By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In Greek mythology and literature, Tiresias was a seer or soothsayer. In other words, he was a prophet. How he attained the gift of prophecy, however, is a curious one, and worth exploring, so in this post we’re going to take a look at the myths surrounding the figure of Tiresias, and his role in classical and more recent literature.
Myth of Tiresias: summary
Tiresias was a seer, but how he came to acquire the gift of ‘second sight’ or prophecy is a curious one.
There are, in fact, several versions of the Tiresias story, but this is the most famous: one day, the young Tiresias saw two serpents mating. Yes, having intercourse or, if you will, ‘at it’. For reasons perhaps known only to himself, Tiresias took exception to this act of herpetic copulation, and hit the snakes with his staff.
For some reason, because he wounded the serpents, Tiresias was transformed into a woman. But then, a few years later, when he came upon two other snakes doing the same as before, and on the same spot, he hit them, he was turned back into a man.
This act of snake-smiting gender-switching made Tiresias something of a celebrity among the gods, so that the goddess Hera called upon Tiresias to intervene in an argument she was having with the god Zeus. Hera and Zeus disagreed over who enjoyed sex more: men or women. (Hera believed that men enjoyed sex more than women, and Zeus thought women enjoyed sex more.) Since Tiresias was in the unique position of having experienced sex as both a man and a woman, he seemed like the ideal adjudicator for this particular quarrel.
However, Tiresias’ answer didn’t please Hera. He said that of the pleasure derived from sex, nine parts belonged to woman and only one part to men. Hera, annoyed that she’d lost her wager with her husband, struck Tiresias blind in her anger.
Zeus felt sorry for Tiresias, but unfortunately one god – even Zeus – couldn’t just cancel out what another god had done, so Tiresias was stuck with his blindness. But to compensate for it, Zeus gave Tiresias the gift of foresight, so Tiresias became a seer, who could see the future. Zeus also, in some versions, gave Tiresias long life – seven times the normal human lifespan.
These – the snake-hitting story and the Hera-Zeus disagreement – are the two main stories involving Tiresias. However, there in some versions, it was the goddess Athena, rather than Hera, who blinded Tiresias, because he had glimpsed her naked – a similar story, as Stephen Fry notes in his engaging book about Greek myths, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold (Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths), to the myth of Diana and Actaeon. But the Hera story is the more commonly told.
Myth of Tiresias: analysis
Tiresias figures in two of the greatest works of ancient Greek literature: Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (which we’ve analysed here) and Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex (analysed here). His role and significance in much classical literature and myth is to foretell, prophesy, and warn, using his powers of prophecy to avert disaster (or to attempt to avert it) and to reveal the truth to others.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus travels down to the Underworld to seek Tiresias, so that the seer can tell our plucky hero how he will fare on his voyage home. By this point, of course, Tiresias is long dead, but he retains his gift of prophecy, even in Hades. Tiresias warns Odysseus that he will lose all of his companions.
In Oedipus Rex, Tiresias is still alive, and it is Tiresias who reveals to Oedipus the truth about who he is, and that he has inadvertently fulfilled the prophecy which warned that he would kill his father and marry his mother.
Oedipus asked Tiresias who had killed Laius, the former King of Thebes, but Tiresias – reluctant to tell the truth to his king, since that would involve calling Oedipus a murderer – equivocated, but this led Oedipus to suspect that Tiresias had plotted to murder Laius. However, the truth eventually came out and Oedipus realised what he had done: he was the one who had murdered Laius, his own father, without knowing who the man was.
But Tiresias also features in numerous other classical myths and stories: in the Echo and Narcissus myth, for instance, he revealed Echo’s fate to her but also foretold the death of Narcissus.
In another story, that of the Seven Against Thebes in which the two sons of Oedipus (who were also, of course, Oedipus’ brothers) fought each other over the ancient city of Thebes, Tiresias is said to have prophesied that Thebes would be spared if one of their number, Menoeceus, was sacrificed to Ares, the god of war.
Over the centuries, writers and especially poets have been repeatedly drawn to the figure of Tiresias. He is the central figure and speaker of one of Tennyson’s less celebrated dramatic monologues. In ‘Tiresias’, Tennyson references the alternative origin-myth concerning Tiresias’ blinding:
There in a secret olive-glade I saw
Pallas Athene climbing from the bath
In anger; yet one glittering foot disturb’d
The lucid well; one snowy knee was prest
Against the margin flowers; a dreadful light
Came from her golden hair, her golden helm
And all her golden armour on the grass,
And from her virgin breast, and virgin eyes
Remaining fixt on mine, till mine grew dark
For ever, and I heard a voice that said
‘Henceforth be blind, for thou hast seen too much,
And speak the truth that no man may believe.’
And in his 1922 poem The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot has Tiresias speak to us, in the third section of the poem, ‘The Fire Sermon’ (which we analyse here). The part of the poem in which Tiresias appears features a typist and an estate agent’s clerk engaging in joyless sex, presumably a nod to the Hera-Zeus wager referenced above.
Indeed, Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land state that what Tiresias ‘sees’ (or foresees) forms the substance of the whole poem, raising the intriguing possibility that the ‘Unreal City’ Eliot depicts in that poem is a prophecy of the future as much as it a vision of contemporary (for 1922, anyway) London.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.