The Blind and Prophetic: Tiresias

A Pocket Tale

Tiresias was a character in Greek mythology
Tiresias Foretells the Future to Odysseus, 1780-1783. Artist: Füssli (Fuseli), Johann Heinrich (1741-1825). Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Those Greek gods and goddesses were always copulating, or thinking about copulation, or planning to copulate. And all throughout the myths the smorgasbord approach seems to dominate: now a taste of the husband, now a taste of the wife, a generous helping of lover or married neighbor, and even a small side-dish of that generally forbidden fruit — one's own grown children.

One afternoon (and we can imagine it to be a crystal clear Spring day, all fibers and sinews fairly crackling with sexual tension) the father of the gods, Zeus, and his queen, Hera, were having another of those foreplay-type discussions.

At one point, striking a pose, Zeus made the playful observation to his spouse: "I insist, you women have more joy in making love than men do." The goddess demurred, and denied it. Hmm ... how to resolve this? They'd ask Tiresias, who had actually experienced both sides of lovemaking.

As Ovid tells us: "One day, while in the green wood, Tiresias offended with a stroke of his stick two immense serpents, mating, and (O wonder!) was changed from man to woman. Thus he lived for seven years."

In the eighth year he again encountered the two serpents, engaged in having the same pleasure, and after thinking about it he struck again and was again transformed — back into a man.

So, when Zeus and Hera approached him with their vivid question he knew the answer, and avowed that Zeus was correct. Piqued, the dear goddess struck him blind! In compensation, however, the flummoxed god bestowed on him the gift of prophecy.

As Saul Bellow once put it, "Truth comes in blows." So take heed: in a moment of mythic truth, the unlikely may very well happen!

Backstory

In ancient Greek mythology, Tiresias was the son of a shepherd named Everes and a nymph named Chariclo. Tiresias, who always spoke his mind, seems to have had a special knack for insulting Hera, queen of the gods, who punished him for his alleged transgressions by physically altering his body.

It was Hera who changed him into a woman after the unfortunate incident with the copulating snakes, and Hera who blinded him after he took Zeus's side on the question of which gender has more joy during lovemaking (although there is another version of the myth in which he is blinded by Athena after he saw her naked in a bath — this is often the way it is with myths).

Tiresias was also said to have lived to be very, very old — seven or nine generations depending on who was telling the tale. He did eventually die, however. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus was sent to him for a prophetic reading in the underworld.

Tiresias was also a character in Sophocles' Antigone.