Most of us will probably only remember the character of Tiresias from his deus ex machina appearances in the Sophocles’s dramas of Antigone and Oedipus Rex. He arrives already blinded, being led by a young boy on a tether and announces that the king at that time (either Oedipus or Creon) has their head up their royal rectum. The king rejects his advice, only to discover that lo-and-behold he was right all along. The blind man who can see further than those with sight, cheap irony at its finest.
Unemployed English majors will also recall that his shade shows up in The Odyssey as well. Odysseus, completely lost, travels across the Acheron, the river of death, to commune Tiresias and find his way home. He fills up a hole with goat’s blood and beats back the other spirits until Tiresias shows to let him know the travel arraignments.
But little known is Tiresias’s constant troubles with the Greek female deities. Specifically the one where he is turned into a woman for seven years. The story of how this occurs revolves around Hera, the wife of Zeus and goddess of home and hearth.
One day the young Tiresias was walking the woods at the foot of Mt. Cyllene, near the cave where the god Hermes was born, and came upon a pair of snakes copulating in the grass. In disgust Tiresias picks up a stick and bashes the female snake to death, allowing the male to flee. Hera, enraged by this blatant sexism, transforms the young man into a young woman so that he will better understand the role of a woman.
The significance of the two snakes has often been linked to the caduceus. The staff of Hermes, messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves. But it is also linked to messengers in general and one story shows it being held by Iris (for whom that part of the eye is named) herald of Hera. It was often in ancient times used as a symbol of commerce.
The other interpretation is that Triesias in killing the female snake only, disrupted the natural need for both sexes to continue the propagation of the species. That is, he saw the male aspect as more important than the female. This leads to the idea that if he had killed the male, nothing would had happened.
In despair and penance Tiresias becomes a priestess of Hera and takes a husband. The mate is never named, but apparently it was a legally binding ceremony in Greek tradition. And from this union she has three children: Historis, Daphne, and Manto. The last is significant because she becomes involved with the Apollo, who sends her on a quest to find an oracle dedicated to him. She later appears in Dante’s Inferno in the fourth bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell, suffering among the diviners, fortune tellers, astrologers, and false prophets. She has her head twisted around and is forced to walk backwards for all eternity, blinded by her own tears.
After seven years as a woman, Tiresias is once again walking on the same road and spots a pair of snakes rutting in the grass. Now she either leaves them alone this time, or stamps on them both (stories differ on this matter) and thus transformed back into a male. If he stayed in touch with his family is not mentioned in any other stories and they don’t pop up in any of this other appearances.
This experience ties into making him a better sage as he could now understand both the male and female perspective. How he lost his sight is another story. One of which ties into his transformation. Apparently one day Zeus and Hera were having an argument over whether men or women enjoy the act of sex more. Since Tiresias had been both, they asked him the question. He replied, “Of ten parts a man enjoys one only." Meaning that women have the better end of the stick in sexual relations.
For this act of impiety, Hera smacks Tiresias blind. Zeus, not being able to undo the curse, gifts Tiresias with the ability of augury and the lifespan of seven people. From there he goes on to be the Tiresias of Oedipus and Antigone.