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Oracular cavern of Trophonius by Skene James (1838-1845) (Public Domain)

Nourisher of Mind and Mayhem: The Oracle of Trophonius and the Cave of Nightmares


A god of nourishment in ancient Greek myth, Trophonius is a little-known character with a rather great role in ancient mythology. Though his exploits range from innocent to deceitful, Trophonius made a big enough name for himself that he gained a cult following after his death. The stories of his life (the life of a simple, mortal man) vary, but the cult that survives Trophonius—the titular oracle at the Cave of Trophonius—is as feared as it is revered.

Trophonius, Architect of the Gods

Interestingly, Trophonius is heavily associated with the Olympian god of light, art, prophecy and health, Apollo. Together with his brother Agamedes, Trophonius was an architect of the gods, and thus so beloved by them, that both he and his brother died seven days after they completed a project for the gods. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, written by an unknown author around the 8 th century BC, claims that Trophonius and his brother Agamedes built the temple within which the greatest oracle of the ancient world resided: the Delphic Oracle. This author, as well as Cicero and Plutarch, all dictate that Trophonius and his brother were given whatever wish they desired seven days after the temple was completed. In these myths, their granted wish was to die peacefully.

Trophonius, Historia Deorum Fatidicorum, Geneva, 1675.

Trophonius, Historia Deorum Fatidicorum, Geneva, 1675. (public domain)

A Thief of Treasures

Yet this tradition is not the only one which survives the ancient world. Another, more clandestine tale, adds to the character of Trophonius, and has just as much support. This second tradition does not explicitly state that he was not a key builder of the Oracle at Delphi, but that his architectural feats expanded beyond the prophetic shrine. Pausanias, a Greek historian writing in the time Emperor Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire, states that the brothers build a treasury (perhaps like the treasury also at Delphi) inside the shrine, intended to house the riches of the king of Boeotia. However, the “nourishing” Trophonius seems a little less “nourishing” when he and his brother stole the treasure of the king in question. While fleeing, Agamenes was caught in the king’s trap and, to protect his brother from being discovered as a thief, Trophonius decapitated Agamenes, taking the head with him. It was after this incident that Trophonius went into hiding in a cave at Lebadaea, and was never seen again. In this case, the gods likely did not take Trophonius to Olympus, but let him die lonely and sad in the cave of his choosing.

Sanctuary of the Delphic Oracle

Sanctuary of the Delphic Oracle (CC by SA 3.0)

God or Demon?

Depending on the tale one reads, Trophonius seemingly became either a god or a daimon (the latter essentially a supernatural spirit) at the command of Apollo, the god of prophecy. At Lebadaea, Trophonius became known as Zeus Trophonius. Following his death at Lebadaea, the surrounding city suffered a terrible plague that would last until the grave of Trophonius was discovered. According to Pausanias’ tale, a little boy discovered the grave by following a trail of bees. Pausanias goes on to state that once discovered, the daimon served as an oracle to the people of Lebadea, answering their questions after the individual bathed in the river Herkyna and lived in a sacred house while surviving only on sacrificial meat. However, even after all of this, before descending into the cave of the daimon the individual had to make a sacrifice (most often recorded as rams) every day to various Olympian gods. Still after this, a human sacrifice to his dead brother was demanded, and a drink from the rivers of Memory and Forgetfulness—Mnemosyne and Lethe, respectively.

Interior of the Oracle of Trophonius in Livadeia. (public domain)

Interior of the Oracle of Trophonius in Livadeia. (public domain)

The Cave of Nightmares

It seems odd that Trophonius’ cult is better remembered than this story. Aside from the mythological beginnings of Trophonius’ life (thereby automatically making his history less “historical”), his oracle is well-recorded due to its unusual and despairing nature. Called in some regions the “Cave of Nightmares”, the tasks one must accomplish before seeing the oracle and the journey into the cave of the Zeus Trophonius are terrifying for the individuals involved. It has both been claimed that the events within the cave are so terrible that the worshippers block out the events that transpired within, and/or they are driven mad by what they have endured. (It has been noted that worshippers may have been beaten by the priests of Zeus Trophonius or endured supernatural assaults.) Regardless, Trophonius’ cult does not seem quite as “nourishing” as his name would like readers to believe. 

What really transpired within the Cave of Nightmares?

What really transpired within the Cave of Nightmares? (Lost Trails)

Further, Pausanias’ record indicates that the location of Trophonius’ shrine does eventually become “misplaced” or even “reassigned.” Pausanias states,

“In the cave are the sources of the river and images standing, and serpents are coiled around their sceptres. One might conjecture the images be of Asklepios and Hygeia, but they might be Trophonios and Herkyna, because they think that serpents are just as much sacred to Trophonios as Asklepios."                                                                     
-Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.39.2

However, it is Pausanias’ belief that the serpents of the cave in Lebadea could indicate a cult to either Aesclepius, a god of healing, or Trophonius, favorite of Apollo (god of healing); this correlation thus may provide some insight into why such a terrifying oracle is associated with the “nourisher”. Plato has suggested Trophonius nourishes the mind of the Underworld; Pausanias believed that Trophonius’ father was the protector of land and his sons, the prudent caretakers. Despite records that the cult which encompasses Trophonius’ character sounds rather terrifying, the oracle presents astonishing mental and physical effects on the participant deep in the bowels of the earth. While it is mere conjecture that Trophonius’ “nourishing” title stems from the relationship between mental stimulation (albeit unpleasant), protection of the earth from within the earth, and Trophinius’ early life as a protector of the land it is interesting food for thought…itself nourishing to the mind.

Top image: Oracular cavern of Trophonius by Skene James (1838-1845) (Public Domain)

By Riley Winters


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Pausanias. Description of Greece, Volume IV, Books 8.22-10: Arcadia, Boeotia, Phocis and Ozolian Locri. (trans. W.H.S Jones, 1935). Loeb Classical Library: Harvard.

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Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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