Erecting Shrines in Urban Areas

(Photographs by Russell Jacobs, @russ_owl )

In Brooklyn, subway travelers were shocked and delighted to find a makeshift, cardboard shrine to Mercury, god of travel. This may have been erected as a form of art, or it may have been a tangible plea to the god to keep the subway trains running safely and on time. Though it has long since been taken down, it lives permanently now on the internet, in the form of photographs that have been shared almost as widely and frequently as the ruins of more “permanent” shrines to the god, erected long ago with stone.

The appearance of a shrine to a Pagan god in such a busy thoroughfare may have been jarring in the Western world, but in the East it is far more common. Shrines are still regularly erected and tended in Japan, even in bustling cities, and certainly there are Catholic equivalents (called “wayside shrines”) in places such as Italy and Bavaria. Travelers leave offerings, often in the form of incense or small coins, and there are often small, local celebrations which entail the yearly upkeep and revitalization of such holy places.

The United States is fairly young, as countries go, but even here we have a version of this. As impermanent as the shrine to Mercury in the subway, the most common wayside shrine in the U.S. is erected in memorial of souls who have lost their lives along our roads and highways. Here, the offerings take the form of flowers, photos of the deceased, even stuffed animals and toys if one of the dead was a child. Similar shrines may also pop up in front of homes where a murder took place.

A few modern Pagans even view the erection of temporary shrines as a sort of religious obligation, reminding the world that we are here, our gods are here, and that their worship has never gone away. Similar to how some Zen practitioners may write with a wet brush upon a slate board, knowing that their work will fade away, these modern Pagans use chalk, printed photos, and bits of the natural landscape to erect tiny, temporary sacred spaces. These can be troublesome in a purely natural environment, where the stacking of stones can disrupt the habitat of native species, but in a city there is always someone to sweep away the “clutter”. A shrine that is erected on Tuesday will almost certainly be gone by Saturday.

Though outsiders to a faith or culture may view shrines as garbage, graffiti, or temporary nuisances, for many they are a call to be mindful of spiritual obligations in a time when so much of our world feels as if it is rushing at breakneck speed towards some terrible goal. They are reminders of the impermanence of life, of our tenuous grasp on this world, and of our duties to the ones that lay beyond the veil. 

[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]

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