The blind prophet of Greek myth, Tiresias appears in all of the Greek tragedies that take place in Thebes—Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and The Phoenician Women—as well as in Euripides' The Bacchae and in Homer's The Odyssey. Tiresias's insight comes not only from his blindness, but also from his having been transformed into a woman for seven years, and hence being able to see life from all perspectives. His role is to predict the future, unearth the true past, and give correct advice, all of which he does. In addition, he has been granted a long life by Zeus, so his life spans Theban history from Cadmus to Oedipus's children.
Tiresias was born in Thebes, son of Eueres and Chariclo, who was himself descended from Udaeus, one of the Sparti. There are several different accounts of how Tiresias became blind. One is that he came upon the goddess Athena in her bath. Angry, she threw water on him and blinded him. His mother then begged Athena to give him his sight, but unable to do so, Athena instead gave him a walking staff that enabled him to walk as if he could see and also enabled him to understand what birds say.
Another legend, recorded by Ovid in The Metamorphosis, was that both Tiresias's blindness and his sojourn as a woman came from his involvement with copulating snakes and the gods Hera and Zeus. One day coming upon two snakes in the throes of passion, Tiresias hit them with his staff. This angered Hera, who was a sensuous woman, and she punished him by transforming him into a woman. After a substantial period, the female Tiresias again came upon copulating snakes, only this time he/she left them alone and Hera returned her/him to masculinity. But Tiresias was then asked to arbitrate an argument between Hera and Zeus about which partner, the man or the woman, enjoyed sex more. Because Tiresias had lived as both, they presumed he might be able to settle the dispute, even though Hera, who had been fooling Zeus into believing that he had the best time, did not want her pleasure exposed. Tiresias honestly answered that the female gets the most pleasure, and an angry Hera struck him blind. Zeus, who could not stop the blinding, gave Tiresias the gift of prophecy and insight.
As a blind seer, Tiresias advised Theban leaders during Thebes crises, telling Oedipus a truth he did not want to hear, in Oedipus Rex; advising Creon to unbury the living before burying the dead, in Antigone; and telling Creon that Thebes can withstand its attackers only if he sacrifices his son, in the Phoenician Women. Only in Euripides' The Bacchae does Tiresias appear as a fool along with Cadmus.
Tiresias lived 175 years. Near the end of his life, he and his daughter Manto were captured and put in the service of Apollo at Delphi. At his death, Persephone permitted Tiresias to keep his memory and mind, which Tiresias used from the underworld to advise Odysseus about how to get back home in The Odyssey.
Buxton, Richard. 2004. The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London: Thames and Hudson.
Euripedes. 2000. Bacchae, trans. David Franklin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hamilton, Edith. 1989 (1942). Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Penguin.
Ovid. 2004. Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin.
Sophocles. 2002 (1958). The Oedipus Cycle: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Tiresias, a blind prophet, appears in many Greek myths. Several tales account for his blindness. One tells that he was struck blind as a boy when he saw Athena* bathing. Later Athena felt sorry for Tiresias but could not restore his sight. Instead, she gave him the gift of prophecy and the ability to understand the language of the birds.
In another myth, Tiresias came across two snakes mating. He killed the female snake and was transformed into a woman. Seven years later, he again saw two mating snakes; this time he killed the male snake and became a man. Because he had been both man and woman, Zeus* and Hera* asked him to settle an argument: Which of the sexes enjoys love more? When Tiresias replied that man gives more pleasure than he receives, Hera struck him blind. To make up for this deed, Zeus gave Tiresias the ability to foresee the future and allowed him to live an extraordinarily long life.
prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights
prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
underworld land of the dead
One of Tiresias 's gifts was that his spirit could still utter prophecies in the underworld. In the Odyssey *, the hero Odysseus goes to the underworld to seek advice from Tiresias. In the story of Oedipus*, Tiresias revealed that Oedipus had killed his father and married his own mother. In Antigone by Sophocles, Tiresias warns Creon against punishing Antigone for burying her brother. In yet another tale, Tiresias warned Pentheus, the king of Thebes, to pay tribute to the god Dionysus*. Pentheus, however, refused to listen to Tiresias and was torn to pieces by a group of Dionysus's followers called the Maenads. See also SEERS.