Tiresias was the son of the nymph Chariclo, a follower of Athena, and the Theban shepherd Everes. He made his mark on Greek mythology as a blind prophetic seer. Apollodorus has three possible hypotheses to explain his blindness:
- He was blinded by the gods for his ability to see the future, and revealing their plans to the mortals
- He was blinded by Athena, after seeing her naked, as a punishment (though it’s not clear whether his witnessing was accidental or not)
- He was blinded by Hera, after arguing, from what can only be surmised as first-hand experience, that women derived more pleasure from sex than men
In any of the above cases, the story of Tiresias is the story of a cabal of unscrupulous deities with a very mortal-like emotional intelligence, hazing the lights out of this modest son of a shepherd. With all the troubles he had been subjected to, he still managed to make an illustrious career for himself as a seer. In mythology, he occupied a place in many thresholds—god and mortal, man and woman, present and future.
In one myth, Liriope, a river nymph, bore a child called Narcissus and doted on him from a very early age. Her helicoptering obsession with making sure nothing bad would ever befall him led her to Tiresias, to consult about Narcissus’ future. He told her, prophetically, that he would be fine as long as he never “knew himself”.
“If he but fail to recognize himself,
a long life he may have, beneath the sun,”—
Ovid doesn’t go into a lot of detail around his upbringing. But you can imagine the obsessive Liriope, going out of her way to protect Narcissus from anything that might damage his self-image, or even just provide him with a reflection of himself. To know oneself, in the gnostic, psychological sense, is to understand not just the extent of the possibilities that lie within but also the extent of the impossibilities. The only real way to understand or learn about oneself is through challenge, and failure.
The Orthodox Christian tradition would define this as the commandment to take up a cross and bear it dispassionately, with dignity. This Stoic metaphysics of challenge, failure, and suffering is quite universal, and has perpetuated throughout Greco-Roman culture, as well as emerged independently in other centers of civilization around the world. Transcendence emerges after pushing past the mortal prison and accepting the challenge as an end in and of itself.
When a charming nymph with a beautiful voice, Echo, pursued Narcissus, he rejected her coldly, as she couldn’t live up to his pathological expectations. Echo was herself also a victim of her parent’s generation. She was cursed by the goddess Hera to only ever be able to repeat the words of others. This, for the simple crime of talking too much, to try to comfort Hera while she seethed with jealousy over her husband’s extramarital affairs.
Echo’s inability to be anything besides a reflection, and Narcissus’ inability to look in the mirror, destroyed each other. Echo withered away in a cave, and Narcissus took root in the ground by a pond until he wilted into a flower. A generation of beautiful, youthful, potential, hamstrung by the moral failures of overbearing, narcissistic parents who are incapable of handing over the reins.
Narcissus is a cautionary tale, not (just) because of his unbridled arrogance, but because of the sheltered upbringing that caused it. Having never learned to “know himself” from his overbearing parent, he never had the chance to experience failure, or even understand what it meant to desire something.
To pursue things that are new and difficult is a sure-fire way of looking in the mirror and confronting one’s limitations. Nobody is ever really prepared to raise a child. Nobody was ever really taught how to lead a squad of soldiers into battle. It’s far easier to grift and steal from other people’s ideas. Although the most rewarding challenges tend to have the potential to create a lot of good for others, if not for oneself, just trying to produce something of value will, in most instances, end in defeat and failure.
But you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do. And you can’t truly know yourself if you never face a challenge. Lacking a suitable trial, at least try to make things, or learn how.
This weirdness is worth a longer footnote. While traveling through Mount Cyllene, Tiresias came across two snakes mating. For reasons known only to him, he disturbed the scene and wounded the copulating reptiles, for which he was instantly transformed from a man to a woman. She left the scene and lived as one for seven years, going as far as marrying and bearing children. She eventually returned to the scene, on a hunch it would change her back. Congruent with the logic of Greek myths, it did. He thus closed the cycle and became one of the few people in history to have mutated XY chromosomes to XX and back in a round trip over the course of his lifetime. ↩︎