The Importance of Altars

Kamidana, or Shinto household altar. "Sacred straw rope at New Year's,shimenawa,katori-city,japan" by katorisi - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sacred_straw_rope_at_New_Year%27s,shimenawa,katori-city,japan.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sacred_straw_rope_at_New_Year%27s,shimenawa,katori-city,japan.jpg

Kamidana, or Shinto household altar, decorated for O-Shogatsu (New Year). “Sacred straw rope at New Year’s,shimenawa,katori-city,japan” by katorisi – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Up to now, I do not have a permanent altar or kamidana (Shinto altar) in my house. There are several reasons for this. One is that my altar to my patron deity Inari Okami is located outside my house, because I put it there specifically to honour our local foxes (an indoor altar would therefore be inappropriate because that isn’t where the foxes live!). Another reason is that we have limited space in my house, and as my husband isn’t Pagan I don’t want him to feel like all the Pagan stuff in my life is taking over the house. Thirdly, I try to perform all my rituals outside, as I believe that this puts me more in touch with the spirits of nature than a ritual performed in my living room. And finally, a permanent altar can be quite a big commitment in terms of time and money; this is especially true of a kamidana. In Shinto tradition, a kamidana needs to be set up just right, with the correct items in their correct places, and be regularly  and properly maintained or one risks upsetting the kami (according to one of my Japanese friends, this is especially true of Inari-sama). Additionally, the centrepiece of a true kamidana should be the ofuda – a paper charm instilled with the spirit of the kami – which is not only rather pricey but also not the easiest thing to obtain outside of Japan. This is compounded by the fact that in Shinto tradition, an ofuda should be replaced with a new one every year.

However, the other day I watched this video made by the author of the A Fox of Inari blog, of the author’s own personal kamidana to Inari-sama. The kamidana is so beautiful and even on film, it radiates a kind of spiritual power. I could almost smell the wax of the glowing candles and the aroma of the incense and it made me feel very warm and serene just to watch it. It made me yearn for some kind of indoor altar of my own – and that’s when I realised that altars are not only important to honour the deities, but also to us devotees ourselves.

The video made me understand that altars function as a kind of spiritual retreat, a place where we can spend quality time with our deities and achieve a tranquil and meditative mindset that’s perfect for reaching out to the spirits and listening to what they might have to say. I would love to have a little spot in my house where I can go at any time to feel at peace and contemplate the spiritual world.

At the moment, my outside altar to Inari-sama doesn’t really hold this function for me. While I do like to be at my altar, I don’t always feel so serene there, because I feel very exposed to all the neighbours (lots of windows overlook our courtyard), and the area itself isn’t that pretty – it’s just a bit of concrete patio filled with junk. It’s pretty hard to make the altar look nicer – because it’s outdoors, it’s at the full mercy of rain, wind, slugs and cats, so anything I put out to decorate the altar gets grubby or knocked over or broken pretty quickly. While I do have some plans to improve the outdoor altar by taking inspiration from hokora, I know that it will never make me feel at complete ease while it remains  under the public eye and exposed to the elements.

I would therefore like to try setting up some kind of inside altar – perhaps not to Inari-sama, but perhaps one to another deity I feel drawn to such as Hecate, or maybe even just a generalist Eclectic Pagan shrine to all the various incarnations of the deities. It’ll mean taking up some space but overall, I would like to have a place that can give me the same feeling of spiritual peace that A Fox of Inari’s kamidana gives me.

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2 Comments

Filed under Shinto / Japanese Religion

2 responses to “The Importance of Altars

  1. Pingback: My new indoor altar | Trellia's Mirror Book

  2. Pingback: Tokonoma – Japan’s “secular altars” | Trellia's Mirror Book

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