“I Tiresias”


The figure of Tiresias, the blind seer from Greek mythology, has always appealed a great variety of authors both ancient and modern. In particular T.S. Eliot gives him (according to his own notes) a key role in The Waste Land. The question for readers is this: what features of Tiresias are functional to Eliot’s masterpiece? Who is Tiresias?

ti7The myths about Tiresias are many. One of the most common refers that, one day walking on Mount Cyllene, he saw two copulating snakes and he killed the female because that scene bothered him, a male chauvinist choice, actually. The goddess Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children and one of them, Manto, also possessed the gift of prophecy. She lived in this state for seven years trying all the pleasures that a woman could try, till once again she found herself facing the same scene of the snakes. Depending on the myth, it seems that this time the Tiresias cleverly resolved upon either leaving the snakes alone or trampling on them. Whatever her choice was, it worked, as Tiresias was allowed to regain his masculinity.

ti2One day Zeus and Hera found themselves divided by a dispute about who could have more pleasure in sex: a man or a woman. Failing to come to a conclusion, because Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera asserted that it was the man, the quarrelsome couple agreed to summon Tiresias, as he was very likely the only one that could resolve that argument, because of his transgender experience. Once in front of the gods, he said that sexual pleasure is composed of ten parts and “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” and  a woman nine. The goddess Hera was furious because Tiresias had revealed such a secret and instantly struck him blind. Zeus, who could do nothing to stop or reverse her curse, as Greek gods cannot change what others have decided, gave him the power to predict the future and the lifespan of seven lives as recompense. In other versions of the myth  Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he had seen her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong and the gift of divination.

ti3There are diverging myths on his death as well. During the attack of Epigoni against Thebes, Tiresias fled the city along with the Thebans and died after drinking water from the tainted spring Tilphussa, where he was struck by an arrow of Apollo. In another version the soothsayer and his daughter Manto were taken prisoner in Thebes and sent to Delphi, where they would have been consecrated to the god Apollo. Tiresias died of fatigue during the journey. The soul of Tiresias, after entering into Hades, retained the powers of divination, as narrated by Homer in the Odyssey.

ti5Going back to the initial question, therefore,Tiresias embodies exactly what Eliot was looking for: his having been both man and woman makes him a unifying figure in The Waste Land, thus linking the ancient and modern worlds and giving unity to that “heap of broken images” which is the present world. Furthemore Tiresias, in the desolation and despair of The Waste Land,  reactivates his ancient role – that of a prophet. In this mythological context, Eliot seems to indicate that the state of the waste land will not always be perpetual as long as Tiresias directs us.





17 thoughts on ““I Tiresias”

  1. In greek mytology the paradox means the truth …. in those times everything was not upside down …. the meaning was still truth ….

    • Well, this fits with what Eliot believed: the past was fertile and rich in values and we can understand it through the myths it produced. In the myth there is is the truth.

  2. An excellent post and I much enjoyed readng about the connection with Zeus and Hera as I have recently posted on both of them… The analogy of the blind wise man that sees beyond is certainly powerful and eloquent!… Great post, dear Stefy… All the best to you. Aquileana 😀

  3. Stefy between Aquileana and yourself I am learning a great deal about Greek mythology. I have to say it was a rather harsh world and all sorts of nasty consequences! Hugs to you dear one. Xo

    • Hi Sue, I’ ve finally found a little time to go back blogging ( end of the school year, stuff like that…). However, “latinos” cultures , have a lot to do with Roman and Greek mythology. I started to read the Odyssey and Iliad when I was in 6th grade, so we are quite familiar with these legends ( Aquileana is super fabulous 🙂 )

  4. I wonder if the gods of old would have been any different if they had Facebook Stephy?
    Zeus is in a relationship with: Everybody!
    Narcissus loves himself.
    Athena poked Tiresaris, again and again.
    Storm chasers brought to you by Thor.
    Odin likes SpecSavers.
    Great post by the way.

    • They would have enjoyed facebook a lot. These religions of the past reflected human nature exactly as it was, the only difference is that they had superpowers.

  5. Pingback: The Liebster Award Challenge | new2writing

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