Tiresias and the Curse of the Forbidden Sight

Greek mythology tells us about Tiresias, a blind prophet of Apollo, who was famous for his clairvoyance and for being changed into a woman for seven years. He was in Thebes for seven generations, giving advice to Cadmus, the first king of Thebes, and seeing the story of King Laius and his son Oedipus unfold. After the Seven Against Thebes expedition, in which Polynices (son of Oedipus) and six others attacked Thebes, Tiresias died. Pliny the Elder even said that Tiresias invented augury.

Tiresias is often depicted as either a man or a woman, sometimes with sight and sometimes not. He is a figure that bridges many different worlds: between humans and gods, male and female, the present and the future, and this world and the underworld. He can predict the future in different ways, like receiving visions or interpreting the language of birds and fire. But he mostly relies on his ability to communicate with the dead. He will even threaten them if they don’t come to him quickly.

"Tiresias transformed into a woman" by Pietro della Vecchia, between 1626 and 1678
“Tiresias transformed into a woman” by Pietro della Vecchia, between 1626 and 1678

How Tiresias Lost His Sight

Tiresias is often linked to two myths. Both involve changes to his body that affected his prophetic power.

When Tiresias was young, he saw two snakes mating on Mount Cyllene and hit them, killing them. Hera, the goddess of marriage, punished him by turning him into a woman. For seven years, Tiresias served as a priestess for Hera. During this time, Tiresias got married and had a daughter named Manto, who also had the gift of prophecy. Later, during the War of the Epigoni, Manto was taken to Delphi to be dedicated to Apollo.

"Manto and Tiresias" by Henry Singleton, 1792 
“Manto and Tiresias” by Henry Singleton, 1792 

Seven years later, Tiresias came across another pair of mating snakes. She remembered what caused her fate and left them alone. This reversed the curse and she was turned back into a man.

Blessed with Second Sight

It was Tiresias’ blindness which became the making of his skills as a prophet. One story was that Tiresias, who, at this point, was already a mature seer and had already experienced life as a woman and a priestess of Hera, was drawn into an argument between Hera and Zeus on the theme of which of the genders has more pleasure in sex. Hera claimed that the man has more pleasure in sex, while Zeus claimed the opposite. As Tiresias had experienced life and sex in both genders, Tiresias replied with authority: “of ten parts, a man enjoys one only.” (Apollodorus, Library 3.6.7) Offended by this conclusion by her own former priestess, Hera instantly struck Tiresias blind for his impiety. In recompense, Zeus gave Tiresias the gift of foresight and a lifespan of seven generations.

"Teiresias Foretells the Future to Odysseus" by Henry Fuseli, circa 1800
“Teiresias Foretells the Future to Odysseus” by Henry Fuseli, circa 1800

A version written by the poet Pherecydes of Syros (circa 580 – 520 BC), followed by Callimachus’ poem The Bathing of Pallas, said that it was Athena who blinded Tiresias after he stumbled onto her bathing naked. Callimachus (310 – 240 BC) tells the story as a cautionary tale to warn the Pelasgian men that they should not see Athena naked unwittingly, otherwise they will lose their eyesight:

[…] Pelasgian men. beware lest unwitting you see the queen. Whoever should see Pallas, the city’s guardian, naked shall look on this city of Argos the very last time. (lines 51-54)

 Lucanian red-figure krater, with Ulysses consulting the spirit of Tiresias, circa 380 BC.
Lucanian red-figure krater, with Ulysses consulting the spirit of Tiresias, circa 380 BC., By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0

These lines shadow forth Tiresias’ experience. One day, a very young Tiresias went hunting with his dogs. While he was wandering on Helicon at midday and being very thirsty after his exertions, he came to the Hippocrene fountain where Athena and his own mother Chariclo were bathing. As soon as he saw Athena’s nude body, the young hunter was struck blind. His mother, Chariclo, pleaded to Athena to release Tiresias from the curse, lamenting the cruel punishment inflicted on her son. Athena explained to them that Tiresias’ blindness was not her doing – Tiresias was already fated for blindness. The act is irrevocable because according to Cronos’ laws: “whosoever discerns an immortal, when the god himself does not choose, / this man sees the god at a great price”. However, Athena decreed that Tiresias would receive a compensation for his loss of eyesight. She promised his mother that she would give him a staff to guide his feet, make him a prophet renowned in posterity and make him conscious among the dead in the afterlife. Athena also cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong, and thus the gift of augury.

Tiresias, Actaeon and Moses

What did Tiresias see? The question at the heart of the tragedy of young Tiresias’ blindness has to do with the true nature of the divine body. In Greek mythology, the body of the gods defies being seen for what it really is. As it is obscure to man, it is sublime. To see them face to face is an experience which goes beyond human powers.

The Tiresias story as told by Callimachus recalls the more famous parallel myth of Actaeon, the hero who saw the goddess Artemis in her nude form. Actaeon accidentally saw Artemis naked while she was bathing in the woods. Amazed at her beauty, Actaeon was spotted by the goddess. Artemis told him never to speak again or he would change into a deer. However, Actaeon quickly forgot this upon hearing his hunting dogs. He called out to his dogs and was immediately transformed into a deer. When Actaeon started running into the woods, his well-trained dogs found him and tore him to pieces. To see the goddess naked, albeit unwittingly, means to overstep the boundaries between the human and the divine. As Tiresias and Actaeon trespassed this limit, they were privy to divine wisdom that they should not have received and were consequently punished. After having seen the ‘forbidden vision’ in its full divine light, Actaeon died and Tiresias was forever wrapped up in darkness.

Actaeon's death. Artemis drives a chariot drawn by a team of deer. To the right a man reports Actaeon's death to his parents Aristaeus and Autonoe. The scene is probably based on Aeschylus' lost play The Toxitides, which dealt with the story of Actaeon. Side A from an Attic red-figure volute crater, ca. 450–440 BC.
Actaeon’s death. Artemis drives a chariot drawn by a team of deer. To the right a man reports Actaeon’s death to his parents Aristaeus and Autonoe. The scene is probably based on Aeschylus’ lost play The Toxitides, which dealt with the story of Actaeon. Side A from an Attic red-figure volute crater, ca. 450–440 BC.

The myth of Tiresias casts many shadows on our cultural tradition. One of these reaches Victorian England where the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892) rewrote the story of the Theban prophet by exploiting a significant aspect of Callimachus’ Hymn and conflating it with the myth of Moeneceus in Euripides’ the Phoenician Women where Athena was described as only a voice. However, since Athena embodied wisdom, to meet her means to meet divine wisdom. Tennyson drew a parallel between this concept and the God of the Old Testament who is also associated with wisdom and reveals himself through his voice but, above all, cannot be seen face to face. This became even more important for Tennyson’s version of the story as he recalled the scripture. The opening line of Tennyson’s Tiresias (1885): “I wish I were as in the years of old” – echoes a line from the ‘Song of Moses’ in the book Deuteronomy: “Remember the days of old, consider the year of many generations”, thus establishing a parallel between the Theban prophet and Moses.

The two men’s similarities hinges not only on prophecy or on their function as mediators between their people and the divine, but on their almost direct relationship with the deity. Like Moses who ‘saw’ God on the Horeb, Tiresias ‘met’ Athena on the Helicon. However, instead of being the chosen one like Moses, Tiresias was punished because man should not see the divine face. However, the blessings upon the two men remained the same. At the Hippocrene fountain, Athena gave Tiresias the power of prophesy, thus making him a mediator between mankind and the gods. Likewise, God chose Moses as the leader who will guide his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

Tiresias and the Theban Tragedies

As Tiresias was from Thebes, many of the prophetic tales surround him and those around him in the great city. In Greek literature, it was Tiresias who told Amphytrion the truth about his wife Alcmene, who gave birth to twin sons, Iphicles and Heracles. It was only Iphicles who was the son of Amphitryon because Heracles was the son of Zeus, who had visited Alcmene during Amphitryon’s absence.

Tiresias also warned the mother of Narcissus that the boy will thrive as long as he never knows himself. Narcissus ‘knows himself’ after he saw his own reflection in the water and fell deeply in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the allure of his reflection in the pool and having developed an unrequited love that could never be reciprocated, Narcissus lost his will to live and committed suicide. In some versions of the myth, Narcissus stared into his reflection until he withered away.

"Liriope Bringing Narcissus before Tiresias" by Giulio Carpioni, 1660s
“Liriope Bringing Narcissus before Tiresias” by Giulio Carpioni, 1660s

In The Bacchae by Euripides, Tiresias appeared with Cadmus, the founder and first king of Thebes, to warn the current king Pentheus against denouncing Dionysus as a god. Along with Cadmus, Tiresias dressed as a worshiper of Dionysus to go up the mountain to honor the new god with the Theban women in their Bacchic revels. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus, the king of Thebes, called upon Tiresias to aid in the investigation of the killing of the previous King Laius. At first, Tiresias refused to give a direct answer and instead hinted that the killer is someone Oedipus really did not wish to find. However, after being provoked to anger by Oedipus’ accusation first that he has no foresight and then that Tiresias had a hand in the murder, he revealed that, in fact, it was Oedipus himself who had unwittingly committed the crime of killing his own father, King Laius. Outraged, Oedipus threw Tiresias out of the palace. However, to his horror, Oedipus later realized the truth.

"Oedipus and Antigone" by Aleksander Kokular, c. 1828
“Oedipus and Antigone” by Aleksander Kokular, c. 1828

Later, Oedipus handed over the rule of Thebes to his sons Eteocles and Polynices. However, Eteocles refused to share the throne with his brother. Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes recounts the story of the war which followed in which the two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, killed each other.

Tiresias also appeared in Sophocles’ Antigone. Creon, now king of Thebes, refused to allow Antigone’s brother, Polynices, to be buried. His niece, Antigone, defied the order and was caught. Creon decreed that she was to be buried alive. The gods expressed their disapproval of Creon’s decision through Tiresias, who tells Creon that: “the city is sick through your fault.” Later, rather than be buried alive, Antigone took her own life by hanging herself. When Creon arrived at her tomb, his son, Haemon who loved and was betrothed to Antigone, attacked Creon and killed himself. When Creon’s wife, Eurydice, was informed of her son and Antigone’s deaths, she too took her own life.

Death of the Tiresias, the Blind Prophet of Apollo

Tiresias died after drinking water from the tainted spring Tilphussa, where he was struck by an arrow of Apollo. His shade descended to the Asphodel Meadows, the first level of Hades. After his death, he was visited in the underworld by Odysseus who called up the nekya (the spirits of the dead). So sentient was Tiresias that, even in death, he approached Odysseus, recognized him and called him by name before he had drunk the black blood of the sacrifice – a feat not achieved even by Odysseus’ own mother, as she must drink deep before her ghost could see her son for himself. Even in death, Tiresias gave Odysseus valuable advice concerning the rest of his odyssey, such as how to get past Scylla and Charybdis. He even gave him advice where he should not eat the cattle of Helios on Thrinacia. Although Odysseus obeyed, Odysseus’ men did not follow this advice which led to them being killed by Zeus thunderbolts during a storm.

Relief with Odysseus questionning the seer Tiresias. 4th quarter of the 1st century AD
Relief with Odysseus questionning the seer Tiresias. 4th quarter of the 1st century AD, By Darafsh – CC BY-SA 3.0

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