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Turning hierophany into text: Pausanias on Lebadeia and the oracle of Trophonius

Jody Ellyn Cundy

University of Toronto/Oxford University

Scholarship on Pausanias’ presentation of the rituals associated with the consultation of the oracle of Trophonius at Lebadeia (9.39.1-40.4) has mainly focused on cultic realia. Bonnechere (2003) elucidates elements of myth and cult related to the mantic hero/god, while Pirenne-Delforge (2008) undermines the interpretation of the consultation ritual as mystery cult initiation. This paper is less concerned with cultic realia, and more focused on relationship between religious experience and its rendering in Pausanias’ text (cf. Elsner 2001, Rüpke 2014). The description of Lebadeia incorporates various literary strategies to attest to the continued numinosity of Lebadeia in the imperial present of the periegete’s visit (cf. Baleriaux 2017). His explicit statement about the inquirer’s affective response to the ritual katabasis at the heart of the oracular consultation, namely paralytic terror and disorientation (κάτοχόν τε ἔτι τῷ δείματι καὶ ἀγνῶτα ὁμοίως αὑτοῦ τε καὶ τῶν πέλας, 9.39.13), corresponds to Platt’s characterization of epiphany as the physical manifestation of divine presence that is “experienced phenomenologically as a sensory extravaganza” and as the “ultimate form of thauma, a ‘wonder’” (Platt 2011). Pausanias employs a variety of literary strategies to commemorate the ephemeral phenomenon of Trophonius’ divine revelations in textual form.  These strategies include autopsy claims and documentary evidence for authentication, aitia for hierophanies to delineate sacred space and divine agency, proxy viewing through ekphrasis, paradoxographic compilation, and comparative analogy.

Pausanias devotes eighteen full paragraphs to the description of Boeotian Lebadeia and the oracle of Trophonius. The first two paragraphs concern topographical description and situate Lebadeia relative to neighboring Orchomenos. He also describes two prominent features of the landscape, namely the river Hercyna, which bisects the city, and Mount Prophitas Elias, at the tail end of the Heliconian range, which rises above it (9.39.1-2). The next two sections describe the art and architecture in the alsos along the river and the sacred precincts further up the slope (3-4). With the exceptions of a technical ekphrasis on the materials, size and shape of the manteion proper (9-10) and a digression on the fate of one impious and infamous inquirer (12), the entirety of the chapter’s remaining sections details the ritual procedures related to consultation of the oracle (5-14). This is in fact one of the longest and most detailed descriptions of rituals in the whole of the Periegesis, and the fullest account of the realia of consultation procedure to survive from antiquity. Pausanias closes his treatment of the oracle with an aitiology for the discovery of both the oracle’s location and its particular rites that frames both the manteion and the rituals as hierophanies (40.1-2). A catalogue of Daedalic xoana comprises the two paragraphs that immediately follow (3-4). This brief catalogue precedes the topographical break that closes the description, ‘Next to Lebadeia comes Chaeronea’ (Λεβαδέων δὲ ἔχονται Χαιρωνεῖς, 5).  

Deprived of an explanatory preface or summarizing coda, scholars of the Periegesis generally rely on programmatic statements interspersed throughout the voluminous work to act as interpretive linchpins (e.g. Hutton 2005). But the Periegesis remains an under-theorized text. Much of the literary program is implicit and left to the reader to construe from miscellaneous clues in aggregate. Nevertheless, examination of a sample passage that is not obviously programmatic offers insights into the literary program and cultural work of the Periegesis Hellados when read as species of mise-en-abîme or microcosm of text as a whole. Close reading of Pausanias’ description of Lebadeia suggests a coherent religious epistemic bearing witness to the continued potency of local, traditional cult pactices and sacred spaces (cf. Whitmarsh 2010, Frateantino 2009). We might describe the proselytizing function of the Periegesis Hellados as the discursive ‘re-enchantment’ of Greece in the second century AD.

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Greek Religious Texts

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