Mysterious (Horrific) Oracle of Trophonius
(or much more than you ever possibly wanted to know about
about Apollo's bright and glorious Oracle of Delphi? Probably...
but heard about the dark Oracle of Trophonius? Probably
not... at least I know it was news to me when originally
digging deeper into it...
Unless you're a Free Mason, it's not at all likely that
you've ever heard of the dark and mysterious Oracle of Trophonius.
horrific, terrifying, and powerful Oracle of Trophonius
was frequented by those few hardy souls seeking out their
own personal and life-altering visionary experience and/or
in desperate hopes of receiving a miraculous physical healing.
due to its dark and hidden nature, we have to ferret out
the little that we now know about the "Oracle of Trophonius"
by painstakingly (mind-numbingly) piecing together accounts
from five different ancient Greek/Roman sources.
was Trophonius? According to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo,
(522 BC - John Burkett) Trophonius along with brother, Agamedes,
were the two architects that had designed and built Apollo's
temple at the oracle at Delphi.
Croesus Consults Multiple Oracles (including the Trophonius
(484 BC – 425 BC) tells us about King Croesus who
who apparently frequented various ancient oracles.
was the immensely powerful and rich king of Lydia (part
of modern day Turkey) from 560 to 547 BC until being defeated
by the Persians.
Herodotus' record instructs us that Croesus had a habit
of consulting multiple oracles (including the Oracle of
Trophonius). This was supposedly in order to test and see
which oracle was superior to all the others. However, in
my experience, when people go from oracle to oracle, it's
more likely that they're searching for the answer they think
they like and want. We keep asking until we get the answer
was King Croesus that later received an ambiguous
message from Oracle of Delphi that got him in hot water.)
"After the loss of his son, [King] Croesus remained
in deep sorrow for two years. After this time, the destruction
by Cyrus son of Cambyses of the sovereignty of Astyages
son of Cyaxares, and the growth of the power of the Persians,
distracted Croesus from his mourning; and he determined,
if he could, to forestall the increase of the Persian
power before they became great.
thus determined, he at once made inquiries of the Greek
and Libyan oracles, sending messengers separately to Delphi,
to Abae in Phocia, and to Dodona, while others were dispatched
to Amphiaraus and Trophonius,
and others to Branchidae in the Milesian country.
are the Greek oracles to which Croesus sent for divination:
and he told others to go inquire of Ammon in Libya. His
intent in sending was to test the knowledge of the oracles,
so that, if they were found to know the truth, he might
send again and ask if he should undertake an expedition
against the Persians." Herodotus, The Histories,
with English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard
University Press. 1920. (The Edward Earle 1814 translation
Available as a free downloadable Google Ebook)
Where in the Heck is Pluto in All of This?
It's the much later Greek historian Strabo that finally
begins to clue us into the mysterious connection with the
Roman god Pluto.
Greek historian Strabo (64/63 BC – ca. AD 24) much
later wrote about a temple of Pluto and cave of Charon),
located between Tralles and Nyssa, (modern day Turkey),
that served as an underground incubatorium of healing. (Strabo
to Strabo, the priests of Pluto's temple functioned as dream
interpreters that revealed the cause and cure of various
Vision of Timarchus in the Trophonius Oracle as told
by Plutarch (46 – 120 AD):
it's the historian Plutarch (46-120 AD) that gives us a
picture of the type of powerful life-altering visionary
experience that might occur in the Oracle of Trophonius.
said that on descending into the oracular crypt his first
experience was of profound darkness; next, after a prayer,
he lay a long time not clearly aware whether he was awake
did seem to him, however, that at the same moment he heard
a crash and was struck on the head, and that the sutures
parted and released his soul. As it withdrew and mingled
joyfully with air that was translucent and pure, it felt
in the first place that now, after long being cramped,
it had again found relief, and was growing larger
than before, spreading out like sail; and next that it
faintly caught the whir of something revolving overhead
with a pleasant sound.
he lifted his eyes the earth was nowhere to be seen; but
he saw islands illuminated by one another with soft fire,
taking on now one color, now another, like a dye, as the
light kept varying with their mutations.
appeared countless in number and huge in size, and though
not all equal, yet all alike round; and he fancied that
their circular movement made a musical whirring in the
aether, for the gentleness of the sound resulting from
the harmony of all the separate sounds corresponded to
the evenness of their motion."
Pausanias' much later 2nd Century AD Guide to Greece
completes the picture of what's known about the Oracle of
(Remember... we originally learned from Homer about the
two brothers, Trophonius and Agamedes, that were architects
and had designed and built Apollo's temple at the oracle
from Pausanias that we learn the two brothers, Trophonius
and Agamedes, also designed and built a treasure chamber
for King Hyprieus of Boeotia (Lebadea). Using a secret entrance
into the chamber - that only they knew about - the brothers
then went about systematically stealing Hyprieus' fortunes.
some point the king figured out that his treasure was disappearing,
and so he laid a snare for the unknown thief. Agamedes became
trapped in the snare; and Trophonius made an ill-fated,
tragic decision. Trophonius cut off his brother's head so
that his brother could not be captured and tortured; but
also so that he (Trophonius) would not be discovered by
the king. (There are few, if any, perfect heros.) However,
the earth then opened and swallowed up Trophonius at what
has become known as the pit of Agamedes.
cave of Trophonius was not discovered again until the Lebadaeans
suffered a plague, and the Delphic Oracle advised them that
an unnamed hero was angry at being neglected, and that they
should find his grave and offer him worship. The cavern
was discovered, the plague ended, and the oracle of Trophonius
where it (finally) begins to get juicy...
The oracle was then frequented by those seeking their own
transformatory visionary experience. If it was only after
a series of tests showing that the petitioner would be kindly
greeted by the oracle, that the person seeking the vision
was then lowered into the cave through a narrow opening
just large enough to squeeze a body through. The person
would then stay there in total darkness until receiving
of these thrill seeking masochistic visitors were absolutely
paralyzed with terror upon coming up, and therefore they
forgot whatever it was that they'd just seen and experienced.
They would then be seated upon a chair of Mnemosyne (memory),
where the priests of the shrine would record their ravings
and then compose an oracle out of that.
is said that none of the visitors that consulted the oracle
ever died in the experience, save one man that had secretly
gone with the purpose of pillaging the treasures of the
Sources for further reading:
Dream and Ritual: Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy
C. A. Meier
Dream and the Underworld by James Hillman
(very interesting Wikipedia article)