics

The exact origin of the Tarot is unknown, but from my understanding they started as a set of playing cards in Italy in the 1400’s.  Some people say they come from ancient Egypt or India, but in my opinion the archetypes are too Eurocentric.  For example, the Devil is an evil, Christianized version of the Horned God, not coming from Egyptian pantheons but rather Northern European ones.  The first accounts of their use for divination came in the eighteenth century.  There have been many changes over the years, including the perception of the Minor Arcana, but the symbology has stayed largely the same.  For a brief history of origins of the tarot and certain popular decks, here is a good article to read.  In the twentieth century, their popularity has exploded in conjunction with the Neo-Pagan and New Age movements.  Also while many states had laws on the books well into the ’80s making tarot reading illegal, persons such as Z Budapest have gone to trial to change these old regulations.

The Tarot have 78 cards and is divided into two categories:

The Major Arcana

  • The Major arcana are archetypes regarding the path of life or a journey.  They are in a numbered order in correspondence with a natural progression. We start with the Fool and end with the World…or back to the Fool depending on how the deck is numbered.
  • When these cards show up in a spread, they generally indicate a major point in the question.  For example if doing a spread for someone on a business venture and the Magician makes itself known in the Present place in the spread, then that card represents the quitrent’s progression on that path at that moment.  When multiple Major Arcana show up, then the person tends to be in a transition.
  • These cards are the easiest to learn, but sometimes make the asker panic.  While the Tower and Death are ominous cards, they don’t actually mean a literal death and literal destruction.  The Major Arcana is full of metaphors.

The Minor Arcana

  • Similar to playing cards, the Minor Arcana come in four suits: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles.  Also, they are numbered from 1 to 10 with court cards.
  • Numbered cards represent an attribute, whereas court cards stand for a person.
  • Associated with the element fire, Wands are the mental card.  Its aspects include creativity, inspiration, ambition, goal-setting, and dreams.
  • Cups deal with relationships and emotions and relate to the element water.
  • Swords come from the element air.  Action, intellect, power, conflict, and change rule this suit.
  • Pentacles deal with the material world, career, possessions, and material comfort.  The element earth relates to these cards.

For specific card meanings, there are plenty of comprehensive books on the subject.  My favorite is Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis.  However, never discount instincts and personal interpretations of the cards.  These can be more valuable to the reader than memorization.

Reversed Cards: This is a debated topic among tarot readers.  Some believe that each card has two meetings depending on the position of the card (i.e. right-side up or upside down).  I disagree and say the tarot was designed in balance and therefore there is no need for reversed card meanings.

© Ariadne Woods