Friday, 16 December 2016

The Blind Man Who Sees

On the Transgender Day of Visibility earlier this year I featured the Greek character of Tiresias. He was originally a humble shepherd. When he killed female snake the goddess Hera changed him into a woman. For the next seven years Tiresias was a priestess at Hera’s temple, got married and had several children. At the end of those seven years she killed a male snake and was instantly turned back into a man.

This transgender identity gave Tiresias a unique insight into the lives of both men and women and gave him an exalted status among his Greek contemporaries. It was when the gods asked for his advice on gender that Tiresias underwent another change.

The chief god of Olympus, Zeus, was often having affairs with both women and men and fathered many illegitimate children. His wife, Hera, naturally often got furious and berated Zeus on his infidelity. One day their argument got so heated that Zeus claimed that women got far more enjoyment out of having sex with men than men would ever get from any woman (I notice that this legend makes no reference to how he ranks sex with a man!). Hera was offended. She argued that women gave as much sexual enjoyment than any man or god. There was only one way to settle the argument – ask someone who had both been male and female for his/her opinion.

There was only one person to ask – Tiresias. Being regarded as a man with great wisdom Tiresias wasn’t wise enough to give an impartial answer. His answer was given in marks out of 10, where 10 represented the most sexual pleasure and 1 represented the least. He said women gave men 1 out of 10 points of pleasure, while a man gives a woman 9 out of 10 points.

Once again Tiresias earned the anger of Hera. This time she struck him blind. How ironic! After beginning his story on the Transgender Day of Visibility we see him losing his own vision. Zeus, on the other hand, not able to reverse the actions of another god, gave the power of prophecy to Tiresias as a reward for supporting his side of the argument. At the same time he bestowed upon him an increased lifespan equal to that of 7 men.

Tiresias seems to have been called upon to give his opinion at other times. One myth says that Aphrodite was arguing with the Three Graces over who among the four of them was the most beautiful. Once again Tiresias made an error of judgement and said that one of the Graces called Cale was the most beautiful. Aphrodite instantly turned him into an old woman as punishment. I don’t know for how long Tiresias lived like this or how he changed back, but considering the later events when Zeus gave him 7 life spans it would have made men like me jealous if he retained the full head of hair Cale gave him for the rest of his life.

In many faiths and myths blindness and prophecy seem to co-exist. The historian Robert Graves wrote that Tiresias’s name became a familiar title for Greek prophets. Perhaps this is why they considered his life span to have been so long – each were seen as an incarnation of the original.

Among the many prophecies attributed to Tiresias was of the warning he gave to the mother of Narcissus that her son’s life would end as soon as he saw his own reflection.

Tiresias died by taking a drink from the spring Tilphussa. Presumably this was at the end of his 7 life spans. A shrine was built in his honour and even from beyond the grave he continued to give prophecies. The hero Odysseus called upon him to assist in his quest to reach home. The spirit of Tiresias appeared and told Odysseus of the further adventures he had ahead of him, including his death from old age.

Having been blessed and cursed alike by the gods Tiresias remains the only mortal in Greek mythology to have experienced transgenderism not once but twice. Though it is as a blind prophet and seer that he gained his legendary status.
Tiresias appears before Odysseus,
from the painting by Johann Heinrich Fussli.

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