Tiresias of Thebes is a major character in Greek mythology, Homer’s Odyssey, and (perhaps most famously) in Sophocles’s plays, Oedipus Rex and Antigone. An old, blind seer, though he has lost the use of his eyes, in his mind’s eye he is able to see all kinds of things that most humans cannot, including the future.
Tiresias tells Oedipus, “You are the murderer you seek,” and Oedipus refuses to believe him. In Antigone, Tiresias tells Creon that he will bring disaster on Thebes. Creon also refuses to believe him.
Why does Tiresias possess such keen insight when most people—including the high and mighty—can’t even see themselves? For one thing, of all men and gods, Tiresias is the only one who has experienced what it’s like to be both a man and a woman.
One day, while walking in the woods, he came across two copulating snakes. For no apparent reason, he killed the female snake, and was consequently and instantly transformed into a woman.
Mythopedia presents a succinct account of this strange story:
Tiresias went on to live as a woman for some time (seven or eight years in most sources). One day, however, he again happened upon two copulating snakes. According to some sources, Tiresias was able to cancel out his earlier misstep by killing the male snake; in others, he simply killed both. Either way, Tiresias was transformed back into a man.
This remarkable experience left Tiresias uniquely well placed to resolve a dispute between Zeus and Hera. The king and queen of the gods apparently could not agree on whether the male or the female derived more pleasure from sex. So they asked Tiresias—who had lived as both a man and a woman—to resolve the matter once and for all. Tiresias’ response was widely circulated in the ancient world:
“Of ten parts [of sex] a man enjoys one only/ But a woman enjoys the full ten parts in her heart.”
Hera, apparently, found this response humiliating and punished Tiresias by striking him blind. But Zeus pitied Tiresias and compensated him by granting him the gift of divination—and, according to some sources, a life that spanned seven generations
What I find most remarkable about this story is that even the gods can’t know what it’s like to be the other sex. Tiresias is the ONLY being who has crossed this divide that is almost as mysterious as the divide between life and death.
Tiresias is surely one of the strangest characters in literature, and the enduring fascination with him is that he possessed knowledge that it impossible for the rest of humanity to acquire. None of us can ever truly know what it’s like to be the opposite sex. Endocrinologists (with their crude synthetic hormones) and surgeons (with their crude scalpels) are kidding themselves and their patients when they claim to have the power to “reassign” a person’s gender. Who do these doctors think they are?