Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tiresias

One of my favorite characters of Greek mythology is the gifted seer Tiresias. In Greek mythology, there are characters who show up often like a stock character that the playwrights would use for familiarity or to serve a specific purpose. The Greeks got around the problem of continuity by stating that Zeus gave him the lifespan of 7 lives after being blinded by Zeus' wife Hera. Even the god of gods in Greek culture couldn't stand up to his wife.

The key feature to his background was his existence as both a man and woman. To further hammer home the point of his knowledge and wisdom, the writers set him up as someone who experienced life in all ways. His knowledge of both genders' experiences made the gods call on him for an answer. I loved this about the Greeks. The gods constantly interacted (maimed, killed, raped, fooled, helped etc.) with regular humans and often revealed themselves to be worse than the humans. Tiresias had witnessed snakes in the act of love, and for this breach of etiquette, he was turned into a woman. He witnessed the act again and of course, was turned back into a man. Must have made dinner at home interesting that next night? Family therapy night. Think of that ridiculous punishment: see snakes copulating, switch genders now mortal, bwa-ha-ha.

Tiresias was also blind. Oh yeah he can see the future or the secret truth, but he can't see his own ass to wipe it. Multiple stories surround his blindness and they all involve insulting some god who then gets angry and blinds him. He sees Athena bathing naked and is blinded by her. He doesn't side with Hera on the sex question and is blinded by her. Tiresias should have known: don't insult a woman with mystical powers. The gender switch and the blinding appeal to a deeper truth of the human condition. The reality is that no matter how intelligent, rich, or gifted, we are all subject to the cruel randomness of life. Tiresias is sought by gods and by kings, but he must use a stick to find his way. He can see the future, but not see that he will witness snakes copulating and therefore switch genders. We can plan, we cna try, we can have it "all sewn up", but life often has a way of slipping in the banana peel for us to slide on.

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