Tiresias' daughter Manto was also gifted with prophecy.
Tiresias was a priest of Zeus, and as a young man he encountered two snakes mating and hit them with a stick. He was then transformed into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, married and had children, including Manto. According to some versions of the tale, Lady Tiresias was a prostitute of great renown. After seven years as a woman, Tiresias again found mating snakes, struck them with her staff, and became a man once more. As a result of his experiences, Zeus and Hera asked him to settle the question of which sex, male or female, experienced more pleasure during intercourse. Zeus claimed it was women; Hera claimed it was men. Tiresias sided with Zeus, saying that on a scale of one to ten, women enjoy sex nine times to men's one. Hera struck him blind. Since Zeus could not undo what she had done, he gave him the gift of prophecy. An alternative story in Callimachus' poem "The Bathing of Pallas" has it that Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he stumbled onto her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, begged her to undo her curse, but Athena couldn't; she took the serpent from her aegis and commanded it to lick his ears, giving him prophecy instead.
Stripped of its narrative and anecdotal and causal connections, the mythic figure of Tireisias combines several archaic elements: the blind seer; the impious interruption of a natural rite (whether of a bathing goddess or coupling serpents); serpents and staff (Caduceus); a holy man's double gender and competition between deities.
Tiresias's background was important, both for his prophecy and his experiences. Greek mythology contained many hermaphroditic figures (including Hermaphroditus), but Tiresias was fully male and then fully female. Also, prophecy was a gift given only to the priests and priestesses. Therefore, Tiresias offered Zeus and Hera evidence and gained the gift of male and female priestly prophecy.
As a seer, Tiresias was "a common title for soothsayers throughout Greek legendary history" (Graves 1960, 105.5). In Greek literature, Tiresias's pronouncements are always gnomic but never wrong. He is generally extremely reluctant to offer his visions like most oracles. Often when his name is attached to a mythic prophecy, it is introduced simply to supply a personality to the generic example of a seer, not by any inherent connection of Tiresias with the myth: thus it is Tiresias who warns the mother of Narcissus that the boy will thrive as long as he never knows himself. This is his emblemmatic role in tragedy (see below).
Tiresias and Thebes
During the Seven Against Thebes, Megareus killed himself because Tiresias prophesied that a voluntary death from a Theban would save Thebes. Afterwards Tiresias appears in the tales associated with Oedipus. In Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, Oedipus calls upon Tiresias to aid in the investigation of the killing of Laius. Tiresias refuses to give a direct answer and instead hints that the killer is someone Oedipus really does not wish to find. After Oedipus blinds himself and wanders, Tiresias appears in Antigone, also by Sophocles. King Creon of Thebes refuses to allow Polynices to be buried. His sister, Antigone, defies the order and is caught; Creon decrees that she is to be buried alive. The gods express their disapproval of Creon's decision through Tiresias. However, Antigone has already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Creon arrives at the tomb where she is to be interred, his son, Haemon, attacks him and then kills himself. When Creon's wife, Eurydice, is informed of their death she, too, takes her own life. He and his prophesy are also involved in the story of the Epigoni.
Tiresias died after drinking the water from the spring Tilphussa, struck by an arrow of Apollo. After his death he was visited in the underworld by Odysseus, to whom he gave valuable advice concerning the rest of his voyage, specifically concerning the cattle of Helios, which Odysseus' men did not follow.
In post-classical literature
The figure of Tiresias has been much-invoked by fiction writers and poets. Since Tiresias is both the greatest seer of the Classical mythos, a figure cursed by the gods, and both man and woman, he has been very useful to authors.
In The Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XX), Dante sees Tiresias in the fourth pit of the eighth circle of Hell (the circle is for perpetrators of fraud and the fourth pit being the location for soothsayers or diviners.) He was condemned to walk for eternity with his head twisted toward his back for in life: while in life he strove to look forward to the future, in Hell he must only look backward. Tiresias' daughter Manto is also assigned her punishment here.
More recently, "Tiresias" was the title of a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson. T. S. Eliot used Tiresias as the primary speaker in his landmark modernist poem, "The Waste Land".
Tiresias appears in the following classical works:
- Oedipus the King, Sophocles
- Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles
- Antigone, Sophocles
- Bacchants, Euripides
- Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides
- Phoenician Women, Euripides
- The Odyssey, Homer
- Metamorphoses, Ovid
- Seven Against Thebes, Aeschylus
- Fifth Hymn ("The Bath of Pallas"), Callimachus
- Robert Graves 1960 (revised edition). The Greek Myths