January/February 2017 Issue
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Opening Your Hand: Setting up a Canaanite Shrine
This article was written by Tess Dawson
posted under Magic
Imagine for a moment walking into a home from 3,200 years ago, a home that sits poised on the edge in the middle of a fertile, rain-watered valley between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the deserts to the east. What would you see? What evidence would the family have left behind demonstrating their devotion to their deities? You would run your hands across a stone or mudbrick surface—a bench or a low table that would hold offerings. Atop this surface, you would see a basin, small images of the deities, perhaps an incense stand, astragali—sheep "knucklebones" for divination—and plates of leftover food and bones from meat offerings. We know that homes had domestic worship areas like this because of archaeological remains.
Receiving the deities' blessings requires an open hand and a willing exchange of goodwill. In an effort to open a connection with the Canaanite deities, building a shrine similarly to how it was done in ancient times is a good start. A shrine is a place to establish a relationship with the deities, where you can honor them and make offerings to them. It is important to remember that this place is primarily for them, not for you. This is not an art instillation to beautify the home or to aid you, although a good shrine does indeed do these things. This is a place where you can fall on your knees and revere these powerful beings. In creating a shrine for the deities, you create a special place for them in your life and home, a place where you can make offerings and prayers, a place where you can go for communion with them. Here is the process, step-by-step:
- Make sure your hands are clean before working with or on the shrine. If you just came in from gardening, scrub up first. When in doubt, place your hands in running water for a moment.
- Find the right spot and the right surface for the shrine. The surface should be flat, and ideally square or rectangular, and up off the floor. It can be a shelf, TV tray, dresser top, small plant stand (without the plant), and so on.
- Fix and repair any problem spots. If there are any needed repairs (such as scratches, rust spots, stains, broken pieces, and so on) for the shrine surface, shrine objects, or the floor and walls in the immediate area, they should be repaired. This is a place for the divine, and it should be the best you have to offer. A couple of scratches won't make a difference, but if the surface is ghastly, refinish it, touch it up, or at the very least put a lovely cloth over it and keep the cloth clean of dust, ash, or wax.
- Clean the area and the surface thoroughly. Dust, vacuum, scrub, and wash the area and the furniture in it. Wash any items that will be used at the shrine. Clean it off of clutter, then dust it and make sure it is presentable—enough even for a prim matriarch wearing white gloves and testing your housekeeping skills.
- Cleanse the area, objects, and the surface thoroughly. Do not use a sage smudge wand. Cleansing in a Canaanite religious and magical context involves water, myrrh incense smoke, or olive oil, or all three. If you use myrrh incense, make sure it is a high quality myrrh incense—many cheap incenses have dung in them and using dung on or near a Canaanite shrine is insulting. Anoint each item with olive oil before setting it up on the shrine. Purify it by sprinkling rose water or water with marjoram essential oil. Ask for god Choranu to cleanse the area, and make an offering to him.
- From now on, wash your hands or make sure that your hands are clean every time before approaching the shrine. I usually keep a bowl of water nearby for cleansing. I fill the bowl with Lebanese rose water from the ethnic food section of the grocery store, or water with marjoram essential oil. I will rinse my hands with the water and sprinkle the water throughout the shrine to provide a continual cleansing. Change this water out at least every other day. The water should never be allowed to mold or sour.
- Find, make, or commission images of the deities or items to represent them. This is sometimes easier said than done, for the Canaanite deities are not as well known as other pantheons. Many of my images are printed off the Internet, hand drawn, or hand sculpted. Even if you cannot find images, go ahead and set up the shrine; images will eventually come. Use the shrine for offerings to them anyway. If you must use an image printed from the Internet, make a decent quality print on good cardstock or photo paper. To find the deity image, sometimes you may have to search under multiple variations of the deity's name.
- Place the images carefully and lightly anoint the images. When I anoint the images, I use the pinky and ring finger of my right hand and sweep across or dot their brows. Make certain the deities' images are the focus of attention at the shrine and make sure they are situated well, stable, and comfortably. As for placement of the images, some deities would rather not be placed together and some would like to be together. ‘Anatu and Baʻlu Haddu like to be together, but neither of them like to be near Yammu. Athiratu prefers not to be near Baʻlu Haddu, but likes to be near her consort Ilu. Yarikhu and Nikkalu like to be together. Shapshu doesn’t mind Kothar-wa-Khasis, or sometimes Rashap. None of them like demigods, ancestors, demons or daemons honored with the same status as a deity. And never, ever make offering to Motu, the god of Death. He is the god of death, not the god of the dead: he never received offering in ancient times and should not even today for he will eventually take all of us as offering.
- Always bow each time you approach the shrine to show respect to the deities. Deities should be treated as good, or better, than royalty. The deities are not human mental constructs, they are not archetypes, they are not symbols. They are real beings and worthy of our highest respect. The deities are qadish: full of splendor, holy fire, passion, separateness, spirit, and even of "holy dread;" they are "set apart." When I bow, I bob at the knees before I bow, and then I bow fully to the extent where my head is near my waist. Why the knee-bob? The Ugaritic word for blessing is related to the Ugaritic word for knee, and it happens that this linguistic association carries on even into Hebrew. When you approach their space, avoid using foul language.
- Keep disturbances away from the shrine. Put the shrine in a place where the animals do not get to, and keep them off the shrine. Always teach kids the most appropriate way to approach the shrine. Teach visitors not to violate the shrine. Do not use the shrine as a catch-all for anything: mail, keys, and clutter are not appropriate. Remember that this is a place for offerings to the deities, it is not a place to haphazardly place tchotchkies or stuff you plan on putting away later.
- Offerings! Be sure to set something out as an offering as frequently as possible. I would suggest making offerings as a part of your daily activities. Choose from incense, food (though avoid pork with the Canaanite pantheon) and drink, and olive oil perfumed with essential oils. Learn what scents, foods, and drinks are favorites of which deities. Most of the deities like myrrh incense and myrrh scented olive oil.
I keep an incense holder on the shrine, too, and I frequently make incense offerings throughout the day. I will sometimes put a beverage on the shrine, or meat. No pork; no pork ever. They have a preference for farmed meats above game meats—beef and lamb are favorites, as is beef liver and some organ meats. Choranu doesn't like goat, but the rest of them seem to like goat. Most of them don't care for beans unless it's in the form of hummus. Ilu loves shawarma and gyros. Most of them love Mediterranean fruits and nuts: pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates, almonds, candy-coated almonds, carob chips, and so on. They like whole wheat flat bread and olive oil, or even an olive oil infused with spices. They like Mediterranean cooking—from Greek, to Lebanese, to Turkish, to Palestinian. They love wine. Obviously, do not offer "fast food." Food offerings of this sort are often referred to as shalamu (singular) or shalamuma (plural), which literally translate as "peace offerings." These offerings are made to strengthen, restore, heal a being, and to promote wellness and wellbeing. Many of them like honey, especially some of the goddesses.
They also like offerings of "light" in the form of olive oil lamps or beeswax candles. They like scented oils and perfumes: the higher quality the better, and try to avoid artificial and chemical scents as much as possible. Many of them like essential oils dropped in olive oil—this is good both as offering, and as a substance with which to anoint their images. They love olive oil with drops of myrrh essential oil: this is called shamnu moru, myrrh oil. (Shamnu moru is also good for spiritual cleansing and healing purposes.) The simplest prayer to make when giving offering, if you would like to make a prayer, is "yishlam le-kumu," which means, "may there be restoration to you all."
After making offering, it is a good idea to take a step backwards away from the shrine before turning around. They don't like someone turning a back on them, up close. When stepping away from them, it is good to back away left foot first so your right foot is still towards them.
Keep the altar clean. Dispose of offerings by the next day; the Canaanites saw the next day as starting with the dusk. Clean the incense ash off at least once a week and do a little dusting with a clean cloth or paper towel. When you dispose of liquids served in cups, do not overturn the cup. An overturned cup is bad luck. Instead, place the full cup under the faucet and let cool water run into the cup until it pushes out all of the offering liquid; this way the cup is now "empty."
That's really all there is to setting up a Canaanite shrine. Through this practice, you honor the deities, and you honor the polytheistic ancestors by keeping their ways. May your new shrine connect you further with the ancient deities of Canaan.
Tess Dawson (New England) is one of the foremost authorities in the field of Canaanite mysticism and spiritual practices. A devotee as well as scholar of the tradition, Dawson leads the largest online Canaanite polytheist group, teaches workshops on the... Read more
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