“I Tiresias”

ti1

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.

 

 

 

Narcissus’s selfie

nar1It’s time to spend a few words on the “selfitis“, that modern virus that keeps on infecting many people all over the planet day after day, making them slave of the vision of their self . Social networking sites have proved to be actually the most contagious spots, where this “self” addiction takes place. The question is: what drive makes you pull out your smart phone and snap a shot to post it? Exhibitionism? Ostentation? Boredom? How can such a fascination be explained? Maybe the Latin poet Ovid may help us as he narrated in the third book of his Metamorphoses the story of the first “selfie” ever: Narcissus‘s selfie.

nar8Narcissus in Greek mythology is the son of  the nymph Liriope and the river-god Cephissus. Cephissus, having fallen in love with the beautiful nymph, enfolds her with his waves and seduces her. From their union a boy of an uncommon beauty was born: Narcissus. Her mother consults the blind seer Tiresias to know the fate of her child and his prophecy is, as all prophecies, ambiguous: the boy would enjoy a long life as long as he never knew himself. Liriope was relieved by such a prediction. At the age of sixteen, Narcissus had become a proud and disdainful man. He was so amazingly beautiful that anybody fell in love with him, but he rejected all his suitors (men and women) as he believed nobody was worthy of him.

nar2One day, while Narcissus was deer hunting, the nymph Echo stealthily followed him in the woods. She was yearning to speak to him, but she couldn’t, as she was allowed to repeat only the last words of what was spoken to her. That was the punishment inflicted by the goddess Juno for having engaged her in a long conversation, thus enabling her adulterous husband to escape. So, when Narcissus sensed he was being followed, he shouted “Who’s there?” and Echo replied “…..here?”.  Narcissus was bewildered and yelled  “Come!” and Echo replied “Come!”. Narcissus called once more: “Why do you shun me?… Let us join one another.” When Echo heard Narcissus utter those words, she was so overjoyed  that she ran towards him and threw herself upon him, but he stepped away and told her to leve him alone at once. Echo was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her.

nar9When Nemesis,  the goddess of revenge, learned about the story, she decided it was the time to punish such a selfish, unfeeling creature. One sunny day, Narcissus came upon a pool of water, when he caught a glimpse of what he thought was a beautiful water spirit. He looked in amazement for a while and as he did not recognise his own reflection, he immediately fell in love with it. He tried to bend down his head to kiss that vision, but as he did so, the reflection mimed his actions. Taking this as a sign of reciprocation, Narcissus reached into the pool to draw the water spirit to him, but then he seemed to be gone. Every time he tried to touch him, he disappeared. Only after a while he eventually recognised the image of himself in that pool and lay there gazing in to the eyes of his vision for hours. When he eventually realized that his love could not be addressed, he committed suicide piercing his chest with his sword. From the soil blood soaked with his blood, a white flower with a red corolla came out: a narcissus. It seems that when Narcissus crossed the Styx,  the river of the dead, to enter the Underworld, he looked out on the muddy waters of the river one last time, hoping to once again to admire the reflection of his self.

Tiresias’s words offer a key of interpretation of this story and provide a possible answer to the questions above. The seer doesn’t say that Narcissus will die when he recognizes himself, but rather when he knows himself. In that obsessive gazing there is the mystery and wonder of our being. Modern selfies, just like that pool, reflect our image for sure, but in those pictures we instinctively try to seek, to know ourselves; it’s this search that charms our mind and dazzles our eyes.

nar3