Tiresias – The Blind Seer of Greek Myths Unveiled

In the vast tapestry of Greek mythology, few figures are as enigmatic and intriguing as Tiresias, the blind seer. His tales, woven with threads of prophecy and wisdom, have been passed down through generations, captivating the hearts and minds of those who hear them.

Tiresias Key Facts

ParentsEveres and Chariclo
PartnersNone of significant mention
SiblingsNone
OffspringManto, Daphne
Other namesTeiresias (Greek)
Roman nameTiresias
Best Known MythTransformation into a woman and back

Name and Etymology

Tiresias, (spelled as Teiresias in Greek texts), holds a name shrouded in mystery. The etymology of his name isn’t entirely clear, but it’s believed to be of pre-Greek origin. This prophet’s tales have transcended borders, and in Roman myths, he is referred to as Tiresias. Throughout various accounts, he’s been graced with epithets that highlight his wisdom and prophetic abilities, though the most common remains the “blind seer.”

The Roman counterpart of Greek mythology often mirrors its characters, albeit with slight variations in tales and names. However, in the case of our blind prophet, the Romans chose to keep his name unchanged, a testament to his unique stature in mythological narratives.

Lastly, while many heroes and gods have a plethora of names and titles, Tiresias remains consistent across tales. His identity is so intertwined with his gift (and curse) of prophecy that adding any other moniker would only dilute his essence.

Henry Singleton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tiresias Family and Relationships

Born to the shepherd Everes and, one of Athena‚Äôs favorites, the nymph Chariclo, Tiresias’ lineage was a blend of the mortal and the divine. His birth, though not surrounded by the usual fanfare of divine births, was significant in its own right.

During his early years, an unusual event marked Tiresias’ life. He once stumbled upon two snakes mating and, upon striking them, was transformed into a woman. He lived as a female for seven years before encountering the same snakes again and regaining his male form. This unique experience granted him the wisdom of both genders.

While not prominently known for romantic escapades, Tiresias’ life was rich with interactions. His daughter, Manto, also possessed the gift of prophecy. His insights and prophecies brought him into contact with many, including key figures of the Trojan War such as Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Myths about Tiresias

Tiresias’ life was a tapestry of intriguing tales, each more captivating than the last. His unique experiences and interactions with both mortals and deities have solidified his place in the annals of Greek mythology.

Transformation and Blindness

One of the most well-known myths surrounding Tiresias is his transformation into a woman and back. As a young man, Tiresias happened upon two snakes mating on Mount Cyllene. Disturbed by the sight, he struck the serpents with his staff. As a result, the gods transformed him into a woman. For seven years, Tiresias lived as a female, even becoming a priestess and mothering children. Upon encountering the same snakes again, she struck them once more, regaining her male form.

This unique experience of living as both genders led to a dispute between Hera and Zeus. They debated who derived more pleasure from love: men or women. Tiresias, having lived as both, was summoned to settle the debate. His answer, favoring Zeus’s perspective, infuriated Hera, who struck him blind. Zeus, unable to reverse Hera’s curse, compensated by gifting Tiresias the power of foresight and a lifespan of seven generations.

Advising Oedipus

In the city of Thebes, a mysterious plague had befallen the land. Oedipus, the king, desperate for answers, summoned Tiresias to reveal the cause. Initially reluctant, Tiresias eventually disclosed a harrowing truth: Oedipus himself was the root of the plague, having unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Enraged and in denial, Oedipus accused Tiresias of conspiracy and falsehood. However, as the narrative unfolded, the seer’s words were proven true, leading to Oedipus’s tragic downfall.

The Trojan War and Odysseus’ Journey

While Tiresias was not directly involved in the battles of the Trojan War, his wisdom was sought from beyond the grave. During Odysseus’ perilous journey home, the hero ventured into the underworld. There, he summoned Tiresias’ spirit to gain insights into his voyage and the challenges that lay ahead. The blind prophet offered invaluable advice, warning Odysseus of the trials he’d face and guiding him towards a safe return to Ithaca.

Narcissus’ Fate

Another lesser-known tale involves Tiresias and the beautiful youth, Narcissus. When Narcissus was a child, his mother, Liriope, asked Tiresias if her son would live a long life. The seer cryptically responded, “If he never recognizes himself, he will live a long life.” Years later, Narcissus, entranced by his reflection in a pool, pined away, turning into the flower that bears his name, thus fulfilling Tiresias’ prophecy.

Depiction And Characteristics

Tiresias, in art and literature, is often depicted as an old man, leaning on a staff, with a cloak covering his sightless eyes. His blindness, rather than a handicap, is symbolic of his inner vision and insight.

Symbols associated with him are snakes, representing his transformative experience, and the caduceus, symbolizing his prophetic abilities. Birds, too, often feature alongside him, as he was known to interpret their flight to predict the future.

His character, as gleaned from myths, is one of wisdom and patience. He was neither swayed by kings nor gods and spoke the truth, no matter how bitter. The Ancient Greeks viewed him as a bridge between the mortal world and the divine, his prophecies being messages from the gods themselves.

Representations Of Tiresias In Art

Throughout history, Tiresias has been a muse for many artists. His unique story and character have been depicted in various forms, from ancient pottery to grand frescoes.

One of the most notable representations is in Athenian black-figure pottery, where he’s seen advising Oedipus. In more modern times, his character has been explored in plays, most notably in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” where he symbolizes profound insight.

His interactions with key figures, especially during the Trojan War, have also been a focal point in art. Scenes with Menelaus, Agamemnon, and even Briseis have been immortalized on canvas, showcasing the pivotal role he played in these narratives.

Krauss, Johann Ulrich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mentions in Ancient Texts

Tiresias’ tales aren’t just limited to myths; they’ve been etched in the annals of ancient literature, with various renowned authors referencing this blind seer.

Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC)

Homer, the legendary ancient Greek poet, is best known for his epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” In “The Odyssey,” Tiresias makes a significant appearance in the “Nekuia” episode.

“You will come home through strange towns and find your own town peaceful, with all your family safe and sound.” – Tiresias to Odysseus.

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BC)

Sophocles, one of the three ancient Greek tragedians, penned “Oedipus Rex,” a play that stands as a beacon of truth with Tiresias at its core.

“I say that you are the murderer whom you seek.” – Tiresias to Oedipus.

Euripides’ The Bacchae (405 BC)

Euripides, another eminent Greek tragedian, wrote “The Bacchae.” In this play, Tiresias, alongside Cadmus, tries to persuade Pentheus to respect Dionysus as a god.

“To the god, no difference there between the young man and the old. He wants to gather honors, not to watch dances.” – Tiresias on Dionysus.

Apollodorus’ Library (1st-2nd century AD)

Apollodorus, an ancient Greek scholar, compiled a comprehensive collection of myths in his work “The Library.” Tiresias is mentioned in various contexts, detailing his encounters and prophecies.

“Tiresias … blamed the bird-watchers among the Greeks, saying that they do not understand augury but claim to know the future from the flight of birds.” – Apollodorus on Tiresias’ wisdom.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why was Tiresias blind?

He was blinded by Hera after he sided with Zeus in a debate. However, Zeus compensated by granting him foresight.

Did he really transform into a woman?

Yes, after striking two mating snakes, he turned into a woman for seven years before reverting back.

How did he die?

The details of his death vary, but one account suggests he drank from a spring that was sacred to the Fates.

Was he involved in the Trojan War?

Indirectly. He offered prophecies and advice to key figures like Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Who was his most famous offspring?

Manto, his daughter, who also possessed the gift of prophecy.

How is he depicted in art?

Often as an elderly, blind man with a staff, accompanied by symbols like snakes or birds.

Featured Image Credit: Pietro della Vecchia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Evangelia

Evangelia Hatzitsinidou is the creator and author of www.greek-gods.info which has been merged with Olympioi.com. She has been writing about Greek Mythology for almost twenty years. A native to Greece, she teaches and lives just outside Athens.