Ancient History & Civilisation

Teiresias the Seer:
Gender-bender & orgasm expert

The Greeks had unusual views about male and female sexuality, at times seeming indifferent to female orgasm—or at least avoiding such discussion. One orgasmic anecdote does appear in the delightful, thought-provoking stories about the enigmatic, shape-changing seer of long ago, Teiresias.

Greek poet Hesiod was one of many who told and retold the interlocking tales of this prophet-clairvoyant of Arcadia, a bucolic wooded region of Greece. As one of the tales went, young Teiresias happened to observe some snakes copulating and couldn’t resist teasing them. After wounding one snake with his walking staff, he found himself changed into a woman. (It was the goddess Hera’s doing; she was displeased by his Peeping Tom act regarding serpent sex.)

Well, this is interesting, Teiresias thought; before long he started dating, and eventually, making love with a man. Pretty soon he became a priestess, got married, had some kids. One of them, Manto, promised to be a darned good prophesy-spinner, like Teiresias himself.

After his transformation into a woman, seven years passed. Then Teiresias heard from Apollo himself, who said, “You know, if you want to return to your original gender, you just need to watch for more snakes copulating. Injure one of them, as before, and I promise, you’ll be a man again, my son.”

Teiresias followed Apollo’s advice, and sure enough, his transformation occurred just as the god said. He was wondering what on earth to say to his husband and children (who would no doubt be bewildered by his new manliness) when a racket erupted. It was that dysfunctional husband-and-wife team, Zeus and Hera, beginning one of their ferocious arguments.

Zeus claimed that women got a larger share of pleasure from lovemaking than men did, while Hera took the opposite tack. Since they couldn’t agree, they turned to the seer, since he’d now experienced both sides of the man/woman divide.

“So, Teiresias—which is it?” demanded Hera, who seemed to have a lot of ego on the line.

Teiresias thought she’d be tickled with his answer. “Women enjoy nine-tenths of the pleasure,” he said, “and mortal men must be content with one-tenth.”

The queen of the gods dived at him, gouging out both of his eyes. Then she flounced off; at least, that’s what it sounded like to Teiresias.

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According to one of the tales about Teiresias, when he saw snakes copulating he couldn’t resist teasing and wounding them. That ticked off the goddess Hera, who changed him into a woman.

Zeus hung his head. “I feel terrible,” he said.

Grimacing, Teiresias said, “You feel terrible? Try getting your eyes gouged out, and then get back to me.”

“I’m going to give you the gift of prophecy,” Zeus said. “It’s the least I can do. Oh, and instead of one lifetime, you can have seven.”

“What about my eyesight?” Teiresias asked.

“No can undo,” Zeus said, looking nervously over his shoulder for Hera.

“Tell me this. Why did Hera get so angry at my answer?”

Zeus shrugged. “You are mortal, and you just revealed one of our exclusive godly secrets. Can’t have everybody knowing about all that sexual pleasure that women are getting, can we now? Cheer up! You’re a clairvoyant with insight into the souls of men and women.”

That is merely one version of the story; another one has the seer blinded when he stumbles on a naked Athena, bathing.

Greeks myths often raise more questions than they answer. (Maybe that is their purpose.) But what I personally wonder is: Why didn’t Teiresias ask to be female again, if they truly do get the lion’s share of sexual pleasure?

We’ll never know. Teiresias, however, gained such popularity in ancient times that he ended up with his own series, as a recurring character in Greek tragedies by Euripides and Sophocles, and in Homer’s Odyssey as well. He hasn’t done badly in modern times, either, being cast in everything from Dante’s Inferno to one of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels.

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