A year ago, I became really obsessed with Wicca after picking up Scott Cunningham’s "Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner," the definitive handbook for us hermetic, aspiring witches.
As I read the book, I sort of fell in love with Mr. Cunningham, my wise, kind-hearted, eminently quotable guide. Wicca is a gorgeous religion, and I was initially attracted to the idea that, according to Scott (we’re on a first-name basis here), “Wicca doesn’t view deity as distant.” The Wiccan worldview is participatory and universal: it believes in the unity and sacredness of everyone and everything that is borne from the earth. “The Goddess and God are both within ourselves and manifest in all nature,” Scott writes, and that’s the most viable form of magic my curious-yet-skeptical mind could fathom.
But, being more book nerd than go-getter, my interest in ancient spirituality remained mostly between the pages and my ears: I read a shitload about Wicca; I pondered extensively about the nature of the Goddess; I composed verses revering the sun God and the moon Goddess, and recited them regularly for approximately three days. But I never went so far as to seal the deal with my adopted spirituality by erecting my own shrine, that mainstay of every good Wiccan household. I thought about making one. But I never did.
To celebrate my one-year Wicca-flirtation anniversary, I’ve made a resolution: I’m going to create a shrine, as per Scott Cunningham’s guidance. I’m committing to this thing.
As a self-directed religion, Wicca necessitates the practitioner’s full involvement: It’s up to you, not a priest or a rabbi, to develop your own, individualized relationship with the God and the Goddess. Though these natural forces are everywhere, at all times, the most regularized form of communication with the deities -– or, the creation of “magic” -– occurs at the site of the altar.
But before taking any altar-erecting action, Scott recommends setting up a basic shrine. And even before creating a shrine (or proto-altar), he recommends meditating regularly on the deities in order to familiarize yourself with their presences. These exercises can take the form of chanting the various names of the God (e.g., Kernunnos, Osiris, Apollo) and the Goddess (Diana, Lucina, Selena); studying images of the deities from different cultures, and feeling out which images resonate with you best; or simply sensing the vibrations of the sun and the moon and paying attention to the thoughts, images and emotions that arise for you.
When developing this rapport with the deities -- and when creating your altar, and enacting your rituals -- you just go with what feels right for you. The point of Wicca, Scott always emphasizes, is not about unleashing cell-splitting magic or finagling your ex-boyfriend to love you again (bad idea): It’s about becoming friends with these universal forces, feeling supported and loved by these natural energies, and better understanding your tiny little place in this big-ass world. It’s about doing things your way. It’s arguably the punkest of all the world’s religions.
In Chapter 2, “The Deities,” Scott provides a neat little diagram to outline the simplest shrine set-up for us basic Wiccan bitches. The purpose of the shrine is to initiate oneself into a relationship with the deities, rather than performing an involved magical ritual, so the components are pretty straightforward. These components include: a Goddess candle on the left (the feminine side); a God candle on the right (masculine side); and a vase of flowers, a censer, and an offering plate lined up down the middle. He also suggests adding “personal power objects,” like crystals, jewelry, or figurines.
The format of the ritual itself is up to you. But Scott suggests coming to your shrine with an offering, lighting the candles and incense, chanting a little prayer or verse to invoke the deities, and then sitting before your shrine in quiet meditation. Scott’s guidelines are extremely vague, which is a little maddening (what does it mean to “contemplate the deities and your growing relationship with them”? What is “an offering of some kind?” Do I really have to say “O Great Ones!” Feels a little Satany, tbh). But it’s also nice to be able to customize my shrine and decide what I do with it.
I compile a list of the necessary items, put on my most magical playlist (Buffalo Springfield, Eisley, Mazzy Star), fasten on my hamsa necklace (wrong religion, but I figure some extra magical oomph can’t hurt), then head out to Enchantments, New York’s one-stop shop for all your supernatural needs. As soon as I step into the store, I see a familiar lime-green binding winking at me from the bookshelf: it’s Scott Cunningham’s book. This feels like a metaphysical high-five.
First up on my list: candles. Scott recommends red for the God and green for the Goddess, but this particular color combination feels inappropriately Judeo-Christian for my purposes. I settle for a white Goddess candle and a yellow God candle, the poor man’s gold and silver.
Next on my list is incense and a censer. I’m not exactly sure what a censer is supposed to look like -- surely Scott doesn’t mean that bedazzled swinging globe of Catholic fame -- so I settle for a basic wooden incense tray. I pick one at random from the stack, and am heartened to see it’s engraved with crescent moons -– which look exactly like my crescent moon tattoo! I take it as another sign of support from the deities and/or Scott Cunningham’s ghost.
Then I face a rather daunting wall of incense, and I decide to go with whatever colors and smells entice me. I settle on rose and cedarwood, and when I get home I look up their respective magical properties. Cedarwood is used in many shamanic cultures to cleanse sacred spaces of negative energies, and also to summon helpful spirits during ritual. I take this eerily apt description as validation of my growing relationship with the deities. Rose, pretty obviously, is a Goddess symbol that invokes love. Looks like I may be doing some boyfriend-related magic, after all.
As I’m checking out my goods, I feel compelled to rummage through a cardboard box of stones embossed with Nordic runes. I found Scott’s chapter on runes especially interesting, and I’ve also been binge-watching "Vikings," so I allow myself to randomly pick two to use as my personal power items. I consult the handy guide written on the box: turns out I’ve chosen the creativity rune and the love rune. I’m sensing a theme here.
Last on my supernatural grocery list is a bouquet of seasonal flowers. Because I am a product of our sterilized monotheistic modern culture, I don’t actually know what flowers naturally bloom in early September. By now I’m used to not knowing what I’m doing here, so I think WWSCD? and go with my gut. I pick out a lovely bunch of blooms in bright orange, my favorite color.
Scott also includes a chapter on special Wiccan tools you can use to spruce up your shrine and enhance your ritual, like a cauldron (!), a magic knife (!!), or a crystal ball (!!!). This, too, feels a little cult-y to me -- I’m not sure I could wield a wand without feeling like a LARPer -- but I am intrigued. “These tools,” Scott placates, “aren’t necessary to the practice of Wicca. They do, however, enrich rituals and symbolize complex energies.”
I’m happy with my bare-bones shrine, but I decide I’ll slowly incorporate some tools, if only to give me more incentive towards working up to a full-on altar. I go for what I think will be the simplest to integrate into my ritual, and also the easiest to find: a broom. Unfortunately, this is not for flying on. Rather, the broom is used in Wiccan rituals for actual (or metaphysical) cleaning purposes, to shoo away stale energy and bad juju around the altar before beginning the ritual proper.
Scott suggests making your own magical broom by gathering “an ash staff, birch twigs, and a willow binding. The ash is protective, the birch is purifying, and the willow is sacred to the Goddess.” I love the idea of making my own broom. I imagine myself in milkmaid braids and an embroidered caftan, maybe with some Enya cooing in the background, nonchalantly forging my sacred tools.
Unfortunately, I live in New York and don’t have ready access to fallen twigs that haven’t probably been peed on. Also, how does one go about making a broom? So I settle for a ready-made broom from Enchantments, but immediately feel guilty about this indulgence as a) it’s $40, and b) this requires making the helpful saleswoman climb up on a chair in order to cut down my broom of choice. It’s all in the name of the deities, I assure myself.
For the actual shrine, I decide to use my vintage nesting side-table, on which are currently perched a book of Hindu meditations and a bodhisattva head. Wrong religion again, but I think it’s a sign of the table’s innate spiritual properties.
Then I carefully arrange my lovingly collected items, making sure to set an intention of good vibes as I go. All the elements are coming together beautifully, and I’m liking the unintentional (nay, spiritually-inspired) color coordination of the orange offering bowl and the orange flowers. I’m also pleased to discover that the broom smells extremely good, like incense, and I can hang it up to frame the shrine in a very official-looking manner.
The shrine is super pretty, but I feel like something’s missing -- like it needs one more element to seal the whole set-up, to really infuse it with my heart and soul. I look around my apartment and settle on my album collection; Paul Simonon’s artfully bent, Fender-smashing figure calls to me like London called to him. I perch my most beloved album against the wall, behind the bouquet of flowers. There: now it’s all mine.
God and Goddess, I’m ready for you. Let’s make some magic.