In Greek mythology, a blind Theban seer. In Homer's Odyssey he retained his prophetic gifts even in the underworld, where Odysseus was sent to consult him. His prophecy led to the tragedy of Oedipus. It was said that Tiresias lived for seven generations and that he was once turned into a woman for killing the female of two mating snakes; upon thereafter killing the male, he reverted to male. According to one legend, he was blinded by Hera for arguing, on the basis of his unique experience, that women derive greater pleasure from sex than men do; his gift of prophecy was a compensatory gesture from Zeus.
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In Greek mythology, Tiresias (also transliterated as Teiresias Τειρεσίας) was a blind prophet of Thebes, famous for being transformed into a woman for seven years. He was the son of the shepherd Everes and the nymph Chariclo; Tiresias participated in fully seven generations at Thebes, beginning as advisor to Cadmus himself.
Tiresias was a prophet of Zeus. According to the mythographic compendium Bibliotheke, different stories were told of the cause of his blindness, the most direct being that he was simply blinded by the gods for revealing their secrets. An alternate story told by the poet Pherecydes was followed in Callimachus' poem "The Bathing of Pallas"; in it, Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he stumbled onto her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged her to undo her curse, but Athena could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong, thus the gift of augury.
On Mount Cyllene in the Peloponnese, as Tiresias came upon a pair of copulating snakes, he hit the pair a smart blow with his stick. Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, married and had children, including Manto, who also possessed the gift of prophecy. According to some versions of the tale, Lady Tiresias was a prostitute of great renown. After seven years as a woman, Tiresias again found mating snakes; depending on the myth, either she made sure to leave the snakes alone this time, or, according to Hyginus, trampled on them. As a result, Tiresias was released from his sentence and permitted to regain his masculinity. This ancient story is recorded in lost lines of Hesiod.
In a separate episode, Tiresias was drawn into an argument between Hera and her husband Zeus, on the theme of who has more pleasure in sex: the man, as Hera claimed; or, as Zeus claimed, the woman, as Tiresias had experienced both. Tiresias revealed woman's greatest secret: that she receives the greater pleasure: "Of ten parts a man enjoys one only. Hera instantly struck him blind for his impiety. Zeus could do nothing to stop her, but he did give Tiresias the gift of foresight and a lifespan of seven lives.
Stripped of its narrative, anecdotal and causal connections, the mythic figure of Tiresias combines several archaic elements: the blind seer; the impious interruption of a natural rite (whether of a bathing goddess or coupling serpents); serpents and staff (Caduceus); a holy man's double gender (shaman); and competition between deities.
Tiresias's background, fully male and then fully female, was important, both for his prophecy and his experiences. Also, prophecy was a gift given only to the priests and priestesses. Therefore, Tiresias offered Zeus and Hera evidence and gained the gift of male and female priestly prophecy. How he obtained his information varied: sometimes, like the oracles, he would receive visions; other times he would listen for the songs of birds, or ask for a description of visions and pictures appearing within the smoke of burnt offerings, and so interpret them.
As a seer, "Tiresias" was "a common title for soothsayers throughout Greek legendary history" (Graves 1960, 105.5). In Greek literature, Tiresias's pronouncements are always gnomic but never wrong. Often when his name is attached to a mythic prophecy, it is introduced simply to supply a personality to the generic example of a seer, not by any inherent connection of Tiresias with the myth: thus it is Tiresias who tells Amphytrion of Zeus and Alcmena and warns the mother of Narcissus that the boy will thrive as long as he never knows himself. This is his emblematic role in tragedy (see below). Like most oracles, he is generally extremely reluctant to offer the whole of what he sees in his visions.
In Hellenistic and Roman times Tiresias' sex-change was embroidered upon and expanded into seven episodes, with appropriate amours in each, probably written by the Alexandrian Ptolemaeus Chennus, but attributed by Eustathius to Sostratus. Tiresias is presented as a complexly liminal figure, with a foot in each of many oppositions, mediating between the gods and mankind, male and female, blind and seeing, present and future, and this world and the Underworld.
In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, Oedipus, the king of Thebes, calls upon Tiresias to aid in the investigation of the killing of the previous king Laius. At first, Tiresias refuses to give a direct answer and instead hints that the killer is someone Oedipus really does not wish to find. However, after being provoked to anger by Oedipus' accusation first that he has no foresight and then that Tiresias had had a hand in the murder, he reveals that in fact it was Oedipus himself who had (unwittingly) committed the crime. Outraged, Oedipus throws him out of the palace, but then afterwards realises the truth.
Oedipus had handed over the rule of Thebes to his sons Eteocles and Polynices but Eteocles refused to share the throne with his brother. Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes recounts the story of the war which followed. In it, Eteocles and Polynices kill each other, and Megareus kills himself because of Tiresias' prophecy that a voluntary death from a Theban would save the city.
Tiresias also appears in Sophocles' Antigone. Creon, now king of Thebes, refuses to allow Polynices to be buried. His niece, Antigone, defies the order and is caught; Creon decrees that she is to be buried alive. The gods express their disapproval of Creon's decision through Tiresias. However, Antigone has already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Creon arrives at the tomb where she is to be interred, his son, Haemon who was betrothed to Antigone, attacks Creon and then kills himself. When Creon's wife, Eurydice, is informed of her son and Antigone's deaths, she too takes her own life.
Tiresias and his prophesy are also involved in the story of the Epigoni.
In The Divine Comedy (The Divine Comedy - Inferno - Canto XX), Dante sees Tiresias in the fourth pit of the eighth circle of Hell (the circle is for perpetrators of fraud and the fourth pit being the location for soothsayers or diviners.) He was condemned to walk for eternity with his head twisted toward his back; while in life he strove to look forward to the future, in Hell he must only look backward. Tiresias' daughter Manto is also assigned her punishment here.
More recently, "Tiresias" was the title of a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Frank Herbert also uses the mythic characteristics of Tiresias in his second Dune novel, Dune Messiah, where the protagonist Paul Atreides loses his sight but has prophetic powers to counter this stemming from insights into both the male and female part of the psyche.
Amy Seham, drama professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, wrote a musical entitled "Tiresias" in 1999, with music by Chanda Walker and Kira Theimer.
Tiresias as a motif of doubleness (male/female) also occurs in the writing of Rohinton Mistry. There it serves as a comparison to the protagonist of the short story "Lend me your Light", who is torn between his childhood home in Bombay and his new existence in Toronto: "I, Tiresias,/ Blind and throbbing between two lives..." (Tales from Firozsha Baag: 180).
In Lawrence Durrell's novel Balthazar, the second part of his Alexandria Quartet, Melissa, Scobie and Balthazar are each seen as having moments of prophetic sight. Scobie also cross-dresses, thus implying the androgyny of Tiresias. The novel also features the sing-song rhyme:
The blind begger of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary echoes Tiresias. Emma looking in her mirror at her death and hearing the song of this blind-begger reflects her viscillitation between the masculine and feminine identity and her struggle with this.
Dennis DeYoung uses Tiresias in the song "Castle Walls" on the 1977 Styx album "The Grand Illusion."
Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem entitled 'from Mrs Tiresias' in her collection The World's Wife. This poem is told from the point of view of Tiresias' marriage partner, and interprets the myth in a modern context.
During the opening scenes of O Brother Where Art Thou, a derivative of Odyssey, Tiresias is introduced as an old black man on a railroad handcar. Although when asked his name he states "I have no name."
In 2001 Le Tendre and Rossi published a two-volume comic book Tiresias, focusing on his gender-change.
In Su Walton's 1969 Here Before Kilroy, Tiresias is the name of a homeless man who crops up throughout the story to make observations about the actions of the characters.
The film Tiresia is inspired by this myth.
Peter Gabriel, in the lyrics (by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford) of the Genesis song "The Cinema Show" from their 1973 album Selling England by the Pound, refers to "father Tiresias" and his dual sexuality.
In 2007 Salley Vickers imagined a series of conversations between Tiresias and Sigmund Freud as part of the Canongate "Myths" series of novels. The myth in question was that of Oedipus. Book title : Where three roads meet.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier by Alan Moore includes an autobiography of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. This reveals that Tiresias had two daughters. while Manto inherited their father's prophetic abilities, the other daughter, Orlando (or Bio, as she was then named), found she changed gender as she grew, again inherited from her father. Tiresias is mentioned as having been ashamed at Orlando's gender-changing ability, sold him to pirate slavers and died escorting Manto to become the Oracle at Delphi.
The Radio Tales drama "Homer's Odyssey: Voyage to the Underworld" is a dramatic retelling of the portion of Homer's epic poem that features the voyage to Hades to consult with the prophet Teiresias. The drama first aired via XM Satellite Radio on April 19, 2003.