Forgetting the Past: Trophonius and the River Lethe

There are five rivers that run through the Greek Underworld, but the one we should all remember – truly remember – is the Lethe, the river of Forgetfulness.

In Plato’s Legend of Er, drinking from the river Lethe was the rite of passage that dead souls undertook before reincarnating, to wash away the memories of their prior lives. This idea was also central to the cult of Trophonius, which was an important, if mostly forgotten Greek mystery religion.

In the Homeric hymn tradition (meaning Homer didn’t actually write it, but someone very Homer-ific did), Trophonius is said to have built the temple at Delphi. This site, which was consecrated to Apollo, was also home to the famous Oracles, priestesses who could peer into the future (possibly with help from the hallucinogenic gases that seeped through the temple, which was built inside a cave).

So, consider this: the temple that was the gateway to the future was tied to a belief system that was based on forgetting.

As the story goes, after building the temple, the Oracle at the time told Trophonius and his brother to indulge all of their senses for six days: on the seventh day, they would receive everything their hearts desired.

The brothers went on a six-day bender. The details are lost to history, but one can assume it was a tale of epic debauchery.

Hopefully, they had fun.

On the seventh day, while Yod-He-Vau-He was busy resting, the two brothers woke up…

Actually, they didn’t.

Or to put it the way that the Athenian comedian dramatist Menander did:

“Those Whom the Gods Love Die Young.”

Now, to really appreciate the significance of Lethe for Trophonius’ cult, we need to look at her family.

In Theogeny, Hesiod provides Lethe’s family tree. Her mother is Eris, also known as Discord, or Chaos.

Her siblings are Ponos (“Hardship”), Limos (“Starvation”), Algea (“Pains”), Hysminai (“Battles”), Makhai (“Wars”), Phonoi (“Murders”), Androktasiai (“Manslaughters”), Neikea (“Quarrels”), Pseudea (“Lies”), Logoi (“Stories”), Amphillogiai (“Disputes”), Dysnomia (“Anarchy”), Ate (“Ruin”), and Horkos (“Oath”).

And I thought my family was messed up.

Can you blame her for trying to forget?

Her Underworld sister river, Mnemosyne, better known as Memory, has a far kinder genealogy.  Her children are the nine Muses, the inspiration for artists through the ages. Mnemosyne plays a part in the Trophonian tradition as well.

To forget, or to remember…going back to Plato and his Legend of Er, these are the two questions every soul has to answer for themselves. They not only define who we were, but more importantly, they predicate who will be.

There are many parallels with the Bardo Thodol, commonly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead; there has been a slew of recent scholarship on the potential cultural transmission between the Greek and Buddhist worlds, but I’ll save that for a different post/rant. The point is the notions of forgetting and remembering are central to both world views.

So where does this figure into the cult of Trophonius? The Guy Who the Gods loved so much that he had to die young? (By the way, if you don’t know about the 27 club, look it up. I’m certain Trophonius was a founding member)

After his six-day binge and subsequent death, he was elevated to the status of a hero, perhaps even that of a God. The religion that took up his name made its way from Greece to Rome, and with him went the river Lethe, which was central to his cult’s initiatory rituals.

The ancient Greek geographer Pausanias describes these rites in the following manner in one of his guidebooks, Boetia:

Several days would be spent in a designated living space. This was a prelude to consulting the Oracle; the initiate would eat sacrificial meat and would then start a series of offerings to multiple gods, including Cronus, Zeus, Apollo, Hera and Demeter/Europa.

The final sacrifice would be a black animal (the color was more important than the species).

After this final, bloody offering, the initiate would drink from two rivers.

Lethe, to forget. Mnemosyne to remember.

Then, they would descend into the Underworld (a sacred cave), after which the person would return with whatever scattered Memories, Dreams and Recollections (apologies to Jung) they retained.

Is there a point to this post? Jung might get it. So would Friedrich Nietzsche, who called himself a Trophonian. Ovid and Virgil had things to say about Lethe. The list goes on, and on….

As for me, what brought me to this topic?

Honestly, I forget….

Leave a Reply