We tweeted the adjective trophonian earlier this week, defined as “gloomy” or “unsmiling”, or else describing anything that causes sorrow or sadness.
The word trophonian derives from Trophonius, the name of a legendary Greek builder and architect best known for constructing the original temple of Apollo at Delphi, with the help of his equally-talented brother Agamedes. The temple at Delphi was so astounding that Hyrieus, king of Boeotia, next commissioned the brothers to build him a secret cave in which to keep all of his treasure.
Unfortunately for the king, the cave Trophonius and Agamedes built was so secret that only they knew the way into and out of it, and ultimately used their insider knowledge to steal the king’s treasure for themselves, day by day.
Aware that his treasure was being pilfered—but, in his naïvety, unable to figure out who the culprit was—Hyrieus set a snare next to the cave to catch the thieves red handed. Trophonius somehow managed to escape it, but Agamedes was caught in the trap and unable to free himself. Not wanting the king to know what they had been up to, and not wanting his brother to be left to the king’s mercy, Trophonius chopped off his brother’s head so that his body could not be identified and in his shame fled into isolation in a cave in Lebedaea, north of Athens.
To the local Lebedaeans, the cave of Trophonius eventually became an oracle in its own right, and anyone looking for advice or guidance could enter the cave to have their questions answered or addressed. Precisely what was inside the cave, however, was either so horrifying or so awe-inspiring that on leaving, those who had entered were said to be so dumbfounded that they never smiled again.
And it’s that awesome, dumbfounding influence that eventually led to the adjective trophonian coming to mean “gloomy”, “dour”, or “unsmiling”.