George Anastaplo

TIRESIAS, a legendary blind Theban seer, so wise that even his ghost still has its wits (phrénes, cf. SOUL) and is not a mere phantom (Odyssey 10. 493-5). Later legends account for his wisdom and blindness chiefly thus:  (a) He saw Athena bathing since his mother was her friend, she did not cause his death, but blinded him and gave him the power of prophecy by way of compensation (Callimachus, Lav. Pall. 57ff). (b) He one day saw snakes coupling and struck them with his stick, whereat he became a woman; later the same thing happened again and he turned into a man. Being asked by Zeus and Hera to settle a dispute as to which sex had more pleasure of love, he decided for the female; Hera was angry and blinded him, but Zeus recompensed him by giving him long life and power of prophecy. So Hygimus, Fab. 75, see Rose, ad loc. His advice was sought throughout the times of the Labdacidae [in Thebes], and he finally died after the evacuation of Thebes when besieged by the Epigoni from drinking the spring Tilphusse (Apollod. 3. 84, cf. Athenaeus, 41e).

                              —Oxford Classical Dictionary


            There seems to be an unequivocal endorsement of Tiresias in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus, during his journey home, gone to Hades to consult Tiresias. What he learns from the seer is said to be useful for Odysseus.

But are we not meant by Homer to wonder whether Odysseus “really” had the experience of a visit to Hades? That is, it is Odysseus who reports this episode. Homer merely reports that Odysseus had reported this to others.

We are left to wonder, by various noted Classical authors, what they “really” believed about what we call the supernatural, especially in its dealings with human beings. Such dealings may be mediated by seers and others. The career of Tiresias in Thebes, and his relations with the family of Oedipus, can be instructive.


            Of particular interest here are the plays of Sophocles. Tiresias appears on stage in two of these plays, the Oedipus Tyrannos and the Antigone. Sophocles seems to have written his Antigone before his Oedipus Tyrannos, even though the action in the Antigone takes place some years after the action in the other play.

By the time Tiresias appears on stage, in the Antigone, the heroine has been led away, under sentence of death, for having defied the ruler, Creon, by “burying” the corpse of her rebellious brother. Tiresias comes on his own, thereafter, to warn Creon against what he has done. It can be wondered what Tiresias expected to happen after he had tried to do good in this fashion.

Creon, once he is frightened by Tiresias, does not go immediately to release Antigone from the cave in which she has been sealed. Should Tiresias have made explicit the sequence that Creon should follow? By the time Creon reaches Antigone’s cave, having first given the despised corpse a proper burial, she has just hung herself, thereby showing once again that Creon (as ruler) cared more about the dead than about the living.


            A decade or so later, it seems, Sophocles presented his Oedipus Tyrannos, the action in which takes place well before the action in the Antigone. Thebes is suffering from a devastating plague, Apollo at Delphi has reported upon being consulted, because Thebes has permitted the killer(s) of Oedipus’ predecessor (King Laius) to live in the polis. It is obvious there is a mystery here—and Tiresias is summoned by a desperate Oedipus.

Tiresias (it seems) had not, up to then, involved himself in the Plague challenge, just as he had not (it also seems) involved himself in the Sphinx challenge to Thebes a generation earlier. And when Tiresias does come he says that he regrets having done so, even though he seems willing to indicate that he does have relevant information about Thebes’ current plight. But more than this he does not want to say—and he can be provoked to indicate this such a way (with allusions to Oedipus as the one truly at fault) as to infuriate a desperate Oedipus.

Should Tiresias have known that the way he conducted himself in this occasion was likely to infuriate Oedipus? The use of Tiresias here may have been Sophocles’ invention, rather than an element in the received tradition. Thus, Sophocles does have Tiresias “succeed” in showing the audience the temper that Oedipus can have, something that had evidently been on exhibit at a fatal crossroads a generation earlier.


            We can wonder  (are “we”  meant by Sophocles to wonder?) whether prophets and prophecies are useful or even to wonder whether they are reliable or otherwise good. Certainly, there is little indication in Oedipus Tyrannos that Tiresias tries to be useful. Does Sophocles want the more thoughtful Athenians to notice a shift (across a generation) on how he (as playwright) presents Tiresias?

We can recall (with Oedipus) that Tiresias had not been useful in dealing with the Sphinx, so much so that it can be wondered whether Tiresias harbors some “professional jealousy” toward an Oedipus who had been able to rescue Thebes from the Sphinx. It can also be wondered, in passing (at least by us), why Thebes had been afflicted with the Sphinx, whether there was something fundamentally flawed about this polis. It can be wondered as well whether Laius had been on his way to Delphi, to consult about the Sphinx, when he was killed.

Tiresias shows no compassion, even though he knows what he evidently does about Oedipus’ dreadful future. And had the recent message from Delphi about the cause of the current plague in Thebes been as useful as it could have been, even evidently leaving it uncertain whether there had been more than one killer of Laius? Indeed, had Sophocles himself come to wonder whether prophets and prophecies are truly good for human beings?


            We learn in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, that Laius and perhaps Jocasta had been given a dreadful prophecy about their infant son. It is not indicated here whether this prophecy was given before the conception of their dangerous child. There was a radical response by Laius and Jocasta to this prophecy, anticipating how emphatically Oedipus would respond after Delphi had spoken to him about the same matter years later.

We are reminded by the way Oedipus can speak of the death in Corinth of his supposed father (Polybus) that there may be various ways that an ominous prophecy may be fulfilled. We are also reminded that one or more of such ways may not be unduly troubling. We are reminded as well that it may not even be known to the parties that a particular prophecy by which they had been much troubled had indeed been fulfilled.

It may seem in the Oedipus Tyrannos that the prophecies provided to Laius and Jocasta and thereafter to Oedipus had make matters even worse than they might otherwise have been. Prophecies should be distinguished here from what may be learned from figuring things out. Indeed, may not “figuring things out” be preferable to a prophecy in that one may understand better both the overall “situation” and how it might best be dealt with?


            A radical reassessment of prophets and prophecies may also be suggested by what Euripides, in perhaps his last play, does with Tiresias. The Tiresias of the Bacchae tends to become a caricature of his profession. He may even seem to be moved primarily by mere self-interest.

Still another caricature—not of any human calling but of the relevant divinity himself—may be seen in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Dionysus, on that occasion, conducts himself (during a visit to Hades) as a fearful human being might. He does not seem to know what to expect next.

Indeed, one may even be led to wonder, upon reviewing how the Greek poets presented the gods, whether such divinities ever knew what they were doing. One may wonder as well who or what ordained what happened to human beings. What, indeed, was the good at which these gods and their agents aimed—and to what effect?


            Does Sophocles, in his last play (Oedipus at Colonus), recede somewhat from the dreadful awareness of the cosmic ordering of things suggested by his Oedipus Tyrannos? In Oedipus at Colonus, the elderly, blinded Oedipus becomes in effect his own Tiresias. He can induce the local ruler (Theseus of Athens) to provide him what he wants in a place to die.

A useful associate of Oedipus on this occasion is his faithful daughter, Antigone. Her later (deadly) encounter with Creon (in the Antigone) is anticipated in how she supports her father in his resistance to Creon’s efforts at Colonus. Does Sophocles expect members of the audience for his Oedipus at Colonus to recall how he had presented many years before (and to what effect) the fatal encounter between a spirited girl and a deeply troubled (and troubling) ruler?

And does Sophocles also expect there would be remembered how Homer had portrayed not only Tiresias but also Oedipus? The Homeric Oedipus continued to rule in Thebes until his heroic death in battle on her behalf. Should all such recollections induce the thoughtful observer to suspect the tentativeness (at least in Greek literature) of the portrayal of any dramatic character with a generally known “past”?


These remarks were prepared for a Jurisprudence Seminar, Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, November 14, 2011.

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