Tiresias: Ovid's Metamorphoses

Mythological Transgendering

Illustration of Tiresias striking the snakes

Krauss, Johann Ulrich / Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/ Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Tiresias was a mythological blind seer who plays a significant role in Greek tragedy involving the House of Thebes. Shakespeare's comedy Midsummer Night's Dream, Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and Ovid's Metamorphoses are among the most famous collections of stories in which one story surrounds another. The outer stories provide little more than a framework or rationale for the more interesting, frequently bawdy, shenanigans within.

The frame of Ovid's Metamorphoses is a history of events from the days of creation to Ovid's present, but with a twist: All stories told must involve physical transformations (metamorphoses). Verifiably historical figures are limited to the emperors Julius and Augustus whose transformations are from mortals to gods. Other transformed figures come from Greco-Roman myth and legend.

The House of Thebes

Book Three of Ovid's Metamorphoses relates the story of the House of Thebes but not in a straightforward chronological manner. Instead, there are digressions and inset stories. Members of the House of Thebes include:

  • Cadmus: Cadmus created the "sown men" (Spartans) by sowing dragon's teeth. He is the founder of Thebes.
  • Oedipus: An oracle warned Oedipus' parents that their baby would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. The parents thought they had had their baby killed, but he was saved and lived to carry out the prophecy.
  • Dionysus: Dionysus was a god who made mortals see things other than as they really were. In this way he caused one of his unbelievers to be torn apart by his own mother.
  • Semele: Semele was the mother of Dionysus, but when she asked Zeus, her mate, to reveal himself in his full glory, it was too much for her and she burned up. Zeus snatched the unborn Dionysus and sewed him into his thigh.

The Story of Tiresias

One of the important peripheral figures in the House of Thebes' legends is the blind seer Tiresias, whose story, "Ovid" is introduced in Metamorphoses Book Three. Tiresias' tale of woe and transformation began when he separated two mating snakes for no apparent reason. Instead of poisoning Tiresias with indignant viper venom, the snakes magically transformed him into a woman.

Tiresias wasn't too happy with their new transgendered metamorphoses but lived as a woman for seven years before figuring out a technique that would either kill her or reverse the operation. Since striking the snakes had worked before, she tried it again. It worked, and he became a man again, but unfortunately, his life story came to the attention of two of the most contentious of the Olympians, Juno (Hera for the Greeks) and her husband Jupiter (Zeus for the Greeks).

A Woman's Pleasure 

Juno claimed she was doing little more than servicing Jupiter, while Jupiter claimed he wasn't getting enough bang for his buck, so to speak. Like a bolt of lightning, inspiration hit the thunder god. He would consult the one person who could resolve their argument. Only Tiresias knew both sides of the coupling argument. Tiresias didn't have much choice this time. He had to answer. Jupiter was right, he said. The pleasure woman derives from sex is greater.

Juno was outraged. In her anger, she made the man blind, but Jupiter, gratified, rewarded Tiresias with the power of seeing the future.

Other Legends of Tiresias

Tiresias appears in the Oedipus legends and dramas, including Euripides' Bacchae, and in Odysseus' underworld adventure, but in Ovid's Metamorphoses, he shares his gift in two additional, transformational stories, those of Narcissus and Echo, and Bacchus and Pentheus.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Tiresias: Ovid's Metamorphoses." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Tiresias: Ovid's Metamorphoses. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Tiresias: Ovid's Metamorphoses." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).