Rachel 03/23/2012

Recently on Facebook, Camelia Elias, publisher of Tyrant Oidipous, quoted one of her favorite moments from the play, when the blind seer Teiresias denounces Oidipous.  The two of them have been jousting, sneering at each other, accusing each other, and Teiresias is about to leave when suddenly he states:

“I declare that unawares you live with those closest to you
in a shameful bond. You do not see that you are doing something evil.”

I was struck by her singling out this speech and wrote the following reply.

“Camelia, this is a wonderful moment to feature. Besides its inherent drama, it shows us the power of the oracular voice. Before this there has been a somewhat comic battle of egos between Oidipous and Teiresias, a kind of “Oh yeah? Well, take that!” But when Teiresias speaks as the seer something very different emerges, a divine aspect. It’s interesting that with so much on Delphi and the “message” from the oracle (as Oidipous puts it) we never actually learn the precise words of Apollo spoken by the Pythia (the woman who delivers the prophecy at Delphi). The only time we experience the real divine voice it’s through the seer.”

Now, thinking about this some more, I thought it might be interesting to explore the image of Teiresias.

Teiresias is portrayed in the play, and elsewhere, especially the Odyssey, as the very image of a seer.  Originally the name may have described a whole class of people, diviners and what today we would call psychics.  Mythology, the power of stories, has made Teiresias a single figure who appears in many tales.  The name has various interpretations, and is sometimes translated (loosely) as “Delights in signs,” in other words, someone who goes deeply into the oracular experience.  T. S. Eliot said that Teiresias was the secret hero of his great poem, The Wasteland, a true modern epic.

Teiresias has long fascinated me.  Described as a blind hermaphrodite who sees everything, s/he would seem to be an alchemical figure who transcends ordinary humanity. There are various stories, some just jokes, really, of how Teiresias became a blind seer.  One states that because he was first a man, then a woman, and then a man again, he was asked to judge an argument between Zeus and Hera over whether men or women enjoy sex more.  In typical married couple manipulation, each one insisted the other side had the advantage.  So they decided to ask the only person who had been both.  Teiresias said that if enjoyment were ten parts, women would have nine and men one.  Furious, Hera struck him blind, then Zeus, to compensate, gave him the power of oracular sight.  This is clearly a kind of sit-com gloss on mythology!

Sophocles treats the issues of seeing, blindness, and knowing much more intensely.  Oidipous ridicules Teiresias’s blindness, treating him as someone handicapped and therefore weak, despite Teiresias’s clear power.  At the end of the play, after his own desire for the truth has made him see the reality of who he is and what he is done, Oidipoius blinds himself.  Without conscious thought (he had a lot on his mind!) he has fulfilled the curse he earlier made on the killer he did not know was himself.  No man of Thebes shall look upon the murderer’s face, he declared.  Thus he puts out his own eyes, that he might never see himself in a mirror, a pool of water.

One of the stories about Teiresias, the sex changing, clearly points to esoteric practices, what I call alchemy.  Supposedly a shepherd when young, Teiresias came across two snakes copulating.  Some versions say he killed the female and became magically changed to a woman.  Others, however, say that he thrust his shepherd’s staff—Tarotists might say his Wand—in between them, and was transformed.

A stick between two snakes forms the caduceus, the magic staff of Hermes, who uses it to guide dead souls on their journey (the association with the medical profession might be a mistake, for the healing wand of Aesclapious, founder of medicine, was a stick with one snake wound around it.

The caduceus forms an image of awakened kundalini, which yoga teachings describe as a snake at the bottom of the spine that uncoils as two streams wind around the spine until they reach the crown of the head where the energy opens into mystical light.  The caduceus is pictured with wings at the top, and sometimes light.

Teiresias—or Teiresia, to use what would be the feminine version—lives seven years as a woman, seven being the number of the planetary spheres, and thus a complete cycle.  Then, the myth tells us, she once again sees two snakes copulating and either repeats the trick with a staff, or once more kills one of them, the male this time, and again becomes a man.

All this can illustrate the deep mystery of kundalini, which is said to bring out the female in a man, the male in a woman (see also the famous Gospel of Thomas), producing a complete person, what the alchemists call The Crowned Hermaphrodite.  The World card in the Tarot, symbol of perfection, is often associated with this figure.

A couple of years ago I had a chapbook of Tarot inspired poems published, Fortune’s Lover.  The poem for The Lovers featured Teiresias and the caduceus.  Here it is:


He was out walking with the sheep

when he saw the snakes,

two of them, copulating.  He pushed his

staff, his Ace of Wands,

between them and became, briefly,

the Caduceus, a spine of light

entwined with serpents.

And when the human stepped back she’d

become a woman.

Seven years passed, as she traveled

through the seven planetary spheres,

the seven palaces supported on seven wise pillars.

Then she saw the snakes again,

the same pair or another, it makes no difference,

she moved her Cup between them,

and became—

not a man again, but something

more, beyond addition and subtraction,

a Knower, a Speaker,

blinded by Hera, sighted by Zeus,

Teiresias, whose name means

The One Who Delights In Signs.

The card of the Lovers—

a man on the right, a woman on the left,

and above and between them an angel

with outstretched arms and fiery hair—

together they are all Teiresas,

bright Caduceus in a single life.

A Praise Poem For Teiresias

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

you are always right.

You see beyond sight.

You see all the way through.

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

you read correctly.

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

You are always right.

Your body is snakes,

your face is wings.

your hair is plumage.

Delighter in signs, ancestor,

you question the owls,

they cannot refuse you.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you read correctly.

You know the secrets of men,

you know the secrets of women,

you know between and beyond,

above and below.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you taste the tongues of angels.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you are always right.

You open the door,

you see beyond windows.

You know all the meanings,

you know reversed and upright,

you know all the spreads.

Delighter of signs, ancestor,

you read correctly.

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2 Responses to Rachel 03/23/2012

  1. Pingback: OIDIPOUS AND TEIRESIAS « Shining Tribe

  2. cameliaelias says:

    Wonderful, Rachel. Thanks for the additional insights and the great poem, “Lovers.” The reason why the quoted passage interests me is because of the space of authority it creates. Teiresias speaks from a place between worlds, which Oidipous recognizes – that’s why he comes to the seer. But where Oidipous goes wrong is in his failing to take what he hears there, while standing in between worlds, as a sign. The point is that all oracular practice and literature insists on the connection between space (between worlds), intent (to get help) and signs (to recognize as communicating a direct and unmediated message). The problem with Oidipous – that we can all learn from – is that he confounds the levels: he goes to the seer for a magical solution but expects a reasonable revelation. The point is also the you never ever argue with the prophet, as prophets are not in the business of reason.

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