Want to join us?

Thank you for expressing interest in joining the Hudson Valley Bakcheion’s virtual community. 

We are a diverse group of polytheists who have come together to worship Dionysos and his Retinue through an annual cycle of nine festivals. Additionally we will be sharing our thoughts, experiences and personal practices and collaborating on a variety of devotional projects – including hosting our own semiregular spiritual retreats. Periodically I will offer classes and other training to the group. 

Membership is open to anyone anywhere (though if you’re in the area and would like to attend our Hudson Valley Bakcheion home events do let me know), provided you meet the following criteria:

  • We are a semiformal group. Meaning things are pretty laid back, free-spirited, fun, we don’t have a bunch of complicated rules, and when things get heated we try to de-escalate the situation rather than enact swift and harsh punishment. However, everyone should remember that this is the online annex to the Hudson Valley Bakcheion and therefore space that has been consecrated to Dionysos and his Retinue. Treat it accordingly. Basically what it all comes down to is don’t be a dick and especially don’t say and do things that are inimical to the Bacchic ethos and we should all get along just fine. 
  • As the steward of our Bacchic temple my word is law. Challenge that in any way and you will be removed, especially if you’re acting like a dick. The only exception to this is if it’s serious enough to warrant taking it outside to a respected and  impartial diviner and I am found to be in error. (I’m human; it happens!) However, behavior counts so if you’re acting like a dick you’ll still be booted no matter how right you are. If proper reparation is made I may consider letting you back in, but there will not be a third incident. 
  • No voyeurs. If you’re here, you’re here to worship and fellowship with us. Only you can determine the level of engagement that you’re comfortable with but if you suddenly go silent I’m going to contact you to see what’s up and how we can improve the situation. (Conflicting obligations suck, but there’s often a workaround.) Ultimately if there is no change you will be removed and have to re-apply to join the group when you are ready and able to participate. 
  • No atheists, agnostics, monotheists or adherents of other reductionist theologies. This is not a social club, debating society or LARPing guild. We are here to keep the festivals of Dionysos and his Retinue. If you cannot affirm the existence of these Gods and Spirits then you cannot in good faith participate in the cycle of reciprocity which lies at the heart of all we do and are. Therefore you have no reason to be here. Teaching is also not the primary purpose of this group, so if you’re on the fence go and read the content on the Bakcheion website until you feel that this is indeed something you’d like to actively participate in, and then consider reapplying.  
  • No politics. Seriously – NO POLITICS. In fact, keep everything that doesn’t belong in temple space outside of here. I’m not going to boot you for slipping up. It happens, and the lines can get kinda blurry, especially when no part of our lives go untouched by our Gods and Spirits. But if I inform you that I have determined that a conversation is crossing a line I expect it to end immediately. If it doesn’t you can expect to be removed from the group. It is my job to maintain the sanctity of this space so that people can have safe, healthy, powerful and transformative encounters with Dionysos and his Retinue – and I take that responsibility very seriously. We don’t need pollution, division, contention and corrosive external influences mucking this place up when we have a lofty goal such as ours, now do we? 

If you find these conditions acceptable send me an email (at sannion@gmail.com) stating as much, along with your answers to the following:

  1. What is your background with Dionysos and his Retinue?
  2. What other Gods and Spirits do you honor?
  3. Why do you want to keep this festival cycle with us?
  4. What other ways can you contribute to the group?
  5. Five random facts about yourself. 
  6. Ask me a question. 

If you would like a wall calendar with the dates converted for 2020 e.v. please include your mailing address. 

Once I have read through your responses I may or may not have follow-up questions. When I am confident that you will make a good addition to the group you will be given access to our forum.

The importance of properly evaluating literature

To do polytheism right requires well-honed critical faculties and an appreciation for differentiation. Reading isn’t enough; you need to know how to properly evaluate what you’re reading or you’ll wind up meandering through mad and fruitless passages.

This is a significant problem within mainstream contemporary Hellenic polytheism and I think it stems primarily from an inability to distinguish between types of religious literature as a result of the priority given to the Christian scriptures in our society. That is to say, Christians have one Bible and how they treat this book has influenced our understanding of what it means for something to be a piece of religious writing, whereas the ancient view was far more nuanced and complex. Plus, they’re a people of the Book; we’re the people of the Library!

Take Orpheus, Homer and Diodoros Sikeliotes as an example. (Note that I am simplifying things greatly by positing a single “Homer” and “Orpheus” as authors of the works attributed to them, but I don’t want to get too side-tracked in this discussion.) All of these men wrote about Gods, mythological events and cultus and as such their work could be classed as “religious” but there’s a wide gulf between the type of writing they did and their intent in doing so. Consequently we should evaluate them differently and give their words varying degrees of authority.

Diodoros, for instance, was writing primarily as an historian – his discussion of Gods and their rites comes in a work intended to chronicle the totality of human culture and accomplishment from its start up to his own times. There’s a great deal of mythological material and accounts of variant local traditions, but it’s because this serves his narrative needs or he’s relaying the beliefs and words of others, not because he’s laying out his own understanding of things. Indeed he frequently expresses skepticism about his subject matter or offers his own rationalistic (often euhemerizing) interpretation as a counterpoint.

This is very different from Homer who is consciously working within an established, albeit localized and divergent, mythological tradition which he is using to provide a contextual background for the stories he wants to tell about the heroes of Troy. His intent is to praise these men (and flatter his audience by emphasizing their own connection to great events and figures from the past) and add to the tradition he has inherited from his oral predecessors. Homer’s words become invested with authority over time, recited at festivals and scrupulously studied, so that they come to shape a Pan-Hellenic consciousness of myth, tradition and the Gods and heroes. There wasn’t universal agreement with him, but all discussion was carried out with reference to his epic poems.

Different again are the works of Orpheus – they represent a unique revelation and a specific tradition with Orpheus as its head and final arbiter. They are not concerned with the products of human culture and the Gods as important peripherals to that – their intent is to bring about an understanding of these powerful personages and set forth the science of ritual engagement with them. (At least that’s what those who ascribed religious weight to writings and ceremonies attached to name-famous Orpheus – as Ibycus put it – held, no matter how much the different threads of Orphic tradition diverged, which is to be expected considering the heterogeneous populations which promulgated it – itinerant religious specialists, discount magicians, oracle-peddlers, poets, philosophers, aristocrats, athletes, soldiers and similar marginal figures.)

As such, we need to evaluate each of these forms of religious literature differently, regardless of whether we accept the claims made within them and in particular we must avoid assigning greater authority to them than was intended by the writer – or at least be conscious that we are doing so.

For instance, I find a lot of valuable information in the works of early Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytos of Rome and Origen – but these are very problematic sources, since they are often intentionally distorting what they discuss for aggressive rhetorical purposes, all the way down to outright fabrication. This hostility, in addition to the biases all authors possess, need to be factored into any conclusions one makes about ancient polytheist religion based on them.

Think about this the next time someone flings a quote at you – especially when it’s so easy to manufacture false ones. The truth will set you free, as Charles Manson said.

We are a people of the library

We in the Starry Bull tradition are especially blessed when it comes to historical and literary documentation. For instance, you can choose between the Spartan, Italian, post-Classical and Northern European Dionysos – to say nothing of his Cretan and Egyptian forms which have profoundly shaped our conception of him – a fact that is astounding when you consider what little contemporary Heathens, Slavs and Celts have to base their reconstructions on.

How did this come about?

Part of this is the result of a simple accident of history: Northern Europeans were oral, tribal societies until shortly before Christianization, so they left few first hand accounts of their culture and religious beliefs. In fact most of the information that modern Heathens have to draw upon are from biased outsiders – Romans such as Caesar, Tacitus and Strabo on the one hand, and missionaries and converts on the other. Although writing did exist among these populations (some scholars maintain that the runic scripts were derived from Euboean Greek by way of Etruscan and Latin) they used it mostly for commerce and record-keeping as opposed to preserving their myths and rituals.

The ancient Greeks made this transition considerably earlier – contact with the civilizations of the Near East brought literacy to Crete and the mainland around fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, and by the tenth to eighth centuries they had gotten around to writing down their sacred narratives in the form of epic poems. Prose and other genres developed a couple hundred years later and by the Classical period literacy was fairly widespread, though still a topic of deep ambivalence even among the educated classes, as we see from some of the critical remarks Sokrates and his associates made about it. Indeed, one of the things that set the Orphics and similar itinerant religious specialists apart from the mainstream was their reliance on texts – hence Theseus’ insult about Hippolytos placing his trust in vaporous words in the play by Euripides and Plato’s mention of the hubbub of books these begging priests used to impress their rich clientele.

Despite his strong counterculture and wild associations, Dionysos was an early adopter of writing: he was hailed as Mousegetes or leader of the Muses; many credited him with poetic inspiration; tragedy, comedy and satyr-plays developed out of his agrarian, orgiastic ceremonies; sacred scripts were read from during his rites; initiates carried texts inscribed on golden sheets with them into the grave; cultic associations produced elaborate regulations that were often displayed at his temples or meeting-houses; obscure and paradoxical symbola proliferated; verse-oracles and related forms of linguistic divination were performed by his priests and he was a favorite subject of historians, mythographers, philosophers, poets and religious and philosophical exegetes. Indeed this trend persisted well after the demise of classical polytheism – people were still writing about him during the medieval, renaissance and early modern periods and scholars today are downright obsessed with him. (There are more books on Dionysos than any other Hellenic deity by a fairly large margin.)

So even though the the Starry Bull tradition is very selective and focuses primarily on material produced in Magna Graecia and its related traditions, we still have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to written sources. (And that’s not even taking into consideration the visual and archaeological evidence such as statues, vases, jewelry and folkloric elements the cult produced and were later incorporated into Southern Italian Catholicism and culture.)

But I think there’s more to it than that – though it’s difficult to talk about without coming off as more than a little crazy. I’ve never let that stop me before, so here goes!

I often refer to Starry Bull as an emergent tradition, and while it’s true that we’re just getting started and there’s a greater than average amount of peer-corroborated gnosis within the group which makes this a tradition we’re building up together, that’s not entirely what I mean. Quite frequently I and other members will stumble across something through practice or study that we’ve never seen anyone else talk about before, only to have it come up over and over and over again in a variety of different ways after that. This confirmation can come through ancient sources, contemporary scholarship, comic books, movies, music, random signs and the like. It’s creepy as fuck and makes you feel like you’re suffering from apophenia or paranoid schizo delusions – especially when you’re already familiar with the material and could have sworn that these things weren’t there until you had the experience that made them relevant to you. When that happens I’ve taken to saying “circles, man, fucking circles” or some variation thereof – something others have picked up.

Because of the frequency with which this occurs – and the fact that it happens to more than just me – I’ve begun to think that the emergence of this tradition isn’t one of forward progression but rather that our Gods and Spirits have the ability to reach backwards through time and manipulate media. Then again it’s possible that they planted seeds long ago and those remained hidden until the experience opened our eyes or provided us with the keys of understanding.

Whatever the case, it’s weird and maddening and makes the world feel a whole lot less solid than most people take for granted. While I generally see it as a positive thing and confirmation that one is on the right track, it can go too far into the realm of non-functional fantasy and solipsism, at which point one generally needs to disengage and back off for a bit to allow consensual reality to reassert itself.

Not all visions and insights are inspired by the Gods or Spirits – sometimes it’s our brains going haywire, which is where discernment, divination, external corroboration and input from fellow-travelers can come in handy. Without these things nothing becomes part of the official Starry Bull tradition, however powerful one’s personal experiences may be.

All of which means that although we rely heavily on source material and the reconstructionist methodology we do not identify as a recon tradition. Equal value is placed on intuition, inspiration, oracles and divination as well as direct personal experience with our holy powers. We represent a third way of living, fluid tradition that is neither anarchic eclecticism or ossified lore-thumping.

Some More Remarks on Spiritual Discernment

Serving as a mantis or other kind of religious specialist, you’re going to encounter a lot of folks at their worst. That’s why it’s important to understand how to practice διακρίσεις or discernment when one is suffering an episode of mental or emotional instability, both for yourself and your clients.

Step One: Self-evaluate. What’s going on, how bad is the episode, does it respond to the treatments I’ve advised elsewhere, how is it impairing your mental and other faculties, can you talk it through with a friend, colleague or trusted elder or do you need the kind of assistance that only a competent professional can provide, etc. Along with self-evaluation should come self-care. It’s okay to put things aside until you’re able to deal with them again later. That doesn’t always work – sometimes shit just keeps happening, whether we want it to or are capable of handling it – but know it’s at least something you can try, and that doesn’t make you less of a devotee, spirit-worker, etc. It takes more time and more effort to come back from a break, so don’t be irresponsible and bootstrap it when you know you shouldn’t.

Step Two: If this situation is not at a crisis level but is still affecting your perception and ability to function, begin by writing everything down. Just because you’re having an episode does not mean that everything you’re experiencing is automatically the product of delusion. On the other hand, you can’t be certain that it isn’t, either. So don’t make any rash decisions or take immediate action based on what you’ve received. Instead, come back and analyze the material once you feel more stable. Does it still make sense or does it read like the ravings of a lunatic? More importantly, of what use is this information? If it has the potential to alter your understanding of the Gods and Spirits and how you relate to and worship them or is deeply personal, then keep pursuing your line of inquiry; if not then either discard it or file it away for future reference, as it may end up making more sense down the line.

Step Three: At this point, you have several options open to you. You may choose as many as are helpful and execute them in whatever order suits you, or not.

  • Pray for guidance, instruction, discernment and any other spiritual gifts that will help you navigate this uncertain terrain. While you may get a direct response from them it is best merely to ask for assistance and confirmation going forward, as your signal clarity could have become compromised.
  • Hit the books. See if you can find corroboration in the lore, academic literature or the writings of contemporary practitioners. Some of the bizarrest stuff I’ve encountered while working with altered states or while suffering from a manic episode has turned out to be a strain of tradition I simply had not been aware of previously. A lot of information can be found online, but tread carefully as most of it is utter crap. Now, just because something appears in a book or on a website does not make it true; likewise, plenty of true things have never been written down. All that this material can do is provide you a glimpse into other people’s experiences and insights. Sometimes there’s convergence; plenty of times there is not. Also keep in mind that experiences with Gods and Spirits are always idiosyncratic; two people may go through the same thing but describe it very differently.
  • Talk with friends, other people who are doing similar work, or a religious specialist whose opinion you trust. See if they have had similar experiences, if they have suggestions for further research, if they can recommend other people you can talk to and if they have any thoughts on what’s happening or how you should proceed. Now, depending on your relationship with and level of trust and respect for this person you will know how much weight to give their suggestions. That’s all this should be – it still falls to you to decide whether you accept what happened or not, and to act upon it. If everyone is telling you it sounds like bullshit, that’s definitely something to pay attention to – but on the other hand they may not have the first clue what they’re talking about. All this and the previous line of inquiry can do is suggest; you still must decide for yourself.
  • Divine divine divine. Because of your closeness to the situation, you may want to have a trusted diviner read for you in addition to whatever divination you perform. Different traditions have different protocols on this, but I tend to hire three diviners and then compare the results from each reading. No matter how bizarre your experience, if all three come back positive it’s a pretty good indication that this is a legit thing. Keep in mind that this is very different from shopping around your questions until you get an answer you want and I strongly advise you to only provide the absolutely necessary information and keep back some significant piece as a means of verification. Of course, just because that piece doesn’t come up in the reading does not necessarily render it invalid: often the Gods and Spirits will only provide answers about what you asked (and how you asked it) which is why you must choose your words carefully.
  • Ask for a sign. Something specific enough that you can be relatively certain when you see it, but also open enough that you do not strain their ability to act. For instance, you may ask for a clear message or kledone or that a certain symbol appear three times. Set a reasonable timeframe, and then pay attention because signs often come to us in unexpected ways and unconventional forms. If you receive your sign make a generous offering to the God or Spirit since they’ve gone out of their way to assuage your doubt. If no sign appears then that means no sign appeared. It probably also means that you were wrong but that cannot be inferred just from this. Sometimes a sign doesn’t appear because you need to do this without knowing, trusting in their guidance.

Next let’s consider what to do when one is reasonably certain about a divinity’s identity but what you’re receiving doesn’t really line up with what others get.

Well, I add that to the list of evidence that I am compiling and continue with my inquiry.

All by itself the fact that your experience does not line up with the experiences of others is of limited significance. There are plenty of perfectly valid explanations for why this might be:

  • You are encountering a distinct, localized expression of the divinity.
  • Either your encounter with the divinity was not as deep as theirs or it was much deeper.
  • The divinity may be showing you a different side of itself because each person will have different needs, degrees of intimacy or roles to perform.
  • Either you or they may be encountering an entity which is masquerading as the divinity. This can either be because that entity is part of the divinity’s train or retinue and thus partakes of their nature, because it is malign and trying to deceive you or because the divinity and the entity have made a prior arrangement and there’s some reason why it must engage with you in this form. Or your brain is just reading them as X because of their closeness to the divinity and no deception was intended on their part.
  • Others may be wrong, delusional or lying. Conversely, this may be true of you whether you realize it or not.

But it is something to pay attention to, especially if your experience not only doesn’t conform to the experiences of the majority of the divinity’s devotees, but also does not reflect what is commonly known of this divinity’s personality, attributes, powers and domains, as well as what may be found in the lore and academic literature on them. All of these, individually, may not hold much weight but taken together they provide a pretty solid argument that what you’re encountering may not be what it seems. Now, again, you may just be dealing with a different form of them, but it should give you cause for reflection, to say nothing of divination and other external methods of corroboration.

If everything points to them really being them, and they seem okay with it, then just start dealing with them in this particular form. Figure out what their preferences are, if there are specific rites that need to be performed or taboos observed and go about building up a devotional relationship with them as you would any new divinity you happened to meet. You may or may not maintain separate cultus for this divinity under their more conventional form.

One of the things you’ll need to decide is how much you share with others, particularly when they deal with a radically different form of the divinity. Specifically, what do you get out of sharing; how does the other party benefit from the sharing and is it something they can actually do something with or will it be purely theoretical for them; how likely are they to respond negatively to this information; what can you lose by sharing it; is it the proper time and space to share such information; how does the divinity feel about you sharing what is likely very personal and intimate; and are there specific protocols associated with its sharing?

Finally, how we can avoid letting preconceptions about a divinity limit our interactions with them.

The simple answer is seek them in their fullness, without distinction or judgment. But simple is not always easy, especially when you don’t know how to do the thing.

So begin by asking yourself:

  • What preconceptions do I have?
  • How did I arrive at them?
  • Is there any basis in reality or are they shaped entirely of supposition, fear and uncertainty?
  • Why do I hold onto them?
  • In what ways do they influence me, even if on an unconscious level?
  • What would it mean to lay them aside?
  • Specifically, how would laying them aside change how I understand and interact with this entity?
  • What would laying them aside even look like?
  • What would I replace them with?

Sit with these questions for as long as you need to. Spend time actively reflecting on them as well as letting your brain mull them over while you go about your day. If it helps, try writing out your answers stream-of-consciousness style in addition to taking notes. 

Once you have answers, go back through and feel out what it would be like if your answers were completely different. 

Then actually try doing it. 

It’s going to feel weird, artificial, awkward at first. 

How can you consciously change your thoughts or alter your emotions? If you are determined enough you can do anything. 

In the early stages you may want to tie a string around your finger or wrist as a mnemonic aid, and when you notice it reinforce your change of mind and behavior. (Remember – the brain doesn’t hear “no” so frame it as a positive.) 

You may find yourself falling back into old patterns of thought or encountering mental blocks you had dissolved already. 

Keep going. 

With time and practice, it’ll feel more natural to you and you may only need to do it long enough to facilitate some kind of personal breakthrough in your relationship with the divinity. 

Alternately you may want to ritualize the process by tearing up, cleansing or burning cards representing your preconceptions so that they will no longer have any power over you.

Some Remarks on Spiritual Discernment

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. 

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

  • Inference. 
  • 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. We’ve actually touched on some of these in previous sections, but here I want to emphasize 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. 

And a handy system of divination if you need a quick and straightforward response to help arrive at a decision is the Coins of Hermes. It’s a little more complex than just flipping a coin and if you know how to ask the right questions you can actually get some profoundly insightful results. 

First take three coins and formally consecrate them to Hermes. They should be, if not the same denomination of a similar size and value so as not to skew their statistical probability or your interpretation. As part of the consecration you can decorate them (for instance by inscribing a sigil or blackening out the reverse) or anoint them with chernips or his holy oil.  

Pray to Hermes for guidance, state your question as carefully and simply as possible, and then throw the coins, interpreting their fall as follows: 

3 heads: Emphatic yes.
2 heads: Yes, but it will require effort and thought.
1 head: You should probably reconsider your plans.
No head: You don’t have a chance in hell.

This system can be used to get answers from Gods and Spirits other than Hermes – indeed, because of its simplicity it can be employed by beings who might have difficulty with systems of greater or more specific symbolism – though you should confirm that they are willing and able to communicate through it first. When doing so I either throw coins that have not been consecrated to Hermes or ask him to act as intermediary and interpreter for the other party. In addition to answering questions this system can be used to corroborate the results you get through other forms of divination or direct oracular messages. 

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. 

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.  

Only the best for those who keep his feasts


What forum would you recommend for something like this? I’ve been out of the loop as far as online shit goes for a while, so I’m not really sure what’s currently available. In addition to discussions about Dionysos and his Retinue, what we’re all doing for the festivals, organizing retreats, etc. I might want to teach a couple classes out of it, and host topical chats. Any suggestions welcome.