Tiresias: The Blind Seer of Greek Mythology
Movies, video games, and comic books have made mythological figures like Zeus, Hercules, and Hades household names across the globe. These gods and heroes of ancient Grecian myth have carved out a lasting place in the imaginations of millions. There are, however, a plethora of other significant Grecian figures who remain relatively unknown despite being just as fascinating. One such character is Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes, whose origins have inspired academic discourse and curiosity for generations.
Who Was Tiresias?
Tiresias was born in Thebes and was said to be descended from the Sparti, a legendary line of Theban nobility. His parents were the Theban shepherd Eueres and the nymph Chariclo. The character of Tiresias appears in multiple Greek myths, including The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and The Phoenician Women, amongst numerous other hymns and poems throughout the ages.
In all cases, Tiresias is a blind seer who was granted long life by the gods. According to the Greek myths, it was said that Tiresias lived for seven generations before being killed by Apollo. He retained his prophetic gift in the underworld and was sought out there by Odysseus for advice.
During his lifetime, Tiresias advised numerous kings of Thebes, from Pentheus to Oedipus, though his predictions were often ignored until after the events had come to pass. This was due in part to Tiresias’ penchant for speaking cryptically, often giving his predictions and advice in the form of riddles or hints.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Tiresias’ mythology, however, are the tales of how he became blind. There are several variations on this aspect of Tiresias’ history, but all involve him being born with normal sight and being blinded later in life by a deity. In each case, he is compensated with the gift of prophecy after having his eyesight destroyed.
Diana, the Roman name for the Greek goddess Athena, leaving her bath, by François Boucher. (Public domain)
Divine Secrets: Tiresias is Struck Blind by Athena
One way in which Tiresias goes blind comes at the hands of the goddess Athena. In Callimachus’ Fifth Hymn. For the Bath of Pallas, the ancient Greek poet (310 BC to 240 BC) tells the story of Tiresias accidentally witnessing Athena bathing with his mother, Chariclo. Upon seeing Athena’s naked body, Tiresias is instantly struck blind as punishment.
Chariclo becomes angry, insisting the punishment is too severe, but Athena explains that to witness a god without their having willed it bears “a great price.” The goddess eventually relents and gives Tiresias divine sight, long life, a staff to help guide him, and retained consciousness after death as compensation.
The story becomes a fascinating parable regarding the relationship between man and divine power; according to scholars, the gods do not possess a “body” as we perceive the term, but rather appear to humankind in forms they deem most comforting or familiar. In accidentally witnessing Athena naked, Tiresias may have unwittingly seen the goddess’ true form, and so is immediately punished for trespassing on divine knowledge.
In some retellings of this myth, Athena cleans Tiresias’ ears and gives him the ability to understand birds. According to Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman author and naturalist, Tiresias became the first person to use augury (observing omens amongst birds) as a method of telling the future.
The Greek mythological prophet Tiresias is transformed into a woman by the goddess Hera, after striking two copulating snakes with a stick. (Public domain)
The Legend of Hera’s Wrath and Tiresias’ Blindness
The second major plot explanation for Tiresias’ blindness – an example of which is contained in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – is the most fascinating, and the one that has carried the most significance in modern-day scholarship. According to this version of mythology, Tiresias came across two snakes intertwined and copulating, and stuck the female snake in anger. On so doing, Tiresias was turned into a woman by the goddess Hera as punishment.
This myth claims that Tiresias spent seven years as a woman and a priestess to Hera, during which time she married, had children, and worked as a prostitute. At the end of these seven years, Tiresias once again came across the snakes copulating. This time, she struck the male snake and Hera turned her back into a man.
Later, Hera and Zeus were arguing as to which gender experienced the most pleasure during sex. Hera argued that man experienced most pleasure, while Zeus insisted it women were the lucky recipients. They summoned Tiresias because he had at different times experienced life as a man and as a woman, and he stated that women enjoyed sex more.
Hera became enraged listening to Tiresias divulge the secrets of feminine sexuality and blinded him. Conversely, Zeus showed his gratitude by bestowing upon Tiresias the same gifts as noted above in the alternate myth. There also exists a Roman alternative to this story that features Juno and Jupiter (often regarded as the counterparts to Hera and Zeus), showing just how widespread the myth of Tiresias became.
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This version gives rise to aspects of Tiresias’ wisdom in the tragedies; because he has experienced life as both man and woman, he possessed a unique perspective built of both genders. It has also become a point of focus for scholars studying psychology and gender. While Oedipus Rex inspired much of Sigmund Freud’s theories on psychoanalysis, a field of psychology focused on the unconscious mind, numerous modern scholars have used Tiresias to expand on those ideas from a different perspective.
Juno and Jupiter seek advice from Tiresias. (Rijksmuseum / CC0)
In the ensuing centuries, Tiresias’ fame continued amidst certain circles of scholars and artists. He is featured in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, in the fiction of Virginia Woolf ( Orlando) and Angela Carter ( The Passion of New Eve), and has a ballet named after him. As mentioned above, he has more recently become the focus of academic study for the purpose of re-evaluating certain aspects of psychoanalytic theory.
Though Tiresias, the Seer of Apollo, is not a household name, he carries a great deal of significance. In Greek mythology, he served gods, aided Odysseus in his escape from the underworld, and advised kings. In the real world he has inspired academics and artists alike over the course of history.
Top image: Tiresias, the blind seer of Greek mythology. Source: matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock
By Mark Johnston
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