Spiritual Discernment

Spiritual Discernment
by Sannion

In one of the more curious anecdotes from Eunapius’ Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, a group of gullible students were attending a theurgic seance wherein an Egyptian priest conjured a visible apparition of what purported to be the God Apollon, but when the Neoplatonic holyman Iamblichos inspected it he laughed and (I’m paraphrasing here) proclaimed, “Why are you falling to your knees filled with reverent terror – this is just the ghost of a humble gladiator!”

Iamblichos was hardly a hidebound skeptic; in fact he engaged in a protracted dispute with his elder colleague (and former teacher) Porphyry over the efficacy and appropriateness of magic, divination, demonolatry and related topics, most famously – and adroitly – defending these noble practices in his treatise De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum. It was primarily because he took such matters so seriously that he advocated the application of reasoned inquiry or what the Christian mystics came to call “spiritual discernment” when encountering paranormal phenomena. The consequences are simply too high not to.

Man may well be the measure of all things, as Protagoras averred, but we’re not very high up on the food chain when one considers the profuse array of divine and spiritual entities who inhabit this world alongside us. Not only do they vastly outstrip us in knowledge, power and access to other planes of existence but they are not constrained by any kind of universal moral code. There are dangerous and deceptive forces out there who want nothing more than to see the human race wiped from this planet – and they aren’t even necessarily what one would consider “evil” beings. Those exist too, in their plenitude, as well as things that are hurt, confused, scared, lonely or trapped.

Indeed, much of the work that the ancient Bacchic Orphics did involved seeking deliverance for these beings, as we see in both Plato:

But the most astounding of all these arguments concerns what they have to say about the gods and virtue. They say that the gods, too, assign misfortune and a bad life to many good people, and the opposite fate to their opposites. Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant things and feasts. Moreover, if he wishes to injure some enemy, then, at little expense, he’ll be able to harm just and unjust alike, for by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the gods to serve them. And they present a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, offspring as they say of Selene and the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Republic 2.364a–365b)

And the Derveni Papyrus:

… prayers and sacrifices appease the souls, and the enchanting song of the magician is able to remove the daimones when they impede. Impeding daimones are revenging souls. This is why the magicians perform the sacrifice as if they were paying a penalty. On the offerings they pour water and milk, from which they make the libations, too. They sacrifice innumerable and many-knobbed cakes, because the souls, too, are innumerable. (col. 6.1-11)

In these quotes we also see what sets our religious specialist apart from the masses, permitting them to command respectable fees for their service: they possess superior knowledge. This ἐπιστήμη allowed them to better navigate strange terrain and be on a more elevated footing with the parahuman entities whom they engaged with on behalf of their clients.

What did this knowledge consist of?

  • The ability to recognize who they were encountering through certain signs or other means of communication.
  • Diagnoses of psychospiritual ailments.
  • The knowledge of appropriate songs, stories, ceremonies, offerings, cures, taboos and other magicoreligious prescriptions.
  • How to bind, loosen and trace the threads.
  • Methods of adapting all of the above to the particular situation of the client.

This was a massively competitive and high stakes profession – slip-ups could result in damage to a client’s physical or mental health which in turn would bring shame and ill-repute upon the Orpheotelest, mantis or goes. When one’s livelihood depends entirely on word of mouth having a tarnished reputation can be disastrous, so they made damn sure they knew what they were talking about before recommending a particular course of action.

That’s why they exercised this necessary faculty. Why you need to is because you’re about to encounter a host of unfamiliar and quixotic Spirits, and if you aren’t cunning and careful there’s a very real chance some of them may eat you alive, or worse. Hell, some will probably try even if you are.  

These beings are weird and unsettling and difficult to pin down, even when there is not such an antagonistic element to one’s encounters with them. They inhabit the blurry margins between our world and those of dream and death. They play with form and meaning, constantly shifting and recreating themselves like creatures of smoke and wine. They are hungry, mischievous and fey with a morality all their own. And every last one of them is completely insane.

Don’t hope to best them.

You can’t, any more than you can elude the Shadder:

Some creatures hunt. Some creatures forage. The Shadder lurk. Sometimes, admittedly, they skulk. But mostly, they just lurk. The Shadder do not make webs. The world is their web. The Shadder do not dig pits. If you are here you have already fallen. There are animals that chase you down, run fast as the wind, tirelessly, to sink their fangs into you, to drag you down. The Shadder do not chase. They simply go to the place where you will be, when the chase is over, and they wait for you there, somewhere dark and indeterminate. They find the last place you would look, and abide there, as long as they need to abide, until it becomes the last place that you look and you see them. You cannot hide from the Shadder. They were there first. You cannot outrun the Shadder. They are waiting at your journey’s end. You cannot fight the Shadder, because they are patient, and they will tarry until the last day of all, the day that the fight has gone out of you, the day that you are done with fighting, the day the last punch has been thrown, the last knife-blow struck, the last cruel word spoken. Then, and only then, will the Shadder come out. They eat nothing that is not ready to be eaten. Look behind you. (Neil Gaiman, The Shadder)

But you can learn to dance with them, to understand their ways and how they work in our world, and if you are very good and very clever you may even, in time, come to run with instead of from them.

And the first step of that is mastering discernment.

How do we know any of the things that we think we know?


Other people’s testimony.

The direct experience of our senses.

It’s been a couple decades since I took an intro to epistemology class in college so I could be missing a couple, but that trio is pretty much it.

Not a one of them is 100% reliable – hell philosophers are still trying to convince one another that they really do exist – and without much success. I’m a pragmatist, so I don’t concern myself with trifles of that sort but I’m also aware that I am making such an existential assumption and that is key.

In life – and especially the life of a religious specialist – you want to make as few assumptions as possible, and when you do you need to factor that into the decisions you make. Assuming isn’t just sloppy, it creates vulnerability and confusion and can set off a whole chain of unintended and undesirable consequences.

To guard against assumptive thinking memorize the following questions and apply them promiscuously:

  • What is it you know?
  • How do you know it?
  • Why is that a reliable source of information?
  • Are there other ways to arrive at the same conclusion?
  • Is everyone operating with the same understanding of the relevant terms? If not why, and how is that affecting their decision-making process?
  • What difference does it make if one or another piece of information, despite appearances to the contrary, is wrong? What if everything is wrong?

Obviously, there are situations where we cannot know the answers to these questions, or we don’t have the luxury of being able to conduct such an extensive audit because a snap decision must be made and sometimes this information just isn’t terribly helpful.

In which case you either perform divination or trust your gut.

As an intellectual and an artist and an avid explorer of the further reaches of the human experience I tend to be of the opinion that individual, rational consciousness is a pretty nifty thing. But as an evolutionary strategy it’s not very popular among the myriad lifeforms that inhabit this planet along with (and inside) us, particularly the more successful ones. Even among hominids it’s a relatively recent experiment and the jury’s still out on its respective merits. (If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; that shit’ll have you doing your best Keanu Reeves impression.) Which means that we have all kinds of ways of navigating through this world of ours that we never or rarely access because we’ve been conditioned to favor that individual, rational consciousness complete with all of its biases and limitations. Though there are many other approaches I would like to emphasize here that mix of intuition, instinct and hypersensitivity we call “the gut.” (Or the heart, the spleen, the nose, etc. Different cultures have different idiomatic organs of perception, most of which are biologically indeterminate.)

Whatever it is, or how it works – use it to help bring clarity to uncertain situations. No method should be relied on exclusively, not even divination – we need all of them working in concert to be at our best. And as with most abilities, disuse degrades them. It’s something you need to develop and maintain through rigorous application and experimentation. 

Thus far we haven’t so much been discussing spiritual discernment as cognition, critical thinking skills and tools for decision making but before we move on to our intended topic I would like to share another valuable technique, particularly when one encounters a logistical error, paradox, obstacle or dead end and that’s the Thread of Ariadne.

It was a commonplace in Plato’s time to compare the quest for truth to the beguilingly circuitous paths of the Labyrinth, as we see in the Euthydemos:

Then it seemed like falling into a Labyrinth: we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first.

As Carl Kerényi archly observed in his commentary on this passage:

Thus the present-day notion of a labyrinth as a place where one can lose his way must be set aside. It is a confusing path, hard to follow without a thread, but, provided the traverser is not devoured at the midpoint, it leads surely, despite twists and turns, back to the beginning. (Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life pg 92)

Wikipedia explains the application of this infallible guide as follows:

The key element to applying Ariadne’s thread to a problem is the creation and maintenance of a record – physical or otherwise – of the problem’s available and exhausted options at all times. This record is referred to as the “thread”, regardless of its actual medium. The purpose the record serves is to permit backtracking – that is, reversing earlier decisions and trying alternatives. Given the record, applying the algorithm is straightforward: at any moment that there is a choice to be made, make one arbitrarily from those not already marked as failures, and follow it logically as far as possible. If a contradiction results, back up to the last decision made, mark it as a failure, and try another decision at the same point. If no other options exist there, back up to the last place in the record that does, mark the failure at that level, and proceed onward. This algorithm will terminate upon either finding a solution or marking all initial choices as failures; in the latter case, there is no solution. If a thorough examination is desired even though a solution has been found, one can revert to the previous decision, mark the success, and continue on as if a solution were never found; the algorithm will exhaust all decisions and find all solutions.

The terms “Ariadne’s thread” and “trial-and-error” are often used interchangeably, which is not necessarily correct. They have two distinctive differences. Trial-and-error implies that each trial yields some particular value to be studied and improved upon, removing errors from each iteration to enhance the quality of future trials. Ariadne’s thread has no such mechanic, making all decisions arbitrarily. For example, the scientific method is trial and error; puzzle-solving is Ariadne’s thread. Trial-and-error approaches are rarely concerned with how many solutions may exist to a problem, and indeed often assume only one correct solution exists. Ariadne’s thread makes no such assumption, and is capable of locating all possible solutions to a purely logical problem. In short, trial and error approaches a desired solution; Ariadne’s thread blindly exhausts the search space completely, finding any and all solutions. Each has its appropriate distinct uses, and they can be employed in tandem.

This is a particularly effective method for when you’re stumbling around in metaphorical darkness and divination has proven inconclusive. It can also be useful when you are trying to diagnose an ailment by tracing it back to its root cause, which may be a past trauma or guilt either directly experienced or inherited from one’s ancestors – a topic we shall loop back upon later in the course.

Now we’re ready to get to some discernin’ with Spirits

So, you’re confronted with a perplexing situation or an entity which seeks to communicate something to you. Where do you go from there?

The first thing we need to establish is whether this is something happening directly to you or if it’s coming through an intermediary such as a diviner, a medium or oracle or some random homeless person that’s approached you on the street, because the process of evaluation differs accordingly. In fact spiritual encounters in a group setting bring in a whole gaggle of issues best reserved for a separate discussion, so I’m going to limit myself here to just private ones.

If it is just you and the entity then you need to perform an exhaustive self-inventory to minimize the potential for human error.

What has been communicated to you? At this stage, keep it just to the facts. Don’t fill in the gaps, make inferences, analyze what the message personally means to you or any of the other interpretive methods we regularly employ. You want the message as clear and concise as possible.

How has this been communicated to you? Did the encounter happen face to face or through indirect means such as divination? Was it the result of a dream, vision, or out of body experience? Was it something you observed, something you heard, something you intuited or arrived at through other means? Did it involve external perception or was the communication internalized?

How reliable is your perception at the moment? What is your current mental, emotional and physical status and how might this be influencing what you receive? Is there a lot of internal chatter or stress that could be compromising your signal clarity? Are you suffering a depressive, hypermanic or delusional episode? How is your sleep routine and nutrition? Are you on any medications or drugs? Note that none of these are sufficient to rule out a message received, but all of them can and will influence your perception.

How do you feel about the message being communicated? Is it challenging or upsetting, completely novel or exactly what you expect, what sorts of emotional responses does it stir in you and so forth. None of these speak to the accuracy of the message, but it’s definitely something you’ll want to be aware of lest you fall into a series of errors one need only survey the majority of polytheist and neopagan communities to find amply on display.

Now let us move on to the communicator.

If you have prior experience with the entity use that, along with the known lore concerning them and the accounts of contemporaneous devotees as your basis for evaluation. (Which is why I’ve included the reading “Is that you Dionysos?”, so you can get a sense of how Dionysos comes across to me personally.)

Is the entity behaving in a manner that is consistent with the above? Do they “feel” like they normally do? Are they employing recognizable speech patterns? Are the appropriate signs and symptoms present?

By signs and symptoms I mean the type of phenomena described in Proklos, On the Signs of Divine Possession as quoted in Psellus’ Accusation against Michael Cerularius before the Synod:

He speaks first about the differences which separate the so-called Divine Powers, how some are more material and others more immaterial, some joyous (hilarai) and others solemn (embritheis), some arrive along with daemons and others arrive pure. Straight afterwards he goes on to the proper conditions for invocation: the places in which it occurs, about those men and women who see the Divine Light, and about the divine gestures (schêmatôn) and signs (sunthêmatôn) they display. In this way he gets around to the Theagogies of divine inspiration (tas entheastikas theagôgias)[a theagôgia is a drawing in or drawing down of the divine]. “Of which, ” he says “some act on inanimate objects and others on animate beings: some on those which are rational, others on the irrational ones. Inanimate objects, ” he continues “are often filled with Divine Light, like the statues which give oracles under the inspiration (epipnoias) of one of the Gods or Good Daemons. So too, there are men who are possessed and who receive a Divine Spirit (pneuma theion). Some receive it spontaneously, like those who are said to be ‘seized by God’ (theolêptoi), either at particular times, or intermittently and on occasion. There are others who work themselves up into a state of inspiration (entheasmôn) by deliberate actions, like the prophetess at Delphi when she sits over the chasm, and others who drink from divinatory water”. Next, after having said what they have to do [i. e. to gain divine inspiration], he continues “When these things occur, then in order for a Theagogy and an inspiration (epipnoian) to take effect, they must be accompanied by a change in consciousness (parallaxia tês dianoias). When divine inspiration (entheasmôn) comes there are some cases where the possessed (tôn katochôn) become completely besides themselves and unconscious of themselves (existamenôn…kai oudamôs heautois parakolouthountôn). But there are others where, in some remarkable manner, they maintain consciousness. In these cases it is possible for the subject to work the Theagogy on himself, and when he receives the inspiration (epipnoian), is aware of what it [i.e. the Divine Power] does and what it says, and what he has to do release the mechanism [of possession](pothen dei apoluein to kinoun). However, when the loss of consciousness (ekstaseôs) is total, it is essential that someone in full command of his faculties assists the possessed”. Then, after many details about the different kinds of Theagogy, he finally concludes: “It is necessary to begin by removing all the obstacles blocking the arrival of the Gods and to impose an absolute calm around ourselves in order that the manifestation of the Spirits (pneumata) we invoke takes place without tumult and in peace (atarachos kai meta galênês)”. He adds further “The manifestations of the Gods are often accompanied by material Spirits which arrive and move with a certain degree of violence, and which the weaker mediums cannot withstand.”

If all that does not jive, what is different and how might this be accounted for?

After all, Gods and Spirits often have a plurality of forms and the situation might require them to be more or less formal than they ordinarily would be.

But sometimes you can tell that something is off and what you’re encountering is just a bad drag routine.

At which point, ask for confirmation. I have set up codewords with all of the core Gods and Spirits that I work with, and if the being cannot provide them it’s a dead giveaway that they are not who they seem to be. (This is also an excellent means of verification when a third party comes forward claiming to have messages for you. If the God or Spirit doesn’t provide authentication it either means the message is not of utmost urgency or the person is not as perceptive as they are presenting themselves to be.)  

Another method is to make reference to past encounters with the entity but include false information; if you are not corrected, that can be a red flag.

Thirdly, you may intone their epithets and project a sigil or charged mental representation of the God or  Spirit which will either empower or pass straight through them if they are that being (or very closely aligned to them) but will cause distortion and disruption if it is something merely pretending.

There’s a lot more procedures (and even pretty elaborate rituals) one can perform to deduce the veracity of an encounter, but you know what? I never bother with them.

First, like I said, I’m a pragmatist; I find the simplest thing that works and stick with it. Secondly, a lot of that shit just seems really silly to me. I mean, would you do that with your co-workers?

“Hold that thought, Bob. I need to dance around in a circle while chanting aetheric vowels and clenching my perineum to verify you really are who you say you are. Also would you mind if I bring in my archangelic higher self to interrogate you? Wait, why are you leaving with that look of horrified contempt on your face?”

Well, I’m not going to do that to Gods and Spirits either. It’s an etiquette thing.

If something sets off enough red flags for me, I’ll be guarded and suspicious and scrutinize any information I receive afterwards very, very closely – with plenty of divination, from myself as well as turning to other trusted diviners – but I won’t be rude.

Besides, even false information can be useful if you don’t make unwarranted assumptions and secondly, my spiritual encounters tend to be pretty fucking intense and immersive. So much crazy shit’s going on  I’m not going to stop and rattle off a bunch of flowery Victorian verse or whatever. Just play it safe and smart, don’t cut corners with protections or psychic hygiene and you should be fine.