Tiresias and Tomyris


Tiresias just after his transformation into a woman, engraved by Johann Ulrich Krauss

Tiresias, the blind seer in Oedipus Rex, is a very special person in Greek mythology because he experienced life as both sexes. His parents were shepherd Everes and nymph Charicio, and he began his very long career in Thebes as as advisor to legendary founder Cadmus/Kadmos.

On Mount Kyllini, in the Peloponnose peninsula, Tiresias came upon mating snakes and hit them with a stick. Hera was so mad, she turned him into a woman. During his time as a woman, he became a priestess of Hera, married, and had children, among them daughter Manto, who was also a seer. In some versions of the story, Tiresias the woman was a famous prostitute. Seven years later, Tiresias found another pair of mating snakes, and either left them alone or trampled them. This act transformed him back into a man.

There are many versions of how Tiresias came to be blind, but I’m partial to the one about Tiresias taking Zeus’s side in an argument with Hera. Zeus and Hera were arguing about which sex feels more pleasure from the act of love; Zeus believed it to be women, while Hera felt men got more pleasure. Tiresias, who’d experienced sex as both a man and woman, responded, “Of ten parts, a man enjoys one only.” Hera was so enraged at his response, she struck him blind. Zeus couldn’t undo his wife’s curse, but he did reward Tiresias with the gift of prophecy and a lifespan of seven lives.

Tiresias appears in Canto XX of Inferno, in the Fourth Ring of the Eighth Circle of Hell, for so-called sorcerers and diviners. His daughter Manto is also condemned to this region of Hell.

Tiresias, or Teiresias, is a Greek name meaning “sign; portent.”

Queen Tomyris, by Andrea del Castagno

Tomyris was queen of the Massagetae, a Scythian people in Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan). She led her armies to victory over King Cyrus the Great of Persia in 530 BCE, and used the defeated king’s skull as a goblet. Leading the armies with her was her son Spargapises. The first historian to mention her was Herodotus, followed by Strabo, Polyaenus, Cassiodorus, and Jordanes.

Queen Tomyris’s name is alternately given as Tomiri, Thomryis, Tomiride, To’maris, and Tomris. In the 20th and 21st centuries, this name has become very popular in Turkey and Central Asia. Tomyris may mean “crush/bend iron,” from the Turkish word temir (iron). I’ve also seen the suggestion it may mean “perfect human.”

In Canto XII of Purgatorio, as Dante climbs to the second level, the carnage wrought by Queen Tomyris is shown on the roadway.

A butterfly species and minor planet have been named for her.


5 thoughts on “Tiresias and Tomyris

  1. Pingback: A to Z Reflections 2016 | Onomastics Outside the Box

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