Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": THE ORACLE OF TROPHONIOS AT LEBADEIA


(Pausanias, 'Description of Greece,' ix, 39)

Trophonios, says Pausanias, is a figure similar to Asklepios, for in the grotto of Herkyna, in which arc the sources of the river of that -name (Herkyna is in fact the local river-nymph), 'there are standing statues, with serpents coiled round their sceptres. One might guess them to be Asklepios and Hygieia, but they may also be Trophonios and Herkyna, for even the serpents they reckon to be sacred to Trophonios -no less than to Asklepios. . . . The most celebrated things in the grove are a temple and statue of Trophonios. The latter, which is the work of Praxiteles, also resembles Asklepios.' Pausanias then goes on:

As to the oracle, the procedure is as follows. When a man decides to go down to visit Trophonios, he is first of all lodged for a prescribed number of days in a budding which is sacred to Agathos Daimon and Agathe Tyche [the Good Daimon and Good Fortune]. While living there he observes certain rules of purity, and in particular is allowed no warm baths; his bath is the river Herkyna. He gets Plenty of meat from the sacrifices, for anyone who intends to make the descent sacrifices both to Trophonios himself and to the children of Trophonios, and also to Apollo and Kronos and Zeus surnamed Basileus [King] and Hera the Charioteer and Demeter whom they surname Europe and call the nurse of Trophonios. At each of the sacrifices a diviner is present who inspects the entrails of the victim, and having looked at them foretells to the man intending to descend whether Trophonios will receive him kindly and graciously. The entrails from the earlier sacrifices do not reveal the mind of Trophonios so clearly. But on the night on which a man is to go down, they sacrifice a ram into a trench, calling upon Agamedes. Though all the previous sacrifices may have been favourable, it goes for nothing if the entrails of this ram do not say the same thing, but if they too agree, then every man goes down with good hope. The method of descent is this. First of all, when night has fallen two boys of citizen families, aged about thirteen, bring him to the river Herkyna and there anoint him with olive oil and wash him. These boys are called Hermai, and it is they who wash the visitor to Trophonios and perform all needful services for him. After this he is brought by the priests, not straight to the oracle, but to springs of water which lie close to one another. Here he has to drink the water called Lethe, in order to achieve forgetfulness of all that he has hitherto thought of; and on top of it another water, the water of Mnemosyne, which gives him remembrance of what he sees when he has gone down. He next looks upon a statue which is said to be the work of Daidalos, and which the priests reveal to none save those who intend to go down to the abode of Trophonios, and when he has seen this statue and worshipped it and prayed, he approaches the oracle, wearing a linen chiton girdled with ribbons, and shod with the native boots of the country.

The oracle is situated above the grove on the mountain-side. It lies in the middle of a circular floor of white marble, about equal in circumference to the smallest size of threshing-floor and raised to a height of slightly under three feet. On the floor are set spikes with circular rails joining them, both spikes and railing being of bronze, and there are gates made through the railings. Inside the enclosure there is an opening in the earth, not a natural chasm but an accurate and skillful piece of building. In shape this chamber is like an oven. Its breadth across the middle is to all appearances about six feet, and even its depth one would not estimate to be more than twelve. It is made without any means of descent to the bottom, but whenever a man goes down to visit Trophonios they bring a light, narrow ladder for him. When he has gone down, he finds an opening between the bottom and the masonry, whose breadth appeared to be two spans, and its height a span. He lies down on the ground, and holding in his hand cakes kneaded with honey, he thrusts his feet into the opening and pushes forward himself, trying to get his knees inside the hole. The rest of his body is at once dragged in and follows his knees, just as a great and swift river would catch a man in its swirl and draw him under. From this stage on, once men are inside the adyton, they are not all instructed of the future in the same way; some have heard, others have seen as well. The way back is through the same opening, feet foremost.

They say that no one has died as the result of his descent, with the exception of one of the bodyguard of Demitrios, and as for him, he had not carried out any of the prescribed ritual at the sanctuary, nor did he go down to consult the god, but on the hope of getting gold and silver from the adyton. . . . When a man has come up from the abode of Trophonios, the priests take him over again and set him on a seat called the seat of Mnemosyne, which is not far from the adyton, and while he is seated there they ask him of all that he has seen and learned. Then when they have heard it they put him in charge of his friends, who lift him up and carry him to the house of Agathe Tyche and Agathos Daimon where he lodged before, for he is still in the grip of fear and unaware of himself or of those around him. But later on his wits will return to him unimpaired, and in particular he will recover the power of laughter. I do not write from hearsay, for I have consulted Trophonios myself, as well as seeing others who have done so.


Translation by W. K. C. Guthrie, in his The Greeks and their Gods (London, 1950), pp. 225-7. See also the commentary of J. C. Frazer, in Pausanias's Description of Greece (London, 1898), Bk. v. pp. 196-204

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