Mythology offers insight into modern transgender issue

transgender-symbol-one-lgbt-symbols-icon-34278948The transgender issue is confusing, both politically and socially, but maybe we can find comfort and guidance in Greek mythology.

Tiresias was a blind prophet from Thebes. He had a lifespan of seven generations, so he appears in a lot of ancient Greek stories and plays, usually showing up at an inopportune moment to give the protagonist a dire prediction. But Tiresias wasn’t always blind or clairvoyant… and he wasn’t always a man.

According to legend, Tiresias once stumbled upon two snakes fornicating, and struck the creatures with a stick. This angered the goddess Hera, and she punished Tiresias by turning him into a woman. (Why was this considered a punishment? Were the Greek myths all written by men? And, more importantly, did Tiresias go by “Theresa” after his sex change?)

Tiresias lived as a woman for seven years, until she again came upon coupling snakes in the wilderness. This time she left the snakes alone (or trampled them to death, according to some versions of the story). Either way, the “curse” was lifted, and Tiresias changed back into a man.

Later on, Tiresias found himself called upon to settle a dispute between Hera and her husband Zeus. Hera argued that men got more pleasure out of sex, while Zeus believed women enjoyed it more. Tiresias, who lived as both sexes, was asked to cast the deciding vote.

“Of ten parts, a man enjoys one only,” Tiresias said, implying Zeus was correct. Hera was so angry, she struck Tiresias blind. Zeus felt bad for Tiresias, so he attempted to make up for his wife’s hostile overreaction by granting Tiresias the gift of clairvoyance and extending his lifespan sevenfold.

What can we learn from this Greek myth, and how does it apply to modern transgender issues? Well, it shows us that the debate over gender roles and gender identity is as old as storytelling itself. It also suggests the Greek myths were created by misogynistic men obsessed with the number seven.

But the main lesson is simply this: Be comfortable in your own skin… whatever skin you’re in.

Tiresias was a happy, successful man — a respected advisor to the leaders of Thebes — before Hera turned him into a woman. But Tiresias took the change in stride and made the most of it. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children, including a daughter, Manto, who was allegedly an even more gifted fortune-teller than her father … er, mother.

Easy with the snakes, T!

Easy with the snakes, T!

Some versions of the myth claim Tiresias was a famous prostitute during his “lady years,” but, again, these stories were likely authored by geeky and vindictive men in togas who were spurned by women. Some things never change. History is not only written by the victors, but for many years it was written by men who resented and looked down on women.

Living life as both a man and a woman is a blessing, a curse, and a path to enlightenment for Tiresias. When the gods took his vision and gave him “second-sight,” Tiresias embraced his role as blind prophet. He appears frequently in Greek plays and literature, though his job is sometimes difficult. He once had to tell King Oedipus that Oedipus had inadvertently killed his own father and married his mother. Yuck, right? But don’t shoot the messenger! Soothsaying is a tough gig.

Whatever lemons life (or the gods) tossed at Tiresias, he turned into tasty lemonade — and then into a profitable chain of lemonade stands. Tiresias lived to his fullest personal potential, even when the person he was kept changing. He was a respected man, a fine woman, and a blind prophet rock star. Whoever he was, he was the best he could be.

That’s something we should all strive for, whether you’re a man, a woman, or something in between.

 

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