hearthstone: (Default)
2014-05-16 04:42 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: J is for The Junk Drawer

Most of us have at least one place in their home reserved for things that have no other place. A kitchen drawer, an upstairs closet, even an entire room if you're particularly lucky or particularly disorganized. That one drawer in the kitchen, right next to the drawers of neatly stacked flatware or big spoons and spatulas. It might hold scratch pads and thumbtacks and spare keys whose locks are long gone, packets of ketchup and soy sauce left over from takeout meals, a screwdriver with a broken handle, pencils sharpened to a third of their original size, and dust, always a bit of dust. Things not good enough to belong in the ordered part of the house but too good to discard, things that might be useful someday and certainly will if you throw them out, things you didn't feel like finding a better spot for at the time.

If you've been pagan for a few years, or a few decades, you probably have a similar place reserved for old altar implements and ritual items you no longer use, either often or perhaps at all.

Sometimes these items are put aside because of an upgrade--I have a number of statues that are now in a cabinet because I found one I liked better to represent a particular deity. (Aphrodite has her own altar so all her statues are on it except the one that's on the Big Greek Altar, but generally this is not an option.) I have three Hekate figures that I tried before I found the one I use now; those are stored away but I have no intention of getting rid of them. (I wouldn't mind a dedicated Hekate shrine someday but now is not the time for it.)

Sometimes it's because a path has taken a new direction. For example, I started out 20-some years ago on a Wiccan-inspired neopagan path; thus I have a lovely wand I made, years ago, from apple wood and amethyst, and while I have no use for it at present, I still value it and intend to keep it--just not on any of my current shrines or altars.

Sometimes it's because there are things you're just not using right now but will again soon, or maybe not soon, but sometime, and you need to be able to find them. For example, I am not, at this particular moment in time, dealing with color spirits--but I will, again, and I will need the tools I use, the stones and colored candles and words to focus on. Right now, they are in the drawer, waiting for me.

Sometimes it's because there are some things that just accumulate--candle holders, tea lights, incense and matches, little offering bowls, tiny bottles and boxes and bags, stray herbs in unmarked jars--and they have to live somewhere.

In any case, here is this catch-all, this pagan junk drawer, and it is full of things, important things, less important things, unimportant things, and who can tell the difference?

I know that some folks will "decommission" items they are no longer using, particularly items that have been charged or are otherwise things of power. (This issue has not really arisen for me, given my general lack of woo or energy-awareness, but if I were to feel the need to do this I imagine I would bury it in salt for a while and hope for the best because I certainly couldn't tell if it had worked.)

Another option is to gift someone else with something that is perhaps wonderful but is not for you.

I am not comfortable with the notion of simply throwing away something that has spent a fair amount of time on an altar or shrine. Then again I am a bit of a packrat so I am not all that comfortable with the notion of simply throwing anything away!

So finally there's the option I have taken--put them away, store them, keep them safe. Because just in case. Because you never know. Because you'll know what to do with them when the time comes to do it. Or because your descendants deserve a surprise or three when they are sorting through your stuff!
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-05-12 05:06 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: J is for (There's Always Room For) Jello

If you are of a certain age, you'll remember the advertising catchphrase, and maybe even the tune: "There's always room for J-E-L-L-O!" I don't know that I ever gave it much thought, but the principle seemed to be that, for something so good, no matter how big the rest of your meal, you could always manage to get down just that little bit more as long as it was Jello.

It may have been a good marketing campaign, but as a guide for life it is a problem.

Sayings like "If you want something done, ask a busy person," and "If something is important to you, you make the time for it" are also a problem.

They are a problem because they imply that if we are not doing certain things (studying, reading, performing or attending ritual, building altars, writing prayers, etc.), any number of things that we or others think we should be doing, it is entirely a matter of choice. If it was really important to us to go to that Yule rite, we would be there. If we really wanted to fit in half an hour of devotional practice every day, we would do it. If we do not do these things, it is because we don't place enough importance on them. We feel ashamed, or perhaps others shame us, calling our limitations excuses.

And sometimes that point is valid--some folks don't go to festivals because there are non-spiritual things in their life that are more important to them (although really I figure that is their business as well, priorities are a personal thing). They don't make time to pray because they don't want to (also a personal thing in my opinion). Even given the time/energy/health/money, they would focus on other things.

But that's certainly not the case across the board, and I would not even attempt to guess as to someone else's reasons for doing or not doing whatever it is they do or do not do.

Time and energy, for most of us (I won't say all because I don't know you all), are finite. Only we know how much of each we have to spare.

Sometimes there is no time. There is no space. There is no energy. Sometimes there is no room.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-05-05 09:43 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: I is for Inspiration

I was going to write about this last week (the first "I" week) and didn't, wrote about something else. Now I have to, and the question I ask myself is "How do I write about inspiration when my own inspiration well has currently run dry?"

Inspiration, for me, is something that comes and goes. It has never been a constant thing--sometimes it lasts for days or weeks, occasionally for months, but eventually it will come to an end and I will be given time to recover from those days/weeks/months when ever moment not devoted to necessary other things is spent writing. It is a wonderful thing, even a thrilling thing, or at least I know it is because I remember it being, but right now in the drought season I cannot really remember it.

Which doesn't mean that I cannot write if I need something written. Generally I can. But I don't get that same flow where you just never stop. I can't, right now, say that I miss it; it is a big old time sink, after all, and the rest of life is still there waiting and rolling on its way regardless of whether the muses are visiting. But it is an "is or is not" sort of thing, isn't it?
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-05-02 04:28 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: I is for Informality

I am not a formal person. I spend my days in jeans and comfy shirts, no bra, no shoes or socks, hair unstyled (but clean!), and (it goes without saying) no makeup.

Most of my one-on-one interactions with deity are likewise not formal. I say my daily prayers (there are currently eleven prayers, addressing a total of 53 deities) while I am in the shower (a habit that has stuck from the days when my daughters were babies--they are now 15 and 19--and shower time was the only almost-guaranteed privacy I had). I am pretty good at staying with my daily practice, the personal, informal parts. I am less good with festivals and holidays--and when I do mark them, it's likely to be low-key.

I do, of course, celebrate the heathen high days with my kindred, and these are, of course, more structured. But they are still relatively straightforward and informal compared with those held by some other groups. That's our group, though--we are a direct bunch and we tend to like to get to the point of things.

In theory, I find complex ritual fascinating; the interweaving of the elements to form a pleasing whole is an art and there are some incredibly talented ritual artists. In practice, and this is purely personal, I find that a lot of structure tends to overwhelm the personal experience. For me, things I do in quiet corners are the most powerful.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-04-20 02:59 pm

Pagan Blog Project: H is for (My) Heathenry

I've always considered myself, within heathenry, to be a heathen--just a heathen, nothing more specific, nothing more defined. (I've heard that some heathens have an issue with multifaith folks who count heathenry among their practices; maybe I am just fortunate in the people I have met, but this hasn't been my experience so I'm not going to address it here, apart from mentioning that I decided years ago not to use the word "Asatru" to describe myself and that was one of the reasons.)

I tend to prefer an Icelandic model and I tend to relate best (within the heathen context) the gods in their Scandinavian form--Thor, Odin, Freyja and Frey and so forth. (I'm a pretty hard polytheist but the Thunor/Thor et al. line is one I find a bit hazy.) I have a greater comfort level with the Vans and those of the Aesir who don't mind a less structured approach, and am particularly fond of Sif and Skadhi; I grew up surrounded by woods and fields and gardens and I think that sort of thing affects a person. And although I think the heathen gods are pretty approachable on the whole, I do tend to be a bit more formal with gods like Tyr and Heimdall and Forseti and Frigg. (I am seeing a theme. Are you seeing a theme?)

Anyway, for my own use would I sat down and came up with this little list, where I put myself on various scales:

Formality: Low to Moderate
Ritual structure: Moderate
Woo level: Low
UPG level: Low to Moderate
Lore level: Moderate to Moderately High
God focus: Moderately High to High
Community focus: Moderate to High
Nature focus: Moderately Low

Is there anything I left out?
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-04-15 09:41 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: H is for Hearth and Home

Paganism, they say, is a nature-based religion. It's one of the primary identifiers, one of the things that's always included in "What is a Pagan" articles and lists. I think it's one of the reasons some pagans and polytheists specify that they are "devotional" or "god-focused," although most nature-based pagans I know don't actually worship nature per se, rather honoring nature and worshipping nature-focused deities. (Not that there's anything wrong with worshipping nature, of course, although some use the term "nature-worshipper" as they would use the term "idol-worshipper," dismissively implying a literal and simplistic lack of understanding.)

Hey, I like nature. I grew up in the country, playing in the woods and fields, climbing rock piles, digging in the dirt. We always had a garden (I still remember the green zinnias I planted in my own little plot as a kid). As an adult I am more of an "indoorsy" person--camping's uncomfortable, and fires on the beach don't provide a lot of warmth once the sun goes down--but I still love my rosebushes and am awestruck by the northern lights in winter.

But as far as location goes, nature is not the focus of my religion. And yes, I am deity-focused. But the place where my faith resides is my home.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-04-06 03:41 am
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: G is a Gift for a Gift

As a semi-reconstructionist polytheist, I don't necessarily adhere to every single aspect of historical practice, but reciprocity is a principle that I hold to absolutely. A gift for a gift. The responsibility of host to guest and of guest to host. "I give that you might give." Ghosti.

The role of exchange in building relationship is something a lot of folks seem to take issue with, and it is certainly a thing that can be done in a bare and contractual way--but if that is what you are doing, you are missing out.

Every relationship--every one--has some element of exchange to it.

The existence of the exchange confirms in some way the worth of the relationship.

There is no such thing as something for nothing.

(As a side-note, years ago, when folks would try to convince me to sign up with their church, one of frequent selling points was the claim that what their god gave was "something for nothing," that what he gave was given with no strings attached. That, of course, was untrue. That whole "no other gods" thing is a pretty big string. After all, if someone offered to be your friend, but only if you had no other friends, while they maintained similar relationships with any number of others, would that seem like a good deal? Not all Christian religions take this approach, of course, but enough do that this was not a one-time experience.)

An offering is not a bribe. It is not buying favor. It is a single piece of a relationship.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-03-27 08:33 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: G is for Gaul and Germania

I will confess that while I have a long-standing relationship with heathen gods, and a sometimes working relationship with Celtic gods, there is a special place in my heart for the gods of that bit of Europe where the boundaries between the two were particularly unclear.

Tribes are tribes, Celtic and Germanic, but there was at a certain time a lot of back and forth. Similarities in style of worship. Similarities that sometimes reach the point of sameness--all those statues of the Matronae, sometimes clearly identified as Celtic, sometimes certainly Germanic, sometimes of uncertain origin.

Interpretatio Romana helped this along but cannot account for it all, and surely not for the sheer scale of it.

There's also the dearth of information--much of what we do know is from the archaeological record. Some is linguistic, some is extrapolated from cultures with a greater (or any) mythological tradition.

But what it comes down to, for me at least, is that the line is finer than we sometimes think between what is Celtic and what is Germanic.

Which, for me, works out pretty well. I can see where the mileage on this would vary.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-03-24 06:11 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: F is for Favorite

"Which is your favorite god?"

I am pretty tolerant of questions from folks who are not pagan or not polytheistic, but that one always stumps me.

There are gods I am closer to than others, yes.

There are gods I relate to more easily than others, yes.

There are gods I am more comfortable with than others, yes.

But a favorite? That's like asking me which is my favorite child--I really, truly, genuinely do not have one. The very concept makes no sense. Which is my favorite thing, air or water? Food or sleep? The sea or the sky?

No favorites here.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-03-18 08:45 pm
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: F is for Faith

One of the things that drew me first toward paganism was that faith was not required. As a likely-related note, one of my issues with Christianity was the focus on faith--the need to believe. Belief is not a thing you can force, or a thing you can choose. It is there or it is not. Faith is there or it is not.

So the notion of a religion based on practice--on things that are under your control--was huge for me.

Ten years down that road and suddenly, the faith was there. (Thank you, Aphrodite.)

Funny how that works.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-03-08 03:00 am
Entry tags:

E is for Every Day

I am, after all these years, still pretty good at keeping to my daily devotions.

Every day, I pray to the Norse gods, twenty-two of them. Every day, I pray to the Hellenic gods, also twenty-two (I am open to adding in either case but have not yet felt the need). Every day, I pray to Zeus, to Aphrodite, to Hekate, to Brigid, to Hathor and to Bast.

My daily devotions have expanded over the years, but I have kept to them for probably a decade or more.

Daily devotions quickly become habit, and although I'm not particularly organized in general I do manage to maintain them.

Now, non-daily devotions are another matter. Monthly and weekly observations just don't seem to stick in that same way. Seasonal rites are easier but still don't become such an integral part of my existence. Sometimes I manage well with calendars, but at other times I do not.

I've long thought that had to do with the fact that while a daily observance becomes automatic--if you go to bed without doing it it doesn't feel right, so you quickly learn not to forget--other rites lack that consistency. But lately it's occurred to me that a daily devotion (the ones I do, in any case) tend to have a direct, personal quality, perhaps because of the frequent contact. I suppose it's something to think about with regard to non-daily devotions and rites as well.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-02-21 04:17 pm

Pagan Blog Project: D is for Divination burnout

I got my first set of tarot cards when I was twelve years old, a knockoff Rider-Waite deck I think, a Christmas gift from my parents. I'd just gotten a book on fortune-telling from Scholastic Books (for those unfamiliar with Scholastic, you could order cheap paperbacks through your school, usually every few months), and while I had a palm to read and could make my own I Ching from popsicle sticks, making a set of tarot cards was well out of my artistic range.

I read for myself as a teenager; when I got to college I'd read for friends as well and got a great deal of practice. Even in my 20s and early 30s I kept up with it. I certainly acquired a sizable collection of tarot cards, although I always did prefer the ones that used the Rider-Waite symbolism.

But eventually I stopped. I've tried a few different methods of divination over the years--runes, ogham, etc.--but none of them have really stuck with me, either.

The older I get, the less interested I seem to be in divination. To some extent that makes sense--I think the older we get, the more control we feel we have over our lives and perhaps we feel we can handle what comes our way--but I'm also less interested in the analytic sorts of readings.

Maybe I just had my fill of the whole thing?
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-02-14 01:07 am

Pagan Blog Project: D is for Dionysos (or, On not being a mystic)

First off, I want to make it clear that I, myself, am not a Dionysian. I know a lot of Dionysians and they are pretty much all really cool people, but I am not among them.

So I am writing this piece about Dionysos from the point of view of one who is quite clearly not one of his.

But I'm also writing it as someone whose limited interactions with Dionysos resulted in some of the most profound and experiential god contact I've ever had.

More than a few years back I took an online class from one of my favorite Dionysians. Lots of study, lots of deep thought, lots of ritual. Nothing I haven't done for other deities at other times in other contexts. But as for what happened? That was different.

I heard things.

I saw things.

I had physical offerings disappear from my altar.

I had energy coursing through my body and out the top of my head.

(None of this had happened before, or since.)

And I was informed, very kindly but very specifically, that while I was not unwelcome, I was not one of his.

And I was fine with that. :)
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-02-07 01:47 pm

Pagan Blog Project: C is for the Celtic Gods

I am a semi-reconstructionist, multi-faith pagan. That means that I honor several groups of gods, each more or less within the parameters of their own custom. Those several groups of gods include (in order of appearance) the Greek gods, the heathen gods, and the Egyptian gods. I honor the heathen gods with my kindred, while the rest is wholly a solitary practice.

There's another group (I won't call them a pantheon because they really aren't) of gods, though, with whom I have a more complex, less definable relationship. I'm a little hesitant to use the word "relationship" because that seems to imply a constancy and consistency that is not there, but I think it's a broad enough term by definition that it applies.

Many years ago, my spiritual group decided to split the year between the Celtic and the heathen gods to reflect the current focus of group members. It's not an uncommon thing among mixed groups, solar festivals done with the Norse gods, fire festivals done with the Celtic ones. After a while, it became pretty obvious to all that, apart from Brigid, most of the Celtic deities were simply "not all that into us" while the heathen gods were readily and clearly present. We subsequently became solely a heathen group, which has worked well for roughly the last decade and a half.

In the mean time, I have continued to honor the Greek gods, and later the Egyptian deities, as an individual. The last gods I expected to hear from, ever, were the Celts.

So you can imagine my surprise when, not all that long ago, I started to find my attention drawn in that direction. Pretty soon I found myself writing prayers to them--first to the Irish gods, then the Welsh, and finally and most extensively to the gods of old Gaul and Britain, the gods we know so little about, whose tales are long gone, whose names are dug up from the dirt by archaeologists every so often. I'll admit that I have never been immune to obsessive fascinations, but this was a new level of all-encompassing, and I wrote and wrote and wrote for months, and in spite of the dearth of research material it was fast and fierce and the inspiration was steady. It was simply like nothing I'd ever encountered.

And then when it was done and I had written it all down and made it as available as I could, that was all. For a while I maintained a practice of saying the prayers, but then there was a point where that was no longer...I don't know, no longer a thing I was to do.

And apart from the prayer I say each day to Brigid (and not one of my own composition), that is where that relationship stands these days, and I am fine with that. I sometimes think of it as "work for hire" where I was paid in inspiration (and believe me, inspiration is excellent pay!). More often, I think of it as representative of the fluidity of the god-to-mortal relationship.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-01-31 12:26 am

Pagan Blog Project: C is for Candles

I hadn't planned to write about candles for the C week; candles are not really a large part of my practice these days. But I just looked up from my chair and saw candles everywhere. We had a power outage last night and my daughter brought down ALL the candles (a group of votives on a dinner plate puts out a good amount of light, by the way). We have many. So, candles.

I have a whole little cabinet with nothing but candles. Votive candles, mostly in white, or pink for Aphrodite. Tapers in various sizes and colors (extras in gold and silver) to light my altars or during prayer. Little spell candles in all different colors (just as a FYI, if you have a bunch of candles in all different colors, DO NOT store them all together for years at a time because the dyes will transfer). Tea lights in the most colors (for Temple of the Twelve devotions, among other things).

The thing is, I really don't find myself using candles nearly as much as I used to. When I set up Aphrodite's Lantern on her altar, I chose to use an electric salt lamp, both because the light needs to be constant and because it was the least expensive option among many. Three of my shrines are enclosed, so I tend to use battery-operated candles there for any but the briefest lighting, for safety reasons. My Goddess altar has fairy lights hanging, which is a marvelous effect in a cabinet altar. I also have battery-operated pillars on two of my larger altars (cream-colored on the Greek altar, pink on Aphrodite's) that I use on occasion.

So I suppose what I am really talking about here is the significance of a candle as opposed to other types of light.

There is something about a candle that is special. The sound and smell of the match being struck, the uneven flicker of the flame, the potential for revelation based in fire and smoke and shadows cast. And the fact that a lit flame is fragile and ephemeral, easily ended either intentionally or accidentally. A candle needs some care, some watching. If all I want is to see what I am doing, any sort of light will do although some are more atmospheric than others. Using candle-light expands the possibilities.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-01-24 02:18 am
Entry tags:

Pagan Blog Project: B is for Balance

Balance is something I strive for, in my life and in my spirituality. I don't always succeed at this; I tend to focus (obsess?) on one thing to the exclusion of others, and that seems to be the best way for me to be productive. In the short run, I may not always be in balance; hopefully in the long run I am.

Mind: I have a weakness for study and scholarship. I'm not a full-blown reconstructionist by any means, but I like to be well grounded in the historical worship of my gods, regardless of how closely I adhere to it in my own practice. And I am at home with books and research, so it's easy for me to slip into student mode and stay there.

Body: I'm relatively healthy, but this is really my weak area. I'm in lousy shape, and I don't get enough exercise. This is definitely where I am most off balance.

Spirit: I pray, I write for the gods, I keep my altars, I make offerings, I hold ritual. I do what is within my capability. I do not do what is not.

So I may not be the best example of a balanced individual, but as I said I do strive for it. I recognize that it isn't an easy thing, and I recognize that I will always be imperfect in this respect. It is a process, not something to be achieved, a constant sliding back and forth of weights on the scale.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-01-17 01:16 pm

Pagan Blog Project: B is for Books

At every stage of my pagan journey, books have been an important part. I'm a loner and a do-it-yourselfer, so seeking out a person-teacher was something I never really considered. Add to that the fact that I discovered paganism in the 90s before the internet really hit it big, and books were easily the best option.

So we have several boxes of Llewellyn in the attic. Occasionally someone borrows them, and I would never get rid of them (they are books, after all) but I don't get a lot of use out of them these days.

We have also five full shelves of scholarly and modern heathen titles and three of Hellenic titles, and an uncertain number of Celtic and Egyptian texts.

These days I am more and more likely to go for a Kindle version due to aging eyes and the font-enlarging option on the ebook reader, but I really like a paper book I can hold in my hands.

I do find, though, that these days I find myself spending less time among the books (depending on what I am working on at any given moment, of course--certainly when I am doing ADF study program work I have stacks of books on hand at all times). A lot of this is just that I don't need them as reference as often as I did when I was less experienced. I don't generally need an external reference to write a group heathen ritual, I have written enough of them :); however, if I were called on to prepare a group Hellenic rite I would want to look over some references, because I haven't done one in over a decade. Sometimes it's that I've already read everything I can find on a given topic.

But some is that, for one sort of reading, the internet has in great part replaced the book: anecdotal material and personal experience. I have a few books featuring this sort of knowledge (for example, Being a Pagan by Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond) but they were rare, and I suspect they are rarer now.

Actually, a lot of the books I buy now happen to be self-published, which is a wonderful thing--there are so many people with good information and knowledge to share whose work would never see paper if not for self-publishing. And not for a lack of quality--it's just that many of these books are never going to be of broad enough interest to attract a traditional publisher. But if you are someone who is interested in their comparatively narrow subject matter, they are like gold.
hearthstone: (Default)
2014-01-09 09:19 pm

PBP: A is for Altars

I am a big fan of altars, I truly am. Just click on the "altars" tag attached to this entry to see pictures of some of the altars and shrines I've had over the years.

As a visual person, I find a lot of inspiration and comfort in having these physical signs of devotion in sight; they are a frequent reminder of the role of the divine in my life. Technically I have seven altars or shrines upstairs and three downstairs, which sounds more overwhelming than it is. I use them all differently and relate to each in its own way.

For this post, though, I am going to talk about some of the practical aspects of having an altar or altars.

The finding and using of space.

Most of my altars and shrines are on top of furniture--chests of drawers and bookshelves, mostly. A couple are inside furniture that isn't being used for other things, and I have one small dedicated shrine cabinet. The main issue with this is that there are only so many surfaces in any home, and unless you live alone, some of these surfaces will be required by other people who need flat spots on which to put their keys or loose change or hairbrushes or coffee cups. There will be complaints if you try to claim too much territory, and it won't be pretty.

If you do live alone and/or have the space, you can have more dedicated pieces--I have seen pictures of tables, desks, cabinets, many pieces of furniture all being used to wonderful effect as shrines and altars. I've heard that some folks have an entire room dedicated as temple space, which would be lovely but not really doable for most of us.

A shelf hung on a wall can also be a good altar if it is in a low-traffic area. (I recommend against the wall directly beside one's bed, speaking from the personal experience of having a constant bruise on my right hip until I moved it elsewhere. :))

A plaque or wall-hanging or picture can be a shrine, depending on how you plan to use it--the hekataion at my front door is a plaque, and I say a prayer there every night. For these, you won't be able to leave offerings (or candles or incense) at the site but offerings and prayers can be made in other ways.

The finding and using of stuff.

If you looked at any of my altar pics you will note that I do, in fact, have a lot of stuff. However, I did not get it all at once; I accumulated it gradually over the decades. Some of it, I made. My Aphrodite altar is probably my oldest continuously-maintained shrine, but it is much, much fuller now than it was fifteen years ago. My Unknown Goddess shrine is my newest, but it contains a lot of things I already had on hand. Sometimes you can have a thing for years before you know why you have it.

What goes on my altars, anyway?

This really depends primarily on how I plan to use the space. I do keep a multipurpose working space; most of what is on it at any given time is whatever I am using. I don't tend to leave tools on an altar--usually I bring them out if I am going to need them, and keep them stored away otherwise. It's on the top of a chest of drawers and I keep tools and so forth in the top drawer (the rest hold clothing).

I like god-images. I really like god-images. Did I mention that I like god-images? Not everyone does, YMMV.

If it's a dedicated long-term shrine there will probably be gifts on it; Aphrodite has quite a bit of stuff, statues and jewelry, scented oil, books, stones, shells, shawls, jars, things I made for her and things I bought for her. My general Greek altar is made up of statuary but has gifts on it as well for some of the deities, likewise for my Kemetic altars. However, the "stuff" in the Kemetic altars stays there and is not used elsewhere, while the "stuff" on the Greek altar that isn't a gift (i.e. incense burners, candle holders and so forth) can be used elsewhere; gifts, of course, belong where they are and stay put regardless. (That difference is based primarily on my own UPG and sense of what's wanted.)

And just because this has been covered a lot online lately: food and drink offerings for the Kemetic gods, I consume after some time has passed; food and drink offerings for the Greek gods, I pour out.

I've always built altars visually, but my most recent one (the unknown goddess shrine) has insisted that everything that's not stuck on a wall be something I can pick up and touch. I'm not sure why that's important, but it is. I can use it in the dark or with my eyes closed. :)

An altar doesn't have to be forever.

Not only can altars change over time, they can also end. If the reason for the altar no longer stands, it is all right to (respectfully and mindfully) take it down.