[I am updating the Oracles section, and decided to move this article over into a blog post for safe-keeping.]
Trophonios is what the Greeks called a heros. Not quite a “hero” in the modern sense of the word, a heros is a sort of demi-god, a divinized human with special powers. Unlike the pan-Hellenic heroes such as Herakles or Theseus, Trophonios was only worshipped in one place: Lebadeia, not far from Delphi in central Greece. At that place, he had an underground oracle, which became quite famous in its day.
This was almost all I knew of Trophonios at the time I became involved with him, several years ago. But for some reason he had been on my mind that spring. I had read a little about the oracle, where questioners would prepare and purify themselves for days before descending into a hole in the earth to encounter him directly. The idea fascinated me, and tugged at me, and I started wondering whether one could approach Trophonios still.
Then, as I was preparing for the first day of the Thargelia festival, an enormous bee appeared in my kitchen. It got my attention, especially as I was somewhat phobic about bees. The next day, at work, another enormous bee, trapped in the office. And the next day, and the next. I knew this was an omen of some kind, somehow related to Apollon (since it happened during His festival) but not from Him directly. Then I recalled that Trophonios was sometimes said to be a son of Apollon. I told myself that I would look into Trophonios’ myth further, and that if he was related to bees at all, I would know that he was communicating with me, and that perhaps he would be willing to teach me something relating to his type of oracle. I looked it up, and of course there it was: the oracle of Trophonios was originally found by someone following a swarm of bees into the ground.
Trophonios and his brother Agamedes were architects, and built the first temple to Apollon at Delphi. One story says that they stole gold from a client, who set a trap for them which caught Agamedes, and Trophonios cut off his brother’s head so he couldn’t be identified; at which act the earth opened up and swallowed him. Another story says Apollon himself killed the brothers after they built His temple, so that they would always be remembered for it. In either case, awhile later, during a drought in Boiotia, the locals sent envoys to Delphi to ask for a cure; the oracle told them to consult Trophonios at Lebadeia. They could not find the oracle, until one of the envoys was inspired to follow a swarm of bees on their way – they flew into a hole in the ground, and that’s where he found the oracle. He was said to have been taught from Trophonios directly what the customs and rites there should be.
Thereafter it became a respected oracular center. However, unlike most of the large oracles of Greece, where a prophet would speak on behalf of the god (like at Delphi, or Claros) or interpret signs from the god (like at Dodona), at Lebadeia the person seeking an oracle would descend into Trophonios’ cave themselves and consult the god directly. The procedure was quite lengthy, but fortunately we know most of the details due to the reporting of Pausanias, who consulted the oracle himself.
First, the querent would stay in a building at the site for several days. While there, he would have to bathe in the cold river Herkyna, taking no hot baths. He would sacrifice to a slew of gods, including Trophonios, Apollon, Kronos, Zeus, Hera and Demeter (and also eat some of the meat from those sacrifices). Each time, diviners would interpret the entrails of the animals to decide whether Trophonios would grant him an audience.
If all went well with the sacrifices, on the final night he would be washed in the river and anointed with oil. He would then be taken to two fountains called Lethe and Mnemosyne (Forgetting and Memory, two legendary rivers of the underworld). He would drink the first in order to forget all that was in his mind before, and the second to remember what he would see below. He would then worship at a secret statue said to have been made by Daidalos. Dressed in a linen garment with ribbons, and wearing locally made shoes, he would be led to the entrance of the oracle. Descending down a ladder, he would reach a stopping point with an even smaller hole. Holding two honeyed barley cakes as offerings (probably to the sacred snakes), he would put himself feet first into the hole, and get sucked down into the chasm.
Within the cave, he would receive the answer he was looking for, sometimes by visions, sometimes by things heard. Then he would return to the world above feet first again. The priests would sit him upon the Chair of Memory and ask him what he learned, which was then written on a tablet and kept in the shrine. The experience was said to be so terrifying and traumatic that the querent would be paralyzed in a sort of trance, and afterwards unable to laugh for quite some time, though eventually he would return to his normal self. However, this did not seem to deter many people from seeking the advice of Trophonios.
We know very little about what actually happened down in the chasm. Of course, many people will say that it was a theatrical performance of the priests, who would manufacture “visions” for gullible querents. But I do not hold such a poor view of the ancient Greeks, and I believe that when oracles maintain solid reputations for centuries, it is because a god ordaimon is involved. Plutarch relates a story about Timarchus descending to consult Trophonios: he lies down in the darkness but cannot tell if he is asleep or awake; he feels something like a blow to his head which releases his soul to have visions and hear voices; he feels another pain in his head and passes out, only to come to almost two days later, returning to describe the many wonders he witnessed. Unless the priests physically knocked him out (a risky way to go about it), then it is likely that this describes a metaphysical experience, some sort of trance being induced, in which he could leave his body and see beyond this world. (Dreams have also been suggested as the method of oracle here, as they were for Amphiaraos or Asklepios, but there is no evidence for that, especially in the otherwise detailed account of Pausanias – for a more thorough refutation of the dream theory, see Clark, cited at the end of this article.)
What this actually sounds like is some form of “astral travel” or other sort of trance. How was this altered state of consciousness consistently induced in people who were otherwise ordinary and not experienced in such states? Some scholars jump quickly to the theory that there was some kind of drug added to the water that the querent drank from before going into the chasm. But not only is there no evidence of that, it simply wasn’t necessary. The preliminary rites were clearly designed (whether by the heros himself, or humans, or both) to break down the personality and allow for such a transformation of consciousness. First, the possibly long journey to the oracle, building up anticipation. Several days staying in special quarters, taking cold baths, eating an unusual diet (probably fasting to some degree), poor sleeping conditions, and hints of rhythmic dances and music, possibly even flagellation, all taking place at night in the darkness. The frequent sacrifices to see if Trophonios was still willing to speak to them. These things, along with the constant reinforcement of the belief that they were about to descend to the underworld and encounter a demi-god, were certainly effective enough on their own to produce an ecstatic experience of some kind in most people.
And so it can still be today. Fasting, cold baths, sleep deprivation, rhythmic music are all still viable methods for altering consciousness. (And while altering consciousness is not inherently a religious rite, it can be successful at bridging the gap between human and divine when in combination with other elements of ritual and worship.) We know enough of the other details (honey cake offerings, clean linen clothes, divinations to ascertain approval) to replicate most of the procedures to some degree. What is missing is the sacred setting of the original oracle (and implied presence of the heros) with its opening to the underworld, sacred springs, holy grove. Bonnechere calls a holy grove “the natural manifestation of a median space between two worlds.” So while we cannot create a new Trophonion per se, we can find such a median space in our own surroundings. A cave, tunnel, haunted glade, deep lake, etc. We cannot drink from the original sacred springs, but we can ask the nymphs of the nearest spring or river to bless the water and help us forget what we need to, and remember the oracle. And furthermore, we can gain instruction from Trophonios himself – after all, that is how the ancient oracle was founded, with direct counsel from Trophonios.
My personal understanding is that the consultation of Trophonios is very much like a dream incubation, only the journey is taken while awake rather than asleep. And thus it can be done with the use of an incubation chamber of some sort – a small, enclosed space that will cause sensory deprivation during the rite, and in which one can lie down, which with most people promotes the ability to leave one’s body. If created as sacred space and used only for this purpose, it can over time become the sort of median space I mentioned above. Completing all the preliminary rites (including not only the purifications and mental/emotional provocations but also the very important prayers, offerings, etc. to Trophonios), then enclosing oneself, stretched out on the ground, in an incubation chamber may induce the trance state necessary to encounter Trophonios and see whatever he has to show you.
That being said, my own experience has led me to conclude that while such an incubation chamber may be sufficient if it is the only thing available, it is perhaps more powerful to find a numinous, underground place outside, in at least a partially-natural setting. While I had some success contacting Trophonios in my home’s pholeos (or lair, my own version of an incubation chamber), it wasn’t until I performed the full ritual outdoors in a special location with a sacred stream and underground access (via large water pipes) that I truly feel I accessed His mysteries. If you can find a cave, pit, underground pipe, tunnel, or other subterranean location, especially near water, that would be ideal. Again, building it up over time by repeated ritual there will eventually create a power spot.
Another lesson learned from my own experience – Trophonios is not the sort of spirit one should try to contact frequently or even regularly. Most people in antiquity only visited him once in their lifetime. Even for a spiritworker such as myself, attempting to descend to him several times during the dark time of the year was sporadically successful at best. When I changed this to a single, annual (and more highly ritualized and intense) descent, it worked much better.
Normally, I would not advocate deliberately setting out to worship an ancient localized hero within modern Hellenic religion, but rather searching out one’s own local heroes, since that is more true to the spirit of Hellenic practice. But then Trophonios came knocking at my door. So clearly he is still willing to reveal his mysteries to us, and they are mysteries distinct from other gods and heroes, which at least some of us might wish to experience. Especially those following a spiritwork-type path within Hellenic polytheism.
I deliberately used the term “mysteries,” because the Trophonios ritual is in many ways closer to a traditional mystery initiation than an oracular consultation. It involves confrontation of death and the underworld, and its springs of memory and forgetfulness. As I mentioned already, it is different from other oracles in that it doesn’t employ mechanical divination or an intermediary prophet, but rather the querent himself encounters the divine in some kind of altered state of consciousness – reminiscent of certain mystery procedures. And the effects are similar as well. Bonnechere says, “The sacred experience in Trophonios’ cave which left the consultant ‘unconscious of himself and others’ but opened him to majestic visions, must have marked him for life, as did an initiation at Eleusis.”
Trophonios is one of those daimones who is closer to us in some ways than the gods, closer to our world because he was (at least according to legend) once human. He is also a boundary crosser, connected with thresholds (he built the one at Delphi), and with the so-called “Greek shamans” who straddled the worlds of gods and men. He is chthonic, and thus can speak of matters beyond life or death. And he will speak to you directly, without intercession, if you respect the proper rites.
I have established a sort of limited patron relationship with Trophonios, restricted mostly to learning the techniques of his oracle. I don’t believe anyone did this historically, but then again hundreds of people paid him cultus then, and few know of him now. I feel that part of my duty as his “apprentice” is to speak of him and my work with him so that others may be called. Trophonios is not easy to bear – he resides in a dark place below, and his mysteries and oracles often create unease and outright fear. In ancient times, this was so well known that a common phrase to describe a sad person was that he’d “consulted Trophonios.” People came out of that cave paralyzed with terror. And yet, they had true visions, amazing enough for word to spread and the oracle to be popular for many years, despite the risks. Trophonios is still willing to show himself to us, if we are willing to face him.
- Bonnechere, Pierre. “Trophonius of Lebadea: Mystery Aspects of an Oracular Cult in Boeotia,” in Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults, ed. Michael B. Cosmopoulos. London/New York: Routledge, 2003.
- Bonnechere, Pierre. “The Place of the Sacred Grove (Alsos) in the Mantic Rituals of Greece: The example of the Alsos of Trophonios at Lebadeia (Boeotia),” in Sacred Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency, ed. Michel Conan. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2007.
- Clark, Raymond J. “Trophonios: The Manner of His Revelation,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 99, 1968 (1968), pp. 63-75