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Pluto's Mysterious (Horrific) Oracle of Trophonius
(or much more than you ever possibly wanted to know about Pluto's Oracle)

Heard 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...

Nope! 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.

Pluto's 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.

And 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.

I - Homer

Who 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.

II - Herodotus

King Croesus Consults Multiple Oracles (including the Trophonius Oracle)

Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC) tells us about King Croesus who who apparently frequented various ancient oracles.

Croesus 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.

The 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 we want.

(it 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.

Having 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.

These 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)

III - Strabo

So 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.

The 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 xiv.1.44).

According to Strabo, the priests of Pluto's temple functioned as dream interpreters that revealed the cause and cure of various illnesses.

IV - Plutarch

The Vision of Timarchus in the Trophonius Oracle as told by Plutarch (46 – 120 AD):

Then, 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.

"He 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 or dreaming.

It 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.

When 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.

They 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."

IV - Pausanias

Finally... Pausanias' much later 2nd Century AD Guide to Greece completes the picture of what's known about the Oracle of Trophonius.

(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 at Delphi.)

It's 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.

At 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.

The 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 was born.

Here's 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 an answer.

Most 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.

It 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 shrine.

Sources for further reading:

  • Healing Dream and Ritual: Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy by C. A. Meier
  • The Dream and the Underworld by James Hillman
  • Croesus (very interesting Wikipedia article)

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