Tiresias (or Teiresias if you prefer) is the aged blind prophet whose appearance turns the plot in all Greek tragedies set in Thebes. He always tells the truth about the past, present and future - but the characters who need to pay attention are too distracted to listen.
"How terrible it is to have wisdom when it does not benefit those who have it." [Tiresias. Sophocles, Oedipus the King 315]
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SummaryOthers say that Athena blinded the young Tiresias by covering his eyes with her hands when he surprised her naked. Tiresias' mother, the nymph Chariclo who was dear to Athena and one of her attendants, asked the goddess to restore his sight, but Athena, not being able to do so, cleansed instead his ears in such a way that she caused him to understand the sounds of birds. Athena also gave Tiresias a staff made of cornel-wood with the help of which he could walk like those who can see.
It is also said that Athena did not take the sight of young Tiresias; as the goddess explained to Chariclo, these were the old laws of Cronos, which inflicted the penalty of blindness on any mortal who beheld an immortal without consent. Since Tiresias' blindness could therefore not be taken back, Athena bestowed on him the power to utter oracles, to understand the birds (the bird-observatory of Tiresias could still be visited many generations after his death), to live a long life, and after his death, to keep his understanding among the dead.
Questions"Come, tell me, where have you proved yourself a seer? Why, when the Sphinx was here, did you say nothing to free the people? Yet the riddle, at least, was not for the first comer to read: there was need of a seer's help, and you were discovered not to have this art, either from birds, or known from some god. But rather I, Oedipus the ignorant, stopped her, having attained the answer through my wit alone, untaught by birds." [Oedipus to Tiresias.Sophocles, Oedipus the King 390]
Notes"The man who practices the prophet's art is a fool; for if he happens to give an adverse answer, he makes himself disliked by those for whom he takes the omens; while if he pities and deceives those who are consulting him, he wrongs the gods." [Tiresias to his daughter. Euripides, Phoenicia Women 955]
Still others affirm that Tiresias was once watching two snakes copulating, and when he wounded the female he was turned into a woman; but later he saw the same snakes copulating again, and having wounded the male, he was transformed into a man.
Tiresias remained a woman for seven years, and became a man again in the eighth. It is told that when Zeus and Hera once disputed whether the pleasures of love are better enjoyed by women or by men, they referred to Tiresias for a decision on account of his knowledge of both sides of love. Tiresias then told them that
Tiresias is said to have lived an exceptionally long life. According to some, he lived for seven generations, whereas others say nine. In any case, he lived from the times of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, to the times of the war of the EPIGONI. This war followed the one of the SEVEN AGAINST THEBES in which Oedipus' sons quarrelled for the throne when their father left Thebes, after having learnt from Tiresias that he had killed his own father and wedded her mother.
TO E. FITZGERALD
OLD FITZ, who from your suburb grange,
I WISH I were as in the years of old
Against the guiltless heirs of him from Tyre
And they wail to thee!
"One height and one far-shining fire!"
"The man whom you have been seeking ... proclaiming a search into the murder of Laius, is here, ostensibly an alien sojourner, but soon to be found a native of Thebes...A blind man, though now he sees, a beggar, though now rich, he will make his way to a foreign land, feeling the ground before him with his staff. And he will be discovered to be at once brother and father of the children with whom he consorts; son and husband of the woman who bore him; heir to his father's bed, shedder of his father's blood. So go in and evaluate this, and if you find that I am wrong, say then that I have no wit in prophecy." [Tiresias to Oedipus. Sophocles, Oedipus the King 450]
NB THE BLIND SEER TIRESIAS CONFRONTED Oedipus with the quintessential dilemma of modern genetics: "It is but sorrow to be wise when wisdom profits not". Do you want to know how and when you are going to die, especially if you have no power to change the outcome? How does a person choose to learn this momentous information? How does one cope with the answer?
The Tiresias Complex
The witch Circe told Odysseus to descend to Hades, visit the spirit of Tiresias, and consult him about his return to Ithaca. Tiresias then warned him of the wrath of Poseidon, who was angry at him because Odysseus had blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus 2, a son of the god. Tiresias advised him not to harm the cattle of Helius in Thrinacia (Sicily). He also warned Odysseus about what was taking place at his home in Ithaca—where many SUITORS, wishing to marry his wife, lived at his expenses—, and what was bound to happen on his arrival. He also prophesied that Odysseus' death would come in his old age, far from the sea, and in a gentle way.
The mind of Tiresias was unchanged in Hades, as Persephone granted him reason even in death, that he alone should have understanding among the dead.
Polymnia: Tiresias, are you asleep?
Tiresias: Yes goddess, I am.
Polymnia: Completely asleep?
Tiresias: Yes, completely.
Polymnia: Then you are listening?
Tiresias: Yes, most clearly.
Polymnia: Let us see, when did I visit you the last time?
Tiresias: I do not remember too well, goddess; you and your sisters do not visit my kind very often. But it was in my bird-observatory.
Polymnia: And what did I tell you while you were sleeping in your bird-observatory?
Tiresias: I recall you saying that what I was prophesying had been made up by you and your sisters, for there was nothing, you said, not even myself, beyond your and your sister's tales.
Polymnia: So what are you, Tiresias?
Tiresias: A Theban seer, thanks to Apollo, gracious lady.
Polymnia: Yes, thanks to him, although he did not give you but a tiny part of what he knows. What are you more, Theban seer?
Tiresias: A poor mortal ravished by your greatness.
Polymnia: Are you not a tale yet, stubborn seer?
Tiresias: If you say so, I must be one, but I cannot see it.
Polymnia: You must see everything, although you are blind, but listen can you not.
Tiresias: I would like to. But how could that be?
Polymnia: How could it not? Am I not myself a tale?
Tiresias: What you are you know best yourself, goddess.
Polymnia: Yes, and you cannot tell because you mortals, living between unimpaired light and complete darkness, have a fragile mind. Do you remember who covers that gap?
Tiresias: Your mother Memory does, and the more we remember, I recall you saying, the more we know, and the more we forget, the more ignorant we become.
Polymnia: And who says so?
Tiresias: You say, goddess.
Polymnia: No, the tale says, and I am the tale and you are the tale, and we are now saying what my mother allows us to say. Do you follow me now?
Tiresias: Do we say we are a tale?
Polymnia: That is what we say.
Tiresias: And who is telling it?
Polymnia: The poet.
Tiresias: And you give him the authority?
Tiresias: But you yourself are the tale he tells?
Polymnia: Yes, and everything else too, although he repeats what we whisper in his ear.
Tiresias: I see. What is going to happen then?
Polymnia: The seer asked what is going to happen.
Tiresias: I mean what is going to happen with all tales.
Polymnia: They will go on for ever, as tales do, Tiresias.
Tiresias: Shall I go on for ever, then?
Polymnia: Yes, they will be talking about you thousands of years from now.
Tiresias: I have heard many tales that are now forgotten.
Polymnia: This is a sacred true tale, Tiresias, watched over by my mother.
Tiresias: What if mortals get tired and cease to believe in your sacred true tales?
Polymnia: What has Belief, who comes and goes and has no form, to do with it?
Tiresias: People could believe the sacred true tales to be lies.
Polymnia: And what would that amount to? Lies are the servants of truth. And the tale being true, we will remain in the midst of the most bizarre beliefs and watch how they vanish.
Tiresias: How is that? Remain where?
Polymnia: Incorrigible seer! What do you wish to believe in now? I will tell you nothing, for you love to spread everywhere the sickness of blind belief... Nevertheless I like you Tiresias. But now I must leave.
Tiresias: Already? Did you come to mock me, goddess? What do you wish?
Polymnia: I came because you are a good tale, though you do not know it yourself. Farewell, Tiresias. Do not wake up: someone else is coming in now.
[Polymnia leaves; Apollo comes.]
Tiresias: Oh Lord, I am dreaming...
Apollo: Yes, you are. Do you still feel the heavy weight of Sleep upon you?
Tiresias: Yes I do, but I would like to be able to open my blind eyes and watch your sweet presence.
Apollo: Do not open your eyes or you will not see me at all.
Tiresias: I know, I know, great Lord... Oh, what bliss! Thank you for coming in this moment of distress to comfort my tired soul with your light. Your servant is now a miserable refugee: Thebes has been sacked and I have lost my daughter to the enemy. Look around in this camp and you will find nothing else but cowards and thieves. What is inside these peoples' minds, Lord? Are they not all refugees? Why do they torture each other with crimes? Are the sufferings that the Argives inflicted on them not enough?
Apollo: This is how things were supposed to be, and you have known it because I told you the tale.
Tiresias: Yes Lord, and yet I cannot suffer it!
Apollo: The end of these sufferings of yours is at hand.
Tiresias: How is that, sweet Lord?
Apollo: Tomorrow you will reach Haliartus...
Tiresias: That is so.
Apollo: ...And you will go to the nearby fountain at Tilphussa and you will drink from its waters.
Tiresias: I will certainly fulfill your wish. What will happen then?
Apollo: You will die by the spring.
Tiresias: I see; how will that happen?
Apollo: I will be there to shoot you down with an arrow.
Tiresias: Oh, Apollo! Thank you, my Lord! That honour is more than I ever could have hoped for!
Apollo: You have deserved it.
Tiresias: Thank you, thank you a thousand times! And I do not dare to ask you how I could have deserved this happiness. What will happen then?
Apollo: You go to Hades.
Tiresias: Shall I? Oh, Apollo! I am speechless...and, to tell you the truth, I suspect that I will remain so in that shadowy place. For how could I say anything or even think, being but a shadow myself? And who could be interested in prophecy in that realm of no return?
Apollo: You will keep your wits in Hades.
Tiresias: Will I? How is that possible?
Apollo: Persephone has agreed to it.
Tiresias: Oh, Blessed One! And yet nothing gives me more fear than my own wits. For it seems to me that being surrounded by confused souls I would rather prefer to sleep for ever, like Endymion. But tell me Lord: which is the purpose of this arrangement?
Apollo: Odysseus will visit you there before his own death.
Tiresias: Oh! Do you mean that little child from Ithaca? Is he going to descend alive to Hades? Will he be as mighty as the gods?
Apollo: He will not be as mighty as the gods, but you will instruct him so that he may return home.
Tiresias: Are you telling me that I am sent to Hades so that Odysseus may find his way home?
Apollo: That is the whole idea.
Tiresias: And could he not be instructed in another place, good Lord? I recall hearing that the father of one Aeneas, who is not yet born, will wait for his son in the Elysian Fields and there he will show him both past and future and many blissful things.
Apollo: Yes, but that is not the way your tale goes, Tiresias.
Apollo: That is what I said.
Tiresias: I see. You mean, as someone else shortly before did, that I am a tale or part of one?
Apollo: Yes, you are, just as Polymnia told you before I came.
Tiresias: Oh Lord! Can you tell me how this tale will end?
Apollo: Tales never end, Tiresias. At least not these ones.
Tiresias: What will happen?
Apollo: Whatever the poet tells, which is, for example, that tomorrow you will die at Tilphussa, that some years from now Troy will face destruction, that the Achaeans will meet sedition at home, that Odysseus will wander for many years, that you will meet him in Hades, and many other things, some of which you already know.
Tiresias: Yes, I do know many of these...tales. But what will happen next?
Apollo: The tales will be told, for that is the purpose of tales.
Tiresias: And you and the gods are inventing the tales?
Apollo: Tales are not inventions, Tiresias, they are just rearrangements.
Tiresias: And it is you who rearrange them?
Apollo: No, we are tales as everything else.
Tiresias: That is what Polymnia said.
Apollo: Because I told her to.
Tiresias: And the poet, who Polymnia said is telling the tale, is he also a tale?
Apollo: The tale makes the poet as well.
Tiresias: I thought it was the other way round.
Apollo: Are you not a seer, Tiresias?
Tiresias: Thanks to you.
Apollo: And when you utter a prophecy, do you invent the things that will happen, or do they make of you a prophet by letting you refer to them beforehand, and then happen?
Tiresias: I am a prophet because they will happen and I know about them beforehand.
Apollo: So, you do not make them up first and later utter prophecies about your own creations?
Tiresias: No, I could not call it prophecy to talk about events which I know beforehand through profane means.
Apollo: Well, when a poet makes good poetry, he knows that it is not made by him, but that it is the tale that makes a wonderful poet out of him, by the grace of Memory, her daughters and myself.
Tiresias: And yet you and they are part of the tale?
Apollo: Why should we stay outside? We are part of it no less than you are.
Tiresias: How come you never taught me that, sweet Lord? Why cannot I see it even now?
Apollo: Because you are a seer, Tiresias.
Tiresias: Oh Apollo! Do you hide something from me? I feel sleepy, I cannot think.
Apollo: That means you are about to wake up. I leave now. Remember: Tilphussa at midnight; Death will be there too.
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