Although Tiresias’s transgender life is the most significant to us today, the International Transgender Day of Visibility, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw his whole life before, during and after transgender as one of opposites. In various parts of his very long life Tiresias was blind, a priestess of the gods, a soothsayer, and an adviser from beyond the grave. As such he could claim to be male and female, mother and father, blind and seeing, having knowledge of both past and future, speak to humanity and the gods, and communicate during life and death. In fact, virtually all of human existence and beyond was seen in the life of Tiresias.
I’ll concentrate on Tiresias’s life as a blind prophet in November (UK Disability Awareness Month). Today let’s look at his transgender life.
Although he was mortal Tiresias was half-divine, his mother being a nymph called Chariclo. Tales of his childhood and upbringing are rare, so we have to assume that he was raised as a humble shepherd just as his mortal father was. It is during his young adult years that the transgender episode occurs.
As with most myths and legends there are several variations of the story of how Tiresias became a woman. Here’s one of them.
While he was walking along a woodland path on the slopes of Mount Cyllene Tiresias’s way was blocked by a couple of large snakes mating. Rather than find a different path or edge around them Tiresias began hitting them with his walking staff. One of the weirdest ideas the ancient Greeks had was that if a man approached mating snakes he’d turn effeminate. Maybe that’s why Tiresias wanted to separate them. He didn’t want to become effeminate.
Well, what would you do if you were in the middle of an intimate moment with your partner and were attacked by a stranger? Even if you’re into sado-masochism being attacked by someone who just happened to walk up and start hitting you was a stick isn’t very pleasant. The snakes defended themselves by attacking Tiresias. This just made Tiresias fight back and he beat the snakes even harder, killing the female. This was witnessed by the goddess Hera and she was very angry at Tiresias’s attack and turned him into a woman in an instant.
Tiresias then became one of Hera’s priestesses. Her mother Chariclo may have had some influence in this. Chariclo is regarded as being one of Hera’s favourite nymphs, suggesting that she was herself one of Hera’s priestesses. More significant is the fact that in becoming a priestess Tiresias acquired a greater social status than she would have had otherwise.
|A priestess of Ancient Greece
In some parts of Ancient Greece the name Tiresias became a slang term for a prostitute. How this fits in with our Tiresias isn’t clear. Unlike the Vestal Virgins of Rome, or Catholic priests of today, the Greek priestesses were not required to be celibate. A lot of them were married and had children, as Tiresias herself did. The name of her husband isn’t known but two of her daughters and a grandson would “inherit” her gift of prophecy which was apparently bestowed on them at the same time it was bestowed on Tiresias later in her life.
Tiresias retained her honoured status as a priestess for seven years, a mystical number in many cultures, during which time she would have become a familiar local figure at the many festivals held throughout the year. Then, one day, as she was walking along the same path she walked seven years previously, she again encountered two snaked mating. Again she attacked them with her staff. This time she killed the male snake and in another instant she was transformed back into a man.
From then on Tiresias gained an extra quality to his character. He was regarded as being special because he had lived as a woman and a man. Even the gods sought his advice on matters of gender.
Zeus and Hera argued for ages, literally, on who provided the most pleasure during sex – a man or a woman. Needless to say each thought their own gender produced the most pleasure to their partner. Asking the other gods provided no solution so they turned to Tiresias and asked him the same question, after all he’d experienced sex as both a man and a woman, so he’d know for sure which was most pleasurable. No matter what he was going to say Tiresias would be bound to offend one of the gods. What he said in effect was “Out of ten, a woman experiences 9 points of pleasure from a man, but a man only experiences one out of ten from a woman”.
For a second time Hera was angered by Tiresias. This time she removed his sight and made him totally blind. Zeus, even as the king of the gods, can’t undo the work of another god, so he showed his gratitude for Tiresias taking his side by bestowing upon him the gift of prophecy and the life-span of seven men.
Here we come to another interesting point about Tiresias. In most ancient religions, and a handful today, the role of a prophet or soothsayer – often called a shaman – was occupied by a cross-gendered individual. Men who displayed feminine characteristics were often regarded as having some special connection to the world of the supernatural. So Tiresias’s life as a soothsayer may have been destined by the gods from the moment he became a woman.
One other quality often seen in soothsayers, prophets and shamans is some form of physical disability, usually blindness. Someone who cannot see the physical world was thought to have a privileged view of other worlds, just like the other worlds we see when we dream. It is the aspect of Tiresias’s life as a visually-impaired prophet to which I’ll return in November.