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.
Herbs, gemstones, or other magical tools
Objects that can be found on shrines are a little different
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.
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.
I have no idea where the concept of NOT cleaning your altar came from. Something about not wanting to drive away good energy or some such shenanigans. But let’s be real here. If those “good vibes” are so easy to drive away, then perhaps they were never that useful to you. So here’s a quick guide to changing things up in your sacred space.
After Messy Spells: This post was inspired by an incident in which I burned a piece of parchment and the ash went EVERYWHERE. Trust me, you have to in such circumstances.
Before Space Clearing: Unless it is an emergency (or you’re out of paper towels), you should always dust your space before cleansing it. I know this may seem redundant if you use incense or sage to smudge the area, but still it is an important step in the process.
Before Rearranging: New statue you are incorporating? Perfect moment to take a cleaning cloth to the items on your altar.
Consider Earth-Friendly Cleansers: If you are concerned with synthetic or abrasive chemicals coming in contact with spiritual items, research essential oil based recipes.
Other Ways to Change Things Up:
Fresh Flowers: Easy to do and a way to strengthen your connection to the Earth.
Seasonal Candles or Crystals: A simple way to change with the seasons. Consider shape candles and rough cut stones.
Altar Clothes: Inexpensive and great for dinged-up tables.