Teiresias the Trans-Prophet: Origins of Prophecy and A Long-life, Not Requested

Book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses offers a delightful tale about Teiresias’ blindness and power of prophecy. The Theban was born as a man but changed into a woman when he saw two snakes copulating in the forest. Years later—after getting married and having at least one child—she happened to be walking in the forest and witnessed the same thing. Wham! Teiresias was a man again.

Sometime after that, Teiresias was summoned to Olympus to adjudicate a marital dispute between Zeus and Hera who had been arguing about whether sex was better for males or females. Teiresias gave an enigmatic answer (1 part enjoyment far a man to 10 for women) and Hera blinded him in rage. Zeus compensated for this by giving him the power of prophecy.

What most people don’t know is that this tale is not at all an Ovidian innovation. A few fragments attributed to Hesiod preserve the answer and Teiresias’ reaction to Zeus’ “gift”.

The first few lines present Hesiod’s answer (Fr. 275):

[Teiresias described how]

“A man delights only in one portion of ten
While a woman delights her thoughts filling out the other ten.”

οἴην μὲν μοῖραν δέκα μοιρέων τέρπεται ἀνήρ,
τὰς δὲ δέκ’ ἐμπίπλησι γυνὴ τέρπουσα νόημα.
Another fragment appears to have Teiresias addressing Zeus (fr. 276):

“Zeus father I wish that you would give me a shorter life
And grant that I might know only the things equal to the thoughts
Of mortal men. Now you have not honored me at all,
You who have made my lifetime so long,
That I will live on through seven generations of mortal men.”

Ζεῦ πάτερ, εἴθε μοι †εἴθ’ ἥσσω μ’† αἰῶνα βίοιο
ὤφελλες δοῦναι καὶ ἴσα φρεσὶ μήδεα ἴδμεν
θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποις· νῦν δ’ οὐδέ με τυτθὸν ἔτισας,
ὃς μακρόν γέ μ’ ἔθηκας ἔχειν αἰῶνα βίοιο
ἑπτά τ’ ἐπὶ ζώειν γενεὰς μερόπων ἀνθρώπων

Teiresias is right to lament. As he probably knows from his recent power of prophecy, he will witness Dionysus’ return to Thebes (and subsequent bloodshed); the exposure of Oedipus and his parricidal, incestuous return; the deaths of Oedipus’ sons Eteokles and Polyneices at each other’s hands; and the sack of Thebes in the next generation. And even then his story isn’t over: Odysseus will wake up his tired ghost in the Odyssey for one more prophecy.

As for Teiresias’ answer to Zeus and Hera? When I teach this story I joke that he’s more afraid of Zeus than his wife. But his answer is part of a general Greek misogyny that justifies the cloistering of woman by characterizing them as libidinous by nature. The number 10 seems significant here: there may be an irony in the use of “enjoy”. In the Greek world, babies are born after 10 lunar months. If I had to give an answer to why “10:1” to save my life, that would be all I would have.

Fortunately, no Olympian beings will be seeking my advice…

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