Like many figures from ancient mythology, the origin story of the blind prophet, Teiresias, could vary depending on the storyteller, location, and century. One of the alleged oldest versions of the tale—supposedly dating from the time of Hesiod (c. 8th century BCE)—was quite an odd and entertaining myth, involving a couple of copulating snakes, a sex change, and a divine debate over a bawdy topic. This unique saga was set in motion when Teiresias went on a fateful stroll through a mountainous forest in Greece. During his hike, the mythical man reportedly interrupted two snakes who were making slithery, serpentine love in the privacy of the woods. For reasons unknown, Teiresias’ first action upon seeing this sight was to attack. He charged at the smitten snakes and gave them a whack with his walking stick. According to some versions of the myth, his blow even killed the female snake. This assault against nature, however, would have consequences. An unknown magical being (perhaps a surviving snake) cast a spell on Teiresias—he was transformed into a woman.
Teiresias reportedly remained a full-fledged woman for just under eight years. During that time, he was quite adventurous with his new body, and as the Roman poet Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE) claimed, Teiresias “experienced love from both angles” (Metamorphoses, 3.323). Nevertheless, Teiresias still desired to return to his original form. In his quest to regain his manly shape, the mythical figure returned back to the scene of his transformation. Once again in the mountainous forest, Teiresias amazingly found another pair of coupling snakes, with one or both of the serpents being the same as before. History repeated itself—Teiresias charged at the serpentine sweethearts and bopped them over the head with a walking stick. In response to the battering, magic was once more cast at Teiresias, but this time, the spell turned him back into a man. With that, Teiresias’ sojourn as a woman was over.
Just when Teiresias thought he could put this phase of his life behind him, the Greek gods decided to prolong the tale. As the story goes, the gods Zeus and Hera were having an intense argument and, after hearing about Teiresias’ transformations, they thought he would be a perfect third opinion. The debate that they wanted Teiresias to weigh in on was over which sex, man or woman, experienced more pleasure in bed. Zeus proposed it was women, while Hera said it was men. As Teiresias had personal insight from both perspectives, he was called in to be the tiebreaker. Teiresias decided to rank the experiences on a scale of 1 to 10. Ultimately, he agreed with Zeus, and as quoted in a fragment attributed to Hesiod, Teiresias explained that if the circumstances were right, “a woman’s sense enjoys all ten in full” (fragment from The Melampodia, preserved in Scholiast on Homer, Odyssey, x. 494). Hera was bitter that the third party had sided with Zeus, and as an act of revenge, she struck Teiresias with blindness. Zeus did not cure his ally’s sight, but he lessened the blow by granting Teiresias the gift of clairvoyance.
Such is one origin myth for Teiresias’ blindness and wisdom. In an alternative version, Teiresias was blinded for revealing secrets about the gods to mankind. Another story claimed he was blinded after seeing Athena naked—she somewhat forgave him, and although she did not restore his sight, she gave him wisdom and the ability to talk to wildlife. Whatever the case, Teiresias was destined to be blind and wise.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of Teiresias, produced by the workshop of Hendrick Goltzius, dated about 1615, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.