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Tiresias strikes two snakes with a stick, and is transformed into a woman by Hera. Engraving from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii (The Metamorphoses of Ovid) by Johann Ulrich Kraus, c. 1690

In Greek mythology, Tiresias (/tˈrisiəs/; Greek: Τειρεσίας; also transliterated as Teiresias) was a blind prophet of Thebes, famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years. He was the son of the shepherd Everes and the nymph Chariclo.[1] Tiresias participated fully in seven generations at Thebes, beginning as advisor to Cadmus himself.

Tiresias was a prophet of Apollo.


Eighteen allusions to mythic Tiresias, noted by Luc Brisson,[2] fall into three groups: one, in two episodes, recounts Tiresias' sex-change and his encounter with Zeus and Hera; a second group recounts his blinding by Athena; a third, all but lost, seems to have recounted the misadventures of Tiresias.

How Tiresias 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.

On Mount Cyllene in the Peloponnese,[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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,[citation needed] but attributed by Eustathius to Sostratus of Phanagoria's lost elegiac Tiresias.[6] 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.[7]

According to the mythographic compendium Bibliotheke,[8] 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.[9] His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears,[8] giving him the ability to understand birdsong, thus the gift of augury. In a separate episode,[10] 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 replied "Of ten parts a man enjoys one only."[11] Hera instantly struck him blind for his impiety. Zeus could do nothing to stop her or reverse her curse, but in recompence he did give Tiresias the gift of foresight[12] and a lifespan of seven lives.

He is said to have understood the language of birds and could divine the future from indications in fire, or smoke. However it was the communications of the dead he relied the most on, menacing them when they were late to attend him.[13]

Tiresias makes a dramatic appearance in the Odyssey, book XI, in which Odysseus calls up the spirits of the dead (the nekyia). "So sentient is Tiresias, even in death," observes Marina Warner "that he comes up to Odysseus and recognizes him and calls him by name before he has drunk the black blood of the sacrifice; even Odysseus' own mother cannot accomplish this, but must drink deep before her ghost can see her son for himself."[14]

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 given in short maxims which are often cryptic (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.

Tiresias and Thebes[edit]

Tiresias appears to Odysseus during the nekyia of Odyssey xi, in this watercolor with tempera by the Anglo-Swiss Johann Heinrich Füssli, c. 1780-85

Tiresias appears as the name of a recurring character in several stories and Greek tragedies concerning the legendary history of Thebes. In The Bacchae, by Euripides, Tiresias appears with Cadmus, the founder and first king of Thebes, to warn the current king Pentheus against denouncing Dionysus as a god. Along with Cadmus, he dresses 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 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 realizes the truth.

Oedipus has handed over the rule of Thebes to his sons Eteocles and Polynices[15] 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, who tells Creon 'the city is sick through your fault.' 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 prophecy are also involved in the story of the Epigoni.


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, to whom he gave valuable advice concerning the rest of his odyssey, specifically concerning the cattle of Helios, advice which Odysseus' men did not follow, to their peril.


At Knossos, in a Late Minoan IIIA context (fourteenth century BC), seven Linear B texts mention an entity, unattested elsewhere as yet, called qe-ra-si-ja and, once, qe-ra-si-jo. If this title had survived the fall of LMIII Crete, then it could have evolved into *Terasias in Doric Greek and, possibly, *Te[i]resias in Ionic.[16]

The caduceus[edit]

Connections with the paired serpents on the caduceus are often made (Brisson 1976:55-57).

In popular culture[edit]

  • Tiresias' impressive apparition in Odyssey xi kept his image a lively one, and the figure of Tiresias has been much-invoked by fiction writers and poets. Since Tiresias is both the greatest seer of the Classical mythos, a figure cursed by the gods, and both man and woman, he has been very useful to authors. At the climax of Lucian's Necyomantia, Tiresias in Hades is asked "what is the best way of life?" and his disconcertingly modern response, couched in high-flown diction, is "the life of the ordinary guy: forget philosophers and their metaphysics."[17] This advice is pragmatic and moderate and represents the moral message of the short story. He also appears in Horace's Satire 2.5, in which he advises Odysseus to take up legacy hunting.
  • In 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 astrologers, sorcerers, soothsayers, diviners, and false prophets who claim to see the future when they couldn't) 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.
  • T. S. Eliot used Tiresias as an integral voice in his modernist poem, "The Waste Land".
  • The French composer Francis Poulenc also wrote an opera called Les Mamelles de Tirésias ("The Breasts of Tiresias") based on Guillaume Apollinaire's surrealist text of 1917.[18]
  • 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, seen in Mistry's use of this quote from T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land,": "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:
Old Tiresias
No-one half so breezy as,
Half so free and easy as
Old Tiresias
  • Tiresias also shows up in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. Cal, the protagonist, compares himself to the seer, and has even played him in a production of Antigone.
  • The blind beggar of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary echoes Tiresias. Emma looking in her mirror, contemplating her death and hearing the song of the blind beggar, reflects her vacillatiing struggle between the masculine and feminine identity.
  • 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."
  • Tiresias was featured in the Hercules episode "Hercules and the Griffin" voiced by Jack Carter. He was seen as a resident of a Greek Retirement Home.
  • A 1999 episode of the Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy titled "Behind Blank Eyes", blind high school student Alan's surname is "Tiresias".
  • 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.
  • In 1995, Jack Warden played the character in the Woody Allen film Mighty Aphrodite as a crusty blind beggar.
  • The 2003 film Tiresia is inspired by this myth.
  • The lyrics (reportedly by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford) of the Genesis song "The Cinema Show", from their 1973 album Selling England by the Pound, refer to "father Tiresias" and his experience of living as both a man and a woman.
Take a little trip back with father Tiresias,
Listen to the old one speak of all he has lived through.
"I have crossed between the poles, for me there's no mystery.
Once a man, like the sea, I raged.
Once a woman, like the earth, I gave.
But there is in fact more earth than sea."
  • 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.
  • Jack Peñate, in his 2009 single " Be the One" sings "I walked away because of you, just like Tiresias I knew, that me and you were fated too"
  • In the BBC television series Spooks, the character Connie Jones is revealed as an agent of the Russians, turned by them during Operation Renaissance. She protests that she wanted only to maintain the balance between the world powers, USSR/Russia and US/England. A cryptic warning reveals that Tiresias is coming; just before exploding a nuclear device, Connie reveals, she "was already here."
  • The poet and Civil Servant Roger Green used the pen name Tiresias when he published, in 1984, his Premeditated Notebook 'Notes from Overground', concerning his commuting by train for many years between Oxford and London.
  • Tiresias has a similar name to Terezi from Homestuck by Andrew Hussie. They are also blind and somewhat knowledgeable (hence Terezi being a Sear of Mind).
  • Genesis' song "The Cinema Show" (Selling England By The Pound, Charisma/Atlantic, 1973), refers to Tiresias, "Take a little trip back/With Father Tiresias/Listen to the old man speak/Of all he has been through/I have crossed between the poles/And for me there's no mystery/Once a man like the sea I raged/Once a woman like the earth I gave/But there is in fact more earth than sea."


Tiresias appears in the following literary classics:


  1. ^ Of a line born of the dragon's teeth sown by Cadmus (Bibliotheke, III.6.7); see also Hyginus, Fabula 75.
  2. ^ Luc Brisson, 1976. Le mythe de Tirésias: essai d'analyse structurale (Leiden: Brill).
  3. ^ Eustathius and John Tzetzes place this episode on Mount Cithaeron in Boeotia, near the territory of Thebes.
  4. ^ Hygini Fabulae, LXXV
  5. ^ According to Bibliotheke III.6.7, and in Phlegon, Mirabilia 4.
  6. ^ Eustathius, Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 10.494.
  7. ^ Fully explored in structuralist mode, with many analogies drawn from ambivalent sexualities considered to exist among animals in Antiquity, in Brisson 1976.
  8. ^ a b Bibliotheke III.6.7.
  9. ^ This, readable as a doublet of the Actaeon mytheme, was the version preferred by the English poets Tennyson and even Swinburne.
  10. ^ The episode is briefly noted by Hyginus, Fabula 75; Ovid treats it at length in Metamorposes III.
  11. ^ Bibliotheke III.6.7.
  12. ^ The blind prophet with inner sight as recompense for blindness, is a familiar mytheme.
  13. ^ William Godwin (1876). "Lives of the Necromancers". p. 46-47. 
  14. ^ Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: the allegory of the female form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. p. 329
  15. ^ The actual line of succession after Oedipus is debatable, and is represented in different ways even within Sophocles' own works, but this is the version told in Seven Against Thebes
  16. ^ Lesson 26: Mycenaean and Late Cycladic Religion and Religious Architecture.
  17. ^ R. B. Branham, "The Wisdom of Lucian's Tiresias", The Journal of Hellenic Studies 109 (1989), pp. 159-160.
  18. ^ Albert Bermel, "Apollinaire's Male Heroine" Twentieth Century Literature 20.3 (July 1974), pp. 172-182 .


  • Robert Graves, 1960 (revised edition). The Greek Myths
  • Luc Brisson, 1976. Le mythe de Tirésias: essai d'analyse structurale (Leiden: Brill) Structural analysis by a follower of Claude Lévi-Strauss and a repertory of literary references and works of art in an iconographical supplement.
  • N. Loraux, The Experiences of Tiresias. The Feminine and the Greek Man, Princeton (NJ), 1995
  • G. Ugolini, Untersuchungen zur Figur des Sehers Teiresias, Tübingen, 1995
  • E. Di Rocco, Io Tiresia: metamorfosi di un profeta, Roma, 2007

External links[edit]