As I conclude the first draft of the last primarily myth-based chapter in my dissertation, I am struggling with where exactly to place Tiresias. I had intended to include him in this chapter where I consider the role Athene played in the journeys of the various non-Homeric heroes, but, well, the mythological mortal most renowned for his wisdom just doesn’t really belong there.
You see, most of the heroes in this chapter are the kind of heroes we liked to read about when we were boys, you know, bold and daring men who wrestle lions with sword-proof skins, fight many-headed dragons, tame man-eating horses, behead ugly witches, grapple with supernatural half-human, half bovine creatures, confront fire-breathing monsters with body parts of different animals and outwit sphinxes.
But, Tiresias never battled any of these beings. And the only time he had anything to do with a serpent is when he saw two snakes, well, um, getting it on. And that lead to his own transformation. For seeing such a site, he became a woman. Seven years later, he saw the same thing again and back he went to his masculine self.
Stories differ as to how he gained his wisdom. In one version, he was called before Zeus and Hera to settle their dispute about who enjoyed sex more, the man or the woman. When he replied that a woman does, Hera struck him blind. Because one Olympian could not take away one gift (or one punishment) that another had given, Zeus gave him the gift of prophecy.
In another version, Tiresias, restored to his masculine form, caught Athene bathing naked. More gracious than her half-sister Artemis, she merely blinded him, but then feeling she had acted too rashly (even she could not take back her own “gifts”) gave him the gift of wisdom.
So, there have it, the mortal from Greek mythology most renowned for his wisdom was the only Greek mortal to have lived as both a man and a woman.