The Cave of Trophonius, also called The Cave of Nightmares, is a cave in Livadia, Greece. This cave is said to be the home of the Oracle of Trophonius, a fearsome and powerful oracle that served the ancient world.
Trophonius, Builder for the Gods
There are several different traditions that tell the story of Trophonius, who is the oracle of The Cave of Nightmares. In the most prominent tradition, Trophonius and his brother, Agamedes, are talented architects and builders.
Because of their talent, the god Apollo commissions them with the design and construction of his temple at Delphi. This temple becomes the site where the greatest oracle of the ancient world lived, the Oracle of Delphi.
After the completion of the temple, the brothers asked Apollo for a reward. Apollo told them to go live freely for seven days. When the seven days were done, the brothers would receive their reward.
At the end of the seventh day, the brothers die peacefully in their sleep. This death, though sudden, is considered a great reward.
Some versions of the story claim that the peaceful death was their wish, not just a surprise that was thrust upon them by Apollo. Whether this death was a surprise or their request, their peaceful death was their reward for the work they did designing and building Apollo’s temple.
Trophonius, the Thief
Another story of Trophonius gives a slightly different version of events. In this tradition, Trophonius and Agamedes are still talented architects and builders. However, in this telling of the tale, they go on to live after finishing Apollo’s temple.
After the temple is completed, the brothers take one final job: building a treasure house for King Hyrieus of Boeotia. As they build the treasure house, they added a secret entrance that would allow them to access the king’s treasures.
Over time, they slowly robbed the king of his treasures. When King Hyrieus discovered that the gold and treasures were going missing, he decided to set a trap to catch the thieves. Agamedes is trapped in the king’s snare when the brothers attempt to steal more treasure from the king’s treasure house.
To hide his own role in the robbery, Trophonius beheads his brother. After killing his brother, Trophonius goes into hiding in a cave at Lebadaea, never to be seen again. Other traditions say that the thief was swallowed by the earth.
Trophonius, a god?
After his death, Trophonius either became a god or a daimon at the command of the god Apollo. When Trophonius died, the city suffered a plague that lasted until his grave was discovered by the villiagers.
Following a trail of bees, it is said that a young boy is the one who discovered Trophonius’ grave. Once the grave was discovered, Trophonius served as an oracle to the people. The cult following led to the Cave of Trophonius being a feared and revered spiritual location.
Preparing to Enter the Cave of Trophonius
The city of Lebadeia dedicated a cult and oracle to Trophonius. In order to consult this mysterious oracle, the worshipper would have to enter a chasm deep in the earth.
Before a person could enter the Cave of Trophonius, they had to live in the shrine for an extended period of time. During this time, they had to bathe in the river Hercyna. They were not allowed to take hot baths.
In addition to these living and bathing rituals, the worshipper had to make daily sacrifices to a variety of god. The priests of the temple would read the entrails from the sacrifices to determine whether Trophonius would accept the seeker in his nightmarish cave.
Some traditions go a step further, claiming that the seeker would need to provide a human sacrifice to the dead brother of Trophonius, Agamedes.
Once the priests assured the worshipper that they would be received by Trophonius, the seeker would need to drink the waters of Forgetfulness and Memory. By drinking the water of Forgetfulness, the seeker would come to Trophonius with a blank slate of a mind. The water of Memory would allow them to remember everything that they would see, hear, and experience in the cave.
Inside the Cave of Trophonius
This cave is not called the “Cave of Nightmares” for no reason. Worshippers who entered the cave seeking the oracle would be exposed to horrors.
To survive the cave, the journeyer had to carry honey cakes. It is believed that these honey cakes were the only way to satisfy the serpents that would be encountered in the cave. When the serpents ate the honey cakes, they would leave the seeker alone.
The cave is fabled to be filled with nightmarish visions and terrifying voices. It is said that journeyers either block out the events from the cave or are driven mad by the horrors of what they’ve seen.
After leaving the cave, the worshipper must recount everything they have seen and experienced in the dark cave.
Although the cave is said to be filled with horrors, legend only shares the story of one man who died seeking the oracle. This man was caught trying to steal gold and silver from the shrine. He was punished swiftly and severely for his offense.
The Cave of Nightmares: Nourishing?
It’s hard to fathom that such a horrific cave could be considered nourishing by those who experienced its terrors. And yet in the midst of the nightmarish tradition of the Cave of Trophonius, language of nourishment is used to describe this place.
Some worshippers to the oracle may have been beaten by the priests at the shrine before entering the cavern. The cult of Trophonius often had a dark underbelly, far from the “nourishing” face they wanted others to see.
Some believe that the nourishing of this oracle’s cave could be understood by the serpents that lived in the cave. Serpents have traditionally been used to indicate the cult of Aesclepius, the god of healing.
However, the serpents have also been used to represent Trophonius, the favorite of the god Apollo, god of healing. Because of this, the terrifying oracle was seen by many as a nourishing place of worship. In the bowels of the earth, the worshipper would face great mental and physical change.