Last updated
Pietro della Vecchia, Tiresias transformed into a woman, 17th century. Pietro della Vecchia - Tiresias transformed into a woman.jpg
Pietro della Vecchia, Tiresias transformed into a woman, 17th century.

In Greek mythology, Tiresias ( /tˈrsiəs/ ; Ancient Greek : Τειρεσίας , romanized: Teiresías) was a blind prophet of Apollo in 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 in Thebes, beginning as advisor to Cadmus himself.



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

Blindness and gift of prophecy

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

Like other oracles, how Tiresias obtained his information varied: sometimes, 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 or entrails, and so interpret them. Pliny the Elder credits Tiresias with the invention of augury. [3]

On Mount Cyllene in the Peloponnese, [4] as Tiresias came upon a pair of copulating snakes, he hit the pair with his stick. Hera was displeased, 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. 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. [5] Either way, as a result, Tiresias was released from his sentence and permitted to regain his masculinity. This ancient story was recorded in lost lines of Hesiod. [6]

In Hellenistic and Roman times Tiresias' sex-change was embellished 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. [7] Tiresias is presented as a complexly liminal figure, mediating between humankind and the gods, male and female, blind and seeing, present and future, this world and the Underworld. [8] According to Eustathius, Tiresias was originally a woman who promised Apollo her favours in exchange for musical lessons, only to reject him afterwards. She was turned by Apollo into a man, then again a woman under unclear circumstances, then a man by the offended Hera, then into a woman by Zeus. She becomes a man once again after an encounter with the Muses, until finally Aphrodite turns him into a woman again and then into a mouse. [9]

According to the mythographic compendium Bibliotheke , [10] 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 alternative story told by Pherecydes was followed in Callimachus' poem "The Bathing of Pallas"; in it, Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he stumbled onto her bathing naked. [11] His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, [10] giving him the ability to understand birdsong, thus the gift of augury. In a separate episode, [12] 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, "a man enjoyed one tenth the pleasure and a woman nine tenths." [13] Hera instantly struck him blind for his impiety. Zeus could do nothing to stop her or reverse her curse, but in recompense he did give Tiresias the gift of foresight [14] and a lifespan of seven lives.

He is said to have understood the language of birds and could divine the future from indications in a fire, or smoke. However, it was the communications of the dead he relied on the most, menacing them when they were late to attend him. [15]

Tiresias makes a dramatic appearance in the Odyssey , book XI, in which Odysseus calls up the spirits of the dead (the nekyia ). As Persephone allows Tiresias to retain his powers of clairvoyance after death, he is able to see Odysseus without drinking the blood usually required for souls in the underworld to become conscious again. "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." [16]

As a seer, "Tiresias" was "a common title for soothsayers throughout Greek legendary history" (Graves 1960, 105.5). In Greek literature, Tiresias' 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 Amphitryon 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

Tiresias appears to Odysseus during the nekyia of Odyssey xi, in this watercolor with tempera by the Anglo-Swiss Johann Heinrich Fussli, c. 1780-85. Johann Heinrich Fussli 063.jpg
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 Rex , 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 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.

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.'

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 impaled by an arrow of Apollo. [17] [18]

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, such as how to get past Scylla and Charybdis. He also advised him not to eat the cattle of Helios on Thrinacia (advice which Odysseus' men did not follow, which led to them getting killed by Zeus' thunderbolts during a storm).

The caduceus

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

In the arts


  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. Gaius Plinius Secundus, Naturalis Historia 7.12.3
  4. Eustathius and John Tzetzes place this episode on Mount Cithaeron in Boeotia, near the territory of Thebes.
  5. Hygini Fabulae, LXXV
  6. According to Bibliotheke III.6.7, and in Phlegon, Mirabilia 4.
  7. Eustathius, Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 10.494.
  8. Fully explored in structuralist mode, with many analogies drawn from ambivalent sexualities considered to exist among animals in Antiquity, in Brisson 1976.
  9. Campanile, Domitilla; Carlà-Uhink, Filippo; Facella, Margherita (February 23, 2017). TransAntiquity: Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World. Routledge. p.  57. ISBN   9781138941205.
  10. 1 2 Bibliotheke III.6.7.
  11. This, readable as a doublet of the Actaeon mytheme, was the version preferred by the English poets Tennyson and even Swinburne.
  12. The episode is briefly noted by Hyginus, Fabula 75; Ovid treats it at length in Metamorphoses III.
  13. Bibliotheke III.6.7.
  14. The blind prophet with inner sight as recompense for blindness is a familiar mytheme.
  15. William Godwin (1876). "Lives of the Necromancers". pp. 46–47.
  16. Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: the allegory of the female form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. p. 329
  17. Schachter, A. (2016-03-07), "Tiresias", Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.6479, ISBN   978-0-19-938113-5 , retrieved 2023-12-29
  18. Dussol, Vincent (2016-08-29). "Narratives of Secrecy: The Poetry of Leland Hickman". Revue française d'études américaines. N° spécial 145 (4): 10–20. doi:10.3917/rfea.145.0010. ISSN   0397-7870.
  19. Branham, R. B. (1989). "The Wisdom of Lucian's Tiresias". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 109: 159–60. doi:10.2307/632040. JSTOR   632040. S2CID   163139952.
  20. Brockett and Hildy (2003, 439).
  21. Banham (1998, 1043).
  22. Albert Bermel, "Apollinaire's Male Heroine" Twentieth Century Literature20.3 (July 1974), pp. 172182 .
  23. Pearsall, Cornelia (2007). Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 303–306. ISBN   9781435630468.
  24. Harold Bloom (2007). T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Infobase Publishing. p. 182. ISBN   978-0-7910-9307-8.
  25. A. David Moody (11 October 2007). Ezra Pound: Poet: I: The Young Genius 1885-1920. OUP Oxford. p. 315. ISBN   978-0-19-921557-7.
  26. Carroll Franklin Terrell (1980). A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. University of California Press. pp. 1, 2, 184. ISBN   978-0-520-03687-1.
  27. "Orlando – Modernism Lab". Archived from the original on 22 June 2019. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  28. Androgyny in Modern Literature, Tracey Hargreaves, 2005, p. 91.
  29. Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries, David Carrier, 2006, p. 4.
  30. Alexander Bland, The Royal Ballet: The First Fifty Years. London: Threshold Books, 1981, p286.
  31. Dawson, Tom. "BBC - Movies - review - Tiresia". BBC. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
  32. "The World's Wife: From Mrs Tiresias - Carol Ann Duffy @ SWF 2013". YouTube. Retrieved 24 January 2023.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hera</span> Goddess from Greek mythology, wife and sister of Zeus

In ancient Greek religion, Hera is the goddess of marriage, women, and family, and the protector of women during childbirth. In Greek mythology, she is queen of the twelve Olympians and Mount Olympus, sister and wife of Zeus, and daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. One of her defining characteristics in myth is her jealous and vengeful nature in dealing with any who offended her, especially Zeus's numerous adulterous lovers and illegitimate offspring.

<i>Antigone</i> (Sophocles play) Tragedy by Sophocles

Antigone is an Athenian tragedy written by Sophocles in 441 BC and first performed at the Festival of Dionysus of the same year. It is thought to be the second oldest surviving play of Sophocles, preceded by Ajax, which was written around the same period. The play is one of a triad of tragedies known as the three Theban plays, following Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. Even though the events in Antigone occur last in the order of events depicted in the plays, Sophocles wrote Antigone first. The story expands on the Theban legend that predates it, and it picks up where Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes ends. The play is named after the main protagonist Antigone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pentheus</span> Greek mythological king of Thebes

In Greek mythology, Pentheus was a king of Thebes. His father was Echion, the wisest of the Spartoi. His mother was Agave, the daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, and the goddess Harmonia. His sister was Epeiros and his son was Menoeceus.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oedipus</span> Mythical Greek king of Thebes

Oedipus was a mythical Greek king of Thebes. A tragic hero in Greek mythology, Oedipus accidentally fulfilled a prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother, thereby bringing disaster to his city and family.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polynices</span> Mythological prince of Thebes

In Greek mythology, Polynices was the son of Oedipus and either Jocasta or Euryganeia and the older brother of Eteocles. When Oedipus was discovered to have killed his father and married his mother, Oedipus was expelled from Thebes, leaving Eteocles and Polynices to rule. Because of a curse put on them by their father, the two sons did not share the rule peacefully. During a battle for control over Thebes, the brothers killed each other.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Creon (king of Thebes)</span> Figure in Greek mythology

Creon, is a figure in Greek mythology best known as the ruler of Thebes in the legend of Oedipus.

<i>Oedipus Rex</i> Classical Athenian tragedy by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus, or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC. Originally, to the ancient Greeks, the title was simply Oedipus (Οἰδίπους), as it is referred to by Aristotle in the Poetics. It is thought to have been renamed Oedipus Tyrannus to distinguish it from Oedipus at Colonus, a later play by Sophocles. In antiquity, the term "tyrant" referred to a ruler with no legitimate claim to rule, but it did not necessarily have a negative connotation.

<i>Oedipus at Colonus</i> Ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles

Oedipus at Colonus is the second-last of the three Theban plays of the Athenian tragedian Sophocles. It was written shortly before Sophocles's death in 406 BC and produced by his grandson at the Festival of Dionysus in 401 BC.

The Greek Heroic Age, in mythology, is the period between the coming of the Greeks to Thessaly and the Greek warriors' return from Troy. The poet Hesiod identified this mythological era as one of his five Ages of Man. The period spans roughly six generations; the heroes denoted by the term are superhuman, though not divine, and are celebrated in the literature of Homer and of others, such as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides.

<i>Dionysiaca</i> Greek epic poem by Nonnus

The Dionysiaca is an ancient Greek epic poem and the principal work of Nonnus. It is an epic in 48 books, the longest surviving poem from Greco-Roman antiquity at 20,426 lines, composed in Homeric dialect and dactylic hexameters, the main subject of which is the life of Dionysus, his expedition to India, and his triumphant return to the west.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Seven against Thebes</span> Greek mythological champions who made war against Thebes

The Seven against Thebes were seven champions in Greek mythology who made war on Thebes. They were chosen by Adrastus, the king of Argos, to be the captains of an Argive army whose purpose was to restore Oedipus' son Polynices to the Theban throne. Adrastus, although always the leader of the expedition against Thebes, was not always counted as one of the Seven champions. Usually the Seven were Polynices, Tydeus, Amphiaraus, Capaneus, Parthenopaeus, Hippomedon, and Adrastus or Eteoclus, whenever Adrastus is excluded. They tried and failed to take Thebes, and all but Adrastus died in the attempt.

The Telegony is a lost ancient Greek epic poem about Telegonus, son of Odysseus by Circe. His name is indicative of his birth on Aeaea, far from Odysseus' home of Ithaca. It was part of the Epic Cycle of poems that recounted the myths of the Trojan War as well as the events that led up to and followed it. The story of the Telegony comes chronologically after that of the Odyssey and is the final episode in the Epic Cycle. The poem was sometimes attributed in antiquity to Cinaethon of Sparta, but in one source it is said to have been stolen from Musaeus by Eugamon or Eugammon of Cyrene. The poem comprised two books of verse in dactylic hexameter.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Megara (wife of Heracles)</span> First wife of Heracles in Greek mythology

In Greek mythology, Megara was a Theban princess and the first wife of the hero Heracles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theban kings in Greek mythology</span>

The dynastic history of Thebes in Greek mythology is crowded with a bewildering number of kings between the city's new foundation and the Trojan War. This suggests several competing traditions, which mythographers were forced to reconcile.

<i>Œdipe</i> (opera) Opera by George Enescu

Œdipe (Oedipe) is an opera in four acts by the Romanian composer George Enescu, set to a French libretto by Edmond Fleg. It is based on the mythological tale of Oedipus, as told by Sophocles in Oedipus the King.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Necklace of Harmonia</span> Fabled object in Greek mythology

The Necklace of Harmonia, also called the Necklace of Eriphyle, was a fabled object in Greek mythology that, according to legend, brought great misfortune to all of its wearers or owners, who were primarily queens and princesses of the ill-fated House of Thebes.

<i>Oedipus Rex</i> (1967 film) 1967 Italian film

Oedipus Rex is a 1967 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini adapted the screenplay from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex written by Sophocles in 428 BC. The film was mainly shot in Morocco. It was presented in competition at the 28th Venice International Film Festival. It was Pasolini's first feature-length color film, but followed his use of color in "The Earth Seen from the Moon" episode in the portmanteau film The Witches (1967).

<i>Oedipus</i> (Seneca) Tragedy by Seneca

Oedipus is a fabula crepidata of c. 1061 lines of verse that was written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca at some time during the 1st century AD. It is a retelling of the story of Oedipus, which is better known through the play Oedipus Rex by the Athenian playwright, Sophocles. It is written in Latin.

In Greek mythology, Megareus or Menoeceus (Μενοικεύς) was a warrior of Thebes, who figures in the war of the Seven against Thebes – the struggle between Eteocles and Polynices, the twin sons of Oedipus, for the throne of Thebes. He was known for his large stature, and is considered an anthropomorphic representation of his father's pride by some literary scholars.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Virgin goddess</span>

In Greek and Roman mythology, several goddesses are distinguished by their perpetual virginity. These goddesses included the Greek deities Hestia, Athena, and Artemis, along with their Roman equivalents, Vesta, Minerva, and Diana. In some instances, the inviolability of these goddesses was simply a detail of their mythology, while in other cases virginity was also associated with their worship and religious rites.