Trophonios and Asklepios

As regular readers probably know I have been reading through Pausanias during my breaks at work. Some of these books I have read a bit others I had skimmed. But I had never read an entire from cover to back until now. My current reading has brought me to Phocis and Boeotia. Pausanias makes an interesting comment about the Boeotian city bordering Phocis in regards to the oracle of Trophonios, and it is dealing specifically with the images in the grove of Trophonios which he says can be taken for Trophonios and the local river goddess (whose name just flew out of my mind) or that of Asklepios and Hygeia. This is mainly due to the serpent entwined staff that both figures are carrying. And this presented me a moment to really think on this subject and compare the two gods.

The story and cult of Asklepios we are all fairly familiar with. He is the son of Koronis who was rescued from the body of his mother when she was struck down by Artemis on the part of her brother Apollon. Asklepios is taught the healing arts and become docteur extraordinaire, by which he goes a little too far and is struck down by the thunderbolt of Zeus. Trophonios on the other hand is a mason, a builder of palaces and temples (including the 4th Delphic temple of his father Apollon). Whereas we see the healing arts of Apollon’s domain in Asklepios, with Trophonios we see the glimpses of Apollon’s domain in which the god was honored at the building of foundations and walls, usually along with Poseidon for which we get the myth of Poseidon and Apollon being sentenced to build the wall of Troy. Trophonios though is a wily one, and in one particular palace, he and his brother make a stone that they can remove from the outside to plunder the treasure within at their leisure. Well the king was no fool and noticed his treasure missing and devised a trap that caught the brother, whom Trophonios killed that his brother could not betray him. Afterwards the earth swallowed Trophonios up. It is amusing because such knavery you would suspect more from a son of Hermes, but I am guessing that character flaw aside, it is the talent with building structures of stone that takes the foreplace in our understanding of him. Recall that Apollon is credited too with causing stones to build together by the music of his kithara in assistance to the efforts of Alcathous in building his temple at Megara. In fact one stone Pausanias says still carries a note from where the god had set down his kithara.

Certainly the connection between masonry and music doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination, for it is taking simple building blocks and creating, but harmonic investment, something beautiful and worthwhile from them. That Trophonios was given his own oracle likely has more to do with his manner of death, in being swallowed by the earth he becomes one who knows her secrets. I believe this is a similar symbolism in part for the Pythias that are depicted carrying laurel branches. Not only was Daphne the first priestess of the oracle under the dominion of Ge according to Delphic legend, but as she too in one version of her myth, swallowed up by the earth, the being marked by a laurel tree that sprung up, we can see that Daphne too is associated strongly with the hidden knowledge deep within the earth. Certainly the rituals Pausanias describes for making an inquiry to the oracle of Trophonios are of the nature that would be guaranteed to give any vaguely closterphobic person the heebiegeebies. It is a total submersion of the senses. There is no priest as a middle man between the god and the inquirer, the priest does nothing more than help prepare the inquirer through all the necessary steps. It is just you, in a tight dark space, enclosed in the earth, alone. Clearly something that was a fearful experience for those who came to oracle by what Pausanias said.

Asklepios, however, works in something of a related way, though far less traumatic. But it does require enclosure in which the sick inquiry of the god what cure he can find for his affliction. Is settled into the confines of the chamber where he is to sleep and be presented with a dream from the god. In both cases we have a kind of submersion taking place, though with the latter not being buried under the earth in wait of some vision. The serpent used in connection with both  may figure strongly to this seemingly more chthonic nature of these sons of Apollon. Their accompaniment by maidens suggests a purification nature ongoing. There is Hygiea (Health) and then there is the river goddess in whose cold waters the inquirer must bathe forgoing warm baths. Though water figures a great deal into the oracle of Trophonios as we also see the fountains of Lethe and Mnemosyne there which the inquirer from each to forget that which has been occupying his mind and to remember what he will witness, so the water feature of the maiden playmate of Persephone is perhaps of no real commonality with Hygeia except that in this statue she could be confused with her. However, it may be just enough similarity. The goose so strongly associated with this river goddess  may give some further clues that requires a bit more looking into. So it is possible that it goes either way. That the oracle of Trophonios was discovered in search for a cure by the Boeotians, on the direction of Apollon, suggests that perhaps the initial function of the oracle was related more to individual well-being.

Am I saying that Trophonios and Asklepios are the same? Not at all. But rather that they are similarly related figures of similar identity, who play closely related roles in the domain of Apollon. After all, is not a doctor like a mason of the human body? A surgeon can repair the breaks and fractures and replace broken unusable peices. The difference is that the body is temporary and subject to decay whereas a building, properly care for, can stand for ages. They are both serving then as extension of Apollon constructive nature of order and harmonic movement.

If I had to pick among the greatest children of Apollon these would rank high among them along with Orpheus and Aristaios.


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